Travels to the City of the Caliphs,|
1840 by James Raymond Wellsted, p.45-:
CHAPTER III.Arrival at Muscat—Description of that remarkable city—
The Imam of Muscat...
No part of the world presents a wilder or more romantic aspect than Muscat Cove. It is a small semicircular hollow in a mountain band which girds the shore; and the practised eye of the mariner, accustomed to these coasts, alone should enable them to distinguish it.
The island of Fayal affords perhaps the best mark in approaching it. Dark, frowning masses of rock, destitute of every blade of vegetation, rise up on all sides. On each craggy pinnacle is perched a fort; the sea is pellucid, calm, and clear; a burning sun lights up all with splendour, communicating an almost transparent hue to the light coloured Saracenic-looking fortresses and houses, and contrasting them in a most remarkable manner with the sombre hue of the surrounding country.
Words can scarcely convey the idea of this romantic hollow. Perhaps, on the whole, it is unequalled in any part of the globe. At its inner extremity is situated the town, built on a slightly rising slope; the palace of the Imam, the old Portuguese cathedral, a few lofty minarets, and the residence of the governor, tower above the level roofs of the other buildings; but, with the exception of these, the other habitations are wretched edifices, constructed either with sun-dried bricks, or mere huts reared with the branches of the date-palm—the whole are intersected by narrow lanes, or filthy bazaars,—and a low wall encircles them.
About half a mile beyond the gates there are some cultivated patches, watered by a neighboring rill, which the courtesy of travellers (I suppose, in contrast to the burning desert around) have designated with the name of gardens, for not a tree or shrub is elsewhere seen.
With all its barrenness and unpromising appearance, such is the advantage of position enjoyed by Muscat, commanding, as it does, the entrance to the Persian Gulf, that its harbours are filled with vessels from all ports of the East, and the busy din of commerce constantly enlivens its streets.
In few parts of the world can the necessaries, nay even the luxuries, of life, be obtained in greater profusion. Fruit, vegetables, meat, and grain, are abundant and cheap.
As the graphic writer of Scenes and Impressions observes:
Like the rough and russet coat of the Persian pomegranate, which gives little promise of the rich and crimson pulp within, so Arabia, all-forbidding as she looks, can boast of Yemen and her sparkling springs, of her frankincense and precious gums, her spices and coffee-berries, her luscious dates, and her honey of the rock.|
Those who gaze upon "the barren and bare, unsightly, unadorned," aspect of the sea-coast, could indeed never look for the umbrageous and fertile oasis with which the interior is thickly studded. There wheat, barley, and other kinds of grain yield an abundant harvest. There figs, almonds, plantains, pomegranates, grapes, &c. are produced in such abundance, that with some not a tenth part of that which is produced can be gathered.
Bullocks, sheep, and goats, are very numerous and cheap. The former, and occasionally the latter, during a considerable portion of the year, when fodder is scarce, are fed on salt-fish and pounded date-stones. The natives assert, that, so far from this singular food imparting a disagreeable flavour either to the flesh or the milk, it really fattens the animal, and by causing it to drink more frequently, produces the latter in greater abundance than when supplied with other fare. The sheep are small, but their flesh well-tasted. Goats are exceedingly numerous, as are fowls; but I have seen few ducks, geese, or turkeys here, nor, in fact, excepting on the banks of the Euphrates, in any other part of Arabia.
Muscat Cove abounds in fish, of which there is a greater variety and abundance than can perhaps be found in any other part of the world; at times the surface of the water is kept in a perfect foam from the rush of the larger fish in pursuit of their prey.
Some years ago the Honourable Company's ship Discovery anchored within this cove. I was then a midshipman attached to her, and after furling sails, and those minutiae consequent to such a change in her condition, which are observed on board vessels of war, I had, with some of my companions, gone down below to our berth, in order to open our little port, and thereby let in the air, of which for some days previous tempestuous weather had deprived us. Scarcely had I done so, when, to our astonishment, in darted an enormous seer-fish. It had probably been pursuing a flying-fish. We had been for some days on short commons, and in the course of an hour were making a hearty meal of the welcome guest, who had, nevertheless, so unceremoniously obtruded himself on us.
