We didn't really know what to expect of Oman, though things we'd read and learned from one of the onboard lecturers led us to think it would be an interesting day. The principal advice offered at every opportunity was that women should dress appropriately and in particular, anyone hoping to go inside the huge Sultan Quaboose Mosque needed to observe especially strict rules.
We set out in long sleeved shirts, long trousers and I had a large scarf for later. Ironic that this was the hottest day so far - 42C around lunchtime!
Our guide, Said, began by offering a lengthy explanation why our departure was so prompt at 8.45am, muttering something about trucks and roundabouts and traffic jams. All became clear as we took the main road out of Muscat - traffic was heavy and though each roundabout was made easier by having a flyover for traffic going straight on, these flyovers were restricted to cars - lorries and buses had to manouevre the roundabout, and lorries were prohibited before 9am. That head start meant that we were able to reach the mosque on the other side of the city with relative ease.
The modern Sultan Quaboose Mosque is described in superlatives - the largest carpet, the largest chandelier, perhaps the largest mosque full stop. It is huge and we looked forward to seeing it ourselves. Before we did, however, we women had to be reminded of our status as second class citizens and have our clothing assessed by both male and female controllers. Each one of us was inspected - clothing needed to cover both ankles and wrists and a headscarf must be worn. My hair was showing on my forehead, so adjustments were made to my scarf to bring it forward. Then, it was decided that a V neck and necklace could be seen, so my scarf had to be wrapped around more carefully to cover them. I carefully pulled down my sleeves to full length as I was given the once over and at last...I was allowed inside.
Of course, there were inevitably - unbelievably - those who had not read the advice, hadn't heard or simply hadn't listened. One woman had crop trousers and a t shirt on, didn't even bring a scarf. Somehow, everyone pooled resources and got her in - she pulled her trousers down to her hips and wore a kagoule that someone found, over the top - walked around in searing heat with hood up in her own personal sauna! Of course, it caused huge irritation amongst those of us who had followed the advice and who simply wanted to get in there and see what we'd come to see!
The whole mosque complex was a treasure trove of pattern and decorated surfaces and was quite breathtaking. It is said to be able to accommodate 20 000 people - though thankfully, today we were rather fewer in number. Being there early meant we had a clear run and didn't have to wait at all and we soon found ourselves in the main, mens, mosque.
Of course we had to take our shoes off and leave them outside - and needless to say, there were several who couldn't find their own shoes again later...
First thing to catch everyone's eye was the chandelier. Absolutely enormous, weighing around 8 tons it was surrounded by several more of similar design.
Remarkably, there was not one light bulb in need of replacement!
Next, the carpet. Handwoven by Iranian women in 57 pieces, apparently. This was just one of the patterns in several panels, all in a rich palette of ochre, turquoise, ruby red and dark blue.
We marvelled at this amazing room for quite a while and were thankful that Said had told us not to rush, for in every corner, every doorway or window, there was another feature to point out to one another, to gaze at and admire.
Outside once more then, to the smaller, plainer, women's mosque
and a last look at one or two small features en route to the gate. Oh, and one final reminder of the less favourable status of women - the joy of visiting a squat loo dressed in so many clothes and nowhere to put them!
As we were leaving, we spotted a friend and shipmate in distress - she had been denied entry because her long sleeves were made of transparent fabric! We did some quick thinking and made our own little demonstration of rebellion there and then by swapping shirts, much to the disgust of the clothes police. She got waved inside as we headed back to our coach and away.
Driving back to the old city, we stopped briefly at the souk before going on to the Bait al Baranda museum where we could learn more about the dress and jewellery of Omani tradition. We did a drive by of the Sultan's Palace, built in the 1970's and stopped just long enough to hop out for a photograph.
We chose to spend the rest of the morning in the souk and sailed away from Muscat later in the evening feeling pleased we'd been to this interesting and friendly place. As we left, the Captain did a short detour to sail past the Sultan's Palace, allowing us a view from the other side, and also a fine view of the incense burner, which stands at the entrance to the harbour.
Next stop, Aqaba, Jordan.