Muscat, the modern day capital of Oman, has been a strategic centre of trade and exchange along the historic maritime Silk Roads since the 2nd century AD. Located in a cove on the country’s north-eastern coastline, overlooking the Gulf of Oman and the Straits of Hormuz, the city is in a key geographical position on the maritime cross-roads linking Asia with Africa and Europe, and was a vital stopping point for merchants whether they were travelling up the Persian Gulf to Asia, west along the Arabian coast to Africa, or east to India and the Indian Ocean. Moreover, it was a port with excellent natural shelter, where sailors could safely escape bad weather and make repairs, and had plentiful supplies of good quality fresh water – a point of enormous importance to travellers departing for long and often uncertain journeys at sea.
The maritime Silk Roads relied on Muscat as a crucial port in the transport of spices from the south east Asia, silks and textiles from China, timber from India, and other exotic Far Eastern goods, whilst also receiving and exchanging merchandise from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. Its strategic position has established Muscat at the heart of maritime trade throughout history, and as a consequence, the city has been a focus for invading powers wishing to control these lucrative and important maritime routes. The city was captured by the Persians in the 3rd century AD, and was subsequently taken during the early Islamic conquests of the 7th century. The Abbasid caliphs occupied the region until the 11th century, when their rule was overthrown by local Omani tribes.
In July 1507, the Portuguese invaded and conquered Muscat in a bid to secure their position as the dominant maritime trading nation and to protect their trade route to India. The invasion was led by the Portuguese general Afonso de Albuquerque and resulted in a bloody victory and the looting of the city, following which the Portuguese fortified the harbour and established numerous strong points along the adjacent coast to consolidate their control of the traffic through these waters. Their rule did not last long however: attacks from the Ottoman Turks weakened Portuguese control of Muscat by the early 17th century, and the Portuguese were forced to surrender in 1650, although, significantly, they maintained a trading post and naval base in the area, and there remain two 16th century Portuguese forts standing above the city.
Muscat was undoubtedly highly sought after as a conquest, as control of this stretch of the maritime Silk Roads ensured trade and thus wealth, security and power. As something of an oasis along these maritime routes, the city became a cosmopolitan hub of trade, with merchants from Africa, Asia and the Arab world meeting and exchanging ideas and cultures, and this is reflected in the unusual mix of architectural styles in the city, revealing Arab, Portuguese, Persian, Indian and African influences. Omani sailors were renowned both for their role as entrepreneurial merchants, acting as middlemen along this trade corridor, as also as expert navigators, whose assistance and experience was vital in ensuring a safe journey across the Arabian Sea. Ship building was also an important traditional industry along this coast of Oman, another important attraction for merchants who were hoping to navigate as far as China or the Straits of Malacca in medieval vessels that required continuous maintenance and attention.
Since the late 18th century, Muscat has been the Omani capital, and today, the greater metropolitan area of Muscat covers an area of approximately 1,500 square kilometers.