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Ruwi Mutrah

17th March 2013

Beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Al Qurm Shopping Centre and an Omani Meal

    I took a cab out to the Al-Ghubrah and Ghala, or Grand Mosque. My driver was a friendly chap with a warm smile, wrinkled face and humorous eyes. A few grey hairs told me he was of an older generation, but that gave me no clue about his age.
    "Where you from?" he asked with the same broad smile. "England," was the quick response. "I have been to England," he told me. I learned he had been in the army, and had been sent to do some training in England. A portion of his time was spent on gunnery exercises at Lulworth, and on another occasion he spent time at the Vickers tank factory in Newcastle. "Char is here in Oman," he proudly beamed. "Char?" I asked. "Yes, Char. You do not know?" "Char ...," I repeated, the word slowly pouring out of my lips to convey the sense of not understanding. I realised there was a translation disconnect here. It took a short while to bottom this one out, but I discovered that Prince Charles was currently visiting Sultan Qaboos. "Perhaps I will meet him at the mosque," I said, and the cabbie burst into peals of laughter.
    We sped past the new Sultan Qaboos Football Stadium, and an impressive new dazzling white mosque with two very tall minarets, being built. After a while we turned into a luxuriant man-made oasis with tall palms cleverly disguising a massive car park. My jolly driver dropped me off and I bade him, "Shukran, masalamah." (Thank you, goodbye)
Gardens at Entrance to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque      (please use scroll bar)

    I stood before the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Wilayat (district) Bawshar, the only mosque in Oman open to non-Muslims, and one of the largest in the Gulf. This glorious piece of modern Islamic architecture was a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos to mark the 30th year of his reign. I entered the site through an impressive gate, and strolled through a delightful set of gardens, complete with fountains and streams (always a joy to see in the stifling heat), set in marble walkways. The developed part of the site looked truly immense. Indeed, including the fully consolidated areas and landscaping, it covered 416,000 square metres. The 50m dome and the main 90m minaret halfway along the northern wall, and four flanking 45.5m minarets marking the corners of a walled compound in which the mosque itself sat, were the mosque's immediate visually striking features.
    In 1992 Sultan Qaboos directed that his country of Oman should have a Grand Mosque. A competition for its design took place in 1993, and after a site was chosen at Bausher, construction commenced in 1995. It was completed six years later and inaugurated by His Majesty, the Sultan, in May 2001.
Entrance to Ladies' Prayer Hall, the Northern Corridor in the Background      (please use scroll bar)

Inside Ladies' Prayer Hall
    I reached a beautifully craved white stone cloister, constructed from Indian stone, that provided welcome shade. Here, I was obliged to remove my footwear before entering the Ladies' Prayer Hall (although men are allowed in). The hall, large enough to hold 750 worshipers, contained beautifully carved walls and wooden ceiling, with chandeliers providing the main illumination. Alcoves contained copies of the Quran, and five magnificent doors led out to the Inner sahn, a small square of gleaming white intricately carved stone and a pair of distinctively tall and narrow arches, embellished with Quranic scripts, with a polished smooth marble floor.
Dome over Main Prayer Hall, Large Minaret and Ladies' Prayer Hall to the Right
Main Prayer Hall      (please use scroll bar)

Dome Detail with Swarovski Crystal Chandelier
    Passing through the Inner sahn, I arrived at the stupendous Main Prayer Hall, which could hold over 6,500 worshippers. Coupling this with the 750 worshippers capacity of the Ladies' Prayer Hall, that of the outer paved ground holding 8,000 worshipers and the additional space available in the interior courtyard and the passageways, the site had a total capacity of up to 20,000 worshipers.
    But returning to the stunning Main Prayer Hall, quietly imposing from the outside, it was breathtakingly rich, the whole interior was panelled with off-white and dark grey marble and clothed in cut tile work. Ceramic floral patterns adorned arch framed mural panels set in the marble forming blind niches in a variety of classical Persian, predominantly Safavid, designs. The room had an open plan with four main pillars carrying the internal dome. The dome comprised a series of ornate, engraved stained glass triangles within a framework of marble columns, and a Swarovski crystal chandelier, manufactured by Faustig of Germany, with gold-plated metalwork hung down for a length of 14 meters. The ceilings were inspired by those of Omani forts. The mihrab in the hall was framed by a border of Quranic verses and a gilded ceramic surround.
Along Inner Wall of Mosque
    A major feature of the Main Prayer Hall was the hand-made Persian carpet consisting of 1,700 million knots, weighing 21 tons, and made in a single piece measuring 70 x 60 metres. From the design stage, it took 600 female weavers, from province of Khurasan in Iran, four years to complete. It brought together the classical Tabriz, Kashan and Isfahan design traditions. 28 colours in varying shades were used, the majority obtained from traditional vegetable dyes.
Intricate Ceramic Patterns
    North and south corridors seemed like a secure wall surrounding the mosque's building, constituting the boundary between the places of worship and the mosque's other facilities, and met through the five minarets that delineated the borders of the mosque's location and symbolised the five pillars of Islam. The length of each corridor was 240m. Trying to stay in the shade, I took a walk down the long northern corridor, browsing the Islamic geometric frameworks filling the corridor archways. Sadly though, I wasn't able to take them all in. It was now past 11am, and I was herded out of the mosque with umpteen others; a pity since I could have happily spent much more time there.
A Stroll underneath the Arches, down the North Corridor and Past the Large Minaret
Examples of Islamic Geometric Frameworks in the North Corridor

