An auctioneer haggles over the price of a goat in Ibra Souq. Photo: Lance Richardson
In the deserts and souks of Oman, Lance Richardson gains some insight into the nation's distinctive and defining faith.
He dips his feet in the water, rubbing between the toes. Then there are his hands and forearms, scrubbed as though by a surgeon prepping for theatre. His neck is doused, his face is splashed, his mouth is rinsed repeatedly. Yousuf Albalushi, my guide, is a dutiful Muslim and there are no short cuts in the ritual ablutions before prayer. Allah knows if you've washed behind your ears.
Albalushi's practice would be repeated in any mosque, but the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, the capital city of Oman, calls for extra care. In a religion renowned for attention to detail, it stands as a supreme embodiment of determination and faith. The grounds cover 416,000 square metres and are marked by five lofty minarets. At full capacity, 20,000 people can pray here simultaneously, including 6600 men in the main chamber. That vast carpet covering the floor with Kashan and Isfahan designs? It took 600 women four years of weaving by hand to finish more than 1.7 million knots. The teak is from Burma and the sandstone imported from India. Dangling beneath an enormous dome, the chandelier has 1022 bulbs and looks like an illuminated heart.
Freshly picked dates ready for market Photo: Getty
Outside, the white marble is so dazzling in the sun that a visitor is stunned into squinting bows. I follow Albalushi, so spellbound that he stops me to ask if "awesome" is some sort of Australian slang. It is all I can offer in response to his meticulous tour through this holy place.
Most impressive, perhaps, is how the mosque's expansive design, incorporating different styles, materials and cultural legacies, comes to represent the generous spirit of its particular sect of Islam. As with Christianity, Islam is not a unified religion: Ibadism defines Oman just as Catholicism once defined Italy. Its creed is one of tolerance and inclusiveness. Even if a person is Sunni or Shiite, they are welcome to pray here. "In the end we all pray for one God," Albalushi tells me. "That's it. We are Omani Muslims, in one hand." And if you're not Muslim? He points to the country's 900,000 expatriates, living alongside Ibadis.
Muslim or not, Islam looms large in any visit to Oman, particularly during Ramadan. So completely does it dictate the minutia of everyday life that I decide to make it the motivating theme for my travels. Ibadism encourages the acquisition of knowledge; I turn the microscope around, seeking some small insight into a religion that has come to pervade contemporary world politics. In other words, I head to the ancient city of Nizwa, anointed recently as the Capital of Islamic Culture for 2015, and I buy a turban and dishdasha (long robe) along the way.
Muscat is on the Omani coast. Nizwa, 165 kilometres south-west, is about 90 minutes' drive along the highway, though a more interesting route plunges us into the dramatic
al-Hajar mountain range, past lonely settlements and wadis (valleys) stuffed with date palms like life-giving arteries threaded though a desiccated body of rock. When the rains come, the wadis flood extremely fast. The mountains are famous for pomegranates, walnuts and rose water but much is simply dust and stone. The highest point of Oman is here, with Jebel Shams rising 3000 metres above the desert floor. Al-Hoota Cave, diving in the opposite direction, is one of the largest cave systems in the world. Its strange electric train is the only one in the country.
As we drive along an unsealed road high above a canyon called Wadi Bani Awf, Albalushi explains that it once took four days to cross these mountains - and by "once" he means little more than 40 years ago. Since Sultan Qaboos seized power from his father in 1970, the country has undergone a revolution. Three schools have bloomed into more than 1200; life expectancy has jumped by about 24 years. Setting aside arguments concerning absolute rulers, the general consensus of Omanis I encounter is summed up by Albalushi: "It is like the dark to the light," he says, taking his hands momentarily off the wheel. "Alhamdulillah!" He praises the air - the word means "Thanks God!" - and I suddenly think how empty the equivalent phrase has become in my own usage, and how sincerely it is spoken here.
It seems fitting that Nizwa should be built in a comparable fashion, with a fortress next to the mosque and social life clustered around it in the form of a vast souk, or market. We arrive in town just before noon, with shopkeepers pulling down their shutters in preparation for afternoon prayer. The fort remains open, however, and a walk through its dark rooms provides an introduction to the traditions of Oman, from key-making to the harvesting of frankincense, as well an overview of the country's religious development.
