Muscat, Oman: The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (and other places of interest)

Good morning and greetings as the beautiful Seabourn Encore approaches the harbor at Salalah, Oman. I’ve fallen behind on my blog entries, and I hope you’ll be generous about my laziness.

Salalah Harbor
The not very picturesque entry into the port at Salalah, Oman

On Thursday, we had the great good fortune to visit Muscat. As you know, AAC, CPA and I are not big on group tours and usually prefer to go off exploring on our own. After talking it over with the outstanding and indispensable Guest Services Team aboard Encore, we decided to take the complimentary ship’s shuttle service into town and hire a taxi to squire us around. Interestingly, you haggle over the rate, which is exactly what we did, ending up with a young local and his somewhat dilapidated car. No matter: we were in for an adventure.

Medid & AAC
Our intrepid guide/driver, Medid with the equally intrepid AAC, CPA

Muscat Taxi
Our fancy wheels – the AC worked just fine

There were 2 things that we wanted to see: the  Royal Opera House Muscat and, more importantly, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It’s probably one of the most imposing structures in all of the Arab states. It certainly took our breath away. The Mosque is open daily to tourists, but only until 11:00 AM, so we made it our first stop.

A few facts about the construction of the Mosque:

  • Construction took over 6 years and the Mosque was completed in 2001;
  • It was a gift from the Sultan Qaboos to mark the 30th year of his reign;
  • The entire site covers over 102 acres;
  • The Mosque was built from 300,000 tons of Indian Sandstone;
  • Between the main musalla (prayer hall) and other areas, the Mosque can accommodate over 20,000 worshipers simultaneously;
  • The private musalla – the first prayer hall through which you pass – is for women only and can accommodate up to 750 at a time;
  • The main musalla is for men only and accommodates over 6,500 at a time;
  • The main musalla measures over 46,700 square feet;
  • The prayer carpet in the musalla took over 4 years to complete and weighs over 21 tons. It was weaved by over 600 women and contains 1,700,000,000 knots;
  • It is the 2nd largest hand-loomed Iranian carpet in the world;
  • The chandelier – considered to be the largest in the world – weighs 8.5 tons; 
  • The chandelier hangs over 26 feet from the dome and is trimmed with over 600,000 Swarovski crystals and features ornate gold plated metalwork.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - 01
Approaching the Mosque – the 5 minarets each represent 1 pillar of Islam

 

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA shoeless and at the Mosque

Sultan Qabass Grand Mosque Ablution
Before entering the Mosque, men come here for the ritual cleansing

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - Entry
Entering the Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Exterior - 04
The tallest of the 5 minarets rises 300 feet into the air

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - AAC - 03
AAC, CPA with one of the minarets in the background

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - 01
The private musalla – for women only – accommodates up to 750 at a time

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - 02
The private musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - 03
Another view of the private musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA inside the private musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - Middle - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA in a covered area between the private musalla and the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - AAC - 04 - Entry
AAC, CPA outside the entrance to the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 02
Inside the main musalla, which accommodates over 6,500 men at a time

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 03
Another view of the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 06
One more view of the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 01
The main chandelier and dome inside the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA inside the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 05
Ornate stonework at the eastern wall of the main musalla

Suffice it to say that we were dazzled by visiting this famous mosque. Interestingly, nowhere in my research could I find any estimates of the cost to build it. I guess that, if you have to ask . . . . . . . . 

From the mosque, we made a quick visit to the Royal Opera House Muscat, the only opera house in the Arab states. In 2001, the Sultan Qaboos – this guy has lots of sway and, obviously, lots of swag – determined that Muscat should have its own opera house. Ten years later, on October 11, 2001, the opera house gave its inaugural performance: Puccini’s Turandot, in a spectacular production designed and directed by Franco Zeffirelli (a production which had originally been seen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera). Legendary tenor/baritone/conductor, Placido Domingo, was on the podium for this performance. Needless to say, it was a big deal.

Unfortunately, there was an onstage rehearsal when we arrived, so it was not possible to go inside to see the auditorium. 

Muscat Royal Opera House - 02
Royal Opera House Muscat

Muscat Royal Opera House - 02 - AAC
AAC, CPA in front of the opera house

Turandot
Spectacular production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Royal Opera House

Interestingly, just a few yards away stood a familiar sight:

Opera House - Fauchon - 01
Yes, it’s Fauchon in Muscat!!

Opera House Shops - Fauchon - 03
And a really cool (as in beautifully air-conditioned) indoor cafe

Also attached to the opera house complex was a very upscale mall with several dozen high end stores and at least one restaurant. Our driver encouraged us to take a stroll, mostly to enjoy the air conditioning before we soldiered on.

From there, we drove to the Al Alam (Flag) Royal Palace, the ceremonial palace to the Sultan Qaboos. It’s quite a sprawling amalgam of buildings but here we are at the official entrance.

Royal Palace - 04
Entrance to the royal palace

Royal Palace - 01 - AAC
AAC, CPA plays the palace yet again

Royal Palace - 03 - Gate Detail
Ornate gate detail (note TheCulturedTraveler reflected in same)

By then, it was time to think about returning to the ship – we’d visited what we most wanted to see, it was blazingly hot, and our time with Medid was running out. He dropped us off at City Center, where we hopped back onto the shuttle which would return us to the ship.

