Wandering amidst the maze, and my supply of water at an end, it was time for some refreshment.

In the beating heart of the souq is the al-Ahli Coffee Shop, somewhat of a local institution known for its egg and chicken cheeseburgers and, despite the “coffee shop” moniker, refreshing juices from all manner of exotic fruits. I moseyed on in, taking a seat in the corner near the window so as to observe both the bustle inside the shop and the flow of subterranean traffic outside. Ordering a medium watermelon juice — at the very reasonable price of a single rial (about $2.60, as Oman’s national currency is one of the strongest on earth) — I let myself relax next to a large portrait of a smiling Sultan Qaboos. The upbeat tunes of Bruno Mars and Rihanna playing in the background, I took a sip of my juice. Ah, real squeezed watermelon. No sugar added — delicious.

Properly hydrated and more relaxed than I’d felt in years, it was time to see the next item on any “must-visit” list for Muscat. Emerging from the dark, the whole world was illuminated in golden light by the falling rays of a swiftly setting sun. Sticking my thumb out amidst the steady traffic around the corniche, it was only a matter of time before a white taxi pulled over.

“Where would you like to go?” asked the young man who appeared to be about my age in perfect English.

“The Grand Mosque,” I replied. “Do you know it?”

“Yes, very well. Where do you come from?”

“Germany,” I answered.

“Very nice. What have you been doing in Muscat?”

“I’m a writer, so I’ve been seeing the city. I hope to write an article about my time here. But I can’t do so without visiting the Grand Mosque!”

Heading west away from the water, we continued to make conversation. Hamed, as my new friend was known, was studying at university and he drove a cab to help pay for his studies. He grew up about 45 minutes from Muscat, but rented an apartment in the city because it was closer to where he studied. It was a beautiful conversation, but paled in comparison to the wonder that we soon beheld.

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is, without question, one of the most spectacular sights in the world. Able to accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers, construction of the white marble mosque — open daily for Muslims, and for non-Muslims Monday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. — began in 1995 and was completed in 2001. Its sprawling exterior may be gorgeous enough, but it’s the interior of the men’s prayer hall that is truly jaw-dropping.

Covering the interior is the second-largest single piece of carpet in the world. Containing 1.7 million knots, weighing 21 tons and taking four years to produce, it covers a colossal 4,343 square meters (46,748 square feet) in 28 different colors of classical Tabriz, Kashan and Isfahan designs. Twenty-eight colors in varying shades were used, the majority obtained from traditional vegetable dyes. Above this hangs also the second-largest chandelier on earth, a 14 meter (46-foot) marvel handmade by German company Faustig.

Strolling across the grounds and taking a peek in the Islamic studies center, where one can browse books about Islam in almost any language, suddenly a sound split the air.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.

It was the Adhan, the core of which is the Islamic statement of faith known as the Shahada (“There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”). Signaling the evening prayer, the booming voice sent shivers down my spine.

An incredible stillness hung in the air long after the Adhan concluded.

“Shall we go pray?” asked Hamed.

My response was almost immediate.

Inshallah (God willing), yes.”

“Let us go quickly. They’ve already started.”

Salat is the practice of formal worship in Islam. Its importance is indicated by its status as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and is fard (obligatory) for almost all Muslims. But if we were going to pray, we first needed to ritually cleanse ourselves, an act known as wudu.

Wudu is the Islamic procedure for washing parts of the body using water, usually in preparation for salat. The reasoning is written in the Qu’ran: “For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean” (Qu’ran 2:222). Every mosque has special facilities for washing, and here was no different. Washing hands, feet and face, we were ready to head back into the prayer hall.

Several dozen men stood in a line, facing east toward Mecca as is required during prayer. Most were clad in white robes — as Hamed was — but some wore shirts and trousers. Their numbers would have easily filled most buildings, but here were dwarfed by the sheer enormity of the room. We joined them, performing prescribed movements and reciting verses from the Qu’ran while offering prayers to Allah in a series known as a rakat. Touching the ground with my forehead, nose, hands, knees and toes in prostration (the sajdah), everything seemed to come to a standstill. This moment, this place — it was all so utterly beautiful. Unburdening myself, I simply let go, focusing only on the moment and forgetting all the cares and worries I carried with me. Wudu had washed me physically, but this was emotional, spiritual. Islam literally means “voluntary submission to God,” and that’s exactly what I did.

Following prayers, Hamed and I strode barefoot across the spotlessly clean smooth marble of the mosque’s exterior grounds to the cubby area where we’d left our shoes (footwear is, of course, not to be worn inside the prayer hall). The air had cooled significantly, but it was still far too warm for any kind of a jacket.

“So,” he began, “what do you think of the mosque?”

I thought for a second. “Allahu Akbar.”

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