In 629, the two kings of Oman were living in Sohar, a seaside town now most famous for the tales of Sinbad the Sailor. According to official history, these kings received a letter from the prophet Muhammad inviting them to embrace his new religion. By that time Islam was backed by considerable military might but the kings made the remarkable decision to convert freely, on faith, declaring their kingdom peaceably Islamic. The subsequent history is long and complicated, with imams quarrelling with sultans in Muscat, but Nizwa is notable throughout as the capital of influential Ibadi scholarship and thought.
The everyday reality of Ibadism can be seen in the children who recall the Koran verbatim, or the flexibility of marriage customs (Albalushi remains unmarried at 26, despite the creative scheming of his grandmother). It can even be seen outside, in the souk. Strolling through the labyrinth, I'm confronted by strange vegetables from India and al-Dallah coffee pots, daggers and guns, and the unmistakable aftermath of a fish market. Prayer mats hang over ceiling beams; the east souk is rich with precious spice. I also find effusive hospitality and a genuine curiosity; several vendors ask Albalushi and I to lunch and we end up eating dates beneath a portrait of Qaboos in the private sitting room of a souvenir dealer named Abdullah. Patiently, he explains Islamic etiquette ("Eat with your right hand", "Your beard is very suitable"), while serving coffee with cardamom and a ghee-based dessert called halwa.
Will you have more? No, thank you, I reply.
"Please, sir, do not let me down," he says, tugging at my dishdasha until I realise my faux pas.
If a traveller is uncertain about the prospect of eating fruit in the home of a stranger, visiting Al Hamra, a 400-year-old town a short drive from Nizwa, offers alternative hospitality. The town is almost entirely deserted; all that remains is a collection of ghostly mud houses that have baked like pottery under the harsh Omani sun. Bait al-Safah, hidden in its depths, is a stellar cultural museum where women produce make-up from sandalwood and bake rukhal bread over an open fire for guests. The majlis, or sitting room, is open and inviting; a radio and dense pillows translate into a convincing approximation of the real thing. The several Omani men stationed around a fruit tray certainly treat it as such.
That night we drive into the hills behind Al Hamra to stay in a village surrounded by a terraced plantation of date palms. An Omani guesthouse provides a roof with a view, and I look down into the dense groves and contemplate how, in the Koran, dates are called a blessing of paradise. They are everywhere in Oman. Almost on cue, an adhan rings out across the valley - the Islamic call to prayer recited by muezzins five times a day. Albalushi withdraws, seeking out the mosque, and I watch the sun set across the jagged mountains.
In 2000, the Sultan Qaboos University released a statement that is as much a manifesto for Oman as it is a summary of Ibadism. I discover a copy in the guesthouse and write it out. "The suppression of ideas and thought is a major sin, and we will never allow anyone to stifle freedom of thought," it says. "In our religion there is tolerance, morality and openness, and the venerable Koran stands for knowledge and thought ... It has never been, at any time, against inquiry or the seeking of knowledge."
Next morning we drive east to Ibra, where the souk is bustling with patrons buying watermelons and masked Bedouin women come in from the desert seeking supplies. A goat auction begins and I loiter at the periphery, feeling conspicuous. The auctioneer clocks my dishdasha and my Nikon camera. Then he calls to Albalushi. Tell him to come closer, he says in Arabic, smiling and grabbing a kid. Tell him to come and sit down and watch.
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of the Sultanate of Oman and Etihad Airways.
Etihad Airways has a fare to Muscat for about $1825 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr), then Muscat (1hr 5min); see etihadairways.com. Australians obtain a visa on arrival for about 30 Omani rials ($75) and require two passport-size photos. Nizwa is 165 kilometres south-west of Muscat.
The B&B Misfat Al Albriyeen, near Jebel Shams, is located in an old stone house surrounded by date palms and water channels. Rooms from about $30 a night.
Phone +968 9280 0120, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The imposing Nizwa fort and castle contains cultural and religious artefacts. It has an impregnable tower with "murder holes" where boiling date syrup could be poured onto enemies.
Souks generally close about noon and reopen at 5pm, and each souk has a main market day. Nizwa souk hosts a cattle market each Friday. The souk in Ibra has a goat auction every Wednesday.
Jabreen Castle, 37 kilometres from Nizwa, was built in 1670 and took nine years to restore in the 1980s. Its labyrinthine rooms are worth a visit.
The Bait Al Safa museum in Al Hamra shows visitors traditional techniques and clothing in a classic-style mud house. Sample dates and Omani coffee in the museum's majlis, or sitting room.