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The many faces of Oman: Salalah and the Dhofar Region

During my latest visit to Oman in May, I had the pleasure of discovering the rugged mountain scenery, frankincense trees, ancient ports and beautiful sandy beaches of the Dhofar region with a trip to the southern city of Salalah.

The flight to Salalah is short, just over an hour. As I exit the airport I expect fresh air but even though the temperature is more than 10C lower than in Muscat, the humidity is higher.  The rainy season (Khareef) is getting closer now.  The drive to the Rotana is only about 20 minutes but I’m told it can be well over an hour during Khareef (June-September) when the city is full of visitors from the neighbouring countries who come the enjoy the cooler weather (around 25C). The scenery is so different from Muscat: large family homes scattered in big empty places; the tall palm trees that line the beaches look more like the coasts of Thailand rather than that of the Arabian Peninsula. It is a different world altogether and I am getting excited to see more.

After an hour in the hotel I am meeting Raya, my guide and driver. Over the next three days she gives me a great insight into Omani culture, its past and present, religion and daily life and all from a woman’s point of view which is very unlikely to be fothcoming in any of the other countries in the Gulf region. Another way Oman is so different. A well educated, independent woman, a mother of 3, who, against tradition, married for love, supports women’s education, talks openly about religion, Middle-Eastern politics and a woman’s position in Oman and the Gulf, as well as fashion, loves and dreams.  At the same time she embraces her culture, loves her country and appreciates what the Sultan has done for its people, especially the women (e.g. in Salalah the government gives land to women as well).

Our first stop is Taqah, a fishing village with a castle, also the birth town of Sultan Qaboos. We continue to the archaeological site of Sumhuram (Khor Rori), the frankincense trading port and the remains of the palace of the Queen of Sheba. The site was also mentioned in Marco Polo’s book, however he placed the port in Yemen, therefore the actual place was not discovered until the 1930s. We then drive on the coastal road to the fishing village of Mirbat, also part of the Frankincense Trail, a former slave market and commercial centre, exporting horses and spices in addition to frankincense.

From here it’s a drive up to almost 1700m onto Jabal Samhan and the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Dhofar. On a clear day you have a complete view of the east coast to the one side and the vast Qarah mountain range to the other. (As it is now very close to the Khareef, we can barely see a few metres ahead. It almost feels like we are in the clouds.) Raya shows me the spot where she usually brings her children for a picnic before we head down to the oasis at Wadi Darbat where camels bathe in the cool green waters amidst the shady trees.

We start the next morning at the Sultan Qaboos Mosque (closed to visitors on Fridays and Saturdays) then head to the gold/silver souk which is more like narrow streets of little jewellery shops.  On our way we pass a huge tent which Raya tells me will hold one of the celebrations of a wedding. A traditional Omani wedding lasts for 7 days; costs thousands of Rials and most people can only afford them by taking out a big loan. Raya despises wasting money; her wedding was small, lasted for one day and she spent the money they got from her husband’s family (traditionally the groom has to pay for the bride) on their house and not on gold and jewellery.

We continue our drive past lush green plantations of vegetables and fruits to the archaeological park at Al Balid where the Museum of the Frankincense Land and its Marine Hall describe the rich cultural history of the Dhofar Region and its maritime heritage. I also stop by at the neighbouring, newly built Anantara Hotel for a quick inspection and must admit that it is one of a kind in Salalah.

I finish my visit to Salalah with the old part of town, known as Haffah. Here you can see the official palace of the Sultan (Al Husn Palace) and stroll through the old Haffah souk, famous for the sale of high quality frankincense and numerous other Dhofari traditional souvenirs and dresses.

I spend the last few hours by relaxing at the hotel and taking a long walk along the beach of the Rotana, Juweirah and Al Fanar Hotels, before my evening flight back to Muscat and its scorching heat.

Leila travelled to Oman in May.

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