    Since the Al Qurm shopping complex lay on my route back to Ruwi, I decided to stop off there to sample the contrast between the group of modern shopping malls and the mini-Calcutta of Ruwi's shopping district.
    Cabs were easy to find, but the cabbies were trying to charge over the odds, as usual. I had got wise to this by now. I approached the nearest cabbie who possessed a thin mouth, hard unsmiling eyes, and a calculating spirit without warmth, and named my price, walking away when he refused it. That always seemed to do the trick, and he accepted my offer. The driver had little to say, the language barrier was a couple of light years wide. He drove by animal instinct. When traffic lights turned to green, and the vehicle in front hadn't accelerated off to the speed of light in nanoseconds, he cursed fluently. I had no idea what he was saying, but the intensity and venom was instantly recognisable.
    As he dropped me off, he tried it on by bumping the price up, but I wasn't having any of it. He sighed without cursing, and drove off. The Qurm district I was standing in was an area comprising a few shopping malls and residential blocks. I had no intention of buying anything, I was just intrigued to see what a more modern style of shopping was in this country.
    I popped in to the Al-Araimi Complex first and was instantly drowned in a wonderful, clean, air-conditioned environment. The coolness was bliss! The shops here were all up-market, geared up for the richer elements of Omani society, expats and tourists.
    I braved the furnace outside, and crossed over to the Sabco Centre. This mall, like the previous one, was small compared to UK malls, indeed these "malls" were more like small town shopping centres. The Sabco Centre was focussed on Omani silver and handicrafts, and also contained a couple of art galleries - at last a chance to get my art fix.
Al-Raimi Mall with an Image of Sultan Qaboos above the Entrance
More Malls with the Small Sabco Centre Directly Opposite      (please use scroll bar)

    Shops soon bore me, and in a short space of time I was back in the pool at my hotel. Normally, when travelling, I would be dashing here and there trying to take in as much as possible, but I was finding the heat very draining. I can handle extreme cold far better than extreme heat, and it was absolutely stifling out here.
    Towards evening, I asked reception if there was an Omani restaurant in Ruwi. The short answer was no, and I was given the name of a restaurant in Qurm. By pure chance, another chap in reception interceded. He was a local Arab, and he knew of a small place a few minutes away. I asked him to write down the name for me, but none of the two guys behind the desk could write in standard alphanumeric characters, so the local fellow who knew the restaurant walked me there.
    It was a small restaurant, the Maidat Al Noman, and once my guide did a quick explanation to the proprietor, I was given a warm welcome in pure Arabic. I thanked my guide with, "Shukran!" and by a combination of unintelligible Arabic and sign language, was invited to sit anywhere I wanted. The owner then presented me with a menu, which left me totally dumbfounded. An amusing interchange of signs and sketches followed, which resulted in me ordering dijaj mughalai, which was meant to be chicken pie - I thought. Not long after I had ordered, the usual side dish of salad appeared (whenever I ordered food in Oman, a free salad side dish was always provided), and a bed of spiced rice on which half a chicken lay. The chicken had been marinated and coated in something, not pastry, but probably a batter type mixture and baked. I guess that stood for pie in these quarters. Accompanying it was a bowl of sauce that tasted like gravy.
    As I ate facing a window, I could see an old man outside on a scrap of dirt, sitting on his haunches with his back to a corrugated sheet barrier. Occasionally he would lean forward so that his head almost touched his knees, and at times he would beat the ground with a stick. I had come across a similar old man on Zanzibar. There, Sally had informed me that it was quite common in Africa, and there was nothing to worry about. I just wonder what goes through such individual's minds during that trance like phase. There again, I often wonder what people make of me when they see me eating alone in a restaurant; am I all that different?
    The food was all very tasty and filling, and a pleasant change from the ubiquitous Indian food. I wolfed it down. The bill appeared, and as was customary, half submerged in fennel seeds and toothpicks, the former to freshen the breath. The young waiter hovered around to make sure he picked up the tip; I left a decent one for him since the food was ludicrously cheap.

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Ruwi Mutrah
Last updated 19.4.2013