Muscat Harbour; "the Sultan's visitors' book"

March 2007, June 2013,
Nov 2015
(English)

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More than just graffiti there are stories told by each name left on the steep cliffs of Muscat Island, protecting the anchorage at Muscat.

 


Map to Google Earth (you need to have Google Earth Installed on your computer)

It has long been the custom to paint the names of ships that visited the Muscat anchorage on the black rocks that form its backdrop: “the Sultan’s visitors’ book”. Generations of sailors must have sweated on the hot and steep rock faces and these include some famous names.

James Morris 1957 book 'Sultan in Oman' is one of the last in a long line of tradition describing  remote places within the influence sphere of the once mighty British Empire. His story comes directly from Sultan Said Bin Taimur. It is therefore appropriate to quote it as one of the last descriptions of the anchorage before modern times.

"Hundreds of naval names were therefore on the rock, some of them freshly painted, some of them so faded that you could barely make out their letters. There were innumerable good old British names like Teazer or Surprise, and several American and Indian ships were also represented. One inscription records a visit by H.M.S. Hardinge, the ship which hovered so effectively along the Arabian shore during the Arab Revolt and which the Arabs thought must be peaceably inclined because she had only one funnel. I symphatised with the generations of midshipmen who had climbed those rugged rocks with their painting parties, in the heat of the Muscat sun. (In the summer it was one of the hottest places on earth; a Persian visitor in 1442 reported that the gems in the handle of his dagger were reduced to coal by the heat and desert was filled with roasted gazelle). I was all very well when the ship's name was Swan, Fox, or teal, but imagbne painting H.M.S. Duchess of Edinburgh on the bare rocks in such an inferno! Some people thought the efforts of such resolute sailors had disfugered the captivating harbor of Muscat. I like the inscriptions , for they reminded me of the Greek travellers who carved comments upon the Collosi of Memnon, at Thebes, and of the egnerations of explorers who cut their names upon the rock of El Moro in Mexico; and anyway an honest British naval name never disfigured anything. The Sultan liked them, too. He called the anchorage "my visitors' book". When I mentioned the poor midshipmen to him, he told me that Nelson had visited Muscat as a midshipman in 17775 and spent two months there, thereby missing the news of the Battle of Concord. Who kenwe? Perhaps that supreme genius, newest of midshipmen, had climbed the rock to record the name of H.M.S Seahorse (frigate, 20 guns). He was "stout and athletic" then, according to Southey, and would have been admirable for the job.

There were two gaps or breaches in the eastern wall of the anchorage. One was a small isthmus with a sandy beach, on which in earlier centuries trading ships from China used to beach themselves; some Muscatis still called it Chinese Harbor. The other, a shallow, narrow channel between the rocks, linking the anchorage with the open sea, also had associations with the Far East. During the last war a Japanese submarine crept up to this gap from the outside and, adroitly aiming a torpedo through it, sank a Norwegian merchantman lying inside the anchorage. It was perhaps the nearest the two wings of Hitler's axis ever came to joining; the submarine commander, presumably refuelling from tankers in the Indian Ocean, must have sailed his ship at least six thousand miles from base. When during the Napoleontic wars, the British frigate Concord captured the French frigate Vigilant in the very same harbor, those commanders, too were a longish way from home."

The Persian visitor in Morris' story may have exaggerated a bit. Surely diamonds converting to carbon can only be imaged for the place where we now understand that these black rocks originate from: deep within the earth mantle. They do make for an inviting nice black backdrop to leave graffiti and it is good to see that this tradition is still maintained.

No, the rocks around Muscat have not changed, but Muscat changed completely in the last couple of years and few people living in Muscat seem to know about the tradition of the 'visitors book'. From an inspection of the rocks it seems to be kept alive by a number of new names left after recent visits. The most conspicuous is that of the 'Relume',   left below the tower guarding the east side of the harbor entrance. The Relume is an Offshore Supply Vessel that has also helped in a number of recovery operations in the Gulf. There is also the 'Maassluis', painted on the walls just just below the fortifications. The Maassluis is a Dutch minesweeper that has helped safeguarding the coastal waters of the Gulf during the last conflict in the region. Surprising there are also some what must be old names, looking relatively freshly painted, complicating the perhaps logical assumption that the older is the vaguest as Morris suggests.

