Oman underwent rapid modernisation during the half-century reign of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, from 1970 to 2020. The road network constructed during his time in power offers travellers who appreciate visiting cultural attractions a means of motoring between museums, castles and other heritage sites.
Heritage in Muscat
Oman’s capital city is the location of the 200-year-old Al Alam Palace, whose gold and blue façade presents opportunities for photographs. To view far older structures, military history aficionados should head to the waterfront to see the imposing towers of the Al Jalali and Al Milani forts – dating from the 1580s – which guarded the seaward approach to Muscat.
Port Sultan Qaboos was completed in the 1970s in a natural harbour that was long Oman’s principal seaport. Dating from 1507 and strengthened during the Portuguese occupation of the sultanate, Mutrah Fort looks over the harbour and can be visited until well after nightfall for colourful waterfront views along the Mutrah Corniche.
Cultural interest in Muscat
Mutrah Souk was constructed in the 1820s but visiting is an opportunity to experience living history. Traditional items such as intricately worked khanjar daggers, patterned carpets and dallah coffeepots are sold from stalls accessible via broad walkways infused with heady wafts of frankincense, sandalwood and rosewater. Nearby, the Bait Al Zubair museum showcases Omani cultural heritage in a complex representative of the region’s traditional architecture. The National Museum of Oman holds an expansive collection of objects crafted in the sultanate, including manuscripts, gold coins and models of ships. Along with the vast and beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which is open to visitors between prayers, it is one of the must-visit sites in Muscat.
Historic forts in Oman
Beyond the Omani capital, several historic forts warrant excursions for photos, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Bahla. Made of unbaked bricks and once the hub of the branch of Islam known as Ibadism, the medieval landmark with rounded towers is part of a fortified oasis.
With its round tower and crenellated walls, Khasab Fort has guarded one of the largest natural harbours on the Musandam Peninsula for 400 years. It was conceived as a fortified supply point for Portuguese ships and today hosts a compact ethnographic museum.
Climbing the tall, cylinder-like tower of Nizwa Fort, constructed in the 17th century, provides fine views of surrounding rooftops and the distant mountains. The painted ceilings and date store at Jabreen Castle, in the Hajar Mountains, make it a unique place to visit.
Similarly, the stacked towers of Bilad Sur Castle make its walls a ‘must-photograph’ attraction. While in Sur, it makes sense to schedule a stop at Sur Maritime Museum. Traditional wood-built ships, dhows, are still constructed by artisans applying age-old techniques at the shipyard near the Khor Al Batah Bridge’s western end.
Frankincense production in Oman
No one interested in the history of the Sultanate should leave Oman without delving into its long tradition of frankincense production, trading and transportation. One way to do that is to follow the Frankincense Trail near Salalah and see frankincense trees in the arid Wadi Dawkah.
The Museum of the Frankincense Land conveys the story of the valued and aromatic resin. Al Baleed Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, houses the ancient city of Zafar – the principal port from where frankincense was exported and still a thriving hub when Marco Polo visited in the 13th century. It’s easy to combine a visit to the open-air archaeological site with viewing the iconic gate of the nearby Al Hosn Palace.
A 30-minute drive northwest of Salalah, on a hilltop at Jebel Ittin, the tomb of the prophet Nabi Ayoub – known to Christians as Job – is open to pilgrims of all faiths.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Oman
A thriving port from the 11th to 16th centuries, the ancient city of Qalhat is 20km northwest of Sur. Ancient buildings, including mausoleums, and archaeological finds prove that the Kingdom of Hormuz was wealthy and had trade links with far-flung places, including China, India and South-East Asia.
The monumental tombs of Bat, Al Khutm and Al Ayn are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. Constructed from carefully arranged stones, some resemble vast beehives and are part of Early Bronze Age civilisation that had contact with distant peoples.
While viewing dusty ruins in the villages of Birkat Al Mouz and Al Hamra, visitors can stroll alongside brilliantly designed and centuries-old aflaj irrigation systems. Five examples of the historic system of channelling water and land management were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
History buffs have much to do and see in Oman.
Become an Oman Ambassador
To learn more about Oman, take the online training course Oman Ambassadors at omanambassadors.com