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Souks and castles

Oman day six


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Nizwa

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One of the pools at the Falaj Daris

Breakfast at the Falaj Daris was better than dinner, with a good omelette and reasonable coffee. I took some photos around the hotel before we met up with Said in the lobby at 8.30, with a packed programme of sightseeing ahead of us.

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The other pool

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Hotel lobby

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Hotel sign


Our first stop was in the old centre of Nizwa, where we visited the souks and the fort. Said took us first to a date shop to learn about the different qualities of date (there are 42 varieties in the country) and to sample some of them. I could definitely tell the difference in the quality of the best, known as ‘Khals’.

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Entrance to Nizwa souq

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Dates for sale

From there we went to a shop making the traditional Omani halwa, a soft sweet made from date syrup and spices, and of course we had to try some of that too.

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The halwa shop


We then walked through the produce soup and the spice souk. The latter is the only one that hasn’t been restored and modernised and thus is the only one with much character from a visiting photographer’s perspective. But we left photography till later as first we were to visit the fort with Said.

Nizwa Fort

We arrived at the fort to find a group of singers and musicians performing in the courtyard so stopped to listen and take videos.

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Door to the tower

Nizwa Fort is apparently the most visited sight in Oman despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, a little over-restored. I prefer a picturesque ruin, or at least something that feels old. But the restoration has been well done to give a good idea, I believe, of the original structure.

The fort was built in the 1650s on the foundations of earlier defences by Immam BilArab bin Sultan Al Y`aribi (quite a name!) – remember, this part of the country was ruled by the Imams at that time, as only the coast was colonised by the Portuguese (a division that continued into the 19th century and to some extent even the 20th). It guarded a strategic location at the crossroads of trade routes. Its most significant defensive feature is the huge keep or drum tower, which was built when gunpowder was already available in Oman so has many openings for weapons.

It also has the traditional defensive mechanisms common to Omani forts, including narrow slits above the doors known as ‘murder holes’ for pouring boiling water or date juice. These are visible above all the strategic doors in the tower. These doors have smaller ones inset such as we saw in many places in Oman, so that people could come and go without opening the large door – the smaller opening was easier for the guards to control.

The fort was built above an underground stream to ensure a good supply of water even during a siege, and there were several wells which, being inside the castle walls, could not be contaminated by attackers.

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The drum tower

We started our visit with Said by climbing the tower. I asked him at the foot how many steps it would be and he said about twenty, but by the time we reached the very top it was clear he had lied! OK, he said, maybe more like thirty – so I counted them on the way down and made it over ninety! Said’s excuse was that if he’d said there were so many I might not have climbed them, but of course I would have done.

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Roof of the drum tower, with just a few more steps to go!

It was certainly worth it for the extensive views over the town and countryside beyond. We could see how the town of Nizwa is strung out along the valley, emphasising the importance of the fort’s location.

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Views from Nizwa Fort

Most of the rest of the fort buildings are home to a history museum. Photos here show various parts of the building, and the neighbouring souks, before, during and after restoration. The museum also has lots of displays about a variety of topics - Islam in Oman and in Nizwa in particular, mosques, the succession of Imam rulers, a timeline matching significant moments in Oman’s history with those elsewhere, the recorded impressions of famous visitors to the city over the years …. I was most interested in the costumes and silver jewellery, but we didn’t linger very long, as we wanted to be able to spend more time in the souks.

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In the museum


Outside we found that the musicians were taking a break and were happy, even eager, to pose for photos, as was the woman demonstrating spinning and weaving.

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Musicians at Nizwa Fort

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Some of the musicians, and lady demonstrating spinning

In the souks

By now Said had left us to explore alone and we chose to use our free time to go back to the souks for more photos and perhaps to shop. I loved the atmospheric old spice souk, which also sells practical kitchenware. Despite the fact that we were by no means the only tourists visiting, it felt completely local in nature.

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In the old spice souk

From here we returned to the much more modern produce souk, selling mostly fruit and vegetables. Said had warned us that many of the men here didn’t like to have their photo taken, but in fact all but one of those we asked said yes and posed happily (although I confess the bottom photo here was 'shot from the hip'!).

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In the produce souk

On the upper floor is the handicrafts souk, where I thought I might find a souvenir or two. But I was disappointed with the range of goods on display, most of which seemed to come from outside the country, e.g. Africa and India. We were surprised too to see ivory, crocodile handbags and other banned animal products - presumably they are permitted if they qualify as antiques?