So what about HM Perseus, the clearest of them all, with a proud British flag, painted right above the water line in the middle of the Island. This appears to be the signature of HM submarine Perseus that struck a mine in 1941, its wreck rediscovered in 1996.

There is also the very clear "USS Isla De Luzon" painted high-up. The story of this ship is complex. It was launched in 1887 by Sir W. G. Armstrong, Newcastle-on Tyne, England, for the Spanish Navy. A captured prize of the Spanish-American War (Battle of Manila Bay, 1898) she was commissioned in the United States Navy 1900, operating from the Philippines. She left her Asiatic Station in 1902 and on the way home, "following long custom, when she visited Muscat's picturesque harbor, members of her crew painted "Isle de Luzon" on the steep entrance cliff". In recent years this has been periodically refurbished by visiting ships of the U.S. Middle East Force Command, explaining the fresh looking appearance of this old visitor.

Other clear neames include HMS Falmouth (torpedoed, 1916 North Sea), HMS Yarmouth, (British frigate, operational at the Falklands, decommissioned ’86 and sunk in the Atlantic in 87), Irish Alder (operated by the Irish Shipping Company in WWII, - named their ships after trees), HMS Ormonde, surveyed the Gulf coast in 1930’s. HMS Britannia (probably the 7th British ship with this name, launched in 1904 and sunk by submarine in 1918).  There are the HMS Herald, HMS Fox, Makran, Bramble, Manuga, Pamuna. Just a selection of names that can still be recognised, probably quite a few more with their own stories. This is more than just graffiti as James Morris rightly remarked, this is part of Oman's history.

In 2013 I received below pictures of the harbour dating from 1984, courtesy Paul C. The zigzag road down looks more freshly cuts and there is the HMS Falmouth (torpedoed, 1916, North Sea)

 

In Nov 2015 Alan Heward referred me to a publication in the Journal of Oman Studies (G.G. Costa, 1985) with more stories and background. Realising it is difficult to get hold of a copy of this Journal I provide here a PDF link [acknowledging fully JOS and the Historical Society of Oman] 

If you are reading this and find names with stories that should be known, please send them to me (e-mail address below) After all it is the "Sultan's visitors' book".  My apologies that I have hidden my mail address in a picture below, just to avoid an avalanche spam.

It is great to spend an afternoon with binoculars scanning the rocks and finding names everywhere. Even better to find their stories back home (the internet is great).
While you are there have a look at the rest of the harbor. Despite the modern changes of Muscat, its anchorage still is very much as Morris describes it.

The anchorage is guarded east and west by two stone forts, built on Arab foundations by the Portuguese in the late 16th century. Both forts are used by the police and army and are closed to the public, but you can take photos. Fort Jalali, to the east, used to serve as a prison. The Sultan's Royal Guard uses Fort Mirani. In many places there are till old bronze cannons, often used as barriers.

 
Fort Jalali (left) and fort Mirani (right) guarding the Sultan's Palace (Qasr Al Alam).

 

The opening of the anchorage to the open sea, protected by bastions built in and on top of the rocks of Muscat island.

The twin forts, together with the defences of the Muttrah fort covering the next bay and fortified structures and watchtowers and the rocks fringing  the bay, made Muscat harbor virtually impregnable.

Qasr Al Alam. The Palace of the Sultan, with its new impressive causeway flanked by governmental buildings. Picture taken approximately from the old wall still partly surrounding the city.
One of the gates providing access to the city. A lot of old buildings have been removed and replaced by governmental buildings and wide open space leading the Qasr Al Alam.
The fortifications for Muttrah can best be appreciated from Qalbuh Park, a shadow-rich recreation park on a promotory along the the eastern side of Muttrah Bay.
References:

@ J. Schreurs March 2007, June 2013, Nov 2015