Once again we have ventured back to the interior for yet another Amideast excursion. This time, we went on our way down to Nizwa, to explore the Nizwa Fort, its surrounding souk, and Jebel Shams, one of the largest mountain ranges in Oman. Like every great adventure there was a good mix of your typical sight seeing and driving up treacherous mountain roads in army grade four wheel drives. All in all, I’d say it was a very solid weekend!
Nizwa is not more than a hour and a half car ride away from Muscat. In terms of maximizing your travels here, I highly recommend it. The central highway is very scenic, lined with wiry desert brush and backlit stoic mountain silhouettes with a few farm houses scattered here and there. I’m still curious as to how these lovely desert dwellings receive things like food and water without a helicopter or the like, but either way they are quite beautiful.
Nizwa itself is a fairly big city for Omani standards. More rural than Muscat, yes, but there are plenty of amenities and a developed infrastructure. If anything, Nizwa looks more like a town than a city. I should mention this was my second time in Nizwa, as I had visited earlier toward the end of Eid holidays. We were able to look around the city and visit the sites, only this time we weren’t there to visit family friends.
When we finally arrived at the fort, it was mid day and the market had already started quieting down. If you come at the right time, sheep and goats pace the cobblestone roundabout with litte number signs on their backs til they’re ushered into open air trucks for the daily animal auctions. There are even a few vegetable stands throughout the indoor exposition, but that is a littler less spectacular.
I’d say every souk of Oman offers it’s own distinct personality and character. Frankly, the coolest part of the Nizwa souk is the local crafts and commitment to preserving local tradition and culture. Small displays of antique silver, both head pieces and wrist bands, and even a little gold jewelry adorn shop windows. Large wooden shelves display old clay vases and intricate handy work. If it is the right time of year there might even be fresh dates available. The prices are not cheap, but it’s fun for just strolling around. It is nowhere near as big as the Matrah souk in Muscat; in fact it’s nothing more than a couple of streets, but still just as fantastic. With its proximity to the Nizwah Fort it is very worthwhile.
Just a 3 minute walk away is the Nizwah Fort. Building codes here require most residential homes to be rather small, so you can imagine the contrast next to this towering substantial circular fort.
There are multiple forts throughout Oman, but Nizwah Fort, built in the 1600’s, is certainly one of the most famous. In times of war the round tower acted as a stronghold to barricade all opposing forces. I would argue its best strategic assets are the trapdoors built in to the floors. Small holes would allow you to see enemy progress beneath, and if ever a threat, a lever would release a gruesome concoction of scorching date syrup. How painful! The construction with trapdoors and a maze like interior with narrow stairs limiting access is quite ingenious for the time. There are even little pulleys to bring up fresh water from the wells below.
Next stop was Jebel Shams. I was extremely excited to finally see these mountains in person after hearing so much talk. Not ony is the driving quite precarious over unpaved roads along mountain ledges, but the weather can be quite cold as well. In the winter it can be below 0 (32F) and for Omanis this is truly freezing. The journey is not for faint of heart, so it is important to come prepared. Now I am not one to talk. I put my entire NOLS experience to shame, and somehow managed to bring only one shoe with me on the “camping” trip. Luckily it all worked out ok. For Omani standards we were definitely roughing it; though granted, we never went more than a kilometer away from our transportation vehicle and stayed in heated cabins. Our accommodations were not exactly camping and were very nice.
Most of our time there was spent navigating our way up the mountain faces in our 4 wheel drive jeep, jerking up over every rock and pot hole. We eventually made our way up some 45 degree turns just grazing the cliff edges. It was like a scene taken straight out of an action sequence in Indiana Jones. But, since I am writing this post I have survived to tell the tale.
The lookout points definitely shared the grandeur of some sort of American west sublime painting with an Arabian spin. It was a remarkable sight. Every once in a while we would pass a deserted village with nothing left but a herd of goats grazing in the gravel. There are a few people who still live up in the mountains. They rely mostly on micro farming. Some of the land up there is inherited and passed down from family to family and others are distributed through raffle. People have slowly integrated new technologies to make their lives a little easier, through plumbing, air conditioning, and electricity. Some of the housing is subsidized by the government, and these all share a similar design.
On the way back we passed some camels feasting on some sad and dry looking leaves. The panorama is so spectacular in the mountains, it really makes you feel so vulnerable and small against such a surreal backdrop. If I ever have the opportunity to come back, I imagine it would make a very good place for back packing!