A white-tinged, time-trapped city nestled along the Arabian Sea, the Oman capital of Muscat is more like a storybook come to life than anything else. Need proof? Try men in spotless robes sporting a khanjar (curved dagger) in their belts, perusing a subterranean souq amidst the smells of frankincense, myrrh, perfume oils, jasmine and spices. Or merchants hovering over stalls full of glimmering Omani silver, gleaming daggers, jeweled swords, brightly colored cloths, handmade hookah pipes, antique pottery, and rare incenses in a marketplace known as “The Darkness.” Or, different still, the haunting sounds of the Islamic call to prayer emanating from one of the largest mosques in the world, which also boasts the second-largest chandelier and hand-woven carpet on earth.
That’s the surface of Muscat, anyway. The soul of the city that also – fortunately for travelers –has a reputation as the safest in the Middle East is a somewhat more difficult thing to pin down.
Perhaps the first thing to know about Muscat, a city which has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years, is that it lies along the Arabian Sea, the turquoise water into which Sinbad the Sailor once set off on his seven voyages. Such a location led to the city’s rise as a link between the Western world and India and beyond, aided by its natural harbor where today one can see traditional wooden dhows alongside the Al Said, the fourth-longest yacht in the world owned by Oman’s monarch Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said.
An ideal first destination, then, is the corniche, the most ancient part of Muscat and the “Pearl of Arabia.” Documented in Western accounts as early as the first century AD by Greek geographers Ptolemy, who referred to it as “Cryptus Portus” (“Hidden Port”), and Pliny the Elder, who referred to it as “Amithoscuta,” the area around the corniche features numerous benches crowned by golden domes, meaning it’s a perfect place to sit down and simply watch life go by like a painting made real.
But its Arabian Peninsula location does mean Muscat can be brutally hot during the day, and to beat the heat there’s no better place than the public market locals call “The Darkness.” Al Dhalam Souq, perhaps the oldest souq in the Middle East, acquired its name because shoppers required torches to navigate the crowded stalls and lanes where the sun did not penetrate. With the advent of electricity it’s now possible to visit without a personal light source, but the sprawling complex remains a world of twilight and shadow just a few steps from the corniche. The main thoroughfare carries mainly household goods, tourist curios, shoes and ready-made garments. But it’s further inside that the real adventure is.