The 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy mentioned a ‘concealed harbour’, perhaps the first documented reference to Muscat, but the settlement’s location, surrounded on three sides by mountains, made it all but inaccessible from the land. Indeed, the supposed original settlers, Arab tribes from Yemen, almost certainly approached from the sea.
Little is known about the early days of Muscat, except that it grew into a small port in the 14th and 15th centuries. Although it gained importance as a freshwater staging post, it was eclipsed by the busier port of Sohar. By the beginning of the 16th century, however, Muscat gathered momentum as a trading port in its own right, used by merchant ships bound for India. Inevitably it attracted the attention of the Portuguese who conquered the town in 1507. The city walls were constructed at this time (a refurbished set remains in the same positions), but neither they nor the two Portuguese forts of Mirani and Jalali could prevent the Omani reconquest of the town in 1650 – an event that effectively ended the Portuguese era in the Gulf.
Muscat became the capital of Oman in 1793, and the focus of the country’s great seafaring empire of the 18th and 19th centuries. Having been party to the control of much of the coast of East Africa, Muscat’s 20th-century descent into international oblivion, under Sultan Said bin Taimur, was all the more poignant.
The city gates remained resolutely locked and bolted against the inevitable encroachments of the outside world until 1970. Under the auspices of a progressive leader, Sultan Qaboos, the city reawakened. To facilitate the growing number of cars needing access to the city, a hole was driven through the city walls. Goods and services flooded in and Muscat flooded out to occupy the surrounding coastline. Touchingly, the city gates continued to be locked at a specific time every evening, despite the adjacent hole in the wall, until the gates were replaced with an archway. In many respects, that little act of remembrance is a fitting metaphor for a city that has given access to modern conveniences while it continues to keep the integrity of its character.