When you visit Oman you will see paintings of an older man in all the buildings. His name is Qaboos bin Said Al Said, Sultan of Oman, responsible for the modernization of the country. The Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos and Royal Opera House Muscat are two of his iconic works that you must visit in Muscat, the country’s capital.
Who is Sultan Qaboos?
At 78, Sultan Qaboos is the longest serving leader in the entire Arab world. He came to power in 1970 after he overthrew his father with the help of the British. At age 16 he was sent to England to complete his studies and then enrolled in the British army. After finishing his military service, he returned to England to study governance. He toured the world before returning to his country in 1966.
His father practically put him under house arrest in his palace in Salalah. Sultan Qaboos wanted to modernize the country using the available resources of oil but his father did not let him participate in the decision making. When he came to power he changed the name of the country from “Muscat and Oman” to “Sultanate of Oman” to unify it politically.
In 1970, Oman had only six kilometers of paved road and very little public infrastructure. There was no electricity in the country and the economy depended on fishing and agriculture. In the Museum of the Land of Incense in Salalah you can see pictures of what Oman looked like at that time. Today they have impressive roads with more lanes than they need which projects a vision to the future.
Oman is a peaceful country, so much so that they call it the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. They are tolerant of cultural diversity, that’s why they built churches and Hindu temples in the country. The future for Oman is a little uncertain since Sultan Qaboos has cancer and has no children. It is said that he wrote who is his heir in a note but has not yet made public.
The Ostentatious Middle East
In the old days there was not much in the Middle East, only tribes living in the desert. All that changed with oil and now they have mega cities which compete to be the most modern and luxurious. With Islam playing a central role in everyday life, it makes sense that mosques are also ostentatious.
Many countries have great mosques dating back centuries but I dare say that the first modern mega mosque was that of Muscat. In 1992 Sultan Qaboos decided that his country should have a great mosque. Next year he had a competition for its design and the next one construction started. It took six years and seven months to build the Great Mosque of Sultan Qaboos.
The main minaret (tower to call the faithful) has 90 meters and is accompanied by four more of half the height.
Competition for the world record
The Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos today is the second largest in the world accommodating 20,000 faithful. The central dome is 160 feet high.
The prayer room for men is impressive. It has a carpet that measures 70 meters by 60 meters wide. It took four years to be woven by hand by 600 women in Iran. This rug was elaborated maintaining ancestral techniques with 28 different shades of natural dyes of vegetal origin. In total it has 1,700,000,000 knots and weighs 21 tons.
Over the carpet is a gigantic candelabra that is the size of a small house. It is 45 feet high and 26 feet wide. 600,000 pieces of Swarovski crystals with a 24 carat gold border decorate this nine-ton candelabra. Inside there is a ladder so that workers can maintain the 100 lamps that illuminate the prayer room.
In addition to this majestic chandelier there are 34 other candelabra of the same design in the mosque.
When the Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos was inaugurated it was the largest in the world including its chandelier and carpet. But as all compete to be the most ostentatious in the Middle East, today it is surpassed by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Visit Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos
We rented a car in Muscat which is a very easy place to drive, as it is perfectly signposted in English. They also have modern highways with little traffic and high speed limits. Parking was free in all places we went including the Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos.
There is an entrance next to the parking lot but they did not let us in and they made us walk around to where the tourist buses are parked. Muscat has a cruise port and the mosque is one of the stops for cattle tourism.
If you are not Muslim you can only enter from 8 to 11 in the morning from Saturday to Thursday. Fridays are sacred to Muslims. If you want to avoid the herd of tourists it is advisable to go early or stay until the exit when there are fewer people and you can take better photos. There is no entry fee to go to the Grand Mosque of Sultan Qaboos.
Adapt to the culture
They are very strict with the dress code. Women have to be covered, including arms and legs. I had jeans with threads that allowed the knees to be seen and they did not want to let me in. Luckily, my mother came up with the idea of covering them with an envelope cut in two that I had to put on my pants. There is an on-site store where you can buy or rent clothing. You also need to wear a scarf to cover your head.
Children are allowed but if they are less than 10 years old they will not be able to enter the prayer rooms. You can not eat inside or use your cell phone (in prayer rooms) but they do allow you to take photos and videos. In some places you should take off your shoes, therefore it is advisable to bring socks.
We arrived at a part of the mosque where we were offered dates and coffee. In this area there are Muslims who explain their religion to visitors. It is interesting to visit the Great Mosque of Sultan Qaboos, since it is a magnificent work of art.