Nizwa ..hidden mystique of antiquity

Places along with people remain etched in memory to resurface at opportune moments. Flipping through my Oman File, 1998 and hand written, I came across unused notes on Nizwa, the mountainous stronghold and heart of Oman. The notes had been for a feature on ‘Silver jewellery of Oman’ for Khaleej Times WEEKEND (weekly magazine) as Jewellery is a woman’s adornment and Omani women did not lag behind.

It had been interesting meeting with private collectors and sellers in Muscat, and the top source name on their list was Nizwa. Silver was a metal of choice, before gold and precious stones made their entry, and Nizwa the centre of silver craftsmanship.

Another reason for my visit to Nizwa was its historical and geographical centrality in Omani history as the former capital of Oman till in 1970. The present ruling family, the Al-Saids, shifted power base to Muscat. 

Now 21 years later I remember the craft cornucopia at end of journey via wildering, rugged mountain scape and green wadis (valleys) to the hidden mystique of Nizwa or Nazwa. (The few photographs I could find help me recreate the dioramic pleasures).

1998: The single-carriageway, for most of the 122 km drive to Nizwa from Muscat, is uneventful except for the contorted silhouettes (Al Dharkiya mountains) that appear to be closing down on you, even though for a short distance. Visions of the 1975 Universal Studio tour (Los Angeles) when our tour bus rolled through parted waves of the tempestuous ‘Red Sea’ created for the awe-inspiring scene of TEN COMMANDMENTS. Shrieks and screams had reverberated in the bus before ‘Moses’ our driver, tackled the waves to take us across. In this case… the studio lot. › ush › studiotour › theredsea

My Biblical reverie was busted by a car horn, as it was on rarest of rare occasions a driver honks in Oman and secondly our 12 year old son wanted to pose against the jagged crevices. Selfies were still unknown and his modus operandi was to take a few  steps, wave a handkerchief, the conqueror of the brooding copper streaked jutting rocks’. The leisurely traffic gave him the opportunity and at times we would have the entire stretch to ourselves. This was a developing modern highway through towering uplands of Jebel Akhdar on one side and the peaks of eastern Hajar mountains on the other. The panoramic views of mud and brick abodes, strategic towns and forts, that were once battlegrounds or saviours from marauding tribals from Arabic lands add to the olde worlde charm of the surroundings. Walter Dinteman in FORTS OF OMAN writes “Widespread throughout Oman, forts and watchtowers add a picturesque element to the country’s landscape. They were built clinging to cliffs above wadis or straddling craggy peaks throughout the interior with sombre silhouettes providing stark backdrops”. 

Nizwa: Nestled amidst these multi-hued green rock surfaces and a winding wadi bed is the town of Nizwa, the former capital of Oman. The town was/is strategically located, at base of Western Hajar Mountains, on an ancient trade link of incense and copper caravan routes between connecting interior Oman with Muscat and Southern Dhofar, the region of frankincense trees.

During 7th century, Nizwa was one of the first towns in the region to receive Muslim emissaries, sent by Prophet Muhammad led by ‘Amr Ibn al-‘As. Travellers and scholars were frequent visitors including the quintessential Ibn Batuta, scholar and intrepid traveler. Batuta described Nizwa as ‘a city enveloped by orchards and streams, with fine bazaars and splendid clean mosques.’ Describing the people, he said “They are a bold and brave race and the tribes are perpetually at war with each other.” 

The prosperity of Nizwa and the region impacted the tribes and leading to lawlessness. In early Islamic history a sect calling themselves Khawarj broke away from mainstream Islam. A section led by Abdullah ibn Abadha, established their own sect known as Ibadhi after its leader with Nizwa was their holy city and stronghold till few centuries ago. In 1890, the ‘ferocious conservatism’ intimidated travellers to enter the city at their own risk. Noted British explorer Wilfred Thesiger was dissuaded from entering Nizwa as people feared for his life. 

In 1970 the present ruling family, the Abu Al Saids, shifted the capital from Nizwa to Muscat and present Nizwa or ‘The Pearl of Islam’ continues to maintain its traditional decorum alongside a modern swagger. 

We cross wilayats (small towns) like Bidbid, Samail, and Izki and popular touristy ones, Bahla, Rustaq, Ibri, famous for their forts and artefacts. To me the  look outs and forts, constructed with mud and indigenous material, appear fragile but these ‘mud’ mirages had halted marauders in their strides. On a poetic level I visualise the hardy tribesmen careening down the mountain sides challenging invaders or harassing/looting the hapless loners crossing these inhospitable mountains. 

