Another nice day today. We visited the capital of Oman -- Muscat. The weather was bright, hot (low 90s) and clearer than it has been but more humid than I had expected. Unfortunately it seems that once again we were on the "wrong" side of the ship at least in terms of what can be seen from our balcony. We had a view of the sea wall and the ocean while the starboard side had a view of the town, another ship and jagged, rocky mountains just outside of town.
After breakfast we joined our excursion which was an all-day affair. Our first stop was the Grand Mosque. It took a little while to drive there and so we had a chance to check things out. First impression? Kind of a bland place with low, white buildings all constructed within the last fifty years. Signs were in Arabic and English and included such things as a fire safety company (something you would never find in India) and a "hypermarket" (that is, a grocery store). Also saw lots of bank branches and in general everything seemed both orderly and functional. Roads were smooth and modern. Cars relatively new. Landscape very dry and rocky (think Las Vegas meets Death Valley).
The Grand Mosque was quite busy as there were three cruise ships in town today and I think they all sent at least a half dozen buses each to visit the Grand Mosque. It's smart though for the mosque to allow itself to be overrun by visitors as it helps to expose people to Islam and makes it far less scary. The mosque had five minarets including one rather tall one (together they represented the five pillars of Islam -- Allah/Muhammad, five times prayer, fasting, the hajj (visit to Mecca), charity). Inside was a beautiful and very large carpet (formerly world's largest one-piece carpet), beautiful tile work, gorgeous carved ceiling, chandeliers, and most importantly, air conditioning (man was it hot out in the sun, standing on marble with no shade in sight). Our guide demonstrated how to read the Koran and the proper way to wash prior to entering the mosque. According to our guide Omani Muslims are primarily neither Shi'a nor Sunni. They are instead a third branch that I had never heard of and can't remember the name of either right now. At any rate the mosques in Oman are open to all Muslims no matter their sect.
We were also told that although Oman is an absolute monarchy, the Sultan was educated in England and has developed the country through education. He subscribes to many Western values and allows people the freedom to wear what they want and drink if they want. However, it is still an unabashedly Muslim country but it would seem that there is at least a modicum of separation between civil and religious authority.
After the Grand Mosque we drove to a suburb where we visited a pre-Islamic fort. The fort which was founded in the sixth century had been renovated very nearly beyond recognition. However the position on a rocky hill and the form of the building gave some feeling for its past. We met to learn more about the fort in a room with only Persian carpets and pillows along the walls. Sitting there with a warm breeze flowing through the small window in the oh so thick wall was an experience I will remember.
For a change of pace our next stop was at a warm spring. The water here contained big and little fishies that nibbled at your feet and legs when you put them in the water, which both R and I did. It felt like the fish were tickling your feet. I've seen pedicure spas that feature these fish but I had no idea they occurred "in the wild". Can definitely check that experience off the bucket list.
Lunch was at a very clean and modern restaurant where we were served a buffet meal that included ample vegetarian fare for me and R. After lunch we proceeded back to the city of Rabat where we visited the old town and the Sultan's Palace. This was just a photo stop; we didn't actually go into any of the buildings. While we were there the call to prayer came over the local speakers and it was quite atmospheric.
Final stop? Shopping (of course). At the local souk. I was apparently in the mood to spend money purchasing not just some frank incense and pot for burning it in but also a Omani head covering (a sort of modified turban). What I am going to do with that I have no idea! I think I might have gotten a little carried away!