The Sultanate of Oman is becoming more popular as a holiday destination but it is still relatively undeveloped for tourists. Leaving the hotels and resorts to explore more widely gives an opportunity to discover an unspoilt corner of the Gulf coast. And, if you are visiting Muscat, the capital city, it is likely that it will be Muttrah and its tradtional market (or “souk”) that is the highlight of your trip.
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 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. There are two museums: Ghalya’s Museum of Modern Art and Bait Al Baranda, which tells the history of Muscat. And you can visit the bustling fish market (again, this may be best at the beginning of the day…)
The Muttrah Souk: A Traditional Market
The main attraction of Muttrah for visitors is the traditional market. 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 in more popular destinations.
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.
Fresh Local Spices
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 could not 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.
How to Get to Muttrah
The easiest way to get to and from Muttrah 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.
And, when you are ready to eat, have a look at my post on Eating Out in Muscat.