We arrived in Nizwa last night after a long day exploring Jebel Shams and the aged village of Misfat Al Abriyeen. Today is our last full day in Oman. We start early, meandering the narrow streets surrounding downtown Nizwa. Crumbling stone walls and newly constructed homes co-exist amidst an unlikely landscape of palm trees. As we’ve seen over the past 10 days, life in Oman is an illustration of extremes — the bounty of the ocean next to the vacancy of the desert; the stark mountains next to the lush palm groves of the wadis. There is hardly any middle ground. Even the middle of the day is a barren stretch of time deserted by everything but the sun.
We look for a place to get coffee — a comfort of home in a foreign town. But as we walk around Nizwa, we’re reminded again that Oman exists for itself and not for its visitors. Not that it’s unfriendly — we’ve been welcomed and treated well everywhere we’ve been. But it’s what we don’t find here in Nizwa — cafés full of tourists, menus in four languages, guides selling tours, vendors competing for attention — that shows Oman’s success at maintaining its authenticity. Even though a cappuccino would be really nice right now, it’s far nicer to find a place holding onto its identity, sharing itself but not giving itself away. No coffee, no problem. I think it’s my own expectation that’s misplaced here. In Oman, coffee is meant to be shared among people rather than bought for oneself.
We come to the entrance of Nizwa Fort, built in the middle of the 17th century and recently restored in the 1980s. Many centuries ago Nizwa was Oman’s capital, located at the crossroads of caravan routes. The fort was built to protect the city and house its leaders. Muscat has since become Oman’s center of government and trade but Nizwa remains significant for its character and history.
The fort is a surprising maze of staircases and rooms, including a tiny prison — a stuffy, windowless den. We eventually find our way to the central tower. Evidence of a brutal war tactic remains. Above each wooden door to the tower there’s a hole where boiling oil or date syrup could be poured over incoming enemies.
The tower itself measures 45 meters in diameter. We climb one of the side staircases to a panoramic view of Nizwa and the surrounding mountains.
The souk and streets around the fort hold the bounty of Nizwa — beautiful clay pots, brass tea pots, khanjars so emblematic of Oman and, of course, everything related to frankincense — from burners to resin. The Boswellia tree, native to Oman and a few countries nearby, emits sap when the bark is “striped”. This tree sap hardens into resin and carries a distinct aroma. The resin can be burned, distilled into oil and even eaten (with some interesting cancer- and depression-fighting capabilities of note). When I arrived in Oman I had never smelled frankincense but it has infused our time here like a trail through a forest. Whether it’s burning in a diffuser or wafting from the dishdasha of someone passing by, the scent is ever present and irresistible.
I’ve already bought some frankincense accessories to take home, but I buy another burner as we make one last walk through the souk. We pass men sitting together on the ground playing a board game, the fruit and vegetable market beats a slow pulse nearby, and life prepares to shut down for the afternoon.
We reluctantly make our way to the car knowing our time in Oman is coming to an end. We pass a road sign warning us of camel crossings as we begin the drive back to Muscat. Looking out the window as Oman’s exotic landscape passes me by, I am more intrigued now than when I arrived 10 days ago.
There is something enchanting about this country — a beauty revealed slowly and quietly over time. Take any part of Oman by itself — like the hot, empty desert — and it most certainly wouldn’t be so memorable. But the sum of its parts — that same desert with its warmth, sunset, rustic camp, dinner by candlelight, sweet dates, blissful bed, evening silence, morning fog, impossibly fine sand and genuine hospitality — creates an unforgettable sensory experience. This trip has been a series of sensory experiences. Travel at its best. The elusive feeling of discovery has returned.
Here’s a look back at my favorite memories of Oman. May my home forever smell of frankincense.
This is the final post in my series about Oman. The series begins here.