Monday, September 8, 2014

Muttrah Souk - A few lesser known souvenirs / gifts

'Souq Entrance'
23°37'13"N 58°33'52"E

Muscat is famous for its traditional souk located across from the Muttrah corniche; it's written about in almost all tourist books & websites about the Sultanate. Most point out to pick up some frankincense, a pashmina scarf or two, a khanjar (traditional knife worn at the waist by Omani men), Arabic headdress or some helwa (tasty sweet made from dates).

Here are some additional finds at the souk:

1)  Maria Theresa thaler ('tah-ler'). Locally known as عملة ماريا تيريزا omlah maria teereza, the use of this silver coin dates from the 16th century and became one of the first 'global' currencies. It was used in Muscat and Oman up until the 1970s as a local trading currency along with the Rupee until the modern Omani banking system was implemented  The word 'dollar' originates from the 'thaler'; where as the word 'riyal' finds its roots in the Spanish currency 'real'. You can find 'thalers' in the sook at silver shops or larger souvenir shops. The price is somewhat tied to the price of silver plus whatever the merchant tries to add on top. 

*Sources & more info:

Harrigan, Peter. Tales of a Thaler, Saudi Aramco World, Jan/Feb 2003

The monetary systems of the principal countries of the world, By United States. Bureau of the Mint 1913

2) Green Frankincense. One will see and smell an abundance of frankincense throughout the souk. The most common sold is a yellowish resin with the distinct Boswellia Sacra fragrance. Frankincense called 'luban' in Oman is grown in Dhofar as most people visiting Oman have heard. The typical merchant will have two types of luban displayed a 'regular' less expensive and then a high quality more pure resin. The more pure resin is edible. 

There are two types of merchants; the Omani merchants from Dhofar and the 'expat' merchant. If you would like 'green' frankincense which is a medicinal grade, one needs to ask the merchant who may have some tucked away and not on display. Green luban can be burned or dissolved in water for drinking,  It is more expensive than the white resins but affordable in Oman. However, outside Oman, I have seen 1 kg of green luban posted for sale for the equivalent of over a thousand US dollars in a British shop which I found a bit disturbing (the price that is). The fragrance is more crisp than the regular frankincense and perhaps with a hint of lime while the shade is iridescent with a light greenish tint. 

3) Gold Jewelry.  The gold souk is to the right of the Muttrah souk entrance if facing the main entrance to the souk. Most gold sold in the shops is 21 or 22 carat with 21 carat being the preferred among locals. The designs are traditional and contemporary.  The deals are favourable and gold prices have been down recently. 

4) Crewel fabric. Crewel is a type of 'freestyle' embroidery on fabric. Please see photo below to get the idea if not familiar with crewel. The fabric is used in home furnishings. One may find it in Kashmiri shops that generally also sell the traditional turbans the Omani men wear. There are many wonderful Kashmiri handicrafts available for sale in Oman. The cost of the crewel fabric is 1/4 to 1/2 the cost found in the 'West'. 

5) Incense burner from Salalah. Hand-painted and from Salalah, these colourful and pretty burners are unique and inexpensive items to be purchased as souvenirs.  To burn luban, charcoal is heated and placed in the burner; then, the frankincense resin is placed on top of the charcoal. 

This charcoal comes in round disks and lights quickly - recommended for burning luban and incense. You can find it in the souk and sometimes in hypermarkets. A roll should be no more than 200 bz ( I have seen merchants ask for a riyal) and a box 1.5 to 2 OMR.  Here's a video on 'how to burn frankincense on a charcoal disk' put out by for those who are new to the process, It's pretty much a given here in Oman that everyone knows how to burn frankincense.

6) Cuff links. These can be found in silver shops.

7) On a side note, I have now become against the sale of antique Khanjars to expats who will take them out of the country and hope that the Ministry of Heritage and Culture would set up a programme to offer to buy the Khanjars from Omani elders who come to the souk to 'pawn' their Khanjar for a fraction of its worth and to set up a preservation method for the khanjar.

Lists for $725 at Omani Khanjar

8) Comment:  In general, it is imperative to bargain down any merchant at the souk for any item one may wish to purchase if one would like a fair price. For non-Omanis or non-GCC tourists, the price is probably raised four or five times what the merchant would accept. When negotiating, the fair price should be 20%-40% of the named price.

Muttrah Souk. Source: Times of Oman

Muttrah Souk. Source: Times of Oman

Muttrah Souk. Source: Times of Oman

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