Nizwa Fort rose high above the city while the smell of grilled kebab meat wafted around the car park as I stepped out of the car and into the dry heat of this Omani city.
The sound of cattle and horses rang out across the car park as animals were loaded onto the back of trucks by the old gates that lead into the heart of Nizwa. In the back of a pick up truck a man was fanning the flames of a makeshift coal BBQ and layering skewer after skewer of meat over the grill.
This was Nizwa, an old Omani city around an hour’s drive inland from the coastal capital of Muscat. Nizwa is a city as old as the country itself, a city that was once indeed the capital years ago in the 6th and 7th Centuries. Today the importance of the city is still profound, the Nizwa Fort- its present state dating back to the 16th Century- has long been a place of power and sanctuary in the mountainous region that the city guards and the Nizwa Souq, one of the oldest market places in the country, continues to be the primary place of trade for the remote Omani communities that live in the inland mountains.
I was here in one of Oman’s oldest city’s to explore the Nizwa Fort and to walk through the shops and market stalls of the Nizwa Souq. And, if I was lucky enough, I hoped to see in person the cattle and livestock market that takes place within the walls of the old city, a market that has taken place here for centuries.
After a quick kebab from the back of the dusty old pick up truck in the car park I was off in search of the market place.
But I was too late…
The lorries loading up in the car park were now driving off the last of the animals which had been at auction in the market. Behind the city walls there was only the odd goat walking around- a common sight in Oman- and the stalls were empty.
I’d missed the livestock market. Everything had been cleared. Things were done early here it would seem, and with the sun heating up the stones underfoot to blistering temperatures I could see why.
And it wasn’t even midday…
The Nizwa Souq
The Nizwa Souq is the central market place for the whole district. Whereas the Souqs in Muscat have over the years become more centred on tourism as their original purposes are overtaken by the growth of the city’s modern infrastructure and businesses, the Nizwa Souq has retained its old purposes, and although many of the shops in the old city do sell touristy trinkets the vast majority of the auctions, stalls and shops still sell primarily local produce.
This was the pace to buy camels, cattle, fish, goats, frankincense, vegetables, dates, horses-To order feed for your horsey friend, click here. Anything and everything. And although I’d missed the central livestock auction, the rest of the Souq was still very much open for business.
Exploring The Nizwa Souq
The Souq was divided into sections, each specialising in its own particular product. Inside the fruit and vegetable market vendors had crates of fresh food stacked by their stalls, while along one edge of the large, open building were tea and coffee stalls brewing up refreshments.
At the end of the veg market, Omani’s were jostling and haggling over one of Arabia’s most important and historic products. Frankincense. The aromatic, distinct smell of burning frankincense filled the corridors, and wafted out of the windows into the bright streets.
Across the street though, things weren’t quite so pleasant to smell. The fish market looked like it began and finished early too, before it got too hot. Most of the traders had already packed up, or were cleaning up the mess, but a few still persevered, trying to sell their questionable looking remnants to the last buyers of the day.
The Date Shop
Dates are an ubiquitous Omani fruit. Locals gift dates as a sign of hospitality, as a welcome to their home, their country, their hotel… everywhere.
And the date shop was of course, no exception.
I sat own with the owner, enjoying a sample of the different dates they produced in the region and sold in the shop- with no pressure to buy either- while we talked about his family and our different countries, and sipped on hot, cinnamon flavoured coffee.
His shop was stacked with dates. I never realised before this how many different types, flavours, methods of packing, or drying all formed a part of the date industry. It’s big business here, and there is a date for very occasion and for every taste.
Away from the food and produce sections of the Nizwa Souq, traders stock their shops with crafts and items from around Oman and from Nizwa. I saw whole shop walls covered in ornate Khunjars, a ceremonial Omani knife, antique rifles, hand shaped walking sticks- many of which hold hidden sword blades inside them- and gold and silver ornaments.
Many of the crafters still work in Nizwa itself, even in the shops themselves, fashioning Omani style jewellery, clothing and weaponry in the tradition of their ancestors. And of course, the odd souvenir was for sale here too, but it wasn’t an overwhelming part of this Souq.
After the minaret’s of the mosques, Nizwa Fort is the tallest tower in the city. This old fortress has gone through many changes, rebuilding and reconstructions over the centuries. It’s been destroyed, it’s been rebuilt, and still it stands as the centre piece of Nizwa.
In its current form, the Nizwa Fort dates back to the 16th Century, but it stands on the foundations of many forts before it.
The tower is surrounded by a layer and labyrinth of high walls meant to deter any intruders, themselves imposing obstacles and formidable defences.
The circular tower though is the most impressive structure. A narrow, dark staircase leads to the large, spherical top which is surrounded by even higher walls.
From the top, I was afforded the most all encompassing view of Nizwa possible, the sand coloured buildings below all displayed in front of me while the mountains rose in the distance.
A Modern City With An Ancient Soul
With the oppressive heat bearing down on me it wasn’t long before I escaped the sun on the top of the Nizwa Fort and made my way back through the Souq and to the city walls.
On the drive back I noticed the more modern supermarkets and shops on the outskirts of town, away from the old centre of Nizwa.
Despite this modernisation though, I was amazed that Nizwa has still retained a true level of authenticity. Despite the supermarkets people still choose to shop in the old fashioned Souq, people still need to bring their cattle down to the markets to auction, and people are still keeping old traditions alive.
Nizwa is a modern city, with an ancient soul.