Cavalla, king fish, sardines, and, indeed, all those common to the Eastern seas, are met with here, but I saw no sharks...
The commerce of Muscat is of some importance, as it forms the entrepot between India, Persia, and Arabia. Pearls from the Gulf arrive here in great abundance, and the cloths and spices of India are exchanged for the coffee of Arabia or spices of Persia. It is also the great mart for slaves, the shores on either side of the Persian Gulf being supplied from hence. Boats are constantly arriving with their living cargo from the eastern coast of Africa. The annual importation of property into Muscat exceeds a million, and the duty levied thereon furnishes the Imam with a revenue of nearly 200,000 dollars.
In my account of the Beni Ali Bedowins, I have given some description of this prince, who is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable men of the age. No ruler I have ever met with approaches nearer the beau-ideal of an Eastern prince. His liberality, both as regards his toleration and the extension of his protection to those of other creeds, is unbounded, while his high courage and profuse generosity are dwelt on with enthusiasm by all who have the happiness to approach his person. I had not been in Muscat twenty-four hours before intelligence of my arrival, unknown to me, reached him, and conceiving from the mode in which I was living (to use his own words) that I was "an Englishman, and in distress," he sent his ministers the same day to intimate that any money which I required would be furnished from his treasury. I was fortunately not in a situation to require such aid, but it did not lessen my sense of the spirit and munificence of the offer.
It will doubtless dwell in the recollection of our readers that this prince despatched to our late sailor-monarch a magnificent 74-gun ship and some horses of the purest breeds of Arabia. The same liberal and enlightened individual but a short time since despatched an envoy extraordinary with costly presents (to the amount of £50,000) to congratulate her present Majesty on her accession to the throne; and amidst the numerous testimonials received by her on that occasion, there are none, perhaps, which are more calculated to gratify her feelings and those of the nation at large. That the ruler of a remote province in Arabia should thus promptly hasten to lay his congratulations before her, is in itself sufficiently pleasing, but our interest is heightened when we remember the envoy comes from that "far country" which sent forth Queen Sheba to honour, in the plenitude of his wisdom and his power, the sovereign of Israel; nor is it the less gratifying to learn that his reception was such as was calculated to please the prince his master.
Very recently an officer in the Indian navy has been despatched to make the customary returns for these presents, and also to enter into a commercial treaty with him;—but too long we have neglected this prince...
The dominions of the Imam of Muscat extend to a considerable distance on either side of the Persian Gulf, and all the islands and ports in the lower portion are in his possession. Muscat, his capital, commands the entrance to this inland sea, and, in the hands of an European, might be made impregnable. It is wholly inaccessible, save by one path, so narrow as to admit but one abreast from the land side, while from the sea Gibraltar cannot oppose a more formidable front. If we add to this circumstance the little known fact, that the Imam of Muscat possesses a naval force treble in strength to any we maintain in India, it becomes of some importance to know what are our political relations with this prince, and what the extent and resources of the country over which he rules.
On all these points, notwithstanding its proximity to our Indian possessions, we were ignorant. The insalubrity of this country, and the supposed hostile character of its inhabitants, deterred our travellers from penetrating beyond the sea-coast until 1835, when the Editor of these pages did so, and has recently communicated the result of his visit to the public...
Muscat Cove, in the hands of a skilful engineer, might be made almost impregnable, yet from its local features the heat is so great, and its climate so exceedingly insalubrious, that no European has yet been able to reside there; and even such of the inhabitants as can do so, quit the town for their summer residences at Burka and Sib. I was, however, so invigorated with my new course of diet that I feared but little from climate, and, contrary to the practice of other Europeans, who rarely quit their ships, and never think of sleeping on shore, I took up my quarters in a caravanserai with some Bokhara merchants...
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