Muscat, the capital city of the little country Oman is a beautiful hidden gem of the Middle East. The city is a unique conglomeration of mountains, sea, and desert. The rusty terrains, the greenish shrub patches and the vast expanse of the sea, host the city’s centuries-old culture and architecture. Modern expansion has engulfed an old village (now a town) called Mutrah (pronounced Maa-tra-ah) into the folds of the city.
This town was the central marketplace of the old city-port. Foreigners and tourists participated in trade exchanges at this historical market.
During my recent visit to Muscat, I had the chance to explore this vibrant place of history and old-world charm.
The first thing that hit me, as I stepped out of my vehicle, was the aroma of the place.It was a unique blend of spices, ittar, sea, salt, a bit of fish (from the large fish market nearby), and many unknown mysteries. The market is right by the sea, close to the attractive display of the Sultan’s ships. Many posh looking shops have sprawled on the side of the road, which almost cover the Darwaza (door) of the souk. My guide led me inside. It was then that I noticed the grandeur of the door. The solid wooden door was decorated with wooden carvings. The overhead panels were adorned with wooden art and traditional hanging lights.
The first few shops I noticed was all traditional ones. My guide showed me a shop exclusively for “ittar,” the fragrance used for all festivals, prayers, and celebrations.
There was another shop only for silver “khanjars”; the national symbol of Oman. Khanjar is a type of “L” shaped knife which is carried by all the Omanis, especially when they wear their traditional attire.
I also saw a “halwai”: a sweet shop that sells authentic Omani sweets. Omani halwa is a very rich sweet dish prepared with date and nuts.
There were silverware shops along the main corridor that stored beautifully engraved jewelry, utensils, traditional ornaments, and knickknacks. But to my surprise, the shopkeepers told me that most of the shops were fairly new. Most of the owners had immigrated from Turkey, Syria, Baluchistan, Iran, Iraq, Poland, and even Greece!
The Narrow Bylanes
As I finished exploring the main decorated bylane, I saw the “other” side of the famous souk. The narrow bylanes, filled with shops on both the sides, reminded me of the wholesale “begum bazaar” in Hyderabad. Each lane is dedicated to a particular item. For example, there is a gold lane for only gold jewelry and an aluminum lane exclusively for aluminum utensils. My guide took me through “short-cuts” within the incredibly complex lane structures. Those impossibly narrow lanes have homes thronged in between. “It used to be a village, we used to play and ride bicycles here”, he said to me. The whole place has an uncanny similarity to the older parts of Hyderabad. I had ventured a little away from the main marketplace without noticing. But a mosque and the sound of “azan” (evening prayers) told me which general direction to take.
The Cosmo effect
Like in many old cities of India, the old and the new house seamlessly together in Oman, as in Mutrah Souk. After a little exploration, I reached a point where the Souk looked very different from the rest of it. The stores were filled with cheap Chinese goods, mass-produced textiles, and seemed like the “Hawker Markets” we see in many places in India. Few stores try to maintain the authenticity, but mostly have given in to globalization, due to financial pressures.
So, if you are a tourist seeking an authentic Omani souvenir here, be cautious. Barring a handful, most shops keep Chinese showpieces and cheap toys. My guide told me, “the structures are old, Madam, but the stores have changed from what it used to be.” He showed me a few places where there used to be handmade basket shops made from leaves of Date trees. “These baskets keep food cold even at very high temperatures. My grandma still makes one”.
With that bittersweet memory and a sense of unfulfilled amazement, I headed home.
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