The Holidays in the Middle East

Christmas decoration in the mountains of Oman

It may be that I was trained at an early age, but I always find it weird to be a warm location during the holiday season. Snow should be coming out of the sky, forcing me to bundle up in a warm coat, and watch the blinking lights from a safe distance. The malls should be crowded with holiday shoppers, and everybody should be in good cheer.

Jabreen Fort in Oman

But when it is warm out, it doesn’t have the same feel. I want to go for hikes, and explore the world around me. This was more the focus of this holiday season, and though it may have been different, in a way, it was more authentic.

Abu Dhabi’s skyline

In the hustle and bustle that we lose ourselves into during every holiday season, we sometimes forget that in reality, it is not about the snow, and pine trees. It is not about the presents, and the parties. It actually started off in a very humble manner, in the place where I am now living, and traveling through during the holiday season. Maybe, instead of having this Nordic experience every year, we should turn our attention to sand, and camels.

The Old House in Misfah, Oman

Despite the stringing up of power lines, and the introduction of indoor plumbing, the Middle East has not changed a lot over the two thousand years since the birth of the holiday season. There are many opportunities to find small old houses to stay in, sleeping on the floor, and hearing the voices of animals just outside your window. The community still gathers together in those places for meals, and enjoys the company of each other under skies that do not threaten you with anything more than a warm day. It is completely unlike anything that we think about when the holiday season comes to mind.

Staircase up to the Imam’s rooms in Jabreen Fort in Oman

Granted the Middle East is a predominantly Muslim part of the world, and the further that I get away from my home in Jordan, the harder it is to see the aspects of Christianity that I grew up with and became accustomed to. That does not mean that the holidays are not celebrated there. New Year’s Eve looks like the bigger celebration, especially in the bigger cities, but still there are aspects of Christmas around as well. It is just shown in different ways, and it reminds me of those ornaments that, as a child, we always placed on the bottom part of the tree. They were of shepherds, and camels, and donkeys, and of course, the whole crew to fill out the nativity, and those are everywhere to be seen out in the Middle East. It just reminds me of a Christmas celebration that is sometimes pushed to the side, instead of being celebrated more.

The Corniche beach in Abu Dhabi

Though I found myself wandering the desert, and relaxing on the beach this holiday season, it did not mean that it wasn’t any less special. Yes, it definitely felt different than what I was accustomed to, but it was still a nice way to spend the holidays.

Sunset in Abu Dhabi

The beauty of the season did not come in electric systems that were put to the test to keep lights blinking, but instead from the explosion of color in the sky that came from when the sun set. The warmth of the season did not come from bundling up close to a fire, but standing in the sand letting the sun thaw me out. The feeling of the season still came from those I was able to share it with which, in the end, is what the holiday season should be about.

Al Qana in Abu Dhabi

I did enjoy the time that I got to have in both Oman and Abu Dhabi. It is a side of the world that I have gotten to explore, and I do believe that this experience has given me a greater appreciation for the place in the world that I live in. I hope that you can come to the same agreement with wherever you find yourself. Be sure to appreciate the ones you are near, and look forward to not just the dawn of a New Year, but each day that follows it.

Thanks again, until next time.

The Grand Mosques – Muscat and Abu Dhabi

Outside of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

When people travel to Europe, they spend a lot of time in cathedrals, not because they are trying to renew their faith, but because they want to look at these monuments build to God. It is always a weird thing because you walk around this place where people go to worship while taking pictures and marveling at the art that can be found there. There is a similar tradition in the Middle East, except instead of cathedrals, you go visit the mosques.

A minaret in the Grand Mosque of Muscat

The people of the Middle East will not allow you to visit every mosque, but their is usually one in every country that you should go visit. In both Muscat, Oman and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, it is called the Grand Mosque, and they are a sight behold. They are both still used for worship, and the one in Oman has limited times in which you can visit. Still, it is a must do for anyone heading off to either of these countries.

A hallway in the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi

There are some stark differences between mosques and cathedrals. The larger cathedrals have a collection of artwork, and monuments from the people and dedicated to those who helped design and establish the cathedral in the city where it is found. There are various altars to pray at, and the architecture has a distinct pattern to it that all churches are supposed to follow. The artwork in mosques is still there, but its focus points to a love of nature and cultures instead of individuals and saints. Architecture is still a huge part of what you will see, but it is built to highlight the themes that are already a part of the design.

The outside grounds of the Grand Mosque in Muscat

There is a certain symmetry to the design. It creates patterns that you can lose yourself in by trying to unravel it, and then marvel at its beauty. It is a showcase of geometry that would excite any math teacher. These features are still in a cathedral, but it sometimes gets lost with everything else going on in them; whereas, with a mosque, it is there to enhance what the place has to offer.