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Lamps for sale in the handicrafts souk

The shops surrounding the fort and souks sold mostly crafts and other souvenirs aimed squarely at the tourist market, apart from one section which had a line of shops selling weapons – I have since read that these are strictly for hunting purposes!

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Weapons shop

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Shop signs in Oman tend towards the literal!

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Friendly cat

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Sewing machine repairer, and old door


We bought a cold drink in the souk’s coffee shop and took it outside to enjoy in the ‘tourist rest area’ where we had arranged to meet Said. A friendly little tabby cat came along and was happy to let us make a fuss of her. Then Said arrived and it was time to return to the car to start today's drive out of Nizwa and back up into the mountains.



On the way out of Nizwa we passed the Grand Mosque, the second largest in the country after Muscat’s and like that one a gift to the people from Sultan Qaboos, but only completed two years ago. At Said’s suggestion we also stopped to use the loos at our hotel before the drive to Jabrin.

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Nizwa's Grand Mosque, from the car

Jabrin Castle

Arriving at Jabrin we bumped into another friend of Said’s, this time a former teacher, and had a brief chat before going inside.

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Said with his former teacher

Jabrin (also spelled Jabreen) Castle is a very different fortification to Nizwa Fort, and I liked it much more. It was built between 1679-1692 under the same imam who was responsible for Nizwa, Immam BilArab bin Sultan Al Y`aribi. By the time Jabrin was built the country was more stable, so although it has defensive elements, it was built primarily as a home for the imam and his family and as a place for Islamic education. The imam had moved the capital here from Nizwa (it was to move back again after his death) so this was a place where he received important guests and resolved legal disputes among his people.

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Jabrin Castle

It’s possible to hire audio guides here but we went around with Said who pointed out the main features as we went.

We entered through the massive door, which has an ingenious hinge system and spikes reminiscent of the elephant spikes on the doors of Indian forts, even though there have never been elephants in Oman.

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The massive door, hinge on the left
- I asked Chris to place his hand against it to illustrate the width

On this lower floor we saw some old food storage jars and a series of small rooms at the base of one of the towers which were used for storing dates in sacks. Said explained how, as the weight of the piled up sacks crushed the dates inside the sacks, the juice would seep out and run down the stone channels on the floor to collection jars placed ready for the purpose. The syrup could then be used in cooking, in times of peace, or during a siege be boiled and used for defence by pouring it through the ‘murder holes’ above the doors, as at Nizwa. A reminder that this is still a castle despite the elegance of some of its rooms!

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Food storage jars

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Stone channels in the date store

The main building is five storeys high, including the battlements, but unlike Nizwa we ascended gradually, visiting rooms on each floor as we went! The rooms are arranged in two blocks, which connect only on the ground and top floors. We climbed the stairs to the wooden walkway that runs around the central courtyard on the first floor. The architecture and atmosphere reminded me of buildings I have visited in Marrakech such as the Maison Tiskiwin.

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Central courtyard looking up

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Around the courtyard

There is some Arabic calligraphy on the wall here which Said told us was in an ancient script, and which I have seen described as graffiti in some sources.

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Said pointing out the writing on the wall

On this floor we visited the courtroom where the imam would pronounce sentence on those accused of crimes. In one corner is a separate tiny exit, no bigger than a window, for those pronounced guilty, from where they would be taken to the prison cells on the ground floor (one for men, one for women), while the innocent could leave by the same door through which they entered. Furnishings here and throughout are limited to rugs, cushions and a few storage chests, as is traditional in Arabic culture.

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The courtroom
- the small exit door is at the far end, in the centre of the photo

Next to the courtroom is a series of dining rooms which like several others retain their original beautiful ceilings, as does the conference room also on this floor. My photos of these ceilings weren’t too successful, but fortunately I made a better job of it in later rooms! One of these rooms would be set aside for women to dine, one for the imam and his inner circle, and one for the remaining men.

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Dining rooms

Next to the conference room Said showed us a small room which was designed as a horse stall – yes, on the first floor! No horse actually lived here however – it was used as a waiting area for the imam’s horse when he had called for it to be saddled but was not yet ready to leave. A special set of shallow steps enabled the horse to be led up here.

