Tag Archives: Middle East

Land of the Sultan and 1001 nights


“Beauty has an address”

This is how the tourist information sells the Sultanate of Oman, and they are right. This is a fantastic country and I have been very fortunate to be able to visit it in the fall of 2012. Let me take you to a dream of the 1001 nights on the Arabic peninsula.
I start in Muscat, the current capital and by far the largest city in the country. As soon as I exit the plane my senses experience the Middle East. It is warm, the air smells spicy, I hear the sizzling sounds of traffic and a muezzin starting his prayer, but most of all, I see beautiful buildings. The first one we visit is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It is big and created by true craftsmen in more than 6 years. Beautiful wood carved doors, colourful tiled walls, impressive sandstone interior and a lovely library. It is most of all famous for the huge Iranian carpet (second largest in the world) and chandelier. Everywhere I look I see the beauty of Arabic construction. This is a nice start of my trip.

The trip proceeds to a few local soukhs, specifically the fish and Muttrah soukh. At the fish soukh I am surprised by the friendly people. Fishermen bringing the fish ashore in their colourful boats. In the heat of the day, they are cleaning the fresh caught fish as fast as they can, to prevent it from going bad. I still do not think I dare to try with my western stomach, but it looks good. The Muttrah soukh is the more chaotic bazar I know from Turkey. Shiny souvenirs, perfumes, fabrics, incense and herbs in many varieties. Lovely!

But Oman is not known only for Muscat. It has a very rich history, still present in the many many forts throughout the country. I visit few of them, each showing me it’s impressive face. Some with nicely decorated rooms, some just walls, beautifully carved doors and stories like fairy tales. The Nakhl fort is huge and in Rusteq we get a typical Omani coffee (with cardamom flavour, served with fresh dades). I briefly stop at Al-Hazim fort and later on in my trip am stunned by the beauty of Jabreen Castle.

Then there is Nizwa. Once it was the capital of the country, holding the centre of trade, religion, arts, education. It is one of the oldest cities in the country. Nowadays it is in the centre of the date growing industry and still has a famous cattle market, a large open air soukh and possibly the nicest fort I have seen. All nicely renovated not too long ago. I loved the small goat on the market, dreamt away walking through the fort and have my senses stimulated with the colourful and lovely smelling herbs and fragrances in the soukh. On top of all this I admired the traditional clothing of the men (a dishbasha dress with turban and sometimes decorated with a large khanjar or curved dagger) and the interesting black masks or burqa of the bedouin women.

On the way to the Wahiba Sands we drive through the Hajjar mountains. A rocky wilderness, geologically super interesting, knowing it was once the bottom of the sea. There is a break at the ,Wadi Bani Awf from where it is easy to hike to the neighbouring valley through a fissure in the rocks. Next stop Al-Hamra is an old town with probably the oldest preserved houses in Oman. It is an impressive experience to be able to walk around and explore this historic place. A bit less preserved are the ruins of Tanuf. Still it is easy to imagine how life once was, long long time ago. Last stop before the big sands is Birkat al-Mauz with its falaj. Afalaj (plural) are ancient irrigation systems deviding water to all inhabitants of a village, dating back to possibly to 5000 years ago.

After rough rocky nature and lots of culture the Wahiba Sands desert are finally reached. I have been told this is sheer beauty. Before me an endless panorama of white, yellow, orange and red sand opens up. Sand, as far as the eye can see. Wow! A last stop at a Bedouin tent reminds me people are actually living in the sands. The ‘hotel’ is in the middle of, well, sand. And there are some camels! The best way of transport, but not for me. Nowadays we drive 4WD trucks, with airco. The welcome is warmly, the food great and the sunset unforgetable. And the stars at night… wow! The next morning we rise early for a beautiful sunrise and a ride down the sand dunes on our butts.

On the way back to Muscat I pass the oases of Wadi Bani Khaled, Wadi Tiwi and Wadi Shab. All nice in their own way. We are spectators at a camel race, see how the traditional dhow is made in Sur, have tea and sweets with an Omani family and experience how sea turtles lay their eggs, and how the small turtles try to reach the sea. Passing a large sinkhole at Hawiyat Najm I arrive back in Muscat. Time to get some very, very nice dates at Al Bateel in Qurum and see the last sunset of this holiday. All in all, people are friendly and very hospitable, sites are beautiful and weather usually nice. Oman stole my heart.


