Sindbad the Sailor was the most romantic traveler I had encountered when I was all of ten years old. So, fifty odd years later when I landed in his country, Oman, I actually stepped into the pages of The Arabian Nights.
A country perched on the Southwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, of red hills and brown valleys, Oman is flanked by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea on two sides and buttressed by the Al Hajar mountains beyond which lies the Rub’ Al Khali, an intimidating desert. These topographical features have made Oman secure from foreign encroachments through the ages and let it retain a fairytale ambience even now.
Flat-roofed sprawling villas, mosques and minarets are painted brown, cream and white to merge with the earthy landscape. Muscat, the capital, has its malls, wide avenues and official buildings but the architecture carefully blends into the natural background. Trees, grass and flowering plants are nurtured through drip-irrigation. Numerous date palms that dot the city belong to the government and nobody can cut them down. Each tree yields about 1000 kilos of dates every season, a major export of Oman. Cars that zip along at 150 kmph are usually Toyotas, BMWs and Jaguars. Here, one euro will buy you one litre of water but four litres of petrol. The air is languid, conversations relaxed and courteous.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the head of the State is as wealthy as the Sultans in Sindbad’s adventures. Yet, once a year, for a month, he goes out to the villages and lives in the huts and eats with the common people. He asks their opinion of the work that his ministers and officials do. His people believe that their lives are happy due to him. It is just like the 1001 stories!
The Sultan’s yacht anchored across the promenade at Mutrah Souq is magnificent while the Grand Mosque, he opened in 2001 is awesome. The dome and the main minaret and four flanking minarets are the mosque’s chief visual features. Its dome with interiors jeweled and frescoed, wood carved panels, and huge twinkling Swarovski chandeliers make it look grander than Sistine chapel. What took my breath away is the single piece prayer carpet covering the entire 4343 square metres of the floor. It contains1, 700,000,000 knots, weighs 21 tonnes and took four years to produce. It is hand woven in the classical Persian design. 28 colors in varying shades were used mostly obtained from traditional vegetable dyes. It is the second largest single piece carpet in the world. The Sultan’s palace is beautiful too with overlooking hills on which ancient but well preserved Portuguese forts stand sentinel.
The bazaars or souqs are redolent with shops selling perfumes or ittar and the aromatic frankincense called loban locally that supposedly contributes to your well being. I recalled the Biblical wise men of the East whose gifts for baby Jesus included frankincense. In fact, it is a resin obtained from trees cultivated for that purpose in the country. Curiously-shaped ceremonial daggers in sheaths intricately carved and bejeweled are tempting buys.
Oman is truly a magical land, but the memory that I carry away with me is the wondrous view of hundreds of dolphins off the coast in the Gulf of Oman. Attracted by sardine-filled waters, schools of these friendly creatures sported in the transparent blue sea. In pairs, they leapt up forming the classic dolphin curves against the blazing white sky. The more sprightly ones streak up like an arrow and twirl round and round as though dancing in a circle of sparkling sea spray as we gasp, ooh-aah and laugh at the glorious sight.
Oman will always remain the essence of my Arabian Nights dream.
First published on www.storyfuntastika.com. Copyright@Sutapa Basu 2016