Category Archives: Middle East

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

According to Wikipedia, in 1992 His Royal Highness Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said held a competition to design and build a Grand Mosque. Construction took six years to complete and the result is a stunning reflection of Islamic architecture.

The mosque occupies an area of approximately 416,000 square metres and can accommodate up to 20,000 worshipers within the grounds.

The external dimensions of the main prayer hall are 74m x 74m, with a central dome that rises 50 metres from the ground. Up to 6,500 people can pray at any one time within the main hall.

Intricate architecture inside the dome.

Intricate architecture inside the dome.

Hanging within the dome is the former Guinness world record holding 14 metre high Swarovski crystal chandelier that weighs a staggering 8.5 tonnes. It took four years to build and, until recently, was the largest chandelier in the world.

Underneath the 600,000+ glittering Swarovski crystals is arguably the second biggest hand-woven carpet in the world comprising 1,700 million knots and weighing 21 tonnes. Apparently it took 600 Iranian women 4 years to make. The size and scale of this rug made it hard to photograph properly.

There are sixteen smaller chandeliers lining the edges of the main prayer hall.The mosaic pattern of the Mihrab (below) deserved a closer inspection however the crowds on the day of our visit just would not allow this to happen. Built in the traditional semi-circular way the Mihrab indicates the direction of Mecca and hence the direction that worshipers should face when praying.

Buildings and walls surrounding the main prayer hall were inspired by traditional Omani fort architecture and incorporate verses of the Quran into the design.

Many of the internal walls have small niche’s like the one below that incorporate the Islamic motifs of other cultures. This one reflects ‘a contemporary interpretation of the patterns and designs which flourished during the reign of Tamerlane (1336-1405 AD) ruler of Central Asia’.

There are also fine marble ablution rooms for men and women.

Within the grounds are five minarets that symbolise the five pillars of Islam being Shahada (faith), Salat (prayer), Zakat (charity), Sawm (fasting) and Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). The four smaller minarets occupy the corners of the mosque and a larger central one located adjacent to the dome.

The height of the central minaret (below) reaches 91.5m and has a 10.9 metre square base. From here the call to prayer is broadcast over the city six times a day.

Non-Muslims are welcome to visit the Grand Mosque between 8:00am and 11:00am any day other than Friday and it is definitely worth a visit. Please dress conservatively though out of respect for your hosts. Men should wear long trousers and have their shoulders covered, whilst women should have a covered head and arms, with either long trousers or a long skirt.

If you are unable to visit the Grand Mosque please feel free to check out the 360 degree virtual tour provided by the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque official website.

Islamic Art and Architecture Vol. 5 – Art of War

Our final post on Islamic Art and Architecture looks at the military. The 15th century war mask above was used in both Turkey and western Iran to motivate troops. The story told to us by the guide was that the commanding officer would charge into battle wearing the mask. Should he be killed then the next in command would quickly don the mask so that the infantrymen would think their leader was invincible. The mask also hid the pain from his face from the wounds he would undoubtedly have received from fierce face-to-face combat.

Turkish turban helmet from the early 16th century.

 

Ivory Italian Oliphant (Hunting Horn) c11th or 12th century.

 

Turkish axe and shield from the late 16th – early 17th century.

 

A 17th century Indian priming flask made of ivory, steel and glass, for loading early versions of muskets.

 

Dagger and Scabbard from India c1800. Made of steel, jade, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, gold and velvet.

 

Carved Afghanistan Cenotaph 1455 AD.

Islamic Art and Architecture Vol. 4 – Science and Literature

Astrolabes, like the one above, were used throughout the Islamic world for many centuries mainly to determine prayer time and the direction of Mecca.

The astrolabe at the top comes from Granada in Spain c1309 and the one at the bottom comes from the same region c1304. Both are made of brass.

 

Indian brass celestial globe c1640

 

Anatomical Illustration from the manuscript of Tashrih-i Mansuri a 15th century Persian physician.

 

A section of a 16th century Chinese Qur’an with ink pigments and gold on paper.

 

Another ink and gold section of the Qur’an this time from 14th century Egypt.

 

‘Babur Visits Humayun’s Camp’ a 16th century watercolour and gilt paint image from the Baburnameh, a book that recounts the story of Babur the founder of the Mughal dynasty, an empire in India.

 

Top: 19th century Turkish compass.
Centre: 19th century Syrian compass.
Bottom: 19th century Turkish ruler.

Islamic Art and Architecture Vol. 3 – Finery

Here are some of the finer things in life including the emerald wine cup (above) from India c1605. Wait! What? Wine?? 😉

18th century Ottoman wooden chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There is a mirror inside the box (not visible here) that suggests it was used by an elite member of the court.

 

Jewel encrusted Chopat (game set) from India c19th century

 

Bronze Fountainhead, Spanish Umayyad, Spain (Cordoba), mid 10th century.

 

Decorative silver sphere encrusted with rubies, emeralds and diamond. C1680 – India.

 

The Seal of Shah Sulayman of Iran carved from rock crystal c1668 – 1669.

