#16 weekend in Muscat

Saturday

Here we are in Oman. What a change in climate! It's the same temperature as Iran, but we've gone from zip humidity in the desert, to 90% humidity on the ocean. It's so hot and sticky that when we walk out of a building our glasses fog up and so do our camera lenses.

If ever there was an argument for a benevolent dictatorship, Sultan Qaboos bin Said is a shining example. Oman is just so impressive. He has taken it from a backwater in the 80's with no schools, roads or hospitals, to 21st century modern. I know he's had oil money to do it, but he's done it well. There are of course elements in the society which want democracy and have demonstrated for it, but it seems that most realise he has worked tirelessly for the cause of peace and prosperity and the loss of some personal freedoms is a price they are prepared to pay. The people we have talked to speak of him as a benevolent father. His generosity with his own money is legendary.

I had a proper coffee when we woke very early, out of the machine in our room - what excitement after a couple of weeks without! Such a luxury. Going without makes you so grateful.

The Sultan was looking down at us from his vantage point in the lobby. His photo is everywhere in Muscat, on hoardings, on shops, in shops and hotels. Just as well he's such a very handsome man, isn't he?

Abdullah picked us up at 5.30 for our photographic foray. He started out as a photographer with a national daily newspaper and is now combining his photographic skill with a passion for tour guiding. He knows this country inside out, and has published two books on Oman. On a more practical side, he said that he puts his camera outside half an hour before he wants to use it so that the lens isn't fogging up when he starts photographing.

He took us to a small fishing village nearby for our dawn shoot - that's him on the left. I'm still trying to get my lens defogged.

A few minutes later the sky had coloured very nicely. Fishing boats were zipping up and down the coast and around our little rock. It was fun being out at this time.

So peaceful.

A few minutes later the sun was up. Normally at home once the sun is up, the photo shoot is over because the light is suddenly harsh. The haze in the sky here meant that we could keep shooting.

On our way to the fish market we saw this shop. As someone on Instagram said, we should use the word 'of' more. -:) With all these dishdashas it must be a seriously busy business.

A few kilometres north of our hotel is the Mutrah fish and veggie market which starts early. There were few tourists and the locals were surprisingly agreeable considering they had work to do. But they know Abdullah, which is partly why we like to have a local photographer with us when we visit places like this. The other reason is that local photographers know where to go and where to be, where the best angles are when the light is right. Who doesn't mind photos and who does.

That's Abdullah in the white with the big lens, chatting to the locals. I found him by googling photography tours Oman. What a find.

His mate wants to know what he's going to do with it, how he's going to cook it. Or where he got it. Or what he paid for it. They're wearing the national dress of dishdasha (gown) and kuma (cap) and sandals. A more casual look is the turban or massar. Sultan Qaboos bin Said, their ruler, made this the national dress. They've embraced it totally and look just so elegant in it. And spotless, even at the fish market.

Maybe not so spotless the workers! See how the man in the brown dishdasha is holding the end of this scarf in his mouth? I've noticed that's common when they want to use both hands. In the background, that huge vessel belongs to Sultan Qaboos to supply his yacht which is not much smaller, behind it. Some supply ship huh?

Their boat was out of the water and he was getting fish out of the net. I love it when someone looks straight down the lens and makes a connection - some people just have IT.

Just hanging on the boat ramp.

I was really having fun. We walked up to the fish auction under cover, made sure we didn't get in the way, and started shooting. To ask permission I just pointed at my camera. Most men just nodded happily and got back to work.

I took this photo before I realised that maybe he wasn't as agreeable as everyone else, but when I looked at it later, thought it quite a powerful portrait.

There was a very friendly feeling in that market.

Such a beautiful smile! It was my turn on the big camera this morning (isn't John a darling sharing it?) A couple of these shots are his on a compact camera. Capturing happy people going about their business is what we love doing most. We feed off each other.

It's only a small market and there is not a lot happening - maybe because it's a holiday. They're building a new super duper modern market building in front of this, with a high undulating white roof and lots of white pipework showing.

A fierce looking critter with a bright eye.

Now I know why they're called yellow fin tuna.

They look sharp!

A trio of bright eyes.

These dates at the fruit and vegetable market next door are half dried. When this variety is ripe it's red, and then the fruit slowly turns brown as it dries.

Pomegranates are such a beautiful shape aren't they?

These dates are a yellow variety.

I love this photo. They look like a comedy team.

We jumped into Abdullah's 4WD and chased off to the Sultan Qaboos II Grand Mosque before we lost the soft light. The Sultan has decreed that every city in Oman will have a Grand Mosque, at his expense, and he's well on the way to finishing it. This one was finished in 2001. Abdullah stopped on the freeway so that we could take this wide angle shot with all the flowering bougainvilleas. Don't they look wonderful? The main religion in Oman is the small Ibadi branch of Islam, different from Sunni and Shia traditions but at ease with both.

