I am a huge fan of the Middle East. The exotic desert landscapes, the mysterious and timeless style of the local people, the sound of the call to prayer, the spices of the market… all of them stick in my consciousness like a memory I want to cling to forever.
However, the region can be challenging for westerners, especially when, like me, they are blonde and female. This is why I particularly loved Oman. A highly traditional country which has still managed to modernise in a sympathetic and respectful way, I felt comfortable there from day one. Respect for women is sincere in this country on the edge of the Arabian peninsula; I felt safe wherever I went, and the souqs were hassle-free. And then there is the stunning beauty of the country – the rocky coastline, where traditional dhows are still made and sailed; the gorgeous desert oases lined with palm trees and babbling streams, and the magnificence of the rolling desert sands, their vastness spreading deep into the heart of Arabia. The land that time forgot; but also a land looking firmly to the future, on their own terms.
I have many vivid memories of Oman, but one of the most memorable experiences was a trip to the town of Nizwa, deep in the heart of the country between the dunes of the Sharqiya Sands and the dramatic mountains of the Al-Hajar range. Nizwa has a long and rich history. One of the oldest cities in Oman, it served as the capital during the 6th and 7th centuries and was a renowned centre of learning and culture. The city today, with a population of just over 70,000, is a crossroads some 1.5 hours’ drive from Muscat, centred around the historic Nizwa Fort and, close by the castle walls, the souq.
Nizwa market, held every Friday in the heart of the city, is like a journey back in time. Outside lies the modern world, with a car park playing host to trucks of all shapes and sizes. Livestock is unloaded from pickup trucks, and working men and women sit on deckchairs in the shade of the vehicles, taking a break from the heat. But, passing through the high walls into the marketplace itself, everything changes. Gone are the vehicles and technology; in its place are shops and market halls, livestock trading and glittering gold and silver jewellery. Nizwa souk is divided into distinct areas, and the first you will come to is the most (indeed, only) touristy area. Shops sell pottery, beautifully painted in bright colours, and sparkling trinkets to suit all pockets. A group of men sit around a table in an alley between shops, playing cards. And, coming and going, market traders continue the business of the day as they pass in and out of the gateway with their goods for sale.
On the street leading off from the shops, fruit and vegetable sellers set out their stalls on the ground. Close by, a market halls keeps other fresh goods undercover: meat, more vegetables, and sweetmeats such as dates and candies. The dates themselves are a sight to behold; of all shades and varieties, they are laid out in a colourful and irresistible display. Spices are everywhere, their contrasting colours beautiful and exotic as they lie in deep tubs ready to be weighed and sold. And everywhere there is movement and noise, as the white robes of the men and dark abayas of the women form a timeless picture in the modern, tiled market hall.
But the biggest draw of Nizwa souq for visitors is the livestock market. Located at the end of the souq itself, the livestock market is a large, open-air ring surrounded by a low wall on which traders sit to do business. When we arrived, sheep and goats were being paraded by their owners in a slow, steady circle; both lambs and older animals, the babies in their owners’ arms, were sized up by the jumble of men in dishdashas, the long traditional Arab robe, with pillbox hats or turbans atop their heads. The market is noisy with the bleats of the animals and the frantic negotiations of buyers and sellers. Off to one side, animals awaiting sale stand tethered, often supervised by young boys. Most of those present are men and boys, but there are also a number of women, clearly visible in their black abayas and hijabs. Many wear the traditional Omani face covering of a pointed leather mask, mysterious in the hot desert sun.
Trade in the livestock market is firmly in live animals. No animals are slaughtered; traders will take their purchases home to be reared there and await their destiny. The animals appear well cared-for, if a little traumatised by the experience if the volume of bleating is any indication. Once the sheep and goats have been traded, it is time for the cows to make their entrance. Paraded in an anti-clockwise direction like their smaller cousins, the cows seem a little more reluctant to comply, and a little more keen to assert their authority. Watching, photographing and filming, I had to make a hasty dash to safety as a cow broke free of its owner and bolted straight towards us. I made eye contact with the man next to me on the low ledge I’d leapt onto; we both laughed in a shared moment of relief.
Once you have exhausted the excitement of the market, it is just a short walk onwards to Nizwa Fort. A haven of calm after the chaos of the livestock market, the historic castle lends itself to simply wandering and exploring the ramparts. With a spectacular view over the town to the mountains beyond, it is a place to gaze over flat roofs and swaying palm trees and pinch yourself: you are truly in Arabia.
The drive from Oman’s capital, Muscat to Nizwa is around 90 minutes’ or 140km. Possible as a day trip, Nizwa is also a great base to explore the mountains and desert, including Bedouin tribes in the Sharqiya Sands and the spectacular mountain passes over Jebel Shams, the region’s highest peak. Check out, too, the deserted village of Al Hamra with its 2- and 3-storey mud-brick houses. There is so much to explore in Oman’s historic interior.
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