On return we took a detour to Bahla for a quick look around of Bahla Fort and world famous Bahla pottery. Bahla was once legendary for witchcraft, we heard stories of humans being turned into goats and being new to the country it was rather hard convincing ourselves that this might be heresy. Maybe it was one of the reasons for avoiding a longer stay in Bahla.   

Finally Nizwa and our first stop is Pizza Hut, on the outskirts, for a quick bite to beat the Friday lunch hour closure. I was never in favour of packing picnic lunches or snacks and learnt through experience when we visited Sohar on a Friday. It was noon and shutters being pulled down as we drove around in circles, finally spotting a sweet shop. The shop owner realising our ‘hunger desperation’ heeded to our request for some Omani halwa. A lesson learnt, carry food or eat before 12 noon on weekly off days (Friday for Oman).

Nizwa Fort. We manoeuvre through narrow stone lanes to Nizwa Fort that had been constructed by Sultan ibn Saif of the Ya’ruba dynasty who had succeeded on the throne by driving away the Portuguese from Oman. The Fort, originally constructed in the 9th century, was renovated in the 17th century by Sultan Al Yaribi on a design based on canon-based warfare. The unique feature of this solid, impregnable Fort is the 120 feet round tower, with canons placed at strategic points. In 16th-17th century cannons were the chief track weapons in West Asia. In early 1950s, the large round tower was bombed by the British Royal Air Force, at behest of Sultan Said bin Taimur, to suppress the revolt of leaders of the Imamate of Oman. The struggle was for the newly found oil wealth of Oman. The Sultan was victorious and rest is historical present. 

We walk the interior of the Fort, a maze of rooms with false doors, secret tunnels, narrow stairs, spike studded doors and holes to intimidate intruders with pouring hot oil or date syrup. The rooms now display artefacts, tools and daily use items connected to the Fort. The dungeons, at the base of the Fort meant for prisoners, had thick stone walls to withstand any barrage of mortar fire.

The high point is the top with its spectacular 360-degree view of Al-Hajjar mountains and the town below. This was once a strategic advantage of the Fort and is now a selfie and photo-op opportunity for visitors. Miles and miles of Date palms provide relief against the barren multi-hued mountains and this is the iconic image we carry with us. 

Nizwa Souq: The colours break out the minute we step into Nizwa Souq resplendent in its traditional shades. The Souq is must visit on any day but on Friday mornings one can enjoy the noisy milieu of bartering and haggling to sound of bleats. The livestock market, next to the souq, is held early Friday morning. We reached Nizwa after 12 pm and missed the ‘market’ though buyers and sellers were still around. Loitering around, immersed in the diorama, I happened to look around and was in for a momentary shock. I thought it was Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said (now the late Abu Said) in a black SUV or one of those sturdy big cars. The Sultan was said to drive around incognito, amongst his subjects to get to know his people better. I must have continued staring as the man behind the wheel smiled. That broke my ‘visions of greatness’ and I hastily moved on, following family into the Souq. But for days afterwards I could not get over the fact that it could have been the Sultan. But then again, it was middle of the day and the Sultan is said to have preferred late evenings for incognito forays. 

All was forgotten with the Friday crowds of tourists and locals jostling for space in the Courtyard and alleys of the Souq. Nizwa Souq is made up of a main entryway and a series of separate buildings that house a Date market, fresh produce market and other stalls. Livestock trade takes over one section at the back of the Souq. The Omani men and women are mostly in traditional Bedouin costume and Omani dress (Abayas for women and Disdashas for men). To me it was an opportunity to observe traditional culture and to enjoy the flavours of the shops and cafes adjoining the souq. 

Nizwa Souq, along with Muttrah and Salalah souqs had undergone renovation with mud shops replaced with cemented cubicles around a quadrangle. The market concept remained the same with addition of vegetable shops. 

The maximum buzz was around the pottery, antiques, textiles and armaments sections. It was to be my day ogling at the stunning range of antiques and artworks and exquisite silver jewellery, khanjars and guns of different sizes and varieties that jostle for attention along with ornaments. Nizwa is famous for its unique copper kettles and utensils. Being a Friday most shops were closed and the ones open were crowded. 

