Oman’s capital, and far and away its largest city, Muscat offers an absorbing snapshot of the country’s past and present. Physically, much of the city is unequivocally modern: a formless straggle of low-rise, white-washed suburbs which sprawl along the coast for the best part of 25km, now home to a population nudging up towards the million mark – a quarter of the country’s total. It’s here that you’ll find Oman at its most contemporary and consumerist, exemplified by the string of opulent hotels which line the city’s sand-fringed coastline, backed up by swanky restaurants and modern malls, and honeycombed with a network of roaring, multi-lane highways. It’s also unquestionably the commercial and administrative powerhouse of modern Oman, from the stately government buildings which line the main highway into town through to the high-rise office blocks of Ruwi’s Central Business District.
Significant reminders of the city’s past remain, however. These include, most notably, the engaging port district of Muttrah and the nearby quarter of Old Muscat, spread out along a salty seafront lined with old Portuguese forts, colourful mosques and assorted traditional Arabian buildings (many now converted to smale-scale museums). These are the places where you’ll get the strongest sense of Muscat’s sometimes elusive appeal, with its beguiling atmosphere of old-time, small-town Arabian somnolence, quite different from the somewhat faceless modern suburbs to the west. Muttrah and neighbouring Ruwi also offer the city’s most interesting streetlife, and the best view of the patchwork of cultures which make up the city: Omani, Indian and Pakistani, with an occasional hint of Zanzibari, Baluchi and Iranian thrown in for good measure – a living memory of the city’s surprisingly cosmopolitan past.
Evidence of human settlement in the Muscat area dates back to at least 6000 BC, although the city’s rise to national pre-eminence is a much more recent affair. Muscat’s port was sufficiently important to merit passing references in the works of Greek geographers, including Ptolemy and Pliny the Elder during the first century AD. For much of early Omani history though, it was overshadowed first by Sohar, to the north, and then Qalhat, to the south; one of the first European visitors to Muscat, Thomas Kerridge, writing in 1624 to the East India Company, described it as a “beggarly poor town”.
Muscat suffered particularly at the hands of the Portuguese, who captured the town in 1508 and held onto it until 1650 – although ironically it was the Portuguese destruction of the nearby ports of Qalhat and Quriyat which cleared the way for Muscat’s subsequent economic rise. The town began to flourish during the early Al Bu Said era in the second half of the eighteenth century when it established itself as the country’s leading port and entrepot, while it also assumed increasing political significance during the reign of Hamad bin Said (1784–92), who moved the court to Muscat, where it has generally remained ever since. The city’s economic position was confirmed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thriving as a major centre for a range of economic activities including fishing, boat-building, slaving, arms-smuggling and general trade.
The sprawling metropolis you see today is a largely modern creation. Until the accession of Sultan Qaboos in 1970 the town comprised simply the old walled town of Muscat proper (or “Old Muscat”, as it’s now known), home to the residence of the sultan and other notables, and the separate port of Muttrah, the centre of the town’s commercial activity.