Mutrah Souq in old Muscat is one of the oldest markets in Oman, dating back about two hundred years. Because of being symbolic of Oman’s old world charm, which is evident in the traditional handicrafts and goods sold there, most tourists begin their visit to Muscat with a trip to Muttrah Souq.
When you arrive here, you would notice, except for an arch indicating the entrance from the seafront side, this traditional market doesn’t quite announce its presence in Muttrah. There is also another entrance to the market at the opposite end which opens to the interior of Muttrah.
A prototype of old Eastern markets, characterised by narrow winding alleys roofed with wood, this souq is also referred to as ‘market of darkness’, due to its myriad of alleys and roads lined by shops that block the sun during the day. This name applies specifically to the section that extends from the Prophet’s Mosque to Khawr Bimbah.
And as if two names were not enough for this souq, the east and west parts of Muttrah Souq, separated by Khawr Bimbah, are also known as ‘the small market’ and ‘the large market’ – the market of darkness being the small market.
There are some things you can do and some things you cannot in Muttrah Souq. You must dress decently while strolling in this market which is frequented by local Omanis, expatriate residents as well as tourists and visitors. Some tourists who hop off cruise ships for a day trip are often seen moving around in shorts and singlets which is not acceptable in Omani culture, especially for ladies. While picnic attire is acceptable, it is advisable for ladies to wear outfits that cover their shoulders and knees.
As you enter the market, traditional aromas of perfumes and incense burning fresh in some stalls overpowers you, giving a very traditional ambience to the place. And then, handicrafts like silverware, daggers, clothes, sweets (Halwa), spices and braziers (receptacles in which frankincense is burned) all around makes you feel lost in a new world that’s different from what it was outside the main gate. Most visitors come to this market to buy traditional goods.
Strike good bargains
You can strike good bargains if you know well how to but if you are a novice at buying traditional goods, be prepared to be taken for a ride. It’s good to come along with an Omani friend or guide, and if you know the exchange value of your currency in rials, you would be able to gauge the price of traditional goods. However, there is no common yardstick that applies to all countries in this matter – what you consider priceless might be on offer for a song or what you think is insignificant might cost you a fortune.
Up for grabs in most stalls are traditional goods, including caps, scarves, formal/informal garments, perfumes, frankincense, imitation jewellery and traditional home décor, from antique showpieces to furniture. You can be sure to get the purest form of frankincense sold here, and inquiry at a few shops can let you know what the correct rate should be. Also, some fine spices as well pure saffron is available here, and if you dig Arabian perfumes, you can expect some real good scents that will haunt you for days after your visit.
Don’t expect to see ATMs and money exchanges all over the place, though one exchange does exist at the far end of the souq. And always strike bargains in Omani rials, not US dollars or other currencies, to be sure that you are being charged fairly for goods purchased.
Gifts and mementos
Besides tourists and visitors, a large number of expatriate residents and citizens, too frequent this market all through the year. While expatriates mostly look for traditional goods and handicrafts to present their guests as mementos, locals come for authentic traditional attire.
Munir al Balushi and Darwish al Balushi, seen at a mussar shop said they have to make a visit to Muttrah Souq during Ramadan every year though they also shop at other malls in town. “We come here every year to buy mussars in our favourite designs and colours and we always get what we want,” said Munir, while Darwish added, “the quality of goods sold here are good and they have a traditional touch you can’t find elsewhere.”
Qusai al Ghammari, an engineering student seen shopping with his father and brother at a cap store, said, “This is the right place for kummas – caps. The designs and the weaves are done in purely Omani style and they are available for reasonable prices. We come here regularly for caps and dishdashas but the options for women shoppers are tremendous – they can shop for hours on end.”
All through the lanes, the rush is mainly for caps/mussars, garments and traditional perfumes. But there are numerous vendors seen selling their wares on tables in the lanes, mainly imitation jewellery and other trinkets for ladies.
The unique part of shopping at Muttrah Souq, some shoppers said, is the fact that the new generation gets an opportunity to experience the old world charm. Besides moving around the colourful stalls in close proximity with other shoppers, one gets a chance to bargain, sample goods and strike good deals, something that’s not possible at malls.
Shahin Mohammed at Gifts and Novelties store said he had to add traditional goods along with mussars and dress materials to cater to popular demand. “It is not just people in Muscat, those from other cities, too, come here for Eid shopping.
Another old-timer at the souq, Mohammed Ali, a vendor from Kerala, India, who has been at the souq for the past 25 years, admitted that customers have got divided with the mushrooming of many malls and hypermarkets in Muscat but “shopping at Muttrah Souq is a tradition that many Omani families have been following for generations,” he said.