Once again we have stumbled on a country full of surprises. The allure of Oman includes it’s majestic scenery; captivating history; kind and thoughtful people; delicious food; fascinating traditions. Oman is all of this and more…as well as an up and coming tourist destination.
I’m so grateful to have spent ten days here and hope to return again someday.
Oman has a long and fascinating history dating well before the ancient silk and spice roads. Oman is the oldest independent Arab state. At one time the Omani Empire stretched from present day Oman down the East Coast of Africa and included the island of Zanzibar.
Prehistoric findings of the region date back as much as 100,000 years. Over the millenia, Oman has been invaded often by Arab Tribes, Portugal and Britain.
In the 1800’s the country had several sultans ruling over different parts of the territory. In the 1900’s two strongholds remained and tensions caused conflict between the Sultan in Muscat and the Ibadei Imam in Nizwa.
When oil was discovered in 1954 the two factions once again went to war, and the British Army sided with the Sultan and assisted in air raids of the Ibadei region, including the bombing of the Tanuf Castle (see below).
From then until 1970 the Omani people were ruled by Sultan Said bin Taimur who decreed the people could have no luxuries…that included shoes. His medieval and archaic way of thinking bred discord as it was a hard life with no schools, roads, or doctors. Disease was rampant.
“In the 1970 Omani coup d’état, Qaboos bin Said al Said ousted his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, who later died in exile in London. Al Said ruled Oman until his death just last month. As Sultan he confronted insurgency in a country plagued by endemic disease, illiteracy, and poverty. One of the new sultan’s first measures was to abolish many of his father’s harsh restrictions, which had caused thousands of Omanis to leave the country, and to offer amnesty to opponents of the previous régime, many of whom returned to Oman. 1970 also brought the abolition of slavery.
Sultan Qaboos also established a modern government structure and launched a major development program to upgrade educational and health facilities, build a modern infrastructure, and develop the country’s natural resources. “(Wikipedia)
The allure of Oman can certainly be credited to the Sultan. The remarkable changes in this country in a mere 50 years is astonishing. We have found excellent infrastructure of highways and roads (but no subway or well connected transit system), sparkling clean public parks and beaches; everyone is educated and speaks English.
With the passing of the beloved Sultan in January, his hand-picked successor (he had no heirs) Haitham bin Tariq became Sultan. It’s not expected much will change immediately.
Wherever we travel, each country has problems. In Myanmar the question of the Royhinga genocide hung heavy over our visit. In China the protests in Hong Kong kept us from our original itinerary. And of course in my own country of the United States, the political upheaval is embarrassing. And Oman too has problems. Cost of oil has dropped and Oman is looking at ways to diversify, including tourism. There are some who feel human rights are neglected and protestors of any kind towards the monarchy are jailed. A clear hierarchy is in place with Omani people serving in government and leadership roles and most service and labor jobs are done by workers who have come from Pakistan, India, Asia and Africa.
Oman sits on the Straight of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, only 35 miles from Iran. Oman is focused on territorial stability in a volatile region. As a visitor however you feel very safe and welcome. In fact it feels like a paradise.
The Omani People
We met some really wonderful people during our visit. Although most people keep pretty much to themsleves, it’s not uncommon to have people stop and ask if they can help you find something or ask where you are going or where you are from.
The Muslim men all dress in what is known as the dishdashi and the women are in abaya, usually black but sometimes in other colors. Women wear a hijab. Some women cover their face but most do not. Women actually have a lot of rights in Oman, more than some other Arab countries. They vote, drive and hold professional positions such as doctors, airline pilots and more.
Many people in Oman also dress in “western” clothing, but you will never see shorts or tank tops on locals.
As a visitor I was careful to be respectful of the culture and I did not wear shorts at all during my visit. Long pants and shirts that always covered my shoulders and often my elbows as well. The only time I had to cover my head was when I visited the mosque. (see title photo).
I was a little aghast at some young women we saw from Britain dressed very scantily and I felt it was incredibly disrespectful and as if they were flaunting it. Poor taste indeed.
Our favorite experience of our visit to Oman was when we went to the home of a distinguished Omani family and had dinner with them in their home. We made this connection through a local business called Zayr whose mission is to connect Omanis with visitors to broaden the understanding of the culture. I am so glad we did this because we really learned a great deal about the daily life of Omanis. The family we visited was a man who is a Omani diplomat, his lovely stay-at-home wife and their five children. We also met a cousin (who works at the US Embassy) and a brother. Another brother is the Omani Ambassador to China. Many of the family members live in a cohabiting way in a large and beautiful house outside of Muscat. We talked about our respective cultures, and how each are so often misrepresented by media accounts of the actions of a few. We ate sitting on the floor in the Omani style and we truly could not have enjoyed this more. We learned about food and traditions such as eating dates in odd numbers, having coffee and dates at every meal and incense burned after the meal to cleanse your palate. It would be my wish that every American could have this experience to understand more about the peaceful and lovely Muslim people.
