A 1.5 hours drive from Muscat brings you to Nizwa, a town at the foot of the Western Hajar mountains. It was once a center for trade and education and is still an important town – the biggest in the region – due to its good location at the roads linking Muscat with the interior and the Dhofar region in the south.
Nizwa is quite big and somehow difficult to navigate (I can’t really explain why but you’ll see what I mean when you drive there). The souq and the fort in the old part of town, both carefully renovated, are well worth a visit. The souq is a good place to browse for souvenirs or to just marvel at all the things on sale. Jewelry, pottery, old and new khanjar (Omani traditional daggers), dusty wooden boxes with inlays of mother of pearl, but also ugly stuff made in China – there’s a bit of everything in the souq.
Only open in the mornings is the spice souq where you can buy spices, honey, and dates, among other things. Whether you buy something or not, the souq is also a great place to have a chat with the salesmen. Omani people are very friendly and most will offer you delicious Omani coffee (ground coffee beans with cardamom, saffron, and sometimes cloves, rose water, and cinnamon) and dates. Take 1, 3, or 7, never an even number.
Just behind the souq is Nizwa fort. Unfortunately, they don’t have audio-guides nor are there almost any written explanations about the rooms and their former purpose but it’s nevertheless worth a visit. Some rooms on the ground floor, opposite the coffee shop, house an interesting exhibition about traditional life in Oman, silver and copper trade and works. Pictures show how the souq and the fort looked like before, during, and after renovation.
Misfat al Abriyyin
Up in the mountains, about an hour drive from Nizwa, is the small village of Misfat al Abriyyin. Several people recommended us a visit of the village so it was a must-do on our list of places to see. At first, to be honest, we were a bit disappointed. The houses of the old village are in bad shape. They’re crumbling and decaying, garbage lies around everywhere, and a bad smell hangs in the air.
After a short lunch break, we gave it a second try. Just after entering the village, we took a right turn and walked down the steps until we had left the houses behind and were walking through terraced fields. Date palms, banana trees, apricots, and pomegranates grow here. Everything is green; a stark contrast to the surrounding mountains and the houses. Falaj, irrigation channels, transport water from the river to the fields; an irrigation system that has been used since thousands of years in Oman.
The further we walked (and the more we got lost), the more beautiful it became and by the time we got back to our car, we knew why people had told us to not miss Misfat al Abriyyin.
The fort of Bahla was built in the 13th and 14th centuries. By the end of the 20th century, it was all but in ruins. In 1987, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and restored. The restoration works took many years and cost millions – if you visit the fort you’ll know why: It’s huge. There are dozens of rooms, steps, lookouts, and passages; it’s easy to get lost. That was apparently the idea of the fort’s architects: The complicated layout of the fort was made to confuse intruders (and apparently today’s visitors) and make them get lost and trapped.
There are no signs or information brochures in the fort, which is a bit of a shame since it would be so much more interesting with background information. But because the fort is so big and you can enter all the rooms and climb all the stairs, it’s great fun to explore.
A short drive from Bahla fort is Jabreen castle, one of Oman’s most beautiful castles – if not the most beautiful one. Built in the late 17th century, the three story high Jabreen Castle was not a fort but the residence of Imam Bil Arab bin Sultan al Yarubi and his family. It was a center for education and is a wonderful example of fine Islamic architecture. The ceilings are decorated with elaborate paintings, the walls adorned with frescoes, there are study rooms, secret hideouts, traps, and cells.
One of the most amazing rooms is the Sun and Moon Room. It has 14 windows of which seven are near the ceiling and seven near the floor. That way, cool air enters through the lower windows and warm air exits through the upper ones and the room remains cool even in the oppressive heat of Oman’s summer.
In Jabreen Castle, you can get an audio guide; every room has a number and the explanations really make the castle come to life. We arrived only half an hour before closing time, thinking that was enough. We were wrong. Half an hour is not nearly enough and we stayed well past closing time and had to find someone to let us out when we finally decided to leave.
The beehive tombs of Al Ayn
The day still wasn’t over and we drove even further away from Nizwa and further back in time to the ancient tombs in the small town of Al Ayn. In this area, there are several sites with large tombs and other buildings. They were built in the Bronze Age during the 3rd millennium BC when the region was much greener and saw much more rainfall than today. Considering their age, the tombs are in great shape. While the necropolis at the village of Bat is bigger, the tombs at Al Ayn are easier to reach. Plus, the setting is fantastic: The tombs stand on a small hill and behind them towers the impressive Jebel Misht.
The town of Al Ayn is easy to find and you can already see the tombs from the road. However, there are no signs and, after parking our car in front of the mosque, we had to ask around to find the small path through the fields and the wadi to the hill where the tombs are.
Sunset is the best time to visit the tombs; the sun illuminates Jebel Misht and bathes the mountain in red and orange light. It gives a fantastic backdrop to the stone structures which, at that time, are already in the dark. The place has something very mystical and mysterious about it, especially if you think about how old those tombs are and that the civilization that built them is long gone and the landscape has changed dramatically.