The principal city of the interior, NIZWA played a key role in the history of Oman for well over a thousand years, from the earliest days of Islam through to the 1950s, when the country was finally unified under the rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur. For much of this time, the city served as the capital of the interior and seat of the country’s ruling imams, the religious leaders who presided over an independent state quite separate from the sultans of Muscat down on the coast. As such, Nizwa had until quite recently a reputation for tribal belligerence and religious conservatism verging on fanaticism. Ibn Battuta, visiting Nizwa in 1329, described the Omanis as “a bold and brave race … the tribes are perpetually at war with each other”, while Wilfred Thesiger, travelling through the area some six centuries afterwards in the late 1940s, was advised by his Bedu companions to avoid the town on pain of arrest, imprisonment or worse.
Ironically, in the sixty years since Thesiger’s aborted visit, Nizwa has reinvented itself as one of Oman’s most welcoming destinations for foreign travellers. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable place to while away a few days, with a string of attractions including a magnificent fort, fine souks and a famous goat market, while the town’s conveniently central location puts you within easy striking distance of pretty much anywhere in the Western Hajar, making it the perfect base to explore one of Oman’s most rewarding regions.
One of the oldest cities in Oman, Nizwa owes its importance to its strategic location at the crossroads of trade routes between the Buraimi, Muscat and Dhofar, as well as its proximity to unusually abundant water sources (the town’s Falaj Daris, is the largest in the country). Known as “The Pearl of Islam”, Nizwa served as capital of Oman under the Julanda dynasty in the sixth and seventh centuries AD – according to legend it was in Nizwa that the Julanda leaders became the first Omani converts to Islam in 630 AD. The town was chosen as capital in 793 AD at the beginning of the second imamate, as its inland position made it a safer base for the imams than coastal Sohar, the previous capital, which was prone to attacks by the seafaring Persians. Nizwa subsequently remained the pre-eminent town of the interior for almost a millennium until challenged by Rustaq, to which the Ya’aruba imams decamped in 1624. Religion aside, Nizwa also developed into a major craft centre, home to skilled artisans working in silver, copper and leather.
Nizwa was caught up in the Jebel War – in the early 1950s the city’s historic fort even suffered the indignity of being bombed by the British RAF. Since 1970, the city has begun to modernize and open up to the world. The city was connected to Muscat by a modern highway, while a major renovation of fort and souk was carried out during the 1990s and the new University of Nizwa opened in 2002.
The southern end of the souk area is more functional, with specific areas devoted to fish, meat and dates, plus a colourful Fruit and Vegetable Souk, with piles of produce and a string of stalls at the back selling tubs of halwa. Immediately south of here is the Goat Market, home to Nizwa’s famous Friday Market where locals come to trade livestock – cows and goats in particular – which is sold by auction. The market starts at around 8am and finishes at around 11am in time for sala al Jumu’ah, the congregational Friday prayers. Animals are walked around the circular stand at the centre of the market and auctioned off to the highest bidder, a lively scene featuring hundreds of locals, a fair few tourists, and an overwhelming smell of animal poo. Things can get particularly lively during the cattle auctions, as some of the more restive animals (including some rather large bulls) attempt to break free of their handlers and charge to freedom through the surrounding throng.