Since ancient times the traditional market places in Oman have been much more than a place to do trade. Omani souqs are places for social gatherings – a place to be seen and heard when bartering.
Omani souqs are found in many of the towns throughout the Sultanate. One of the first places to visit a classic souq is in Muscat, at Muttrah. The oldest marketplace in the capital, visitors enter Muttrah Souq, beneath a palm leafed entrance located behind Muttrah Corniche, into a world of giddy aromas, local Bedu music and frenetic bargaining; a custom that is considered de rigueur. The best time to visit is either early morning or late afternoon.
Though the souq has been modernised, travellers will soon get a sense of how business is done. Just as they did in ancient times, many traders sit on the floor at the entrance of their shops, with their merchandise piled from floor to ceiling . And the maze of tightly packed, narrow lanes that lead in and out of each other always reveal pure Arabian exotica – gold, silver, textiles, pottery and dates, together with piquant aromas of incense, spices and varying qualities of frankincense, which waft through the alleyways. Household goods are also plentiful including traditional coffee pots and plates, along with handicrafts, incense burners, Bedouin jewellery and silver khanjars - traditional Omani daggers worn by men. Gold and silver are well priced and are mainly sold by weight.
Many of the ingredients found in perfumes such as frankincense, jasmine and musk, are cultivated in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf. And the once prosperous frankincense trade of ancient Oman is still reflected in the thriving perfume trade at many of the souqs.
There are hundreds of fragrances sold in extravagant bottles along with natural medicines that cure many maladies. Nevertheless, it is the Bedouin women’s fragrant bukhoor, a combination of sandalwood, frankincense and natural oils that truly beguiles the visitor.
Oman’s world-famous scent, Amouage -- also one of the most valuable perfumes -- is available at the flagship store, The House of Amouge, in Muscat’s Sabco Centre. Guy Robert, the renowned French perfumer behind the scents of Hermés, Dior and Rochas, was commissioned to formulate the celebrated fragrance, incorporating native Omani ingredients - frankincense and myrrh as well as rosewater extracted from the rarest rock rose found in Oman’s Jebel Akhdar region.
Silver has been one of Oman’s most precious metals for four thousand years. Once considered a symbol of wealth, silver is used in modern day (khanjar) weaponry as well as jewellery. Visitors to Nizwa, a place famous for the work of its silversmiths, will find some superb silver pieces at Nizwa Souq. Other special purchases include traditional crafts, gold jewellery, brass coffeepots, textiles and frankincense. The finest pottery can be bought at the nearby town of Balha.
On Fridays Nizwa’s traditional market literally comes alive. Early in the morning traders and buyers gather at the goat walk at the far end of the souq to purchase camels, goats and other livestock from the local farmers. As a witness to the colour and excitement, visitors will gain a true sense of local customs and market fervour when they view the animated bartering.
On the way to Wahiba Sands – at the edge of the Empty Quarter – is the town of Sinaw, an outpost where local Bedouins do their bartering and trade. Sinaw Souq offers a wealth of classic Bedouin jewellery, clothing and handicrafts. Outside the souq visitors will see plenty of action with the livestock auction, including camels, goats and cattle. Even more entertaining is when the camels kick up some dust before being loaded into the trucks.
Set amid Salalah’s coconut groves in Oman’s southern Dhofar region is Al Hafah Souq, one of the best markets to buy perfume or high-grade frankincense, myrrh, rose and bookhur. Poured into a bucket and weighed, frankincense is highly prized though incense, which is sold in compact silver or copper pots, is also in demand along with the brightly-painted Dhofari incense burners. Local vendors also sell regional food including hummus and mishkak -- Omani barbecue meat cooked over a spit.
Oman’s most famous souq is at Ibra, where the Wednesday market is a ‘ladies only’ event. Operated by women, the souq’s specialties cater to women, which include silks, handicrafts, Bedu jewellery and sandalwood. The real treat, however, is viewing the women attired in their beautiful burqas.
The most captivating souq is at Al Dhalam Market, in Muttrah, with a name that translates in English as “darkness”. Originally constructed from mud and palm leaves, the souq had no natural light and shoppers used lamps to navigate their way around. Once closed to foreigners, the souq has retained its authentic ambience, albeit with lanterns on the walls.
Shopping hours are Saturday through Thursday 08:00-13:00 and 16:00-20:00. Souqs open from 08:00-11:00 and 16:00-19:00. Many shops close on Friday. Opening hours are one hour later during Ramadan.
For further information, contact Sultanate of Oman Tourism in Sydney on 02 9113 5959.