Deep in the desert of Arabia, a little girl named Zuleika lived with her mother and father, the tribal chief. They were way out there, so far off regular travel routes that they very rarely saw strangers. Zuleika loved her home, where she was perfectly safe and thoroughly treasured, but her active mind and open heart made her crave stories of people and places that were different from what she knew. Visitors brought their foreign ways, along with tales of pearly cities, lush gardens and endless oceans; and she always felt a little bit bigger after they left.
One day, while Zuleika was out playing in the sand, she caught the slightest glimpse of movement far in the distance, beyond a sea of golden peaks and valleys, just at the edge of her world. You can imagine Zuleika’s excitement as the speck on the horizon grew steadily larger. Someone was indeed coming their way. She fetched her father the chief and, together with other men of the tribe, they watched the nearing stranger ride the desert swells, disappearing, then reappearing in better focus, until he was right in front of them.
As if his arrival wasn’t thrilling enough for Zuleika, the stranger explained that he was merely an emissary come to announce the visit of the highly revered Sheikh Ben Nedi the following day. This was really a big deal and the whole tribe set to work preparing for the honored guest.
In the Arabic world, hospitality was, and is, a serious business. Guests are treated with the greatest respect. They are made comfortable, given the best food and drink available, entertained, and even given gifts. As her parents and other tribal members readied their gifts for the sheikh, Zuleika began to feel very inadequate. She was moved to near bursting with pride and gratitude that such a great person would travel all the way to her remote settlement, but she had no gift to express herself in the traditional way.
Zuleika’s mother told her not to worry, children were not expected to give gifts. But, expected or not, the sheik’s visit meant so much to her, she wanted desperately to give him something in return. She was so frustrated, she collapsed in tears at the foot of the village well. Her little body heaved in great sobs and heavy, splashy tears dampened a spot in the sand near the well. Just then, a fairy rose up out of the well and asked what all the fuss was about. Once Zuleika composed herself enough to explain, the fairy told her that a gift was already in the making and that she should come back to the well in the morning to find it there.
Bright and early the next morning, before the sheikh arrived, Zuleika ran out to the well to find a tall, elegant tree laden with big clusters of brown fruit hanging high above the ground under a sparkling green crown. It was the perfect expression of her pure and generous spirit and deep down she knew it was no ordinary gift. When Sheikh Ben Nedi arrived he was touched and honored to receive the extraordinary tree, especially from such a small girl. Like Zuleika, he sensed the special importance of this gift and suspected it would come to mean a great deal to his people.
From that day on, the date palm tree spread throughout the desert and is still today one of the greatest gifts known to Arabia. Food, shelter, medicine and fuel are just a few of the many uses of the date palm.
To see the wonder tree in its natural habitat, visit the Arabian Peninsula with Ya’lla Tours USA. Click here.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the world’s largest falcon hospital and a world leader in falcon medicine. Since opening in 1999, it has treated over 55,000 falcons. The hospital also treats other kinds of birds, has expanded to include a clinic for pet cats and dogs and a shelter for strays and operates a trap-neuter-release program for feral cats and dogs. Continue reading
The 17th-century Nizwa Fort looks out over lush palm groves at the base of the Western Hajar Mountains, about 1.5 hours from Muscat. Built to protect the city of Nizwa, an important center for trade and religion, it’s the most visited national monument in Oman. For a very local experience, wander through the Nizwa souk. The animal auction is held there early on Friday mornings. That’s worth scheduling around.
Al Hamra & Bait Al Safah
The restored hillside village of Al Hamra is a time capsule of traditional life in Oman. Wander through the maze of mudbrick houses to Bait Al Safah, a living museum where local woman demonstrate domestic tasks done the old way. You’ll be greeted with tea and dates, an ageless gesture of welcome in Arabia.
Misfat Al Abryeen
The nearby village of Misfat Al Abryeen is an idyllic place, where you can take a shady walk among the terraced farms and orchards and catch stunning views of the surrounding mountains and gorge. Date palms, banana trees, pomegranates and goats are just some of the inhabitants of this oasis, all fed by the falaj irrigation channels trickling through.
This impossibly picturesque village spills down a hillside above terraced green fields and palm groves with majestic mountains towering all around. Babbling falaj course through the village and fields and friendly locals offer dates and wild honey foraged from nearby caves. Park down the road and walk into the village.
Wadi Bani Awf
A wadi is a valley, and Oman has them aplenty. If you enjoy a hair-raising drive, you’ll love Wadi Bani Awf, which may have the most spectacular scenery in Oman, and that’s saying a lot. You’ll need a 4-wheel drive (all of our Oman touring is done in 4WD vehicles) and an experienced mountain driver. We highly recommend a local guide.
See our Oman tours here.
