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Thursday, November 24, 2016

11/3: Muscat's Marvelous Mosque & Royal Opera House

This was one of our longest days we had planned in a long time so we were up and out of the hotel by 7:30. Our first destination was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, located in one of  the city's far western suburbs. As it was only open for visitors for three hours beginning at 8, we wanted to arrive as soon as possible. 

En route, we saw so many Omani flags decorating the side of the highway. We both remarked on the overwhelming numbers of both white cars and white buildings everywhere. A view of the Royal Opera House that we were visiting after the mosque and which was also open for a couple of hours in the morning:

A view of the Grand Mosque from the wrong side of the highway; we just needed to figure out how to get there!
This building was located across the highway from the mosque and reminded us of our own Jefferson County's county office building known locally as the Taj Mahal.
Muscat's Sultan Qaboos Mosque was the only one in the country open to non-Muslims and it had a very strict dress code. Women needed to be covered from head to ankle including arms. I had only brought one long-sleeve shirt with me on the trip so I had made sure to put it on this morning before leaving the hotel.
In 1992, Sultan Qaboos decided to build a special and unique mosque in Muscat. A team of architects from London and Muscat won the competition and construction began in 1995. It took six years to complete the 416,000 square meter mosque which can hold 20,000 worshippers!
One of the mosque's towering minarets:
We were extremely fortunate to begin chatting with a Muslim woman, Fatima, who volunteered her time at the mosque. Even though there are not normally any tours given of the mosque, she kindly agreed to show us and others around. What a difference it made to have Fatima be our guide as she spoke absolutely perfect English, was as funny as all get out and was a wealth of information about the mosque and Islam. 
This gathering space had a capacity for 750 men who pray shoulder to shoulder. Men come to the mosque to be bound together by their fellow community of believers, Fatima explained
Fatima joked there was so much Italian marble used in the mosque's construction it was like the Taj Mahal in India!

She explained that Muslim women pray at home. No children are allowed to pray in the mosque because they want to keep it clean. I wish I had asked Fatima at what age boys are permitted and welcomed to join their fathers in the prayer halls.

Fatima mentioned the mosque had five minarets to reflect the five pillars of Islam. One was taller than the others as there is only one God; the other four represent prayers, charity, fasting and making a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest of all places for Muslims. Laughingly, Fatima remarked the minaret was 'a sandstone skyscraper from India!' 
The Sultan’s personal scribe had been responsible for the written inscriptions on this tallest minaret.

She laughingly said that as nothing is old in this mosque – it’s just a teenager as it was only completed in 2001!
Fatima made a point of saying that the Sultan Qaboos Mosque was an international mosque as it reflected the character of the Sultan who had a great relationship with the world. That was why the best supplies and materials were used from all over the world. The courtyard's lanterns were from Iran.
Fatima shared with us that in Islam, a person's body comes from the earth and the soul is from above. To be a spiritual being, prayer connects the soul to the source. In the Qur'an which dates from 1400, there isn't one contradiction, according to Fatima. These panels were inscribed with three different verses from the Muslim holy book.
The mosque was the tallest structure in Oman and nothing could be built taller than it. The marble floors on the outside areas felt soft and cool on our feet as we walked around the grounds.
Seeing the other prayer hall had been just the ‘warm up act,’ Fatima said with a smile! This prayer hall held 6,600 men. About 10,000 men are also able to pray in the courtyards we had just walked through that surround the two prayer halls. Women might get distracted by the glamor and opulence and might think of saying they want this or they want that once surrounded by this show of wealth, she said. Then, apparently contradicting herself unless I misunderstood her, Muslim women, Fatima stated, prefer a simpler room to pray in.
Comapred to the exterior, the interior was a riot of opulence. The huge Swaroski crystal chandelier in the center of the hall was a staggering 46 feet tall and had been the biggest in the world. 
When the UAE city of Dubai discovered this chandelier was the biggest in the world, they built a mosque which now has the biggest one in the world. 
The vegetable-dyed colored carpet took 600 women from the Iranian province of Khorasan four years to weave the 1700 billion knots by hand. (That number seems farfetched, I know, so I may have misunderstood fatima.) It was brought in in pieces and assembled here as it weighed approximately 25 tons! 
When the other big city in UAE, Abu Dhabi, realized the carpet was the biggest, they made sure to build a mosque which needed a bigger carpet, Fatima said rather disparingly! We'll be in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi in a few weeks so hope to see each of their respective mosques.
The marbles in the gorgeous large men's prayer hall came from Italy.
Details of the domed ceiling:
There were four pillars in the hall; Fatima explained that they were hollow inside just as they are in Omani homes to allow for ventialtion.
 The magnificent mosaics came from Iran.

