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Sunday, November 27, 2016

11/4: Nizwa's Goat Market & A Hair Raising Drive

One of the experiences I had been most looking forward to all trip was our attending the famous Friday Market here in Nizwa that began at 7 and ended by 11 in time for morning prayers. We had known about it months ago and being able to come here for just a few hours had dictated our travels before and after our time in Oman.
We got to the huge parking lot about 8 and had a tough time even then finding a spot to park. The big draw for both locals and tourists was the weekly Goat Market when hundres of tradtionally clad Omani men come to trade goats, cows, and other livestock.

We knew we were headed in the right direction when we began to see goats being led to the parking lot.

Just a couple of minutes' away was the actual Goat Market itself. It consisted of a large covered area inside with an elevated, circular platform where many men stood. Men, up to three deep, also stood all the way around the elevated area leaving about a four foot wide area. 
That empty space was where a steady stream of goat herders circulated with their goats in tow between the potenital buyers on the platform and those standing on the outer ring.

For me, the thrill was this quintessentially Omani spectacle which we would likely never have an opportunity to view again and that's what our trips or adventures are all about. 
The man on the left was the goat herder hoping to entice the man on the right to buy his goat after the latter had 'inspected' it. Assessments of a goat's worthiness appeared, from an ignorant outsider's view, to be very quick and superficial.

I stayed on the periphery gazing in wonder at the spectacle in front of us for a good while. Then I was able to see a break in the passing of the goats and quickly darted to the other side so I could stand on the platform for a different view.

Bringing over a reluctant goat for inspection to a potential buyer:

This was the only Omani woman we saw at all at the market. Look at her very different facial covering. More about that later...

A huge thrill of the entire experience for me was beig able to take photos of some of the participants in the market. Very few of the men had a head covering like this man.

I stood entranced for a good hour or so at the market and could have stayed for longer still. Steven, however, wisely said we needed to move on as there was still so much more to see here in Nizwa and we still had many more places to stop before the end of the day.
The Goat Market was just one small part of Nizwa's Friday Market. It was fascinating strolling among the farmers selling their crops in the open air.

The air was redolent with men selling garlic here.
There was also a good-sized enclosed market area but it was mostly empty - I think we had gotten there too late.

In the souk's central square there were displays of pottery from the nearby town of Bahla which we had visited yesterday.
If you've been reading a lot of these posts, you know by now that two of the markets listed were of particular attraction to me: the crafts and the date market!
I can't remember the last time we saw gun shops. These ones were packed to the gills, I noticed.

Examples of the famous Bahla pottery:
Small intricately carved wooden chests were a popular item for sale.
An entire store selling nothing but dates: how could we go wrong?! We just needed to find it.
Lots of men gathered around about twenty or so men selling guns in the open air just outside the shops. 

We wandered around the East Souk next which was again only open in the mornings. It was the only one to escape renovation and looked incongrously ramshackle compared to the surrounding buildings. 
Photos of Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos, were everywhere in Oman, even in the souk.

This souk provided a much clearer idea of what Nizwa formerly looked like with tiny shops clustered beneath crumbling mud brick arches and a makeshift corrugated-iron roof propped up on weathered wooden beams. Steven and I always preferred seeing the original, rather than the sanitized, versions of a city's or country's past.
At last, the Date Souk which I had been so looking forward to!

Before coming to Oman, I always thought a date was a date was a date. However, here I discovered that, just like there are many varieties of apples, there are lots of different types of dates.
We were welcome to sample each of them. Most were mouth-watering moist and gooy but others I found very dry and not enjoyable. Steven doesn't care for dates like I do so he wasn't as tickled being in the date shop as I was. I was a little disappointed when I told one of the men which types I wanted to buy and he reached up and took down a half kilo, pre-packaged bag of each rather that getting them from the open containers. I haven't opened them yet so hope they are as fresh and yummy as I remember their being when we get home. Ivy: Any chance you will 'help' me eat some too?
If I had thought before I was like a kid in a candy store, I realized I really was when Steven pointed out this display of individually wrapped dates covered with chocolate, almonds and everything else you could imagine. 
I nicknamed this man as Mr. Date as he knew everything there was to know about dates.
I had reached my own nirvana after sampling a chocolate-covered date. Of course, I had to buy some of those too. (Even though they were exposed to extreme heat in the car over the next couple of days, the chocolate surprisingly never melted. What a waste that would have been!)