 

Jeweled Falcon from India c1640. Gold and enamel encrusted with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and onyx.

 

Shirazi Wooden Chest from the Arabian Gulf – 18th century. Decorated with brass studs and engraved brass sheets.

Islamic Art and Architecture Vol. 2 – Decor

The Museum of Islamic Art had a fascinating section that included ceramics, textiles and woodwork dating back to the 7th century. Here are just some of the stunning samples we saw, such as the Turkish tile above c1560, that uses a technique called ‘fritware’ in which ground glass is mixed with the clay and baked at high temperatures to ensure appropriate fusion with the ceramic.

Not so old 19th century Indian cabinet – wood with ivory, pewter and ebony inlay.

 

15th century carved wooden panel from Iran.

 

17th century Cuerda Seca tiles from Kashmir or Lahore. Tiles like this were traditionally used to decorate the walls of both palaces and tombs. The Cuerda Seca technique involves the use of thin lines of some sort of greasy substance to prevent the water soluble glazes running together.

 

17th century carved sandstone Jali screen from India.

 

Early 15th century silk pile Ashtapada (Chessboard) carpet from Central Asia.

 

Further examples of Cuerda Seca fritware tiles, this time from 17th century Iran.

 

Egyptian wooden door from the 14th century with ebony, cedar, walnut and bone (ivory) inlay.

Islamic Art and Architecture Vol. 1 – Everyday Life

During a recent visit to the city of Doha, Qatar, we were fortunate enough to spend an hour in the Museum of Islamic Art (above) on the picturesque Corniche. Throughout the rest of Ramadan we will share with you some of the centuries old culture we experienced, beginning with Everyday Life.

Green glass bottle c12th or 13th century – Iran.

Brass jug with silver and gold inlay from Afghanistan, c15th century.

9th century glass bottle alongside a 6th – 8th century document holder, both from Iran.

15th century Iranian Kashkul or ‘Beggars Bowl’, usually used by Islamic mystics, possibly Sufis, who had taken a vow of poverty.

Stall holder from the Souq Waqif in Doha

Stall holder from the Souq Waqif in Doha playing a Rababah – a Bedouin violin with only one string.

Al Ameen Mosque

This incredible building is called the Muhammad Al Ameen Mosque and is situated just off 23rd July Street in the district of Bausher, near our home.

back-view

Named after the Prophet Muhammed it was privately financed to the cost of 40million Omani rials and bears the third largest carpet in the world costing around US$4million to weave.

day-front-01

The mosque was opened in 2014 by Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamad al Khalili the Grand Mufti of the Sultanate of Oman. Here’s a closer look at the intricate designs in the domes and spires.

intricate-designs

The mosque covers an area approximately 20,000sqm in size and caters for a maximum of 2,100 worshippers at any one time and there is a library spread across two floors so as to accommodate the 12,000+ volumes of Islamic literature.

side-view

For women there is an area of 450sqm to allow up to 570 female worshippers to attend prayers at any one time.

night-side

Day or night, it is an amazingly beautiful piece of Omani architecture.

night-front

Kahwa

Kahwa is traditional Omani coffee. The core ingredients are ground cardamom pods and good quality Arabic coffee beans. Other spices such as cloves, cinnamon or saffron are added to the brewing process and these can differ from village to village, and from family member to family member. The method is simple:

1.) Take a kettle of water and bring it to a simmer.Coffee
2.) Add the coffee grounds and bring it to a boil.
3.) Place ground cardamom, or cloves, or cinnamon etc into the empty coffee pot.
4.) Pour the boiled coffee through a strainer into the pot.
5.) Serve with dates

We shared some lovely kahwa with our friends in Al Rustaq over Eid. Each pot was made by a different member and each pot had a different flavour.

Coffee culture is huge in Oman with giant coffee pots adorning traffic roundabouts and large clay pots available at various souks.

The traditional way of enjoying kahwa in the home is to sit on the floor and never fill the cup to the brim. Once the guest has had enough coffee they simply shake their cup so that the host knows to stop pouring. I learned this lesson a little late in the day and was positively buzzing by the time I had to drive home 😉

Halwa

Halwa03Halwa is the national desert of Oman and a symbol of the countries heritage and culture. The taste is unique to the family that makes it and the recipe is handed down from generation to generation. The method of producing halwa has been preserved for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years as grandparents teach their grandchildren the hidden family secrets.

“Omani halwa is a symbol of Omani culture and heritage and we have to take extremely good care to preserve it.” – says Younis Abdulrahim Al Balushi, whose family has been making Omani halwa since 1951. Times of Oman.

Halwa02There are several types of halwa including honey, saffron and rosewater based. The later has a flavour with a hint of Turkish delight. During the Eid al Fitr celebrations at the end of Ramadan, tons of halwa is produced and sold with prices ranging from 2 to 10 rials per kilogram.