Mosque rules:
The prayer rooms were only a small part of this amazing experience visiting the mosque. There were massive gardens surrounding the mosque whose flowers were a riot of color to rival Holland's during the summer months, Fatima assured us.

There were 20,000 books in the three storied library that was open to anyone wishing to study there. The lovely, light colored wood was maplewood from the US.

Fatima showed us the ablution halls next, i.e. those rooms where the ritual washing and symbolic purification is performed prior to praying. 
She joked with us that ablutions were unnecessary if people hadn't cursed, screamed and had basically been 'perfect' since the previous prayer time.
This was the women's ablutions room as there was more privacy here.
Fatima herself suggested I wait outside so she could stand and pose in the window frame of the ablutions hall for this perfect picture of her. I was glad to oblige.
The tour ended in the 'coffee shop' where everyone was invited to have free bottles of water, Omani coffee or tea and refreshments. The latter included some of the most mouth-watering dates I had ever had and that Oman is so famous for. I so wished we could have stayed for more than a minute or two but our next destination, the Royal Opera House, was a fair piece away and also closed soon for the day so we had to skedaddle.
The whole experience of the Grand Mosque was amazing on a number of levels. Though the mosque was relatively new, the atmosphere and architecture was reminiscent of an ancient place of worship. Fatima's informative and interesting tour made all the difference in our appreciation of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque.
We arrived, huffing and puffing, at the west entrance to the Royal Opera House located in the heart of Muscat shortly afer 9:30, in time to take a ticketed tour before they ended an hour later for the day. 
The Sultan Qaboos is very fond of classical music and the Opera House was witness to his musical preference and to Oman's extreme passion with art and performances. It was beautifully built and one of the biggest opera houses in Middle East. 

The very grand lobby:

While waiting for our tour to begin, we looked at the posters illustrating upcoming performances at the Opera House: West Side Story, Giselle and Don Giovanni were just a few.

The guide told us that the opulent Opera House was opened in October, 2011 and that it contained wood from Burma - actually known as Myanmar now - and marble from Italy.
The guide didn't describe the ceiling but it was dramatic and stunning.
The magnificent staircase was not for the likes of us but for VIPs only!
The interior of the Opera House was just magnificent and reminiscent of a Renaissance palace with its wooden ceilings.
In tribute to Omanis' homes, sunflower designs were widely adopted in building the mosque.
Just through these doors off the lobby was the coffee and refreshment lounge:

The guide showed us some of the musical gifts received from other countries when the Opera House opened.

19th C. pottery serpents made in France:
The guide took us upstairs next se we could see the auditorium.
There were 1100 seats and 14 balconies in the very swanky auditorium.
The Sultan's Box:
There were screens behind every seat.
The Opera season extends from September through May with seven to eight performances a month. I wouldn't care to watch an opera but the thought of attending a musical performance there would be very special.

All the ceiling panels were fully moveable to allow for different kinds of seating, staging and acoustics.

I was amused seeing the abaya-clad woman annd the dishdasha-robed man differentiating which bathrooms people should use.

As we left, workers were setting up for a band concert that evening in the large exterior courtyard. 

I especially would have loved to have attended the concert but we had a longish drive ahead of us to a part of Oman known as the Interior and we needed to hit the road right away. Steven and I both felt rushed yesterday and again today trying to see and take the time to really appreciate Muscat's sights. We felt that we had only touched the surface of what there was to see and enjoy in the capital city.

I have decided to split today's activities into two posts as otherwise one would be too long. The next post will include our drive and adventures discovering part of the country away from the capital. Stay tuned!

Posted from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe on November 25th, 2016.

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