Acres of polished marble to reflect the facade. Amazing contrast in the colours of the hedging. The gold mesh dome.

First we walked around the outside. Abdullah had this angle in mind.

Then we took off our shoes and went inside. Yes.

The chandelier was made by a German company with a branch in Italy. It's fourteen metres high. The carpet is the second biggest in the world. Abdullah said that 600 Iranian women were brought here to Oman to join the carpets together in situ and the Sultan paid them each 15,000 rials for their two years' painstaking work. (multiply rials by three and a half to get Aussie dollars)

It's a huge space held up by black stone columns with striped stone detailing. You can see the scope of the carpet.

Some things just make you want to sit flat on the a polished stone floor and go wow.

Like the workmanship in the dome.

This man was just relaxing, praying with his beads. See how he's chosen a lavender trim on his dishdasha, and a matching kuma?

On my way to the loo, I could smell a delicious curry. Sensational. I followed my nose along a corridor around a corner to this scene. The enterprising cook was absent, but he was using mosque power to cook his lunch. Meat and veggie curry. Great setup! Shhh don't tell, he might get into trouble.

We wanted to be back at the hotel before breakfast finished at 11am and on our way back to the car this garden worker popped up in the shrubbery beside me. I nearly dropped my camera in excitement. His smile, the white teeth, the purple uniform against the hibiscus leaves!

These roses have appeared in our hotel room - what a delightful surprise when we walked in. Breakfast was delicious, the more so for its lateness. The hotel grounds are extensive with swimming pools stretching away, the palms reflected in them. The piece de resistance is the axis from the main building to the ocean - an horizon pool disappearing into the sea, with potted palms appearing to grow out of the water.

After breakfast we had a rest and were ready for Abdullah to pick us up again in the afternoon.

The tide was out at the fishing village so we left for the port to see one of the Sultan's palaces kept mainly for visiting dignitaries.

Unintended patterns and colours of discarded fishing nets.

An old abandoned boat.

The gates to the Sultan's Al Alam palace on a little bay on the waterfront are decorated with the Sultan's personal crest - crown, crossed swords and Omani dagger on a belt. Part of the official costume of Oman for formal occasions is the silver khanjar or dagger, worn on a silver belt at the waist, and a wooden stick called an assa.

The architecture of this almost kitch guest palace is typical of the 1970's - quite a surprise.

It's possible to see the palace gardens through the fence - the Sultan grows a mean standard bougainvillea.

... in all colours. Oh I do so love this lens!

One tiny flower in a bed of globe amaranth.

The colourful wasps look as if they mean business. We've been seeing two main trees used here as street trees. The neem tree makes a handsome dense shade tree and is grown at the mosque, and another which looks like a weeping willow, called prosopis cineraria. There's also the tough windswept acacia on the rocky ridges with its flat-topped thorny appearance. I always associate it with Africa.

One of the palace gardeners was happy to chat. There's a wonderfully perfumed tree Abdullah wants to grow - it turned out to be osmanthus fragrans.

We went back to the mosque to catch the afternoon light. It's amazing how different things look at a different time of day.

The gold dome glowing in the afternoon light.

We went back to some of the spots we visited this morning.

Abdullah is very knowledgeable on many things and generous with his knowledge.

Abdullah sent this photo tonight. I've never thought of myself as a camera hog before.

All the garden workers wear this agapanthus blue uniform. It looks so good with green and the sandstone colour of the mosque which turns pink in the afternoon light.

On both sides of the mosque are long corridors of covered alcoves. Inside each section of arches every set of niches has tile work to represent different Middle Eastern and related design trends through the centuries and countries. They'd be easy to miss if you didn't know they were there. I'll give you a snapshot of some of them under here. I found it fascinating. Make sure you click on each bank of photos to see the full photo, because the arches have much more detail that you can see in the snapshot.

click on the first photo to bring up bigger photos of these arched niches, advance with the arrows

PERSIAN KASHAN: Persian designs take their inspiration from the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty which embraced Islam. Tile manufacture and design flourished in Kashan and Isfahan, and the word for tile in Persian takes it name from the town. These are modern interpretations of the flowers of heaven motif.

click on the first photo to bring up bigger photos of these arched niches

ISLAMIC INDIAN MUGHAL: I love the restraint of this one. Islamic architecture in India is distinguished by the Mughal style which fused with Persian. Swirling arabesque shapes were used in marble pietra dura. These floral designs were typical and often semi-precious stones were used.

ARAB HIJAZ: Hijaz or Arabia takes its inspiration from the mainly red rugs and fabrics of the area. Strong colours and patterns contrast with the desert. Borders and friezes repeat the dynamic square, zigzag returns and triangles.