Oman, which is about the same size as California, has a population of 4 million, but only 2.5 million of those are Omani. The rest are expats who come to Oman to work, mostly from India, Pakistan, and other surrounding African and Asian nations.
The capitol city of Muscat is the most beautiful in Oman. The allure of Oman is found in this utopian city. Restriction on high rise buildings (no more than nine stories) as well as architectural restrictions that only allow Arab style structures with stucco in white and desert colors makes the city very symmetric and alluring. Hundreds of workers can be seen tending greenery in parks, medians and along roads keeping the capital city pristine.
You can also enjoy the beautiful Sultan’s Palace from the outside. The area known as Muttrah was one of our favorites, it includes a beautiful harbor (cruise ships dock here almost daily), a promenade with parks and viewpoints as well as the historic Muttrah Souq.
Outside of Muttrah we also spent one day hiking in the beautiful barren mountains that surround this region. We had an outstanding day hiking up the craggy rocks and returning through the wadi (Arabic for valley or river bed) where we worked our way around babbling brooks and standing ponds back to sea level.
Nizwa and Balha
We took one full day to tour the forts in this region, about a two hour drive southwest from Muscat. Many visitors stay one or two nights in Nizwa but we chose to do it as a day trip from Muscat.
We visited the restored Nizwa Fort, built in the 1600’s and restored in a very high quality way between 1985 and 1995. Today it is one of Oman’s top tourist attractions and we enjoyed it very much. Connecting to the fort is the Nizwa Souq. We hit it on a Saturday and many of the vendors were not open (the weekend is Friday Saturday) but we still enjoyed it and bought some spices and tea and dates.
We also toured the Balha Fort, which was built in the 1100’s. It is currently being restored but you still can walk around it and enjoy it although there is no interpretive information. Hopefully that will be added when the restoration is done.
One of my favorite things we did was crawl around the Tanuf Castle ruins. Nothing has been done to this site and it sits as it has since it was bombed by the British during the insurgence battles between Muscat and Nizwa in the 1950s. I really enjoyed this place and wish the government would add some interpretive information here.
Many people also go out into the stunning mountains in this region to hike. However we did not rent a 4WD vehicle, and you can’t get very far without one.
Sur and Surrounding
We spent one day driving south and east from Muscat towards the city of Sur.
Our first stop was to just admire the amazing view of the ocean on this drive. The gorgeous turquoise blue of the Gulf of Oman will take your breath away.
Our next stop was at the Bimmah Sinkhole – a super cool hole in the ground that was formed by the collapse of the surface layer of limestone. It is considered a lake but it is slightly salty. Visitors can swim in the crystal clear blue waters and enjoy this area for free.
It is 50m by 70m and 20m deep. There are a few small fish that live in the hole.
Wadi Shab is a very popular hike not far from Sur. Both tourists and locals flock here for the beautiful nature and for a chance to swim in the waterfall cave.
We went to Wadi Shab just after our visit to the Bimmah Sinkhole. However it had rained really hard the day before and we were quit surprised to find mud and silt all over the parking area several inches deep. We were told hiking to the cave was open but expect it to be slippery, muddy and difficult.
With that information we reassessed our plans and decided to give the area a couple days to dry-out and return. Which we did. And I am so glad we did. A forty-five minute hike up the Wadi was difficult but fun. Wading through deep water and clambering over boulders made for quite an adventure. If you want to go to the cave at the top it requires swimming for about 100-yards. We did not do this, but even without seeing the cave, it was one of my favorite things in Oman. I highly recommend it. Hiking in any of Oman’s beautiful Wadi’s should be a highlight of any visit to Oman. Check out this great list to learn how many Wadi options are waiting to be explored.
The town of Sur itself wasn’t all that special. We did visit the lighthouse in the old town of Al Ayhar and walked along the ocean boardwalk. We had a wonderful experience having lunch in a tiny little restaurant here. There wasn’t even a menu! The very nice man just brought us lots of lovely food and it all cost only $10.
I wanted to see “the desert” and most of the area along the coast of Oman is craggy mountains. Though these mountains are really beautiful, being in the Middle East means camels and sand dunes to me! So from Sur we drove two hours southwest to the Wahiba Sands desert. Without a 4WD you can’t drive into the dunes. There are plenty of drivers available and willing to take you out into the sand. Overnight camel treks are also available. But since we had done both of those in Morocco, Egypt and Namibia, here we decided to just enjoy the view from afar.
Come to Oman
If you are fearful of the Middle East, Oman is the perfect destination. It is welcoming and beautiful and you can learn a lot about the culture of the Middle East and the Muslim people. Don’t fear it – the allure of Oman is as much about the region as it is about the culture…both full of mystery and history just waiting to be discovered.
Muslim people and Omanis in particular are kind and welcoming and want to share their culture and country.
I am so glad we came. Shukran Oman. We feel blessed to know you. Tusahibuk alsalama. Peace be with you.
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