Located approximately 90 minutes southwest of Muscat, and surrounded by date palm plantations, the historic market town of Nizwa has become one of Oman’s top tourist hotspots. I arranged for Ahmed, my Omani friend and guide, to take me on a day trip to the country’s former capital, once famous for its Islamic conservatism. These days, tourists are encouraged to visit its bustling souq and impressive fort, though dressing modestly is a must.
We arrived to find the animal market well underway, and as I wandered through the extensive parking lot, deals were being done in raised but amiable tones. Two leather-faced Omanis exchanged riyals and rubbed noses, in traditional male greeting, as four young camels peered down haughtily on the transaction from the back of a Mitsubishi flatbed.
Meanwhile, the goat auction was in rapid swing, with small Omani boys playing with kids as they bleated for their mothers in the ring. It was a friendly but frenetic scene of sights, sounds and smells, changed little since its seventh century heyday as Oman’s cultural heart. We picked our way through the narrow streets, lined with caged fowl, as veiled women browsed barrows laden with pomegranates and watermelons were sold from the back of a pickup.
Small doorways led into vast halls dedicated to different wares; traditional jewellery, fresh vegetables and dates. In another room, young men were jostling, three deep, to get their hands on the most delicious of Omani desserts; halwa. Literally translated “sweet”, it is Oman’s national dish, with distinct flavours of saffron and cardamom with a soft jelly texture. After a free tasting session, I bought a pot of the heavenly elixir for later.
Outside, around a pretty little square were outlets selling terracotta pots and tourist trinkets, and alleyways of fragrant frankincense and oudh, floating on the dusty heat of the morning. It was there that I stumbled into a tiny shop, lined floor to ceiling with weapons.
Shotguns and rifles were freely available as were swords and traditional curved daggers, or ‘jambiyas’. It was a popular place with young Omani guys in white thobes, drifting in and out with their glasses of steaming sweet red tea.
Nizwa Fort was a few steps from the souq, and I spent some time in the inner courtyard, where local women demonstrated handicrafts and cooked Omani snacks on large hotplates. I watched a traditional sword dance, while easing my hunger with a freshly made qurus (Omani pancake), before heading inside the dimly lit castle rooms which housed the museum.
The tower was built first, in the 12th century, followed by the rest of the castle in the 1650s, all authentically renovated in the mid 1990s. From the top of the 30 metre tower was a breath-taking panoramic view, across the date palms to the mountains, in every direction.
Nizwa Fort is one of the best examples of ancient Omani architecture. Alongside the souq, it’s the perfect place to step back in time and dip your toe in the warm, welcoming waters of Arabic history and culture.