Oman--An Independent and Historical Arabia
Dubai and Abu Dhabi may have the most famous real estate on the Arabian Peninsula, but they are not the largest nor the most diverse of the Arabian states. Second in size only to Saudi Arabia, Oman stretches along the Gulf of Oman and much of the Arabian Sea. Often overlooked in favor of its glitzy neighbors, Oman is full of treasures to discover, from the capital Muscat with its thriving souk and delightful museums, to still intact ancient forts and castles in the mountainous countryside. Add in the Straits of Hormuz for a little modern adventure, and you have a fascinating country to explore.
With its strategic location along the Arabian Sea, Oman’s prosperity paralleled the rise and fall of seafaring routes, at its height in the 18th and 19th centuries to obscurity in the 20th. For awhile Oman was controlled by the Portuguese, reclaimed by the Omani’s in the mid-17th century. Climbing around the ingeniously designed Nizwa Fort, I could easily imagine the reigning Sultan’s forces defending the countryside against attack. There are turrets, false doors, secret passageways, and a single narrow staircase to the tower. There are narrow shafts in the walls, appropriately named murder holes, for pouring boiling oil on the invaders. There are dark passageways with wooden planks for floors that could be removed, plunging anyone on them to certain death in the deep pits below.
As exciting as it is to explore the Nizwa Fort, the surrounding town is also fun to explore. The Nizwa Soup is one of the oldest in the country. The extensive marketplace of fruits, vegetables, and meats is now housed in a large building. At one end of the building is a beautiful display of sweet treats and local purveyors urging sampling. My favorite part of the souk was the adjoining area of small artisan shops. There were no bargains among the handicrafts, but there were wonderful daggers and beautiful jewelry. Tempting, but I restrained myself from buying.
A short drive from the Nizwa Fort is the Jabrin castle, an elaborate 17th century castle. I could have spent much more time exploring all the rooms than the time allotted. There is the fantastic Sun and Moon Hall with windows placed in an exact order to always have light, either from the sun or moon. At one time the ceiling and walls were covered with elaborate painting, a little of which is still visible. The vast courtyard gives a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, and the high towers (accessible by stairs so narrow I was clinging to the walls) were perfect for defense. My favorite place was the date storeroom, designed to let the juices of the crushed dates accumulate. I was told the date syrup did double duty—consumed by the castle’s inhabitants or heated for use in the murder holes instead of boiling oil. Would that be a sweet death?