I recently returned from a fascinating Middle Eastern journey that included Oman.
The first question people asked was, Why travel to Oman? Well, sit down while I explain…
It doesn’t surprise me that most people know very little about Oman, one of the oldest independent states in the Arab world. One reason might be because Oman is one of the youngest countries for tourists to visit. Up until 1970, there were no hotels in the country! In 1987 the Omani government decided to ease visa restrictions opening up the tourist boom.
When you think of Oman from now on, imagine jaw-dropping mountainous landscapes with a green oasis at its base…
and majestic orange sand dunes – those of the Wahiba Sands…
and turquoise blue water nestling up to creamy sand beaches in what many call the ‘Middle Eastern Riviera’.
These are just a few reasons to travel to Oman.
I want to give you an overview of Oman, to share my travels and tastes, then hopefully you’ll understand why I traveled to this remote exotic land.
The official name of the country is the Sultanate of Oman. It is about the size of New Mexico with a population estimated at 5,119,745.
Oman is 82 percent desert. But it isn’t what you might think of when you think about a desert.
Lunar-style landscapes jet upwards out of seemingly nowhere.
You won’t find any rivers here, but, there is water in underground springs, wells, and wadis.
Wadis traditionally refer to a valley that has a dry riverbed which contains water only during times of heavy rain, forming an oasis.
Even though Oman now enjoys status as one of the safest countries in the world it has a vibrant, swashbuckling past due to its strategic location along the maritime trade routes. When you explore the countryside you’ll find the artifacts of more than a thousand forts and watchtowers. Most towns have at least one.
Nizwa Fort was built in 1668 AD and is Oman’s most visited national monument.
It is a tradition in Oman to greet a visitor with a bowl of dates and Qahwa (black coffee with cardamom) in a very small cup.
My Mom and I enjoying a coffee with our Omani dates and desserts.
Traditionally Omani people drink coffee in a thousand little sips, each served separately. You simply shake your cup if you want more, or hand your cup back to the host to say you are finished.
The cuisine, Oh! The cuisine…
As if the geography and the hospitality weren’t enough, the cuisine is exotically decadent. It’s an ancient fusion of staples from African, Middle East, Asian, and Indian foods. (More on this in an upcoming blog).
Dishes are often based on chicken, fish, and lamb, as well as the staple, rice. Most Omani dishes are perfumed with a rich mixture of spices, herbs, and mildly piquant marinades, thanks to the maritime trade that passed through the ports of Oman in the 19th century.
When serving guests in Oman, the meal is arranged on the floor, and everyone sits on gorgeous carpets and pillows.
Oman imports 98% of its food. Even though oil (900,000 barrels per day) is the major export of Oman, fish and dates form a significant portion of its economy.
Oman has more than 250 indigenous varieties of dates.
I was surprised we were served Mountain Dew everywhere. Apparently, it is the top-selling beverage in Oman. It is sometimes referred to as “Omani-Alcohol.”
One of the Omani desert’s most fabled creatures, the Arabian oryx is thought to be the inspiration of the mythical unicorn.
At the time of Aristotle (4th century BC), it was customary in Egypt to bind the horns together of young Oryx antelopes which had been caught: These would then grow together into a single horn – the source of many legends.
The undisputed favorite animal of the Arab world, however, is the Arabian camel (Dromedary Camel – one hump).
Even though they appear to be roaming free in the wild, someone owns them. I fell in love with these beautiful and affectionate creatures who always look like they are smiling!
Did you know that in Oman there are camel beauty contests?
What makes them beautiful? Well, apparently their height and long neck, the size of their nose, and downward dangling lips.
These contests are worth more than $30 million in prizes. I guess that is enough to make people cheat. Twelve camels were recently disqualified from a contest in Saudi Arabia after judges found out they were given Botox to improve their features. Read about it here.
Women wear a loose black cloak called an abaya over their personal choice of clothing, and a hijab that covers their hair and neck. Some women cover their faces, but most do not.
In some regions, particularly among the Bedouin, women still wear the Batoola (burqa).
The burqua, Oman-style (batoola), mimics a falcon’s beak, with a strip of fabric covering the eyebrows that then runs down the center of the nose. Originally worn as protection from the harsh, desert climate to help keep sand and dust out of the nose and mouth, and it also serves as a garment of modesty.
As a note of interest, the falcon is the national bird and falconry is one of the important sports in the country. (I will explore this more in another post.)
Women reserve wearing their traditional dress for special occasions, or for entertaining Westerners like us…
Omani men wear a Dishdasha—an ankle-length robe. Its main adornment, a tassel (furakha) sewn into the neckline, can be dipped in perfume. (A must if you go to the fish market!)
I didn’t see an Omani man without a hat. They wear Turbans (formal and required if working for the government) which must take time in the morning because there are nearly 10 ways to wear the Omani turban. The hat I saw the most, though, was the Kumma – a round shaped hat, adorned with embroidery patterns.
Oman also has one of the oldest marketplaces in the world – The Mutrah Souq.
This marketplace has so many colorful little shops where you can buy exotic items like Frankensense—that you eat, pottery incense burners, kummas, perfume and traditional craft items along with the usual touristy knick-knacks.
One of the great things about Oman, something that makes it easy for the tourist, is that signs are in Arabic and English… even if the translation is a bit off!
Politics takes place in a framework of an absolute monarchy whereby the Sultan of Oman is the head of state and the head of government. The current ruler, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, is the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East – he began his reign in 1970 and has made great progress modernizing the country.
Why travel to Oman?
I’ve taken it upon myself to advertise Oman – I love it there! And I highly recommend it, because it’s not overrun by tourists, the food is wonderful, the people are kind, and the geography is spectacular. And those camels, oh those gorgeous camels…
The best time to visit Oman is in winter as the summer is too hot. Maybe I’ll see you there next winter because I cannot wait to return!
…and then, she paused for thought.