I have now returned from the Middle East. I can report that Oman is extremely wealthy and ordered, and that Iran, in its geography and its past, is majestic.
In Oman’s capital city of Muscat, there is a massive place of worship called the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This Sultan (Qaboos bin Said) has ruled Oman since the early 1970s. Everywhere, there is evidence of his lavish spending on the country he has so successfully ruled. The national Opera House, an edifice of white marble, is an imposing example. But the Grand Mosque is the pinnacle.
My guide gave me some of the facts. It took six years to build, finally opening in 2001. The main minarets rear nearly 50 metres into Muscat’s deep blue sky. Inside the main space hangs a sparkling chandelier weighing 8,5 tons; and on the floor at 60 by 70 metres is the world’s largest carpet, comprising 1700-million knots and 28 colours. The carpet had been made in Iran by 600 people working fulltime for four years. The grandeur of the place – the acres of intricate mosaic, the symmetry of stained glass, the vistas from the formal gardens – reminded me of another place of worship I had visited some years before.
The Basilica Notre-Dame de la Paix, the largest cathedral in Christendom, reared out of the African bush at Yamoussoukro, nominal capital of Cote d’Ivoire. This place of worship had also been built by a successful leader. In one of the stained-glass windows, Felix Houphouet-Boigny (president of Cote d’Ivoire from 1960 to 1993) is depicted kneeling before Christ, his arms outstretched is if in offering. ‘He is giving the church to God,’ someone had told me.
The Grand Mosque was almost certainly a gift that had been given in similar humility. It struck me that these impulses, expressed by Christian and Muslim alike, bound the worshippers of the world together in a simple knot. But the thought seemed not to accord with reality.
I asked my guide how much the Grand Mosque had cost to build. He smiled. ‘I always give the same answer,’ he said. ‘Only God knows.’