There are a handful of places I’ve visited in the past five years that have been truly delightful surprises. Places I’ve arrived in with no concrete plans, no expectations, and no particular interest, only to leave completely in love with the people and sights I encountered, eager to experience just one more day, one more meal, one more enlightening, life-altering conversation.
Muscat is one of those places.
I first visited the Sultanate of Oman – a country of approximately 4 million inhabitants on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula – on a business trip in October 2011. (At the time, I was a member of a research team writing a book on education reform in the Arab Gulf States, Middle East and North Africa.) A quick glance at my schedule upon arrival in the nation’s capital of Muscat – a historic trading port strategically positioned at the mouth of the Persian Gulf – revealed an agenda heavy on meetings but light on “free time”, with the exception of a two hour window from 9 to 11am on a Tuesday. If I was going to experience the best of Muscat (and there is oh so much to explore!), I needed to be strategic. I needed to be expeditious. I needed to Google.
Ever a wise and faithful friend, Google led me straight to one of Oman’s greatest treasures: the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. The mosque, dedicated to the nation’s sultan of over 40 years, Qaboos bin Said al Said, is located in the heart of Muscat’s Wilayat distict, a mere 10 minute drive from my hotel. What were the chances, I wondered, that visiting hours for (then) single, non-Muslim women corresponded to my two hour window for adventure? Apparently, pretty darn good – visitors are welcome daily (except Friday) from 8:30 to 11:00am!
The mosque – covering an estimated area of 416,000 square meters – was constructed over a period of six years and four months using 300,000 tons of Indian sandstone. The square-shaped main musalla (prayer hall) can accommodate 6,500 male worshipers, and contains a central dome rising to a height of fifty meters above the floor. This dome, a 90-meter minaret and four flanking minarets of 45-meters each are the mosque’s chief exterior visual features. The women’s prayer hall, outer paved ground, interior courtyard and numerous passageways can accommodate an additional 13,500 worshipers, bringing the mosque’s total capacity to 20,000.
The musalla‘s floor – an area of 4,200 square meters – is covered with a handmade Persian carpet weighing an incredible 21 tons. Composed of 1.7 billion knots in classical Tabriz, Kashan and Isfahan patterns, the carpet – the world’s second largest single piece – took over 27 months to complete. The stunningly beautiful Swarovski crystal chandelier in the musalla‘s dome (pictured below) measures 14 meters (46 feet) in height and contains over 1,100 sparkling lights.
This post features personal photographs from my two hour visit to the mosque on that serendipitous Tuesday morning. I would like to extend special thanks to my gracious and incredibly helpful taxi driver, who offered two hours of his time (at no cost!) to accompany me throughout the mosque, including the men’s prayer hall (which I would not otherwise have been permitted to explore or photograph without an escort). I was deeply touched by his generosity and kindness, and will forever remember the Omani people as among the most welcoming and magnanimous ever encountered in my travels.
*As previously noted, non-Muslims are permitted to visit the mosque daily (except Fridays) from 8:30 to 11:00am. Visitors are asked to dress modestly, and women required to cover their hair.*
Thank you for viewing! – B. June
Next week’s journey: Larochette Castle – Luxembourg