Muscat Bazaar

Near the commercial harbor in Muscat is a bazaar with all kinds of shopping, restaurants and a great way to observe local Omanis in their native enviornment.  During my visit to the Bazaar I saw quite a few European and North American travelers who had disembarked a cruise ship for a day visit but aside from them, it was all Omani people.  Overlooking the bazaar is one of the 16th Century Portugues forts like the one that Ihad visited earlier - looking up at it I could see why the Portuguese occupiers of this city placed it here – it commanded a view of the harbor and city and could provide a watchful eye on the subjects here.  I looked left and right to each of the other hills in view and each of them had a fortress as well.

The bazaar was a jumble of buildings in close proximity with other vendors set up between them and on the nearby sidewalks and between the alleyways.  In the photo below some men sell fruit, nuts and dates on the sidewalk leading from the bazaar to one of the side streets.  I saw all sorts of things for sale from clothing and food to internet and cellular phone services.  As I walked around I felt like I had stepped back in a time machine – the way the people are dressed here has probably not changed in a thousand years.  Unlike Dubai, I saw few wearing western clothing save for the German and Australian tourists from the cruise ship.  As I walked around I was greeted with smiles and comments of “hello,” and I was always impressed with the friendliness of the Omani people.

I walked past one group of men who were standing around talking and drinking Chai Tea and one of them asked me where I was from.  After I told him that I was from the United States he translated this to his friends and soon they were all asking him to translate for us.  They had many questions for me, “Why was I in Oman,” How long was I traveling for” and “How did I like the country?”  They showed great hospitality and insisted that I join them for a cup of tea (and later a second and then a third).  They told me about their families and their work – it seems that they were all in the import export business and they received goods in from Asia and facilitated their transit into the Middle East; Muscat has a fair amount of sea-borne commerce.

The one man with the white hat and black diamonds (to my left in the photo) seemed to be the charismatic leader of this group of friends.  He cracked a lot of jokes and talked at a rapid and animated rate.  He wanted to make a joke out of everything and had all of his friends laughing and laughing.  I spent quite a while with this group enjoying their company and learning a bit about the Omanis; aside from their dress, they seemed no different from people from any country in the world.  I can’t help but think how someone in a western country might draw a conclusion about these men based on their dress but I found them similar to my friends back at home.  Actually, they are probably a lot more friendly than most Americans.

After a while a latecomer to this group of friends arrived.  It was explained to me that this little old man (blue hat, photo below) was a bit senile and they all sort of “watched out” for him.  He seemed a little agitated at my presence and asked what I was doing there and my interpreter told him that I had been voted a member of the group and that he had better get used to being in my company.  All of the guys roared with laughter and this seemed to agitate him some more.  He told me that I was not welcome to join the group and that group and that I should leave.  My interpreter had a big grin and – as he told me that the other man wanted me to leave – he then added, “Oh, he hates cameras, take his photo and watch what happens.”  I resisted and all of the guys egged me on, they all chimed in Arabic and my interpreter spoke quickly in English telling me that everyone wanted me to do it.

I pulled my camera out of my pocket and the senile man began shouting and as soon as I took this photo, he leaped off of his seat and began chasing me around the bazaar.  Not only the men in my group, but the entire bazaar howled with laughter.  It seems that everyone knows this guy and they all thought it was the funniest thing they had seen in some time.  My “new” friends held him back from getting to close and but he was furious and his face turned bright red.

After he calmed down the rest of the guys were all slapping me on the back and thanking me for giving them a good laugh.  They insisted that the senile man drink a cup of Chai with me to show that there were no hard feelings and he agreed but then added that I’d better not take my camera out again.

After a while I parted company with my new friends and went in search of an internet café.  I wanted to check in with friends and family and send a “hello” email.  As I was looking for a net café I saw this dress shop and was immediately taken by the wide variety of colors and patterns – LOL.  I took this photo and (later) emailed it to friends and family and of all the photos I took on this trip, this photo received the greatest number of comments from the women – I guess they were quite astounded with the limited dress selection.  As I walked around in Oman I didn’t see women wearing any color other than black and while they did dress like the Saudis, I couldn’t help but notice that their attitudes towards foreigners was quite different.  I really enjoyed the Omanis and despite the very conservative society they seemed very friendly and open to outsiders.

As the sun set I found a fabulous restaurant and had a wonderful dinner of lamb kebabs and hummus and bread (my favorite Arabic dish).  In the next table there were sitting 6 college students and they inquired as to where I came from and (again) I was in another conversation with more of the  locals.  Of all the countries I’ve visited in the world, Oman was one of the easiest to meet the locals and to get to know them.  These young men were studying everything from Law to Economics and Engineering.  They were all quite interested in America and asked about what it was like to live there.  They were all football (soccer, not American) enthusiasts and asked me if I had a favorite team (of course, Manchester United!).  We chatted for a while and they ordered some sheesha tobacco and began smoking.  If found the smell of the pipes to be quite pungent and smelled like burning fruit and tobacco (I learned later that this is exactly what it is).  After dinner they all posed for a photo for me and wished me happy travels as we parted ways.