The niche of the Grand Mosque in Muscat

This all comes together at the niche that is the central focus of any mosque’s chamber. It is where the imam will come to lead their followers in prayer. The niche will still follow the patterns of geometry that are on display elsewhere in the mosque, and highlight that with richly designed artwork. Sometimes this further enhances with the use of gold, and Arabic writing. Just like an altar in a cathedral, it will direct the eye to what should always be the center of attention in any place of worship.

The carpet in the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi

Both of the mosques in Abu Dhabi and Muscat boast of a hand woven carpet that stretches out perfectly over the main room’s floor. At first glance, it looks beautiful, but on further inspection, you will notice that there is something else going on with it. It is one piece of carpet which reaches perfectly to all of the edges, and goes around the columns nicely. To think about how this was handwoven and is just one piece that covers a vast amount of area makes you think about the care that went into creating its design. It boggles the mind to think about what was gone through to enhance the beauty of this place.

The central chandelier in the Grand Mosque of Muscat

There are also chandeliers in both mosques, and they are something to marvel at. They are massive. The one in the center of the picture is so big that I am told it has a staircase in the middle of it, so people can enter it and maintain it. They are also strategically place, so they not only offer light, but they illuminate parts of the room, such as the niche, to enhance the artwork that was designed there.

One of the chandeliers in the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Just like the cathedrals in Europe, it is easy to see why people flocks to these locations to tour these mosques. The reason that they are given the name Grand is easily shown while touring around them. The one in Muscat allows for more freedom when touring it, but both of them are definitely worth the trip.

Thank again, until next time.

Where Are All the Tourists At? – Sur, Oman

I know that it is Christmas time in a Muslim country, and there are still parts of the world that are recovering from the Covid hangover, but the one thing that had really shocked me about my trip to Oman is the fact that it feels like we are the only people out here. When I was in Muscat, I thought that it was because this city is not necessarily the tourist destination, and people come to Oman to explore its other beaches and the mountains. But when I travel the roads and make it to other places where there should be tourists gathering between spots, I am amaze at how empty it is.

It doesn’t mean that they are all gone. We did see a tour group hanging out at the viewpoint for the lighthouse in Sur. They were there enjoying their box lunches, but in another country, this place would be packed with people and it would be almost impossible to get a picture of the bay. Even the beach was completely empty. I did see a couple of locals there, hanging out under the shady spots created along the corniche, but the only people I saw walking along the sand were another local couple and a guy out doing his morning run. Even the town of Sur seems to be completely devoid of people.

Now would seem the time to bring the family out to this country. It is a beautiful place to explore, and the weather is not unbearable at this time. In fact it is the weather I look for on a sunny day, barely hitting 80 degrees Fahrenheit or 27 degrees Celsius. It gets a little warm during the day, but cools off at night to a comfortable temperature to enjoy the patio with. Why wouldn’t the tease of that not bring more people, especially considering the cold European countries are not that far away?

I also wonder if the World Cup has something to do with the lack of tourists. Many people traveled to Qatar and spent a lot of money there who might have come to Oman otherwise. But if you are making your way all the way to the Middle East, wouldn’t you want to spend a little more time there exploring some of the other places that it has to offer. I do know that when the Olympics were in Salt Lake City there were a lot of people who traveled to Colorado to ski the slopes there, so why wouldn’t they do the same thing here?

It does keep me wondering, but then again, it is not a bad problem to have. Oman is a beautiful country with interesting tourist sights, and surprises around every corner. I will enjoy the peace and quiet this desert country has to offer while it is here, and know that I came out at the right time when the weather is perfect. Someday the tourists will come, but until then I will just hang out with the goats, and stroll the beach that is all mine.

Thanks, until next time.

Wadi Shab – Tiwi, Oman

The term, wadi, is thrown around a lot in the Middle East, and it does not take long to figure out that it just means canyon. There are thousands of wadis all over the Middle East, and if you find the better ones, you will discover an amazing hike that will take you to some really cool places. One of the better ones, called Wadi Shab, is located outside of the small town of Tiwi in Oman.

It is located right off of the highway, and there are plenty of signs that will point you the right direction. The hike is absolutely beautiful, and there are dramatic views of mountains on either side of the path, but this is not the reason to make it out this way.

A river helped to carve out this valley, and as you hike through the canyon, it is always on either side of you. Sometimes it is nothing more than a stream; whereas at other points along the way, you will find that you can jump off cliff faces into deep pools, or just go out wading into the cool water that is so refreshing on a hot, desert day.

At the very end of the canyon, you do have to take off your hiking boots, and dip in the water if you wish to make it the whole way. There is a cave at the end that boasts about an underground waterfall, and this is the final destination of many of the people who make it out this way. It is an amazing sight, but it is also fun to swim in the water, and let the tiny fish pick off the dead skin from your legs. If you do make it out this far, I would recommend that you bring with you some water shoes because there are a lot of rocks that you will walk on, and bring a snack as well because it takes a good hour to make it out to this pond. You will also probably spend an hour or two at the pond itself, so the whole day will take about four hours total.

