It’s the smells that hit you first: the thick, woozy scents of Arabia swimming through the souk. Spices and perfumes, frankincense and sandalwood, jasmine and rosewater. Muscat’s Muttrah Souk is one of the oldest on the Arabian Peninsula, and when you wander through it in the warmth of early evening, its dense olfactory swirl seems to tug at half-forgotten memories. Doing anything other than slowly ambling through it in a half daze seems impossible. “Yes, take your time,” smiles Mohammed, my guide. “This is the Omani way.”
He leads me through the alleys of the souk with the ease of a man who’s been navigating them his whole life. Which, of course, he has. He has his favourite dishdasha (robe) salesman, his favourite spice vendor and his favourite incense shop. Muscat’s souk is a highly enjoyable place to drift, being less frenetic and more tightknit and traditional than most others. It’s not huge, but it holds plenty.
Away from the main passage — no stranger to tourists in search of coffee-pots — the souk is divided into its customary quarters. We follow the winding lanes. Here are the textile stores, piled head-high with fabrics and pashminas; here are the jewellery boutiques, bright enough to make you squint, with gold for women and silver for men (these are, I gather, unbending local rules); and here are the incense shops, manned by salesmen who can tell a valuable chunk of myrrh at 20 paces.
The smells of the souk aren’t just from resins and perfumes. Mohammed stops at a tiny corner stall and hands over 100 baisa (about 20p). A few seconds later he’s handed a warm paper bag stuffed with spicy onion pakoras, freshly cooked and full of crunch and flavour. “A good snack,” he says, with considerable understatement. They’re delicious. The lanes are busy with local shoppers, the lights of the souk are twinkling and I start to lose myself in the moment.
Not for long. Suddenly there’s a hand on my arm. “Where are you from?” I’m asked, before being invited into a shop to behold a rack of Arsenal shirts. We end up talking about football, then the design of the Omani flag, then the desert (note to self: chat more with bazaar vendors) before Mohammed and I head back into the souk, eventually returning to the point where we first entered, at the corniche looking out onto hill-enclosed Muttrah Bay.
The waters are still overlooked by a fort built by the Portuguese in the 1580s, while in pride of place in the bay is a sandstone-coloured superyacht belonging to the Sultan. The sky has faded to a soft evening blue. Families are strolling in and out of the souk, beneath an ornate dome and slender blue minaret.
We sit at a cafe terrace near the water’s edge and order sweet masala tea. I ask Mohammed a question that’s been puzzling me: why do so many Omani men have single tassels on the collars of their dishdasha? “It’s for perfume,” he replies, “I sprinkle mine every day.” He holds it out for me to smell, and the woody aroma transports me straight back to the souk.
Muscat has some extraordinary sights — the towering Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque has a colossal Swarovski chandelier hanging above a 21-tonne carpet large enough for 6,600 worshippers, while the National Museum is a grand romp through the heritage of the oldest independent Arab state in the world — but an unrushed saunter through Muttrah Souk is as fine an introduction as any to what Oman’s capital holds. And your nose won’t know what’s hit it.