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  • Writer's pictureNicola Chilton

Sohar, So Good

Every once in a while, you stumble across somewhere on your travels that is so spectacular, so mind-blowingly magnificent, that you wonder how the rest of the world hasn't cottoned on to it yet. This is the case with the extraordinary Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Sohar, a small-ish town in northern Oman that deserves to be at least a little bit famous, not only as one of the supposed birthplaces of Sinbad the Sailor, but also for the fact that it was taken over by the Portuguese in the 16th century as a way for them to control shipping in the Arabian Gulf. But fame has largely passed sleepy Sohar by. If you'd driven through on the way to Muscat a few years ago you would have had few reasons to stop, but all of that changed when the Grand Mosque opened its doors to worshippers in 2016.

Except it didn't really change at all. When I tell friends about my trip to Sohar, I usually receive a blank look, without even the tiniest glimmer of recognition. No one seems to have heard of the town, the mosque, or even seen a photo of it. Which is a shame really, as it's one of the most spectacular buildings in the region. You can be there within four hours of leaving your home in Dubai - by car. To my British readers, that probably sounds like a journey to the Ends of the Earth; to the Canadians and Australians out there, a quick trip to the shops. I too had never heard of it until I came across a photo online one day, and decided to do some research. At first I assumed it was located in Central Asia as it's built in the style of the mosques and madrassas you find along the Silk Road. But further research showed me that it was much closer to home. My parents and I had long talked about visiting Uzbekistan but hadn't managed to do so as the visa process was laborious and expensive (although we were to remedy that in October 2018). So in the meantime, we opted for the next best thing and decided that on their upcoming visit to Dubai we would make a road trip to the heady heights of Sohar.

We set off one sunny February morning and headed east to the Al Wajajah border, the only crossing open to non-GCC nationals at the time. The drive takes you from the skyscrapers of Downtown Dubai across the red deserts of Mleiha, past the jebel made of 93-million-year-old orphiolite rocks, and up into the rocky Hajar mountains. It's a great drive, taking just over two hours. Border formalities are simple as long as you have all of your papers in order (make sure you have your car insurance papers with you, and that you're insured to drive in Oman), and then it's back in the car for another hour and a half until you reach Sohar. After an hour or so, the lure of the big Omani supermarkets proved too much so we stopped and headed out for a spot of shopping. There's something special about Omani supermarkets - what they lack in glamour they more than make up for in choice of items that you never knew you needed. I ended up with some frankincense, two lovely metal trays, a Pottery Barn-esque vase for a tenth of the price you'd pay in Dubai Mall, and a bag full of multiple packets of the local delicacy - Chips Oman crisps. What's not to love?

Back on the road again, we decided to have a drive through the city centre to see the action. But this being Friday, the equivalent of Sunday in the western world, and Sohar not being one of the world's great entertainment capitals, we'd soon seen everything. The Fort and associated museum were closed, so instead we set out to find food and stumbled upon the "Wardat Al Fath Trad. Coffee Shop" opposite the fish market, which promised Turkish and Arabic foods. And they served up a feast - so much so that we went back the next day and repeated our order of pide, hummus, baba ghanoush, grilled fish and salads, although we skipped the "Ship Kidney" which I assume came from an animal rather than an ocean-going vessel. We visited the souq, located by the Corniche in a handsome building with heavy wooden doors and stained-glass skylights. Most of the shops were empty. We found one that was open, selling kanduras and the embroidered kuma caps that Omani men typically wear. We asked if the souq was new and if other vendors were yet to move in, and were told by the shopkeeper that no, it had been there a while, and the empty shops were left behind when vendors closed up due to lack of business. We bought some beautifully embroidered caps as souvenirs, and also in the hope of bringing at least a little business to the souq. Sohar deserves better than this.

Our home for the night was the Radisson Blu, right on the beach. It's a long expanse of strangely greyish-brown sand which doesn't make it all that enticing for swimming, but does make for great beach walks. Later in the evening, the beach becomes the locals' hangout. People ride horses, and a parade of SUVs drives up and down, revving their engines, the drivers stopping to chat to each other, revving their engines again, kicking up the sand in their tracks. Perhaps this is the height of excitement on a Friday night in Sohar? We settled for a sunset walk, a couple of drinks in the bar, dinner at the hotel's Thai restaurant, and shisha on the hidden roof terrace, which seemed to be where the real action of a Sohar Friday night was to be found.

The next morning we were up early to see sunrise from the beach where a pink sun eventually managed to break through the sea haze, before we grabbed a quick brekkie and headed towards the real purpose of our Oman road trip, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. The mosque is hidden in plain sight, its four tall minarets and dazzling cupola being impossible to miss along this stretch of the main highway to Muscat. And we were the only people there, apart from the security guard and a few workmen touching up the paintwork. It's a truly extraordinary piece of architecture on a jaw-dropping scale. The site spreads over 181,000 square metres, with wide flower-filled gardens. The main entrance is a celebration of colour and artistry, with mosaics of geometric patterns, Arabic calligraphy and trailing flowers welcoming you inside. It's neck-craningly magnificent, and you need to stop at the top of the steps, look up to take in the intricate detail, and try not to fall over backwards as you do so. The main courtyard is enough to halt you in your tracks, a huge expanse of marble so highly polished that the prayer hall and its accompanying minarets are reflected in it.

The cupola, with its turquoise tiles that shimmer in the bright sunlight, is reminiscent of the Bibi Khanym mosque in Samarkand, originally built on the orders of Tamerlane in 1399 and considered the most magnificent in the whole of the Islamic world. Inside, the main prayer hall is large enough for 4,600 people to pray simultaneously, refreshingly cool in shades of white, with towering columns, ornately carved plaster walls, rich carpets, and a spectacular central chandelier. The external courtyards feature wooden ceilings held up by intricately carved wooden columns, inspired by those that have held up mosques in Khiva for centuries, hand-carved by artisans out of single trees. The whole place is a staggering example of craftsmanship, and to have it all to yourselves is really quite mind-blowing. We stayed for a couple of hours, viewing the mosque from every possible angle so we didn't miss a single mosaic, arch or lantern, photographing everything. As we were leaving three other people arrived, also fortunate enough to enjoy this spectacular place all to themselves. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit every day except Friday, from 8am to 11am, and must be dressed appropriately. It's a beautiful, unforgettable place, and I can't recommend a visit enough. Do yourselves a favour - once the borders open up, get into your car and drive over to little Sohar to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary place before it's discovered, as it rightly deserves to be.

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