“Travelling makes one modest-
you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt
Yes, I agree that travelling and living in different cultures is humbling, which is part of the beauty of it. You become less self-absorbed, less self-important. But I also believe that while you become smaller, you also become larger. Instead of feeling insignificant and separate, you feel comforted and connected. Everywhere we go, we see more similarities than differences. We feel a sense of belonging rather than alienation. Our experience in Oman certainly reinforced this. It is a quiet little country that makes you feel at home.
Oman is not a place we hear or read much about because it is a relatively tranquil, stable oasis in the Arab world, bordering the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, along the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. It is the oldest independent state in the Arab world, has never been a British protectorate, and was one of the first nations to formally recognize the young United States of America. It is an absolute monarchy, ruled by the al-Said family since 1744. Oman has managed to maintain friendly relations with other countries, including ones who are hostile to each other, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. While it is a Muslim country, minority religions are welcome and active. Until 1970, Oman was isolated from the rest of the world. Then the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, deposed his father and modernized the country in a thoughtful, measured way.
“…one of the lessons of Oman is that one of the best and most cost effective ways to tame extremism is to promote education for all.”
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, October 13, 2010
In this article, entitled “What Oman Can Teach Us”, Kristof describes Oman as “peaceful and pro-Western” and cites many examples of the country’s progress in infrastructure, technology, women’s rights and education for both boys and girls.
“The suppression of ideas and thought is a major sin, and we will never allow anyone to stifle freedom of thought.”
Sultan Qaboos, at Sultan Qaboos University, May 2000
Yet Oman still feels like an ancient Arab country. It is not aspiring to be a cosmopolitan financial and entertainment center. The terrain is dramatic, with rugged mountains and a stunning sea coast as well as deserts. Omani men wear simple white or brown robes and “kuma” (embroidered hats) and the women wear colorful headscarves, often wrapped like turbans –a striking contrast to the more formal black and white attire of the Emiratis and Qataris.
The magnificent mosque- the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque– in the title of this post is in the capital city, Muscat, and is featured in the slide show below. Construction was completed in 2001 after six years of labor. The scale is immense. The prayer rug in the “musalla”, or the “place of prayer”, contains 1,700,000 knots and 28 colors from mostly natural vegetable dyes, weighs 21 tons and covers over 4,300 square meters. It took four years to weave in Iran, incorporating traditional Persian designs. The main chandelier, from Germany, is 14 meters tall. Much of the architecture resembles other places of worship and holy spaces of different faiths, especially Christian ones, all over the world. Much will seem familiar to non-Muslims. The elegant arches and walkways, with an exquisite interplay of light and shadow. The dazzling gold fixtures and gleaming marble surfaces. The handsome sandstone structures. Multi-faceted and shaped windows. The “minbar” , a raised platform for sermons, like a pulpit. Instead of steeples there are minarets, often the point of origin for the Call to Prayer. There are handsome domes. Worshippers sit or kneel on the prayer rug rather than in pews. What will be unfamiliar are the signs designating separate spaces for men and women, the shoe shelves and the place for ablution. I found the “mihrabs”, ornamental niches marking the direction of Mecca, particularly beautiful. They consist of intricate mosaic tiles of rich colors in classic geometric patterns and tribal motifs of nature and fertility. From the minute decorative details to the majestic sweep of the colonnades, courtyards and ceremonial areas, this mosque is an architectural treasure. Enjoy your virtual tour!