If you visit any Arab city you should definitely also visit a local market. In Muscat, the Omani capital, is the traditional bazaar Souq Matrah located near the port. Tourists and local people are walking or lounging on the promenade.
The port of Muscat has an important strategic location. From here, heavy loaded ships sailed out towards distant China or northern Africa. Even today you can see some wooden ships here (dhau). But first of all, before you enter the market, you should take a look at the “palace on water” which is usually berthed here. It is the luxurious yacht Al Said owned by Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said, he ordered it from the German shipbuilding company Lürssen. It has 155 m in length and is the 4th biggest yacht in the world. Information about its equipment are secret but it is whispered that it contains its own helipad, a cinema, a large concert hall with 50 pieces of orchestra and wellness. The yacht can accommodate 65 guests and a crew of 150.
And now we enter the Souq – one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. However, it does not look like that because it was completely renovated and decorated in 2006, everything is clean, perhaps too clean… They are very strict with tidiness in Oman: if they catch you with a dirty car you will be given not only a penalty but also some detergent to wash your car immediately. If you throw any rubbish on the sidewalk, you will be fined with 40 €.
Anyway, the market keeps its Oriental flair thanks to the labyrinth of narrow alleys where you can get lost and many overfull shops where you do not know where to look first.
As at some other marketplaces in Arab countries, there is a great choice of spices, fruit and vegetable here too but you can find also goods typical for Oman. First of all, it is incense – you will feel its smell everywhere. You can read more about the Omani smelling resin and vessels for burning it in our post: Oman – A Breeze of Incense Smell.
Dates also belong to the typical products of the sultanate. During the biggest ship transportation boom, dates were the most important trade goods. Even the capacity of the old wooden ships was measured with the number of sacks full of dates that fit onto the ship. According to Greek records, Oman exported dates in 80 AD already. It was still the main export item in the 19th century. Dates were exported mostly to the US and India. Omani dates are famous for their high quality, there are more than 150 different types of date palms growing on the territory of the sultanate. They have different names according to their taste (butter, banana…). The best sort is called khalas and has a taste like butter with caramel. Dates are a symbol of Omani hospitality and are served together with coffee instead of a sweetener.
My first thought was that there were just tourists at the market. Well, Omanis from all over the country come to this place mostly before or during their Islamic religious holidays to buy garments and jewellery. I was really riveted by Omani silver. There is lots of silver here, they sell it literally on kilos!
Oman has a very rich jewellery tradition. Bedouins did not wear silver jewels just for embellishment but it also represented their wealth. In addition, the female body was the best hiding place for it because it was considered untouchable for any enemy even during war times.
Both women and men in Oman wear rings: women – a ring on each finger, every ring has a special name, men – mostly one or two rings with a red or blue stone.
This is khanjar, a typical Omani silver dagger shaped like the letter “J”. It is a symbolic weapon. When young Omani men reach adolescence they wear the dagger as part of their formal clothes during important meetings, events and other formal occasions. It is a symbol of their masculinity and also indicates their courage, respect to traditions and social status. The handle is made of silver, the scabbard mostly of ivory with some silver filigree. It is tucked underneath a waist belt. Now it is considered a “social taboo” to pull it out since the only case men would do this would be to seek vengeance or to defend themselves.
Those who are coming here to buy some garments have a big choice as well. There are lots of colourful textiles on the shelves and many colourful dresses in the shop windows. Anyway, it seemed to me that abbayas – black female topdresses predominated. Sometimes it looked like a train of mourners…
Some shop assistants (migrant workers from different Asian countries like this one from Bangladesh) ironed or decorated dresses directly in their shops.
Kumah is a typical embroidered cap for Omani men. There are so many patterns and combinations of colours that you can hardly find two identical caps.
Dishdasha – a long, white robe with a round embroidered collar – is commonly worn by Omani men. The collar on dishdasha is closed by a textile button. There is a small tassel (furakha) on the button loop which is put in perfume, rose water or oil. Men also perfume their hair and beard. The scent is an inseparable part of Omani culture, the production of perfumes is one of the oldest crafts on the Arab peninsula. They are very important during different ceremonies, feasts and rituals as weddings, birth, funeral. Every Omani woman possesses a lot of small bottles, flacons, boxes and cups full of various scents. Generally, a smelling mixture is called bokhur, there is its own recipe for producing it in every family which is handed down from mother to daughter.
But if you are looking for something very, very special, then you should leave the market and go to the Bait-al-Zubair Museum which presents the cultural past of the sultanate. In the museum shop, there you will also find Amouage.
This is one of the most expensive perfumes in the world, a symphony of more than 120 unique, precious natural ingredients from all over the world. The perfume does not contain any alcohol which is a big advantage for a country where alcohol is prohibited. It was created at the order of the Omani sultan, so it was not necessary at all to consider the costs for the finest ingredients. Of course, the perfume is sold not in just ordinary boxes but in flacons made of French lead glass and decorated with 24-carat gold. Only the most world-famous jewellers have the privilege to produce them. The cap on the flacon with male perfume has the form of the Omani dagger while the one on the female perfume looks like a dome of a mosque.
If you have visited the museum and tested the expensive perfume (when I was testing, a drop of it fell down on the floor, oh hey! At least 10 € on the floor! 🙂 ), then you should walk to the palace Al-Alam, one of the six residences of the Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Until 1972, a clay palace of his father stood in this place. But with the change on the throne, the “Omani renaissance” had begun as well. Could you imagine that even bicycles had been prohibited before? And that there were only 10 km of asphalt road – of course, it was that one which led to the sultan‘s residence.
The palace Al-Alam with blue and golden columns is not open to the public. The sultan does not reside there very often, he uses it only for official visits.
We had to satisfy ourselves with the possibility to take pictures of the palace from behind an iron gate only. A beautiful coat of arms – the national emblem of Oman – shined on it. I am sure it is one of the most photographed objects in the whole country! Sometimes you have to wait until the space before the emblem becomes empty… There is a royal crown, two crossed swords and a khanjar which symbolize the historic weapons utilized by the people of Oman.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri