Jim Eagles' nose leads him to frankincense and myrrh in Mutrah's souk, 'where you can buy anything in the world', and to the busy and impressive great Muscat Fish Market.

It's the exotic smell in the air that makes the Mutrah Souk excitingly different, provides a reminder that I am in the romantic city of Muscat, capital of mysterious Oman, and adds spice to my visit.

In many ways this souk is like any market anywhere in the world with its rows of little shops offering cheap T-shirts, shoes - one particularly persistent stallholder pursued me for some distance with a pair of sandals "made of camel hide ... very soft ... very comfortable" - pots and pans, perfumes and many kinds of coffee.

Oh, sure, some of the customers thronging the narrow lanes are men in white dishdashas and the distinctive Omani turbans, and women swathed in the black niqab robes, which you don't generally see at the Takapuna Market on a Sunday morning.

On the ceilings of several souk passages watching eyes have been painted as a traditional way of deterring thieves and cheats, and looming above the souk building, perched on a rock outcrop, is the 500-year-old Mutrah Fort, keeping its own eye on troublemakers.

Advertisement
A market in Oman. Photo / Andries3
A market in Oman. Photo / Andries3

And in the back lanes I found stalls selling the magnificent curved khanjar daggers, hookah pipes, brass lamps that might well produce a genie if you rubbed them and ornate pieces of local silver blackened with age.

But most of the souk crowd is dressed in European clothes - mainly jeans and T-shirts - and most of the goods on display wouldn't look out of place in the Otara Market.

As Ali, the ex-policeman who was showing me round Muscat put it, "You can buy anything in the world here."

To prove how globalised the souk has become, he points out a T-shirt showing "Tintin in Oman" and laughs: "Tintin was never in Oman. But the people here don't want to miss out." Quite. I could easily imagine the Otara Market offering T-shirts proclaiming, "Tintin in Otara". Probably they have already.

That smell, however, was definitely something different. Quite sweet and refreshing with a touch of lemon, a hint of pine and definitely a taste of the exotic. What was it? "Frankincense," said Ali, and he took me to a stall piled high with bags of the stuff, and a sample of the product burning fragrantly outside.

Frankincense? I'd heard of it, of course, from my Sunday School days and the story of the Three Wise Men from the East who brought frankincense, gold and myrrh to the baby Jesus in his stable in Bethlehem. But what exactly was it?

And, by the way, did they also sell gold and myrrh in this souk? They did indeed. The frankincense stall I was standing in also sold myrrh. And I had already seen a couple of shops selling jewellery of glowing gold.

So could those wise men have come from Oman? Ali was non-committal on that. But he did say that Oman has been the centre of the frankincense trade for at least 5000 years.

Omani frankincense was burned in temples in ancient Egypt and in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Today it is still used ceremonially and to give homes a pleasant atmosphere but it is also increasingly used in medicines.

Frankincense - like myrrh - consists of the congealed gum from a tree, in this case the boswellia tree, found on the Arabian Peninsula, mainly in Oman, Yemen and Somalia.

Muscat's fish market, Muscat, Oman, Middle East. Photo / Getty Images
Muscat's fish market, Muscat, Oman, Middle East. Photo / Getty Images

"With incense," Ali explained, "you have to mix herbs and other things together to produce the scent. With frankincense you just cut the bark of the tree so the liquid flows out, leave it to dry and it is ready to use."

There are, as the frankincense stalls at the market demonstrated, many kinds of incense and the prices vary hugely. As I walked through the souk I could see quite a few tourists buying packets to take home as souvenirs. It was a nice idea but I wasn't convinced it would comply with our strict border controls.

Ali seemed disappointed and afterwards went to some lengths to make sure I understood what a significant role frankincense played in Oman's history and culture.

Later, as we drove through Muscat he pointed out a couple of giant frankincense burners, one on a traffic island, the other poised above a park, erected by the Sultan (other such symbols glorifying Omani tradition include statues of camels, falcons and curved khanjar daggers).

That was all very well - and I was happy to photograph the burners - but I had yet to see a frankincense tree. "No problem," said Ali. "When we go into the country I can show you."

And later, in our World Expeditions Oman Adventure, he did just that. We had just driven into the town of Ibra on our way to an abandoned village when he unexpectedly did a U-turn and pulled up outside a walled garden.

"Do you know what that is?" he asked, pointing at a rather unattractive tree growing over the wall.

"Paper bark," said the Australian member of our group, because the bark of the tree was coming off in strips. "Mulberry," I wondered, thinking for some reason there might be silkworms here. "No," said Ali, disgustedly. "It is frankincense."

Knives on sale in a market in Oman. Photo / Laura Chatten
Knives on sale in a market in Oman. Photo / Laura Chatten

Then he spent some time searching the branches for a spot where the sap might have oozed out and hardened into frankincense. Unfortunately there wasn't any. But, as Ali said when he finally gave up looking, "You will find it in another market. We will be visiting several."

A burly young man in a beautifully embroidered skullcap emerged from the cluster of little fishing boats on the beach and came towards us pushing a wheelbarrow full of large fish.

When he got close I saw they were orange with yellow markings and quite unlike any fish I had seen before.

It must have been a good day's fishing, I observed to Ali. "There is always good fishing here," he replied. "The waters are very rich, Wait until you see what is in the market."

We followed the young man for a short distance, rounded a corner ... and the powerful aroma of fresh fish guts signalled that we had arrived at the great Muscat Fish Market, the busiest and most impressive of several I visited in Oman.

In a covered area about half the size of a football field were rows of tables covered with every kind of fish imaginable - stingrays, sharks, red crabs with blue claws, massive kingfish, octopus, pink prawns and huge piles of fat silver sprats - and quite a few fish I hadn't imagined.

As we wandered round - and I tried unsuccessfully to discover the name of a particularly nightmarish species with a long snout full of needle teeth - Ali explained that all the people working here were native Omanis.

When the present Sultan took power, he said, one of the first things he did was to reserve for locals certain occupations like fishing and public transport - "you won't find any Indian taxi drivers in Muscat" - so there would be no unemployment.

Pointing outside to the small wharf where we had earlier seen a group of men catching sprats he said, "Those Indians are allowed to catch small fish to eat themselves but they're not allowed to sell any."

The market also ensures that the freshest fish is reserved for locals. "When the fish is landed it comes here first," Ali said. "Only if no one buys it here does it go to the export company for processing."

Oman does, in fact, export a lot of fish, It is the third biggest source of overseas earnings, behind oil and gas, though income from tourism is rising fast as the country's reputation as a fascinating and friendly haven in the Middle East starts to spread.

A man with a parrot at a market in Oman. Photo / Luca Nebuloni
A man with a parrot at a market in Oman. Photo / Luca Nebuloni

But to judge from the bustling crowd at the market, the Omanis, who have traditionally been a seafaring people, still eat a lot of fish.

They also seemed to have a more conservative approach than the crowds at the souk, most wearing traditional dress and many preferring not to be photographed.

For instance, when I gestured with my camera to see if it was okay to get a picture of a young mother with a small boy in tow as she haggled over the price of fish for dinner, a turn of the head indicated that she was not.

A few of the older stallholders also gently held up their hands at the sight of my camera, but fortunately the old chap with the white turban, whose massive fresh kingfish eventually won the shy housewife's approval, grinned at the idea of his picture being taken.

And the powerful young man in a white skullcap who got the job of cleaning and gutting the selected fish, then slicing it into great red steaks ready for cooking - one of a row of fish cleaners who work at the market - also gave a quick nod of approval.

Traditional dress also predominated at the adjoining fruit and vegetable market though much of the produce is imported because, according to Ali, "A lot of our land is very rocky and no good for growing."

But he was able to point out some magnificent pink pomegranates, saying proudly, "These are grown in Oman." And he snapped up some bunches of local white radishes explaining, "My mother loves these."

What definitely wasn't locally grown, however, was the kiwifruit. Nor, unfortunately, was it grown in New Zealand. Instead, bizarrely, I found an old man with a white turban and equally white beard presiding over a stall piled high with consumer packs of "kiwis", grown in Iran.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Etihad Airways and Air New Zealand operate a codeshare partnership from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, via Australia, to Abu Dhabi. Transtasman flights are with Air New Zealand. Etihad flies from Sydney and Melbourne non-stop to Abu Dhabi, then on to Oman.

Return fares start from $3015 in Economy and $7915 in Business.

Details
World Expeditions offers several journeys to Oman.

Online
tourismoman.com.au