I would have given my eye teeth to have brought home some of the date syrup but I just had visions of the plastic jar opening up in my bag over the next six weeks of our trip.
Five gallon or so buckets of perfectly arranged dates: now they would be nirvana for dentists!
There very many different varieties of halwa sold in the enclosed market; halwa is a dense, sweet desert often garnished with dried fruits and nuts especially popular in the Middle East. There weren't any samples but it reminded me of the Christmas Pudding my English mother used to make.

We only saw men both selling and buying it. I felt distinctly out of place because there were no other women present, not because anything any Omani man did or said toward me.

Just beyond the souk was Nizwa Fort but we stopped at this shop first that had a very good selection of Omani crafts.
These were silver message containers that unscrewed and opened up so that loved ones could put messages inside. We bought one of the smaller ones and wrapped it up very carefully in paper towel and bubble wrap as we knew we wouldn't be home for a good while and wanted to make sure it didn't get damaged in transit. (For whatever reason, it caught the attention of a guard as we went through security at the airport in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe several days ago. I had to unpack my entire suitcase to find it and show it to him before he was finally convinced it was nothing suspicious. Mind you, it had gone through security about 20 other times with no issues previously!) 
Nizwa Fort was built over a period of 12 years by Imam Sultan bin Saif in the late 17th century. Nizwa's importance in the long struggle between Muscat and the Interior was reflected in the fort which was built as a residence and administrative center for the Imams. The massive, 110 foot high, circular tower was built with foundations sunk to an additional 90 feet to withstand vibrations of mortar fire.

An 18th C. Swedish Finbanker 18 pounder canon held pride of place near the entrance.

The Date Store: Just like at Oman's Jabrin Fort which we had visited yesterday afternoon, Nizwa Fort had prodigious quantities of dates stored inside the castle as a defensive measure against a long siege. There were two date stores at Nizwa. This store or room, the smaller of the two, could accommodate a mind boggling 2.5 metric tons of dates at one time. 
The bags of dates weighed up to 70 pounds each.

In peacetime the date juice was used in the kitchens but when danger threatened, it was heated in large copper boilers and made ready to pour on attackers through 'murder holes' located above strategic doorways in the fort and castle.

The Ablution Room or the area where people would wash up. I had only ever seen that term used in a religious context before as in the ritual washing of arms, legs, etc before entering a mosque.
This and adjacent rooms served as accommodation for the 'shawi' or shepherd who used to take the Imam's goats out to graze every day at sunrise. The shawi also gathered up any stray animals and kept them until they were collected by their owners. Any unclaimed animals were sold at auction at the souk with the proceeds helping needy people in the area.

The Fort had some interesting displays. One was about Chased Decoration. Nizwa silversmiths were renowned for their chased decoration, a technique based on the use of small chisels, awls and other hand tools to punch, impress or inscribe the silver surface. Elaborate patterns were gradually built up in this manner with arabesque, floral and geometric ones being the most popular.

The Date Palm is unrivalled as a plant food source and virtually every part of the tree finds a practical use in fufilling the utilitarian requirements of daily life. The annual yield of a single date palm tree may be 270 kilos of dates which contain approximately 60 % sugar as well as fats, proteins and minerals.

Fonds are lashed together to construct summer houses, livestock pens, fences and sun shades.
Fruit stalks have flexible branching stems that are used as simple brooms or rakes. The woody portion of the stalk is split into thin strands to make coiled baskets.
Date fruits, apart from being eaten or exported, are used as animal fodder and as a curing agent in leather tanning and indigo dyeing.
Palm fiber is plied into rope and twine and used to make saddle padding for donkeys, filters for coffe pots, scouring pads and tinder for the lighting of fires.
Trunks are split lengthwise into quarters for ceiling rafters and cross sections serve as stands for water jars. Surplus wood is used as fuel for firing pottery and boiling dates, wheat and halwah.
Copper in Oman: Copper has been mined and smelted in the Hajar Mountains near Muscat since at least the 3rd millenium BC. On the basis of its copper wealth, Oman - then known as Magan - developed far-reaching trade connections and played an important role as the principal supplier of copper to Mesopotamia during the height of the Bronze Age. 
Copper was shipped to Mesopotamia in the form of bun-shaped ingots created by simply pouring molten copper into depressions in the earth. These examples, believed to be 4,000 years old, were found near Bahla where we were yesterday.
You may recall earlier in this post the photo I took of the only woman at the Goat Market and I mentioned I would include information on her facial covering. I was so glad to learn about it at this display as I had never seen any Arab woman wearing anything remotely like it before.
Indigo Face Masks: The woman's 'burqa' or face mask is an ttraditional part of the traditional Omani costume, individually fashioned by its wearer in a design indicative of the region or tribe. The burqa provides protection against the harsh environment and, when crafted from natural or synthetic indigo, is beleieved to have both curative and talismanic properties. 
A complicated and often misunderstood article of clothing, the burqa connotes for Muslims a range of implications including status, class or honor. Most importantly though, it is considered as a rite of passage for young girls into womanhood.

