In Oman’s erstwhile capital city Nizwa, you can experience history in every nook

The brief from the locals is lucid. To taste uber modernity adopted by the Sultanate of Oman, hang about its ritzy, car-filled Capital city Muscat. Keen on stealing a peek at the country’s fledgling image of an international port?

Then, head to Salalah, about eight hours drive from Muscat, often compared to our Malabar Coast for its coconut trees, the seaside and, of course, the range of seafood.

In case you are to pick the third option, Oman’s tourist spots — like I did — you should be seen in Nizwa, roughly two hours from Muscat. And also in neighbouring Sur, a quaint town straight out of a picture postcard, now resting by the seaside.

Colour code

My first view of Nizwa is rows and rows of square houses in immaculate white and beige, the continuity broken only by sporadic palm trees. The country, by the way, has a strict colour code for buildings. However, in Nizwa, you would be happily surprised to discover vestiges of old, traditional houses made of mud and limestone. Of course, the historical monuments, souks, ageing mosques and the traditional water delivery system add a world of difference to Nizwa.

Nizwa was Oman’s early capital, the seat of the Yaruba dynasty that freed the country of Portuguese occupation and ruled it for more than a century, roughly between 1624 and 1744. A prosperous Nizwa attracted umpteen religious scholars, poets and scientists, and also foreign travellers such as the Moroccan great Ibn Batuta.

My first stop at Nizwa was the fort. Its narrow entrance is misleading. The snaking entrance opens out into a big, self-reliant fortress, a part of which now houses a museum displaying traditional arms, jewellery, dresses, kitchenware, farming techniques, etc. to give visitors a feel of the traditional Omani way of life.

What gets your attention here is the audio-visual display of Oman’s time-honoured water channel system, Falaj. Oman’s largest falaj — Falaj daris — is in Nizwa. It also has 134 other aflaj (plural of falaj), 111 of which are in active use.

Walking about the fort, I have a chance meeting with Abdul, who looks striking with his weather-beaten features and toothless grin. Abdul, well past his prime, is responsible for evenly distributing water to Nizwa’s residents from a falaj. Surrounded as Nizwa is by desert, water is a scarce commodity and Abdul an important man. In earlier times, water distributors kept a tab on the supply time with the help of a sun dial. Today, Abdul happily points to his new-age tool, an aged wrist watch, to do the job.

At the fort, don’t miss the murder holes — deep shafts at strategic places used to pour boiling date syrup and hot water on the enemy. The fort has two date stores for the purpose.

From the fort, I walk up to the souk nearby. Packed with traditional clay pots, frankincense and silver jewellery, you can easily while away a long time there without realising it.

Not far from Nizwa is Oman’s desert strip. The road that leads to it is lined with the country’s famous black and green mountains.

Desert camp

My night stop is at a quaint desert camp. Before watching the sun sinking into the horizon — a breathtaking sight — I visit a Bedouin family. Over jasmine tea, some Bedouin women put a paste of chandan on my face, their sun block. I also pick from them wristbands and rings made from multi-coloured silk threads.

The night wears off at the desert, its breeze chilling, I bask in the melody of Arabic folk songs, complete with the local drums and string instruments, performed by youngsters from a nearby village.

Next morning, I head for Sur, and soon find myself greeted by scores of flying seagulls and the bobbing green-blue sea water. Mapped recently as a tourist destination — one of Oman’s newest business interests — Sur should be on your itinerary to gaze at Nature in great form.

To head back to Muscat, I get on to a brand new highway at Al Quriyat. It runs between the seashore and a mighty range of limestone mountains, where dinosaur fossils might still be found. At 120 km per hour, with legendary Arabian musician Mohammad Abdu belting out one gem after another, the journey becomes almost surreal.