I also recommend getting there early in the day. It is a couple hours drive from Muscat, but less than an hour from Sur, and it is a great day trip if you find yourself in the later town. You also can’t just start hiking on the trail. You have to take a short, and I do mean short, boat ride from the welcoming center to the start of the hike. It does cost one Omani Rial per person, and they do stop running the boat around five or six at night. That means if you do not make it back in time, you could be stuck in the wadi during the night. Some people do come out to camp here, but you would want to plan for that and not be surprised about that choice when you find yourself on the wrong side of the river at the wrong time.

It is a great place out of many to visit while in Oman, and should be added to everybody’s itinerary. It is a great way to spend a day out in the desert, and the sights and adventures had along the way will not be quickly forgotten.

The Mutrah Souq – Muscat, Oman

If you are looking for some souvenir for your trip to Muscat, Oman, and still want to have a cultural experience, there is no better place than the Mutrah Souq. It is a market that has the traditional Arab feel and even if you are not picking up anything, it is still a fun place to wander around.

It does has your normal influx of cheap touristy stuff including t-shirts and toys. It also has a bunch of wooden pieces that you can find anywhere in Muscat from carved camels to chess sets. I was even able to find a new Christmas ornament to hang on my tree when I got back home. But the market goes beyond that and you can find unique pieces there as well. Everything from Arab daggers to helmets, all the way to jewelry in all levels of worth.

It is easy to think that the market is nothing more than a place to go and buy that trinket from your visit to Muscat, but it is fun to wind your way through the maze that is found there. The sellers will try anything to get you to come into their little corner of the Souq such as putting a hat on your head or offering you some jasmine, but it is all harmless and just adds to the atmosphere. You could easily lose yourself in the mix, but do take the time to look up at the ceiling. The wood carvings can be found all over the Souq and it is just as interesting as what is going on down below.

There are times when looking at the ceiling can take up more of your time rather than the shopping that many people come to this place for. It isn’t too busy in the Souq though that it will take away from the other people there if you stand there looking up at the design.

It is not the only place in that part of town that is worth checking out either. There is the Corniche, a walk along the ocean that showcases the traditional boats, or the mountain castles that hang not that far in the distance. If you do come down here to see some of these sights, make sure you come at the right time because it does close down between the hours of one and four in the afternoon. Still there are plenty of times where you can find an hour or two to enjoy there. It is easily one of the premiere places to visit if you are in Muscat, and if you want, you can go there and enjoy it without it ever costing you anything.

The Start of a Break – Muscat, Oman

The beginning of Winter and Summer Break are always hard to make look exciting for a waiting audience. Most people expect exciting views from the far away places that we will be visiting, and we will eventually get to those places. I will share those pictures with you, but the first day of a break is usually spent catching my breath and easing out of the stress that comes with being a teacher. Though I do want to explore the place I find myself in, I would rather just take it easy for the first day, and work up to the point where I can get out and really enjoy the sights.

This is definitely what our first day in Muscat, Oman was all about. It wasn’t that rough of a day of travel to get out here considering that it is only on the other side of the Arabian peninsula, so I could not use that as an excuse for being lazy. There are a lot of interesting things to do and places around town that I want to explore, so that really couldn’t be used as an excuse either. I will just say it as I see it, I really did not want to do much today except walk on the beach, have something good to eat, and get my bearings.

So we did just that. We went down to the public beach on the southern edge of town, and spent most of the afternoon wandering up and down it. I was surprised at how empty it was for a public beach on such a beautiful day. The water was warm, and the cool ocean breeze kept the temperatures comfortable. It is not a wide beach, but it offers enough real estate that I never felt like I was crowding in on another person. It is also designed a little differently than other public beaches I have been to. There are not a lot of shops, and cafes along it begging for you business. It is designed as a place to sit back and enjoy, and if you need to find a place to grab a coffee or a bite to eat, it is not far away down one of the side roads.

By the time nightfall came, we made it to the top of the hill for dinner at one of the hotels. If you are visiting Oman from somewhere other than the Middle East, you will want to look for these places because they are the only restaurants in the city that sell alcohol. The restaurant in the Crowne Plaza, Duke’s, also offers some amazing views of the setting sun at night. The food there is pretty good as well, so I would recommend heading that way if you are hungry after a long day of walking along the beach.

Overall, it was the perfect way to start my Winter holiday. I know that there will be many days of running around trying to see all that there is to see, but for now, I am happy just to gather up my energy to prepare myself for the adventure that is ahead. Stay tuned for what Oman has to offer as I explore Muscat and the surrounding places of this country in the next couple of days.