From here we climbed a flight of stairs which skipped the second floor (as I mentioned, the rooms don’t all connect on this level, and besides, Said was saving the best till last!) to emerge on to the roof. From here we had views towards the small town and the mountains beyond.

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The view from the roof

There is a room here which served as a mosque and another as a madrassa or Quran school. Here I did manage to capture the beautiful ceilings!

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Entrance to the mosque

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Mosque ceiling, and view from a window

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View from the madrassa , and its ceiling

Chris climbed higher, on to the roof of the mosque which served as a lookout, while I stayed below taking photos.

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Battlements of Jabrin Castle
- Chris is in the light shirt, towards the left side of the photo

We then descended to the floor we had skipped, the second floor, to see the most ornate rooms, those of the imam’s private suite. These included the Whispering Room, so-called because it was here that the imam would withdraw to confer with his closest advisers, speaking softly so that no one outside could hear their deliberations, before making his pronouncements on the rights and wrongs of a case brought before him.

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In the Whispering Room

The most famous room in the castle is on this floor, the Sun and Moon Room. This is where the imam would receive his most important guests. The ceiling is painted to look like Allah’s eye watching from above. The room takes its name from the 14 windows set in two rows, half of them facing the sun and half the moon. Thus the room always had light, either from the sun or from the moon.

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The ceiling of the Sun and Moon Room

From here a short corridor with an ornately carved barrel ceiling leads to the women’s suite of rooms.

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Carved calligraphy in the corridor

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The Women's Room

We returned to ground level down the staircase which provided direct access to the imam’s rooms and suites, which is decorated on both walls and ceiling with paintings and motifs. The verses of the Quran were intended to be recited by any visitor before visiting the imam. One of the wooden steps is deliberately wonky in order to make a noise when anyone steps on it, so that no intruder could take the imam by surprise.

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The stairwell, with carving detail

Bahla

Leaving Jabrin our next stop was in Bahla where Said drove up to a point overlooking the town and fort. This fort is the only one in Oman to be UNESCO listed and has only fairly recently (2012) reopened after extensive restoration. Online sources tell me that there are as yet no real facilities for visitors in terms of labelling, exhibits or audio guide, which is possibly why a visit wasn’t included on our itinerary. A shame though, as I think it would have made an interesting contrast to Jabrin and Nizwa, having been built at an earlier time when gunpowder had not yet been introduced to the region. From what I have read it is a rabbit warren of a structure, built into the contours of the rocky mountain on which it is perched.

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View of Bahla - town and fort

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View of Bahla Fort

My source for the following interesting quotes is the excellent blog Once in a Lifetime Journey:

‘The Banu Nabhan [tribe] is said to have built Bahla Fort along with other rulers of Oman from 1154 until 1624, when the Yaruba dynasty took power. Unlike Shia and Sunni, the Banu Nabhan tribe followed the moderate Ibadism branch of Islam, like many of the ancient Omani Imams and today’s modern Sultanate.

The Banu Nabhan were known across Arabia at the time because they controlled the trade in frankincense from the Yabrin oasis through the Middle East and to the Mediterranean coast of modern day Iraq and Syria, ancient Mesopotamia. There are several other frankincense routes, but this was one of the most important.’

‘Legends about the Bahla Fort abound. In one, a woman is said to have built the Fort’s walls in one night alone. Other black magic tales talk about the restoration of the Fort being delayed because of the acts of an unseen force at night: stones erected and mortar plastered during the day would come unravelled in the night and be replaced by a ruin in the morning. Perhaps an explanation can be found in the fact that 1400 years ago, a man was stoned to death by the villagers of Bahla for practicing wizardry. The same legend also talks about a tree growing in the citadel that would bring an untimely death to anyone who touched it because the sorcerer had cast a spell on it.’

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Bahla Fort from the town

We had lunch at a restaurant in Bahla - unprepossessing in appearance but serving us an impressive selection of dishes including Arabic bread, hummus, spicy morsels of tuna, chicken pieces, rice, dhal and a spicy vegetable sauce, with fresh fruit salad to finish.

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Restaurant in Bahla

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In Bahla
- maybe the business on the left could get a spelling lesson from the one on the right!

As this is becoming a very long entry I will split today's adventures and continue in a following one

Posted by ToonSarah 12:23 Archived in Oman Tagged buildings castles architecture history views fort market cats oman Comments (12)

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