Encore Docked
Encore as seen from City Center

Seabourn does it so well – when we returned to the ship, look what was awaiting us:

Encore Welcome Back Beverage
Yummy, yummy, yummy

So, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in Muscat, please do yourself a big favor and visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – it is, without fail, the highlight of anything we’ve seen while we’ve been here. Imposing, beautifully designed, of great architectural value and an important religious landmark. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, here we are in Salalah, Oman, our last port before 5 glorious sea days and then – SPOILER ALERT!! – Aqaba, Jordan, from which we’ll visit Wadi Rum and the lost city of Petra: for us, I think it’ll be the highlight of the cruise.

(Don’t tell anyone – shhhhh – but AAC, CPA and I are going to play hookey today and remain on the ship. I think, maybe a little room service – we’ll have club sandwiches and fries on our ginormous terrace – and just laze around all day.)

In the meantime, I’ll share some more stories with you about the amazing time we’re having on this very lovely ship, Encore.

Until next time . . . . . . . 

 

 

 

A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part One

Greetings and Salutations! Yes, we’ve been away for a few weeks, but now we come roaring back. I hope everyone made it through the winter and is enjoying some milder weather and the expectation of warmer things to come.

We’ve been very busy ourselves, although we haven’t been out of the city since our return from Antarctica and Buenos Aires. The cultural scene has been extremely busy and will continue for the next month or so.

I thought you might be interested to know what we’ve been up to over the past week. It’s been all culture and eclectic culture at that. The accent has been mostly on opera. However, it hasn’t been your mom and pop’s opera, as you will soon see.

Last Saturday night, we returned to Brooklyn to attend LoftOpera’s first production of the year, Puccini’s Tosca. You may recall that, this past December, we visited LoftOpera for the 1st time to see their production of The Rape of Lucretia and were pretty much blown away by the audacity of the experience.

In the first place, LoftOpera has made a commitment to take the “elite” out of opera, without sacrificing what’s important: great works being performed by talented up and coming singers in unusual surroundings at affordable prices and with a real party vibe.

Tosca - AAC
AAC CPA arrives with the ArcAngel Michael over his shoulder

Did I mention that the audience is mostly comprised of youngsters (i.e., the under 30-crowd) looking for a great night on the town?

Or that, one of LoftOpera’s sponsors is the Brooklyn Brewery, so that beer is available throughout the performance? (One of the more piquant enjoyments of this Tosca performance was to hear the tinkling of beer bottles tipping over now and then and yet again.)

Oh, and did I mention that Tosca was presented in an old bus depot in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in so isolated a part of town that even Uber had a hard time finding the place?

Tosca - Opera Sign
How we found the bus depot – this sign in the darkness

Or that, during intermission, the beer continues to flow freely while house music blasts over the speakers?

Tosca - Audience
The cool and young audience enjoying culture and the party atmosphere

Or that, most importantly, this Tosca was the best production of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” on the opera scene in New York (and I include a certain production of the work in the repertoire of a certain opera company located at Lincoln Center).

Oh yeah, and tickets are $30. Yes, you read that right: $30 will get you an opera.

Backed by a 32-piece orchestra and energetically conducted by Dean Buck, this Tosca took flight. The cast, headed by Eleni Calenos in the title role (diminutive in appearance, but packing a huge soprano voice well versed in the verismo style), James Chamberlain (our Cavaradossi with his beautiful upper register and thrilling high notes) and Kevin Wetzel (the perverse – and I mean that in a good way – Baron Scarpia) put it all out there at what was the closing performance of the run.

Tosca - 01
Cavaradossi and Tosca, Act I

Tosca - 01a
Baron Scarpia – Act I (Te Deum)

Tosca - 02
Tosca takes matters into her own (bloody) hands

Tosca - 03
Tosca and Cavaradossi – Act III

Tosca - 04
Spoiler Alert: It ends badly for everyone

And I have to give a shout-out to Jordan Pitts as Scarpia’s head henchman, Spoletta (and one of the creepiest and most threatening Spolettas I’ve ever witnessed – you wouldn’t want to run into this guy late at night in Bushwick!). Normally a comprimario role that disappears into the scenery, this Spoletta was a junior Scarpia in training.

Although the performance was sold out with over 500 people attending, the performance space allowed for an intimacy between the characters and the audience that would be impossible at almost any other venue. I’m not kidding when I tell you that there were times that the singers were literally within 2 feet of where we were sitting. And, in fact, the performance was SO sold out that there were about a dozen people sitting on the floor in front of what would be the first row.

(In fact, the company’s executive producer (and set designer for this performance), Daniel Ellis-Ferris, was sitting directly in front of us (on the floor) as he synchronized the projected titles onto a screen over the set.)

Tosca - Titles
How the titles work (Thanks, Dan!)

The production was imaginatively staged and authentic to the creators’ opus, notwithstanding a number of anachronisms that were both witty and yet, somehow, appropriate (although I doubt that Spoletta would have received the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo via his cellphone).

Bottom line: kudos to Dan and Brianna (LoftOpera’s general manager), the cast and all involved with this very successful production of Tosca.

NY Times on LoftOpera’s Tosca

Next up for LoftOpera: Rossini’s Le Comte Ory in June. Stay tuned or, better yet, order your tickets as soon as they go on sale!

CULTURE TIP: LoftOpera