We just happened to climb these stairs and were we glad we did as they led to another set of stairs which had all sorts of unexpected features.

The first thing we noticed was this sign!
Looking up we spied a narrow hole which  was one of the 'murder holes' through which boiling date juice was poured onto any invader who managed to penetrate this far into the fort.
Pitfalls: To catch enemies off guard in the darkened passageways, some of the stairs had wooden planks that could be removed to expose deep, gaping pits which were certain to put an end to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into them! Luckily, these deadly traps were sealed over for visitors when the fort underwent renovations. 
I was glad we were able to ascend the stairs unscathed! They led into the drum of the tower with 120 positions for miltary personnel to stand guard on the parapets. 

At the top of the parapet - 130 feet above the souk - there was a panoramic view of the landmark brown-domed mosque next to the fort and the maze of flat-topped houses and the belt of palms surrounding Nizwa.

Several of the more than 400 gun emplacements still had cannons in place. One of them was a gift from the city of Boston to the first Omani ambassador to the US!
This was one of my favorite shots.
To the northeast on the top left, we could just see the almost 10,100 foot high Jebel Shams, the highest point in eastern Arabia and our destination for tonight! It seemed an awfully long distance away .

My bag of dates I had bought in the Date Souk was feeling awfully heavy at this point, I remember!
A final view of the massive tower at Nizwa Fort: 

We had to leave the Fort by 11 as it closed to allow Muslims to attend morning prayers. Luckily, one of the shops was still open so I beetled in there as I wanted to get some of these really pretty silver beads that were sold by weight. They weren't cheap but I only got a few because of always having to think about how much something weighed since I/we would be lugging everything home from hereon in.

These carpets were the last items we saw for sale as we walked back to the car, ready for a long drive ahead of us before reaching Jebel Shams. For me at least, the experience attending the Goat Market was everything I had imagined and hoped for. We both really had fun also wandering through the many parts of the Souk before seeing exploring Nizwa Fort. 
By 11:15 we were on our way to Al Hoota Caves as Oman is peppered with sinkholes and caverns. 

Since we hadn't made a reservation ahead of time, we had to wait two hours for the next tour which was of some concern because of where we still wanted and needed to go before the day was done. But we decided since we had come out of our way to the cave, we might as well stay put rather than leave. They had a lovely waiting room so i spent a good chunk of time typing up notes about our visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Does that ever seem like eons ago now!
There was a small musem so we also whiled away some time there. The vast majority of animals in Al Hoota Cave are not true cave dwellers. They came either by coincidence with floods or they escaped underground temporarily from heat and drought. Bats, who hunt their prey while flying at night, often live in caves. Their excrement remains in the caves and small insects live on it; they are, in turn, eaten by spiders. One of the spiders discovered in Al Hoota Cave was entirely new to scientists.
Sample of gypsum found in Al Hoota Cave:
The oldest known flowstone - a deposit of limestone - in Al Hoota Cave was from about 335,000 years ago! They can come in many different shapes.

The Al Hoota Cave extended for some three miles all told but only about three quarters of a mile was accessible. There was an impressively large cavern dotted with clumps of stalactites and stalagmites, plus an underground lake.

The temperature in the cave was a very pleasant 21-25 degrees Celsius, so considerably warmer than any other cave we've ever been in.
Neither Steven nor I are big fans of geology but it was still very neat walking amid these fascinating rock sculptures that seemed to have a life of their own.

A certain type of ish called 'blind fish' lived in this small lake in the cave.
Steven and I remarked that we had never seen boulders like these strewn about in any of the other caves we've explored.

