I’ve just had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Oman, explore Muscat and learn a little about the aesthetic sensibilities of Muscat-dwellers, courtesy a knowledgeable local (an old friend) and the (very educational) nibbles on Oman Air’s in-flight entertainment system.
Let me start by clarifying that I was in Muscat alone for the entire time I spent in the country. Immediately, I was struck by how closely the aesthetics of the city matched a romantic, Orientalist vision of the Middle East. It’s got all the aesthetic magic of an Arabian Nights fairytale and the modern sensibilities and comforts of a major metropolis.
We started by exploring the Al Alam Palace grounds in Muscat which was a testament to simple and minimal
, yet grand Ibadi style of architecture. It’s rare to find a contemporary royal palace that maintains the fine balance between grand and tasteful, but Al Alam did not disappoint. The walk up to the palace was highlighted by cool speckled marble and elaborate domes. A unique feature of Omani architecture is an elaborate wooden panel on relatively low-lying, white concrete buildings.
I was fortunate enough to see the construction of the National Gallery opposite the main palace complex. The museum is expected to house the artifacts of Omani culture that lend it its unique identity.
From then on, we explored some of the more modern hotels that have been constructed to cater to tourists. First, the hotels are grand. Any traveler expecting the traditional Arabian hospitality will not be disappointed. We started with the Barr al-Jissah (Shangri-La) that successfully amalgamated the simplicity of the white box-like construction across the city, alongside other, more elaborate, modern interpretations of Islamic geometric Art.
On a side note, the mountains on the winding drive up to the Resort have some beautiful murals and other art on them, but be on the lookout for them, or you may miss documenting them like I did.
From there we stopped for brunch at the Chedi , enjoying the view of the black pool and refreshing Gin & Limoncello cocktails.
The presence of these hotels is a testament to the adaptability of Omani culture to include expats, while preserving their cultural identity. The stark, minimal buildings often leave you wondering about the contemporary art scene in Oman, but it is apparently quite vibrant. The “movement” or style that particularly attracted my attention is Calligraffiti.
Traditional Islamic calligraphy is taught under the patronage of the Sultan at various art and religious schools across the country. It can take years to master, and requires intense dedication and attention to detail. The transcription of a single page of an officially sanctioned Quranic verse can take between 2-3 days. Emerging from this art form is a new art form described by its founder as “caligraffiti.” It uses elements of traditional calligraphy with influences of African and modern graffiti.
The founder of the movement is Omani artist Madny Al Bakry. His extensive body of work is testament to the traditional Arabic calligraphy and its scope as a vehicle of contemporary expression. I personally feel that it is a beautiful expression of the traditional cultural relationship between Oman and Zanzibar due to their Ibadi roots. If you look through his entire body of work, the complex colors and patterns only highlight the beautiful simplicity of this aesthetic. I would even argue that the pattern progressions evoke the same level of minimalism as Rothko’s most famous pieces.
Other events throughout the city like the Enchated Kids Cinema , and the Royal Opera House all add to the continuing artistic heritage of Oman. Like many cultures in the world today, Oman continues grappling with the perfect balance between tradition, adaptation and innovation, but the burgeoning arts scene and the governments sense of pride in its heritage leave plenty of promise for the art-oriented traveler in the future.