We were lucky enough to visit a local halwa production facility in Al Rustaq, a lovely town in the Al Batinah region of northern Oman, during the first day of Eid. The family showed us their methods for producing their particular brand of halwa down to the hand decorating of individual bowls with dates, dried fruit and slivered almonds. In spite of the crush of locals lining up to collect their orders, our hosts looked after us very well and presented us with a lovely gift of homemade honey halwa, which requires more than three hours to cook and is the most expensive variety of halwa, at the end of our visit.

Halwa is a uniquely flavoured desert so if you get a chance to try locally made halwa then grasp the opportunity in both hands. It may not be what you expect, but it will be an amazing experience.

Halwa04

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and begins after the night that the crescent of the new moon is sighted. This can vary by a day or two amongst Muslim nations and this year Oman’s Moon Sighting Main Committee, led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Salmi the Minister of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, announced that Ramadan in Oman would officially began on the 7th June.

Ramadan is a time to reflect and re-evaluate our lives. It’s the time to be mindful, work on our strengths, and overcome our weaknesses. The fast involves not only abstaining from food and drink, but also from sins like dishonesty, cruel words, pride, and over-indulgence – Times of Oman

On the 20th June children throughout Muscat celebrated Qaranqasho to mark the halfway point of Ramadan. Qaranqasho is an event similar to Halloween whereby children in traditional costumes visit their neighbours singing songs and receiving sweets as a gift. Qaranqasho began as a reward for children who had managed to fast for the first half of the month of Ramadan.

A specific song is sung on this occasion, “Qaranqashoyonas, atonishwayathalwa (O people, Qaranqasho time, give us some sweets please.” It further goes “doosdoos fi almandoos, hara hara fi a’sahara,” where they ask for candy – Times of Oman

I guess that face painting, games and a belly full of lollies is a great way to encourage the children to continue fasting for the second half of Ramadan 😉

Now that we are well past the halfway mark we through we would share with you some of the things we have learned so far about Ramadan etiquette for non-Muslims in Oman.

The Grand Mosque at Night

Do not eat, drink or smoke in public:

Fasting begins at Sehr, which is sunrise in Oman, and concludes with Iftar (the breaking of the fast) after sunset prayers. The Sehr o Iftar time scale roughly equates to a 4:00am beginning and a 7:00pm finish. During this time frame Omani Muslims are not permitted to eat, drink or smoke.

Non-Muslims are also not permitted not to eat, drink or smoke in public during fasting hours. This includes semi-public spaces such as motor vehicles. Sipping water or munching on a snack whilst driving is not entirely private and therefore it is against the Islamic faith, as is chewing gum in public.

Public observance of Ramadan is compulsory, however many Omanis are aware that non-Muslims have a different belief system to their own and may make allowances within the work place if their own beliefs are treated respectfully.

Workplace etiquette:

Ramadan brings shorter working hours. The working day is reduced to six hours and traveling business people need to be aware of this when organising their schedules. Lunch meetings should be avoided and conference rooms that supply tea and coffee facilities need to be carefully vetted.

Travel:

The Ramadan road toll is very high. The rush to visit family at Iftar, combined with low blood sugar and dehydration from fasting, can lead to road fatalities, so try to avoid driving within an hour of sunset.

Entertainment:

ChocolateAlthough the shopping malls are open for business, cafes, restaurants and movie theatres are closed throughput the day. At night however they become a magnet for Omanis celebrating Iftar and are therefore crowded. Live music is prohibited so clubs and bars will be closed. Non-Muslims also need to be mindful of the sounds emanating from within their own domiciles. Parties involving loud music, drinking alcohol etc are acceptable so long as the sounds are contained within the premises and not allowed to be heard outside.

Dress modestly:

Revealing clothing, sheer clothing, too low, too short, too tight, are all items that should remain in your wardrobe. A Muslim Mosque, Buddhist Temple, Christian Cathedral etc, should all be treated with dignity and respect regardless of what your beliefs may be. Walking the streets of Oman during Ramadan is no different and respect costs little.

Public displays of affection:

No matter how romantic you and your partner find the amazing Muscat sunsets to be, snogging in public is a no-no. There will be plenty of time back in your apartment or hotel room for that 😉

Iftar is awesome:

Iftar is both a feast and a celebration with a strong focus on family and community. Perhaps the best way to describe Iftar to Christians is to imagine the daily fasting of Lent being concluded with Christmas dinner. Traditionally the celebration begins with a few dates to break the fast, washed down with Laban (a delicious yoghurt drink) and plenty of fruit. Then the feasting begins with shawarma, kofta, kibbeh, shish taouk, tender lamb, grilled meat and a vast array of delicious salads including fattoush, tabouleh and a Lebanese potato salad full of mint, lemon juice and olive oil. The Baba Ganoush has that delicate smoky flavour of slow-roasted Aubergine and the Hummous is as smooth as King Island triple cream.

The Arabic coffee, brewed for hours with a mix of ground coffee beans, cardamom, and various subtle spices, is both sweet and savoury at the same time. It is the perfect compliment to Umm Ali, a Middle East bread pudding we enjoyed for dessert.

Ramadan Mubarak!

Coffee