The first cubicle we walked into was glinting with rows and rows of khanjars against a red background. The curved dagger or Khanjar is the most ‘distinctive’ feature of Omani men, traditionally worn at the waist. The salesman schooled me into salient features of Omani khanjar/Nizwa Khanjar. The craftsmanship is unique with delicate silver work as they are family heirlooms passed down from generations and worn on special occasions. The Omani design is different from the rest of Arabia because of its right angle bend. The sheath is made of gold or gold and silver with bone and silver handles and the rings on the sheath differentiate the wearer. The Ruling Family has an ornate cross-shaped top, a Saidi design. Impressed, we bought an inexpensive khanjar as keepsake.

The jewellery is what I had come for and here was an overwhelming display of exquisite pieces, rings, earrings, armlets, nose rings, headpieces, heavy anklets, necklaces, chains, bracelets (Banjari) and Hirz or amulets with Koran verses inside as protection from evil eye. A few days ago a friend had this idea of buying a hirz as pendent to string on different color beads. We had spend hours at Muttrah souq searching for a type she wanted. 

I am not sure that the above picture represents Nizwa pattern but authentic Omani silver jewellery is handmade from Maria Therese coins and is expensive. Different regions of Oman have their own special designs and Nizwa silver jewellery is said to be ‘appliqué geometric’. Over the years the designs intermingled creating imitations. Machine made is cheaper and often mistaken for ‘authentic’ are purchased by tourists and unsuspecting buyers to add to their Oman collections. The imitations remind me of silver jewellery sold in New Delhi markets and I took time deciding what to purchase much to the chagrin of the shop owner.

This image of Nizwa Coffee pot is downloaded from the net simply to give an idea of the shape and design. I could not find pictures taken by me. Nizwa was once the centre of metal trade and famous for copper utensils such as kettles, trays, incense burners and pots. The thin-waisted Nizwa Coffee Pot, of brass/ copper has a large beak and a ‘coxcomb’ on top with decorative brass bands around stem and spout. An addition are the diamond shape danglers near the handle. The tale was that small stones were inserted in the hollow lid as precaution against poising. The stones would clatter while pouring alerting the user of any mischief.

From jewellery and utensils we move to another Omani trademark, the old rifles and ammunition, the weapons and ornaments of Omani men. The Souq was teeming with young, old, grizzled, piercing eyes, Omani men strutting around with their antiquated muzzle loading guns and the ubiquitous leather belt of bullets. I did not know the make or type and it was later I read about the typical Omani matchlock, the Gizali or abu fitali meaning ‘the father of the matchlock’ made of coconut fibre. These found their way into Oman, through the Gulf states, from Ottoman Turkey in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ornately decorated with strands of brass, gold and silver inlaid in grooves around the barrel, the Gizali has a very long barrel forged in lengths and welded together once the boring is done. Although this was the most common firearm there were other varieties, such as the Flintlock or the breech loading Martini Henrys. I think I was in awe of the rifles to explain the missing rifle photographs.

Sir Donald Hawley in OMAN & ITS RENAISSANCE writes ‘Omanis are instinctive designers. There is no single type of handiwork that they do not render in some way graceful and peculiarly their own. In wood, in silver, in gold, in plaster or claying cloth, in beadwork or gold or silver thread, in housebuilding or shipbuilding, in toll making, jewellery and weaponry, the story is the same: the sense of design triumphs. Omanis have married hand and eye.” 

I agree and walked around in a daze, lured by antique and contemporary pieces, looking for a place to relax and assimilate. There are coffee shops within the quadrangle and outside, and found an ornamental place on first floor. It was an antique store with curtained cubicles with rugs placed around and chairs too. A much needed coffee break.

A day well spent and I planned to return on a weekday to spend more time in the Souq. While coming out of the Souq we got lost in the narrow winding streets of mud-built houses and wooden doors. 

Beyond Nizwa is the hill town of Jebel Shems or the ‘Mountain of the Sun’ towering 3009 metres above sea level and the highest peak of the Jebel Akhdar range, which rises vertically from the coastal plain of Batinah. Before 1970 the remote mountain villages were accessible only on foot or donkeys, but now graded roads connect them. It was only recently that it was opened to the tourists and friends who got the chance to visit could not stop raving about the mountains, the people, the crafts, the fruit trees and steppes. The road to Jebel Shams is through ancient ruins of Persian settlements of Wadi Ghul whose understated colors blend in with the surrounding scenery. A popular purchase of this area are the colourful iridescent rugs, red, black and brown stripes, made from mountain goat hair. From the peak one can view the ‘Grand Canyon of Oman‘ with its stark grey rocks contrasting with verdant valley below.

A diary entry for another day/month.

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