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An historic port perched on the Arabian Sea Muscat is the capital of Oman and the largest urban settlement in the country. Contrasting with the sleepy and sparsely inhabited deserts of Oman’s interior, it is a highly energised place, extremely business orientated and now booming on the back of oil exports, which have long superseded the city’s traditional trade in mother-of-pearl, dates and seafood.
There are still places to glimpse the Muscat of old – the labyrinthine passageways of the Mutrah souk, for example, which include one the best fish markets on the gulf, abundant jewellery and craft stalls. However, these are increasingly overshadowed by modern developments like high-rise apartment blocks, glitzy shopping malls and entertainment complexes.
Backed by the jagged mountains of the western Al Hajar Mountains, Muscat was mentioned by scholars in the 1st century, although it is likely to be much older. As the seat of Sultanate power, Muscat boasts no shortage of historic architecture. The Al Jalai fortress is a daunting sand-stone structure perched on a mountainside, but isn’t always open to the public. The elegant Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace is the office of the Sultan of Oman and overlooks a natural deep harbour. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is a modern construction completed in 2001, but as the third largest mosque in the world, it boasts some gravitas. Built from 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone, the mosque has capacity for 20,000 worshippers. It is also home to the second largest hand-woven carpet in the world and a sumptuous Swaroski chandelier.
A plethora of museums compliment Muscat’s historical heritage, including the Bait- az-Zubair Museum, with displays on Omani social history, and various others dedicated to art, natural history, national history and the military. The city’s harbour is located in Croniche neighbourhood, a great place to stroll along the sea wall, catch some ocean breezes and stop for a refreshing pot of mint tea.