Royal Opera House of Muscat
This is a magnificent building, inside and out. If you’re able to catch a performance there, we’re thrilled for you and a bit envious. If not, we highly recommend a taking a tour. The monumental proportions, sublime design and state of the art technology are testament to the high value Sultan Qaboos places on the arts. He’s a big fan of classical music himself but he had the opera house built for the people of Oman and visitors. Besides world-class performances, the opera house offers arts education programs, lectures and workshops.
Al Alam Palace
This is the ceremonial palace of the sultan of Oman. It’s not open to the public but it’s easily accessible for photos and visual consideration from the front and back. It’s a very unique piece of architecture, especially the central building, which I found kind of obnoxious initially, to be honest. But the more I look at it, the more I love it. It was completed in 1972, which explains a lot. The modern, organic Islamic style is whimsical and flamboyant in the most friendly way. I love it even more now than I did when I started writing this paragraph.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Another awesome building, outside it’s all cool, serene elegance, with gleaming marble surfaces and pearly arches. Inside, the exposed timber ceilings are warm and earthy, while heavenly multitudes seem to open out to infinity in the massive central dome. Modestly dressed non-Muslims are welcome.
Stroll the Corniche
The Muttrah Corniche pedestrian promenade rambles for about 3km along the sea wall in the Muttrah district of Muscat. If you avoid the midday heat, it’s bustling with locals and visitors and is the perfect vantage from which to take in harbor sights on one side and the pretty sea-front avenue backed by the craggy Hajar mountains and old Portuguese watch towers on the other side. From the corniche you can access the fish market, best in the early morning, and the adjacent fruit and vegetable market and down the way is the Muttrah Souk. You’ll find benches, a park and fountains along the corniche.
This, the oldest market in Oman, is a must, whether or not you’re a shopper. The streets closest to the corniche are pretty touristy but if you persevere into the maze you’ll find a feast of authentic shops. Some good buys are gold, silver and frankincense. Be sure to bargain. The souk closes from about 1-5pm each day and it especially bustles with locals in the evenings.
Frankincense, the wealth of ancient Oman, flowed from the scared trunks of scrappy little trees on the wadi flats and mountain sides of misty Dhofar. The prized scent intensified as the resin dried and hardened.Then it was sent out by land and sea across the known world.
Dhows, the traditional sailing vessels of the region, carried frankincense to ports in Africa, Mesopotamia and India. While great caravans of 1,000 or more camels walked 2,000 miles north across the unforgiving Arabian Desert to ports on the Mediterranean Sea.
Camels can survive weeks without food or water, drawing on the fat stored in their humps. When necessary, they ate grains they carried or whatever they could find to graze on. Caravan drivers ate food packed by the camels, hunted, and shopped where they could on the way.
Tribal territories around the routes carved their share of the trade by charging tolls for passage and selling supplies.
Overnight camps were set up in the open desert or at caravanserai, the truck stops of the ancient trade routes. Song and dance around the fire recapped the highlights of each day’s journey, celebrated a step closer to completion and energized the company for the next leg.
The frankincense trade goes back at least 5,000 years. Egyptians and Mesopotamians were crazy for it, and the Greeks and Romans after them. It was used in religious ritual, in cosmetics, in medicine, even to embalm the dead. Today it’s used in pretty much the same ways and Dhofar still produces some of the highest quality frankincense in the world.
In Dhofar, you can visit remains of the ancient frankincense trade at Sumhuram and Al Baleed, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites near Salalah in southwestern Oman.
Check out our Oman tours at www.yallatours.com/oman.
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The leaning tower pictured above is known as Capital Gate. It is located in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, aka UAE, and is the center piece of the National Exposition Center. With an 18-degree lean to the west (more than 4 times the lean of the tower at Pisa), Capital Gate holds the current record as the leaningest of leaning towers. Unlike the Pisa tower, this one leans on purpose.
A number of innovative engineering measures assure that the building will not topple, among which is its pre-cambered core, which means the concrete core was built to lean in the opposite direction of the completed building. The tension between the core and the outer structure provides stability.
The building’s design is meant to evoke the surrounding natural environment of desert and sea, with the tower representing swirling sand and the wave-like canopy, known as the “splash.”
The tower’s 35 levels are occupied by offices on the lower floors and the Hyatt hotel in the upper floors. The asymmetry of the building means every room has a unique shape. The exterior of the building is covered in 12,500 panes of glass, each of which is a different size.
Can you name that city?
See below for answers.
Falconry is a centuries-old tradition in our mystery city, and in the wider region. Trained falcons are used to hunt small animals for their keepers. Today it’s a popular sport but some Bedouins still use falcons to put food on the table. Pampered falcons visit the renowned falcon hospital in our mystery city for a check-up and a bit of grooming. Tourists are welcome to visit the falcon hospital.
Can you name that city?
See below for answers.
This ceremonial palace of the ruler of our mystery country is located in the national capital, Muscat, located on the northern coast. When he came to power in 1970, the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, introduced transformative economic and social programs. Today, the country is prosperous, politically stable and socially liberal, relative to its neighbors.
Can you name that country?
See below for answers.