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.
The Traditional Muttrah 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!
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.
Visiting the Muttrah 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.