As temperatures soar and schools close their doors for the summer, Muscat, the capital city of Oman, is looking ahead to a lengthy break where one date stands out more than any other: July 23, or Renaissance Day.
This auspicious date commemorates the day Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said ascended the throne in 1970, halting Oman’s slide towards becoming a cultural and economic backwater.
For Omanis, the date represents the moment their nation was reawakened from its social, political and cultural slumber – hence the name – and nowhere is this reawakening more apparent than in the nation’s capital.
Prior to July 23, 1970, Oman had only two schools in the whole country and both of them were primaries. There were only two hospitals, run by external missionary movements, and the total length of paved roads measured a mere 6km.
While the rest of the Gulf was busy using its new-found oil wealth to modernise and improve the lives of its inhabitants, Oman was in danger of becoming not just a backwater, but permanently stagnant.
Since then, schools, universities and hospitals have been opened in every corner of the country. Roads criss-cross the nation, airports bring in visitors, and ports handle merchandise from around the globe. Under the Sultan’s watch, Omani women became the first in the Gulf to hold positions of high office, and several churches and temples were built to make Oman a shining example of tolerance and dialogue within the region. In 2016, Sultan Qaboos launched the Oman 2040 Vision programme, a phased approach to continue enhancing infrastructure, education and industry.
This has been done while respecting the nation’s proud cultural heritage as a seafaring superpower that once ruled the waves with outposts in Africa, India and Pakistan – a time when Muscat was described by Arab traveller Ahmed bin Majid Al Najdi as a “port the like of which cannot be found in the whole world”
Oman is viewed as a place where modern Arabia comes with a beating ancient heart.
Experiencing the Renaissance
Start your exploration of Oman’s renaissance at Mutrah Souq, one of the oldest marketplaces in the world. Here the chaos and atmosphere of this traditional Arabian bazaar selling eclectic goods, from local produce such as frankincense and Omani silver to embroidered Kashmiri jackets and Afghan hats, serves as a reminder of what the city’s ports have always brought to these shores.
After this, head to the National Museum for a lesson in Oman’s glorious history. This impressive new building houses 14 displays that take you from prehistory right up to the current Sultan’s reign and ensure you know your dhow (traditional boat) from your shuwa (slow-cooked meat).
From there, wander over to Al Jalali Fort. Built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, it is a reminder of their occupation of Muscat from 1507 to 1650. Used as a prison for many years, the fort is now home to a museum of Omani heritage which features bagpipe performances on special palace military occasions. Al Jalali is close to the Sultan’s Al Alam Palace and Al Mirani Fort, the latter also built by the Portuguese.
Finally, make your way to the two monuments that embody Sultan Qaboos’s rule and the cultural aspirations of modern Oman. Firstly, the Grand Mosque, a glorious structure of modern Islamic architecture – a gift to the nation from the Sultan on the 30th year of his reign – where you can take a tour and admire one of the largest handmade Persian carpets and biggest crystal chandeliers in the world.
Secondly, Muscat’s Royal Opera House, a nod to the Sultan’s love of classical European music, is an Italian-style building, unique in the Arabian peninsula, and home to the city’s ballet, opera, jazz, dance and traditional regional performances.
As the country’s leading arts and cultural organisation, the Royal Opera House represents Oman’s openness to the world and is the perfect place to end any journey exploring the nation’s renaissance.