With each encounter I have with Omani people I am reminded again and again how friendly they are.  Should you ever have a chance to visit, I’d recommend it with a big thumbs up – it is a wonderful country with interesting people.


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Portuguese Forts


One of my favorite things at Muscat was the abundance of ancient Portuguese forts that seemed to occupy every hilltop.  As a History major I was quite interested to learn more about these forts, a little about the Portuguese colonization and to maybe even visit one.  The entire time I was in Oman around Muscat, there was not one time that I couldn’t look up to the hills and see at least one of these old forts.  They seemed to be built close enough to interlock their cannon fire for mutual defense and seemed to occupy every strategic location (like the mouth of the military harbor in the photo above).

Most of the forts were built 500 years ago when Portugal invaded Hormuz (present day Iran) and Oman; there are Portuguese settlements all down the coastline of Oman.  Some of the forts existed already (in some smaller form) and were built up by the Portuguese to their current style and size.  As I drove around the greater Muscat area I kept my eyes open for a fort that was accessible from the road – I really wanted to climb up to one and have a look at it up close.

In addition to the larger forts at the mouth of the Muscat Harbor(s), I saw forts atop smaller hills in mountain passes and valleys and – from a military point of view – I can see why these were placed in these locations.  In the photo below, the main road (now a freeway) from Muscat leads to other points in the country and has to funnel through this narrow pass.  On one hilltop with a commanding view of the valley this fort (photo below) is set up allowing it to dominate the surrounding passes and low lands with its black powder cannons.


To give you some idea of the rocky and hilly terrain outside of Muscat, I captured this photo (below).  Defending the cities from hillside marauders would be quite difficult where it not for the fort on the lower hill – with its cannon it could keep invaders from the deserts out of the populated areas.  The Portuguese had these towers near the ocean to defend from seaborne attack and inland from the town to prevent land invasion – in this way their ships (the mainstay of their military strength) were safe in harbor and could find refuge in port when far from Portugal.


I drove around for a few hours trying to find a fort that was not only within hiking distance but also one that had publicly accessible land.  I didn’t want to cut through someone’s private property to visit one of these sites.  I tried several different locations only to be frustrated again and again as they were fenced off by private property.  At one point I found an old cemetery below a fort that had public access (photo below); I tried climbing through the cemetery but found another valley before the fort that was a large estate with fences that prevented me from reaching my goal.


Frustrated that I could not get up to one of the forts I made my way to the port and then saw the huge fort that straddles the finger of land that separates the civilian and military harbors.  I decided to climb up to the top to investigate; I was hoping to find a museum or a public access area (photo below).  What I found was that the fort had been turned into a military/police barracks and prison.  The guard stopped me on my approach and turned me back.  Argh!  Maybe I would never get to see one from the inside.

I walked back down the hill and drove back to the bazaar.  When I was about to go in for lunch I saw a smaller fort to the north of the large military barracks-fort.  I walked around the bazaar and began to climb up the hill.  The area was a residential neighborhood with tight congested streets that were full of trash, half-starved cats and dogs and apartment buildings that were packed – shanty-town style – on either side of the narrow alley way that led up to the fort.  I climbed and climbed and sometimes felt as if I was inside someone’s yard or courtyard.  I was walking past chicken cages, hanging laundry, lawn furniture and parked bicycles but each patio appeared to be communal and the walkway continued from residence to residence.

Finally, I reached the end of the suburb and the tip of the hill poked up above the apartment buildings and a round fortress sat prominently atop of this hill looking.  The fort had a commanding view looking down on the Muscat residents and the harbor.  The fort was perhaps 30′ high (10 meters) and had a small doorway that was about six or eight feet (3 meters) off the ground.  There was no way for me to get inside of this fort and I was quite frustrated that I had made my way to one of the old forts but could not get in.  I walked all around the fort and could find no way in.  I even tried jumping and scaling the wall but it was smooth outside in that it had no hand holds or stairs – an ingenious design as it prevented intruders from entering once the ladder was pulled and the door closed.  The actual surface of the building felt like rough sandstone or concrete and I scraped the palms of my hands trying to scale the wall.

I headed back down the hill towards the crowded apartment buildings and looked into one of the trash filled alleys where I spied a long piece of wood that was perhaps 8 or 9 feet long (3 meters).  I hoisted it up over my shoulder and carried it back to the fort.  I propped it diagonally on the ground and at the base of the door and then tried to scale up to the doorway.  It took me 2 or 3 tries before I was able to reach up to the base of the door – I jumped, grabbed the base of the door frame and then pulled myself up and into the fort.

Looking inside it seemed as though the inside of the fort had been filled with dirt.  But then I realized that the windows were intentionally placed close to the floor so that the cannons could fire out of them.  Even though the windows were low to the floor inside the fort, they were still taller than a man outside of the fort.  I could not believe it when I saw a 500-year-old cannon just laying on the floor.  Clearly, the sand from years of winds had filled up the inside of the fort to some degree, but there it was sitting, for who knows how long.

