Amid bustling ultramodern shopping complexes that sprout in the capital city of Muscat, the old Muttrah souq continues to be an important centre for Omanis and expatriate community when it comes to shopping, especially on occasions like Ramadhan.
Among many of the souq’s charm is the availability of local high-end quality products, that too, at a bargain, as most shopkeepers are more than willing to lower the price for potential customers.
Even though the souq has become a little touristy lately thanks to the large number of cruise ships that call at the Sultan Qaboos Port, it still very much serves the locals.
“While the souq is increasingly becoming a hit among foreigners, the local populace that comprise not only mothers with children but elderly men as well throng the market place to buy their dishdashas, Kuma or other clothing”, said Abdul Salam, a shopkeeper, who has been selling Omani attires for the last forty years.
Muttrah souq, one of the oldest marketplaces in the Gulf, was the trading place for goods that passed through the Muscat harbour from India, China, Europe and other parts of the Middle East.
Thanks to the efforts by the local authorities, the souq has been protected to serve the local and visiting foreigners with an array of products from herbs to spices, household, fabrics, toys and antiques. This bustling souq never fails to fascinate with mind-boggling displays of fine gold and silver jewellery, antiques, frankincense, carpets, rugs and other Omani souvenirs.
“The old and young alike enjoy shopping at Muttrah. Also when occasions like Ramadhan and Eid come, Muttrah is the preferred choice for shopping thanks to the availability of traditional items including dress material”, said Abdul Salam.
The alleys in the souq are narrow and maze-like, but their layout is logical, and finding the way through the souq is relatively easy.
The main thoroughfare of the souq offer mainly household goods, shoes and ready-made garments.
Further inside, you can enjoy the mixed smells of frankincense, perfume oils, fresh jasmine and spices.
A cornucopia of exotic sounds, smells and flavours assails the senses in bewildering yet exciting profusion. The scent of frankincense smoke is everywhere, rich but not cloying, honeyed yet slightly astringent. For hundreds of years, this inimitable fragrance has carried the fame of Oman across the world.
“The main crowd pullers at the souq are shops selling scent, frankincense make-up material and clothes. For children, toys of various types are available at very affordable rates”, said Abudallah al Balushi, who sells frankincense.
Foreign travellers including the Gulf nationals, who visit this souq buy sizeable quantities of these fragrances every year, he said.
Several of the shoppers to the souq get mesmerised in the nostalgic fragrance of the perfumes.
Bottles and flasks of scent, jar upon jar of obscure ingredients are seen at various shops. Civet and musk, ambergris and aloes wood, all varieties are available.
For Mohamed al Lawati, it is part of his life.
“Going over to the souq does not seem like a chore but more like an opportunity to visit my friends. We catch up on each other’s lives, talk about the news around us and it is a place that I find more enjoyable to visit than anywhere else”, he told Observer.
Even though the souq has undergone renovations in the recent past, the authorities have ensured that the ancient trading centre’s structure and profile are not affected.
“The shops have remained almost constant, retaining that element of familiarity for regulars. It is the palpable bygone spirit of the souq that draws locals, expatriates and tourists to this striking destination”, said Al Lawati.
While recollecting of its ancient glory, he said, the souq consisted of shops made with mud and leaves and the place resembled a village corner with men meeting up to chat and drink kahwa.
“Although many large shopping malls have sprung up in and around the capital, most locals come here for shopping, especially during feasts”, he said.
A long stroll from the arch entrance through to the arteries of alleys that take one from artefacts to toys and gadgets is perfect if you are
seeking to leave all things modern outside the bounds of the souq and experience sights and sounds that ring in tune to the history that it has been a witness to.