This was the only train in all of Oman so it was a big hit for the many children on the tour especially since we had to wait so long for it after the tour ended!
Steven and I commented how we had never seen men in any other society care for and attend to the children to the same degree as Omani men did. Even though, in virtually all the instances women were also present, it was the men who carried and seemed to take care of the young children. 
When we asked this young Omani man about it, he just seemed to take it all in stride. He said men of his generation wanted to be far more involved in their children's lives than their own fathers had been in theirs. 

From Al Hoota Cave, we headed east to Al Hamra which was only a few minutes away. It was one of the oldest villages in Oman and, according to our travel notes, one of the most impressive, traditional places in Oman.

It seemed a little farfetched and grandiose to us to describe what we saw in Al Hamra as being very impressive but perhaps it was all in the eye of the beholder!

The same travel writer also wrote about the very steep road from Al Hamra to Misfat Abreyeen and its being 'one of the country's prettiest vilages.' You'd have thought we should have been a little skeptical but nope, we had to see it for ourselves! The town was nothing at all to write home about but the views from the town looking down into the vally were indeed well worth the drive up the very sharp incline.

Date palms as far as the eye could see:

Interesting doorway in Misfat Abryeen:
The men were going to the mosque for late afternoon prayers.
Dates anyone!

I wish I had taken more photos of the store signs with the mangled English throughout Oman as they were by far the norm and quite amusing!
Our final destination, Jebel Shams, awaited us if we could only climb to the top of Oman's highest mountain on the treacherous, 'gravel' very narrow road that was strewn with boulders.

A sign alerted us not to proceed if the water level reached a certain height on the road!
Steven did fabulously on the most difficult road he said he had ever driven on. Because of the abysmal road conditions and the series of sharp hairpin turns, his avearge rate of speed was no more than about 12 mph.
The views as we climbed ever higher were fabulous but only I appreciated them as Steven was concentrating so hard getting us to the top in one piece. We had thought we were going to be getting a 4x4 rental car when we picked up the car a few days ago as we needed it for this drive but all the car rental company had was an AWD so we made do.
Huge fissures like these in the rocks were fairly common.

This picture of mountain goats is so blurry unfortunately because the car was jerking from side to side trying to get traction on the rocks which passed for the road!
The views as sunset approached were stunning but Steven was so concerned about making sure we got to the top while there was still light.

For good reason,10,088 foot high Jebel Shams is known in English as Mountain of the Sun.
What an absolute sense of accomplishment Mario Andretti, aka Steven, felt once he got us to our little abode safe and sound after a hair raising 80 minute drive just as the sun set. 
Our 'home' tonight was an Arabic Tent which was comprised of a large heated room with one light and an attached bathroom. It was much like being back in the yurt we had stayed in while in the Mongolian countryside three years ago though this bathroom was a thousand times better!

Dinner and breakfast were included in the room rate as there was nothing else available at the top of the mountain. 
Even I get tired when I think of all that we did today: from attending the fabulous morning Goat Market, visiting the Nizwa Souk and Fort, hanging around to see the Al Hoota Caves, then the 'heralded towns' of Al Hamra and Misfat Al Abryeen, and finally the scary but exhilarating drive to Jebel Shams. I would like to tell you that tomorrow we were just going to kick back and relax but that wasn't in the cards. You'll soon see.

Posted from Kruger National Park, South Africa on November 28th, 2016.


  1. To a Rock person, the cave was very beautiful and interesting. Race on Steven "Andretti". Lil Red

  2. Lil Red,

    What I should have said, is that we too loved the experience of being in the cave AND admired the stunning formations but, not knowing having a geology background or a good guide, left us ignorant of what we were viewing.


  3. Like the reference to kid in a candy store lol. That was a lot of dates!

  4. Great pictures. I am fond of the cave ones. Years ago I went on a special tour @ Carlsbad Cavrens. Had to wear helmets with lites on them. Some areas we were on our hands & knees.
    I am missing you guys.

  5. Freda,

    Miss you so much too but we'll be back before you know it. The Al Hoota Caves were very special and so unlike the ones at Carlsbad. We never had to wear helmets and lights there - guess we took the less adventurous tour. I wear a headlamp daily but only to stay up late and write the blog so I don't disturb Steven when he conks out hours earlier!

    Hugs from Cape Town!


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