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The Sultanate of Oman is becoming more popular as a holiday destination but it is still relatively undeveloped for tourists. A visit to the Muttrah area of Muscat, the country’s capital, and to its traditional souk, provides an opportunity to explore an unspoilt corner of the Gulf coast.

Visiting Muttrah

Historically Muttrah was the main commercial centre for Oman. With its large harbour it was ideally placed as a stopping point for ships travelling from Europe to India and China. Today it is mainly a fishing and residential area but its commercial past remains in the busy market area. Visitors may also like to walk along the attractive Corniche (coastal road) that links Muttrah with Old Muscat, although this is best at the beginning or end of the day when the sun is not too hot.

Muttrah’s Traditional Souk

This is one of the oldest souks on the Arab peninsula, although the building itself was rebuilt in the 1970s. A palm frond roof has recently been added to make it more authentic. Because tourists are a relative rarity this is very much a market for local people. The shopkeepers will try to attract the attention of curious visitors but not so insistently as in souks elsewhere.
Traditional souk in Muttrah, Oman
Walking through the souk
It is a pleasure just to wander in the maze of dark alleyways. The souk is divided into different sections: the gold and silver souk has rows of shops piled high with modern and antique jewellery, and there are also sections devoted to household goods, shoes and clothes, and perfumes and spices. Across the street from the souk is the fish market, by the harbour where fresh fish are landed every morning.
Our favourite part of the souk was the spice stalls, with every spice imaginable and quite a few that were unfamiliar to us. We stopped at one stall to buy coriander seeds (at a fraction of the UK price) and entered into a conversation with the owner as to the best way to make preserved lemons. He sold us a packet of his ‘secret blend’, which included chilli, garlic, fennel and a number of ingredients we have yet to identify!
A Trader in the Souk, Muttrah, Oman
Stalls are piled high with incense or spices

The Scent of Frankincense

When you enter the spice souk you are struck by the overwhelming smell of frankincense as every stall holder seems to have a dish of the smouldering resin. In fact, the same scent is to be encountered everywhere in Muscat, from the moment you step off the plane. Frankincense is tapped from the Boswellia sacra tree which grows in profusion in southern Oman. Traditionally it was used in religious rites and for medicinal purposes. It is regarded as a purifier, killing germs and healing wounds. Today it is also used in aromatherapy and as a healthy home air freshener.
Frankincense has been traded by the Arabs for the last 5,000 years and its use is mentioned in the Bible and in mediaeval documents. Its importance to the Omani economy has been recognised by the building of an immense incense burner monument built high above Riyam Park on the road between Muttrah and Old Muscat.
Incense burner monument, Muscat, Oman
Incense burner monument

Visiting the Souk

The souk is open every day except for Friday but the shops close during the hottest part of the day, from 1.00 to 4.30. There are cafés in the souk where you can buy freshly squeezed juices and a sandwich, or at the Corniche entrance you can find the Cornich Café which sells traditional Omani snacks and sweetmeats.
The easiest way to get to and from the souk is by taxi. These are reasonably priced but it is essential to agree the fare before you get in. If you are staying in a hotel the information desk will advise you on the amount you should pay for your journey.
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