Antiques and natural treasures in Jordan

If destiny does not fit you, fit yourself to destiny – Jordanian proverb

Amman, March 2005. A hectic city, capital of Jordan. We, 2 girls, arrive in our hotel in the outskirts of town and receive our rental car. How are we going to drive in this mess? Well, beeping the horn, stepping on the gas and driving like a kamikaze pilot. On a three lane street, 5 cars can easily overtake each other. I close my eyes and just drive. Without a streetplan we manage to get around, even though many signs are in Arabic. We find a sign to Jerash, one of the antique highlights we want to visit and manage to drive… onto private property of an oil company. A man with a machine gun stops us and sends us back. A few drops of sweat later we arrive in an impressive open air museum with many remains of the rich Roman era like a collonaded street, many facades of buildings, a hippodrome and two nice theatres. In one of them some Bedouin men wearing the traditional red and white keffiyeh play folk music.

After Jerash we proceed to the Dead Sea. We pass many military check points and realize we are close to conflict area Israel and the West Bank. The street signs keep giving us some trouble sometimes. We learn to ‘read’ arabic: 1 dot below, 2 dots below, 2 dots above, read from right to left. Well, we get to where we want to be, floating in the Dead Sea with a newspaper in our hands. Typical. At the end of the day, while driving back to Amman we doubt if we can find the hotel without a city plan, especially in the dark. Well, we did.

The next day we see all the signs to the Dead Sea, obviously we took a back road yesterday. Today we drive South. First stop Mount Nebo. This is the place where Moses saw the promised landin the distance. We stand next to the Brazen Serpent Monument to enjoy the same view and visit the baptist church on top of the mountain, just to be surprised by the impressive Byzantine mosaic floor. Next stop is Madaba,  where we visit a church with yet another impressive mosaic, this time it is a map of Jerusalem.
We proceed on the King’s Highway, a route with many man-holes, bumps, detours and strange traffic signs. Along the way we are enjoying the landscape with olive trees and many sheep & goats. We pass Wadi Mujib, a gorge as big as the Grand Canyon. We pass Karak with it’s gigantic castle and reach Wadi Musa, where we stay the night in a hotel without heating. It is freeeeezing cold in Jordan in March.

Next day we go to a real highlight, the World Heritage Site Petra. A city, dating back a few hundred years before Christ and build by the Nabatean rock-cutting society. We enter through the Siq, a narrow natural formed geology feature (gorge) used as entrance. In the distance the famous facade of ‘The Treasury’ appears. We hike up to the ‘High place of sacrifice’ and are presented with a spectacular view over the valley of Petra, with many ancient ruins and tombs. We proceed to the other side of the valley, where we climb the 850 stairs to the monastry ‘Ad-Deir’. Another great ruin. Imagine how people carved out all this nice red rose rock with very simple tools ages ago. We hike back, pass more tombs, a collonaded street and in the end are invited for some tea by Samira. She is a small Bedouin girl with many questions, which we answer with a lot of patience. How lovely. Exhausted we return to the hotel, have diner and return to Petra again. We have booked the night walk. A touristic, but nevertheless very impressive event. The whole 1.2km track in the Siq is lit with candles in small paper bags. Romantic. When we arrive at the ‘Treasury’, a few Bedouin musician plays folk music in the lute and flute. Beautiful, and freezing cold!

Next day we go further South, past a lot of industry and into the desert. Wadi Rum, one of the greatest dry places on earth. We stay in a Bedouin camp, which we had a bit of trouble to find. But when we finally get there, we feel very welcome. We have tea with family (10 kids!) of the owner, dinner with a neighbour and a sunset tea in the desert. How beautiful. Sand, rock and natural bridges. The colours presented during the sunset are mesmerizing. The night is freezing cold (again), especially while we camp in a goat hair tent and sleep under goat hair blankets.

After a restless night we proceed in the direction of Aqaba. Driving through the rocky desert we again enjoy all the spectacular views. Jordan is simply great. Aqaba is a bit different. It is a thriving harbour at the end of the Red Sea. Nothing much to see while diving though. After all the impressions we have received in the past week, we have simply no room for more. We just enjoy some nice Jordan food at ‘Ali Baba and his 40 waiters’…

Only in complete silence you will hear the desert – Bedouin proverb