OMANI: Omani design takes its cue from the symbols used in jewellery and fabrics of the region. Colours are strong with and varied.

OTTOMAN: Celebrates the flowers of paradise in a geometric discipline incorporating a Chinese and Timurid influence. Ottoman style incorporates tulips, chinoiserie, carnations, lotus, roses, urns full of flowers, and the cypress tree which dispels grief. The main colour here is blue with a little contrasting red.

MAMLUK: Contrasting coloured horizontal bands were introduced in Egypt and the Levant particularly on architectural features. The colours are strong, high contrast and brown-based with gold.

MAGHRIB: Intricate designs of geometric configurations in Morocco and Spain feature central star patterns.

EGYPT AND MESOPOTOMIA: pre-Islamic Egypt and Mesopotamia provided the matrix for geometric Islamic art. There's a base of living plants in this though.

BYZANTIUM AND EARLY ISLAMIC: Took inspiration from Pompeii and Constantinople, and began to avoid all reference to living things or icons.

I'm sure there were more that I missed - I found it really just so interesting to compare all the styles. What fun the designer had doing this!

What's your favourite? I'll tell you mine at the bottom of the page after you've had time to think about it!

We strolled around the outside of the mosque grounds in the soft afternoon light. Abdullah had been an excellent guide and we had enjoyed his company. His business name is Oman Photo Holidays.

The palm tree is such an iconic plant here, providing shade and structure to a garden and landscape, wood, fruit, thatch, oil and syrup.

I love the pattern of their leaves.

This is a government building near the mosque.

A scene of utter serenity with arches reflected in the highly polished floors. I love the way the creamy coloured sandstone takes on a pink hue.

As in Iran, the majestic mountains are a constant backdrop - just so beautiful. We'd had a great day, and it was about to finish on a high.

We went for a late afternoon cold beer on the terrace of the Crowne Plaza Hotel which looks directly west over the ocean at the sunset. Abdullah loves fish and calls himself a fishatarian. He is delightful company, and has a definite common sense approach to life.

John asked him what happens when the Sultan goes, as he has no children. The royal family has to meet for 3 days to choose a successor to him. If in 3 days there is no agreement, then they open an envelope the Sultan as left, nominating his own choice. Perhaps the Sultan is gradually allowing the Omani parliament to become more and more influential and may one day move the government to a democratic model.

a dhow in the harbour earlier in the day

The Sandhurst-educated Sultan enjoys a 90% approval rating: the more I hear of him, the more I think he is a man of very good taste, artistic and clever, with an eye for beauty, and a sense of a future for his country. It was he who made the rule that housing is to be white and low-rise.

When Omani citizens reaches the age of 25, they are given the opportunity to apply for a block of land of 600m2. Depending on where they apply for (a block in their home town is the quickest) they can sell it, build on it, keep it - whatever they like. It's the Sultan's way of giving everyone the opportunity to have a place of their own.

As we left to go home, a pastel-coloured mosque shone in the twilight. What a perfect ending to the day.

What sort of tile design did you like the most at the mosque? I liked the Byzantium and early Islamic one because it's in a muted palette and it still has the some of the soft flowing lines lost to later Islamic design. And a bit of blingy gold.

Sunday

Another perfect day. I got up before dawn to take horizon pool which looks straight on to the ocean. The fire alarm sounded when I was nearly outside. I figured that John would grab the cash on his way out so I kept going.

I'd forgotten about the temperature difference and the lens fogged up. I'm pretending it was deliberate and calling it artistic. The grounds are extensive with swimming pools stretching away, palms reflected in them. This is the axis from the main building to the ocean.

It had cleared by the time I walked to the beach.

The fire alarm had come to nothing. John joined me for breakfast overlooking the ocean. He had been out at the front of the hotel with people in hotel dressing gowns waiting for the alarm to be over.

I'm enjoying the variety of fruit again.

I know I shouldn't play with food, but I couldn't resist a pastel picture. The bircher muesli is perfect. Followed by a hot Belgian waffle. Even more perfect.

So are these are the two views from our balcony. We just lazed today, resting up for the week to come.

We went to the souq in the late afternoon and I was very taken with these old Portuguese houses along the corniche, their balconies leaning this way and that as if angling to have a better view of the ocean. The Portuguese were the merest blip on the Omani radar - Abdullah didn't mention them yesterday. We had prawns for dinner at a restaurant on the corniche and then back for an early night.

I'll leave you with an old Omani saying:

He who can't reach the grapes calls them sour.

We're being picked up tomorrow morning by Ali Al Abri (great name!), our guide for the week. He comes recommended by friends so I'm sure we'll like him. We are driving south along the coast in his 4WD, ending up tomorrow night in the desert.

Until then, I wait you...