Buildings and architecture are a part of every visit to a city. The charm of a city is in a way defined by the beautiful backdrop created by its buildings. If Tokyo is remembered by its towering skyscrapers, Savannah is all the more beautiful in its range of stately historical buildings. Victorian architecture is well recognized in many countries where the British ruled. While Europe is renowned for its distinctive range of styles, from Greco-Roman to Gothic and Byzantine- visual treats indeed!
The Middle-East has its own distinct flavour of Islamic and Oriental architecture which sets it apart from the rest of the world. Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman showcases many examples of lovely architecture in its fine mosques, fairytale-like homes, gentrified forts and modern office buildings.
Fortunately, His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman, apparently was not in favour of the high rises that abound in the neighbouring Gulf States. With a few high-rises limited to 10-floors only in the city, one never feels cramped as compared to being in modern day glass and cement cities. The lower buildings here are not just squat square brick structures, rather a medley of arches, seductive curves, gleaming tiled courtyards and clean straight lines.
Oman was not modernized until the 1970S when Sultan Qaboos became the leader, which has meant that the traditional architecture has survived here better than in most of the other Gulf States.
The old, walled city of Muscat, crammed into a bay between jagged brown mountains, was never big. Aside from the two 16th-century Portuguese forts Mirani and Jilali which frame it, most of its older buildings have been demolished to make way for government offices and the Sultan’s blue-and-gold waterfront palace (a kind of orientalised Art Deco) built in 1972. One of the survivors is an aristocratic mansion that now houses the Bait al Zubair museum; the displays of Omani crafts and traditional costumes help you to know what to look for before you go shopping for a khanjar (the curved, sheathed, silver dagger that many Omani men wear in their belts).
Of the 500 new mosques built by Sultan Qaboos, the one that raises its golden dome outside Muscat is the most amazing – Grand Mosque. A complex of courts and lofty prayer halls seems to float on a lake of Italian marble so highly polished it’s as reflective as water. Inside, enormous chandeliers of Swarovski crystal emit a weird, golden glow unlike any light nature has produced; every surface is decorated with neo-Iznik ceramics, gold leaf and carved sandalwood, and there’s a carpet that took 600 Iranian weavers four years to make. The massive teak doors are intricately carved in a style which allegedly originated 1,000 years ago in Samarkand.
Another relatively new building imposing over the Muscat skyline is Muscat’s own Royal Opera House. Entertaining local audiences and international guests, the building was built in 2011 motivated by the Sultan’s love of classical music and the Arts. The building is a fusion of Omani tradition and modernity. The construction of this iconic and majestic Royal Opera House Muscat building with stunning handmade ornaments, including the sophistication of its rich interior, is in many ways an embodiment of such complexity and multiplicity of references witnessed in Omani architecture.
Outside of Muscat…
The famous dhow building yards at Sur now turn out tracing vessels – fishermen and coastal traders prefer fibreglass to teak – yet the harbour hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. The promontory separating the sea from the broad heron-hunted lagoon has a cluster of white houses, a blue-domed mosque, colonnades where white-robed men play dominoes or doze and, at the point where habitable land gives way to jagged rock and the inevitable round watchtower.
Nizwa: Nizwa Fort & Jabrin Castle
Nestled at the base of the rugged Hajar Mountains is the historic town of Nizwa. It was the former capital during the 6th and 7th century, hence it features an outstanding fort, Nizwa Fort, which is famous for its rounded watch towers, reaching the highest heights over all the other forts in Oman. However, just a short excursion away is the magical Jabrin Castle. Dating back to 1670, the castle is not only famous for its recently restored beautiful structure, detailed lattice-work, famous curved arches and detailed hand-chiselled doors rather for its local folklore of magic and wizardry. A glimpse of this side is possible within the castle by stepping into the Sun and Moon Chamber overlooking the valley.
From Ṣalālah it is an easy and beautiful drive into the mountains to the tomb of Nabi Ayoub (Joe’s Tomb), where the custodian will show you a footprint in the rock that suggests the Prophet was a giant (it’s at least half-a-metre long). Or you can head east, past the ruined city of Sumhuram (from which, it is said, the Queen of Sheba set off to visit King Soloman), and along a vast, sweeping bay to Mirbāt, a town of deserted old houses with massive studded doors and intricately carved shutters to which I’m dreaming of retiring.
In the northern most end of the Khasab in Musandam in the north of Oman, overlooking the Gulf of Oman and the Hormuz Strait stands stoically Khasab Fort. The fort was built in the 17th century by the Portuguese seeking control over regional maritime trade. However, in the end it was mainly used to store dates and water.
Overall, a walk through a village, along the beach, around a castle or fort is bound to inspire you with intoxicating stories of the past and present, some myths, some legends – Oman truly is an architectural treasure in Arabia.