Abigail Healy discovers age-old traditions and a warm welcome in Nizwa
I dunk a date into a glistening pot of sesame paste, chew its toffee-like flesh and wash it down with a shot of cardamom-laced coffee.
“That was the Omani hello,” says our guide Lotfi as we bid goodbye to two men who had welcomed us to share their refreshments in a shop full of local delicacies.
Here in the ancient city of Nizwa, as is the case all over Oman, offering a warm welcome is an age-old tradition. And this city, once the country’s capital before Muscat took on the title, has many more ancient customs and treasures on show.
The shop is part of the souq – a marketplace full of stores bearing antiquities, spices, earthenware jars, jewellery and trinkets. In the centre is a covered circular space, which Lotfi explains is used for selling livestock, especially goats, on Fridays – apparently the best time to visit to appreciate the souq at its liveliest.
Yet the jewel in the city’s crown is Nizwa Fort. Its towering circular walls were originally erected in the 17th century to defend the city’s position on a major trade route and were gradually restored between 1985 and 1995.
Our guide, Shaima, takes us to the fort’s entrance.
“Imagine we are an approaching enemy,” she says excitedly as we begin to climb the stone steps, pointing upwards at a grate high above the doorway.
“They would pour hot water and boiling date syrup through that on to attackers below.”
Looking down, she shows us a hole in the floor – now covered with glass to avoid the peril facing ancient invaders.
Luckily we make it safely to the top of the fort, where we are rewarded with views across the city to the jagged mountains that fringe it.
Adjacent to the fort is a castle, once home to the ruling Imam and his family. Shaima points out the date store – where that treacherous syrup was made; a secret escape tunnel in case the fortifications were breached; and an irrigation system for showering.
A museum also includes information on Oman’s history and traditions. Some of these are brought to life in the courtyard, where two men weave traditional baskets and a woman makes traditional crispy yet chewy Omani bread on a hot metal plate.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into traditional life and well worth recommending as a day trip for clients staying in Muscat (about an hour and 40 minutes’ drive) or en route to the mountains.
And as is the case throughout this ruggedly beautiful country, they’ll surely be met with a warm Omani welcome.