I couldn’t really believe it: here sits a 500-year-old fort with an old cannon just 50 meters from the homes of modern people and it is undisturbed.  I suppose that these forts must be as common to these people as the Hollywood sign is for Los Angelenos.  People from LA couldn’t care less about the Hollywood sign (they see it every day) but to visitors, it is a big deal and they take photos of it and climb the hill to see it up close.  I suppose this is much of the same.

I could see that at one time the fort had a second story; it appeared as though the 2nd story floor had rotted away – only a few cross-beams remained in place.  While they were stick-looking I wonder if they were much thicker in the past?  Clearly some people had been to this fort in recent times and I suppose that it had no access to preserve it from looters or vandals.  The fort was in an amazing state of preservation and could be brought to museum quality with little work.


I had a chance to walk around inside the fort and I peered out the windows imagining what it would have been like for a Portuguese trooper to stand guard here 500 years ago.  I looked out towards the large fort now turned police barracks and I could see how the two forts could control the entire harbor area with interlocking cannon fire (photo below).  Any target out of range of one fort’s cannons would be in the range of the cannons of another fort.  Looking out of the cannon window on the other side I could see yet another fort on the next hilltop.  The forts could rain cannon fire on any part of the city, harbor, the hillside and valleys inland and out to see beyond the harbor.  Provided that the forts were stocked with ample ammunition and support infantry it would be very difficult to conquer this city during the Portuguese rule.

It was really something to see an old fort like this in the middle of a busy city and I was glad that I made the effort to climb inside and have a look around.  It was like stepping into a time machine and going back 500 years – and looking out the window I tried to imagine what the city must have looked like back then.


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Muscat

… sitting atop one of the ancient Portuguese forts above the Muscat port…

Muscat - what a delightful city.  Oman – what a delightful country.  I cannot say enough good things about my visit to this place.  I was impressed by the people, the landscape, the history and the beautiful ocean and mountain views.  My only regret is that I only had a few short days to visit – I wish I had longer.  I booked a round trip ticket and hotel inclusive package to Muscat from a Dubai travel agent.  The price was not too expensive and the hotel (Sheraton) was nice with a friendly staff.  Quite a few of the workers were from Bulgaria (black hair & blue eyes – what a sight at the eastern end of the Saudi Peninsula) as well as from other countries in Asia, India and Europe.

My hotel had a nice ocean view (photo below) and the weather was sunny and mild – this was very nice considering that it was the dead of winter.  I quickly found that Oman is a very conservative country – there are no bars or restaurants except some small (and dingy) watering holes inside the hotels.  I checked out my hotel’s bar and it was a smoke-filled and dark place with exceedingly expensive beers and decided that I didn’t want to smell like smoke and I quickly took a pass.  What I would find in Muscat to occupy my time would be more of the “outdoors” type of activities.

I considered taking an organized tour but (as it was low season) there was not much to choose from.  I inquired about hiring a taxi for the day with an English-speaking driver to be my guide but found that the cost was quite high.  I checked the phone book for some rental car agencies and found a car that wasn’t too much and decided to give it a try.  It did have some mileage limitations that would prevent driving too far south (I had originally wanted to drive the length of the country) but certainly enough to get around Muscat and the surrounding area.  I took a cab to the rental car agency, gave my credit card, bought the additional insurance and soon I was on my way.

Oman is quite a mountainous country; it seemed that every direction I looked I could see mountains and hills and each had a 500 -year-old Portuguese fort atop of it.  This country was a Portuguese colony and they fortified the coast exceedingly well – the forts were close enough to interlock cannon fire and seemed the stretch the entire coast.  In the top photo, if you look over my shoulder on the right side you can see a massive Portuguese fortress that once guarded the port at Muscat.

The style of the homes was very similar to what you might see in any other Gulf country: squat square cement buildings and tall (relatively) featureless rectangle apartment buildings.  As the area is so hilly the houses and apartments seem to spring up between the hills giving the city a unique desert-mountain look.

Aside from the hills, getting around the city was much like being in Dubai – similar cars, expat taxi drivers (usually Indians and Pakistanis but a fair amount of Omani taxi drivers) and the usual amount of horn honking.  The drivers were most courteous in Muscat - especially when compared to Kuwait.  But really, who drives worse than the Kuwaitis?  I found driving around in my rental car to be an easy experience and would recommend any visitors to Muscat consider hiring their own car – it was quite convenient.

One of my first visits was to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.  This was indeed an impressive building and complex.  The grounds of the mosque are expansive and full with beautiful gardens.  Inside, the Grand Mosque brags the world’s largest chandelier and carpet (almost the entire mosque is covered by a single rug).  The building is beautiful with its tall dome and spired hallways off of the main building.  Unfortunately, due to my limited digital memory (I was carrying only 3 x 46mb memory cards) I did not capture as many photos of the mosque as I should have.  As I’ve looked at some of the other websites that have photos of this mosque I opted to post a night shot of the mosque as I not seen any of those on the web.  It is really a grand building – if you come to Oman don’t miss the opportunity to visit.  It is open Sunday through Wednesday from 8-11 am.

Just to add a little scale to the size of the mosque complex I’m including this photo taken after I’d parked my rental car in the parking lot.  As you can see in the photo I still have a few hundred meters to walk just to get to the main building complex:


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