Before the clock strikes seven, the sounds of goats bleating, auctioneers shouting and buyers haggling fill the air, as they have on Friday mornings in Nizwa since the sixth century. It’s the Nizwa Goat Market, an auction spectacle made famous when this city, at the crossroads of the country’s trade route, was the capital of Oman.
Magellan and I arrived at Nizwa (pronounced knees-wa) on a Thursday. Trusting our instincts, we arrived at the Nizwa Souq before 06:30, parking alongside people from the nearby mountains who had arrived hours before with their livestock.
As they herded their goats toward the circular plaza beyond the souq, the pair of us followed, dangling cameras and water bottles, all of us buoyed by anticipation. Mostly, we trailed men and boys wearing piercing-white dishdashas that flowed around their ankles, the Omani equivalent of the blue jeans and jackets worn by western ranchers. No ball caps or Stetsons here. The men cover their dark hair with personally sized kumas embroidered in varying colours and patterns with small holes for airflow or massars, patterned wool scarves wound round their heads. Dashingly handsome.
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In the centre of the plaza is a small, roofed-in podium, like a circular bandstand. “That’s our spot,” said Magellan, who like his namesake has an instinct for vantage points, as he headed to what turned out to be the centre of the bidding circle for a live auction livelier than any we’ve ever seen.
By arriving before the auction began, we glimpsed a close-up of goat traders we didn’t expect: women. Most were in full abaya robes, headscarves and burqa facemasks. One young woman in particular stood out. Probably in her thirties, her face semi-covered, on tether she had adult goats, in coloured bags kid goats. Her husband and children walked alongside her. As prospective buyers approached, she chatted with them about her herd, confirming what we’d read about Omani women having more rights and independence compared with women in most Middle-Eastern countries.
Arriving early had another bonus: we got to see the only camel paraded around the podium. Its auctioneer solicited a winning bid of 230 Omani Rials, about $700, for this young, healthy-looking camel. We wondered: How often are camels auctioned here these days? Was this a good price?
The crowd thickened, jostling for position around the podium as the fervour escalated, hundreds of voices gossiping and cajoling amid the din and dust, the presence of hundreds of goats filling the warming morning with an animal smell. We looked at each other across the podium and thought: How great is this.
And then the goat auction got underway.
Here’s how it works. Prospective buyers form a circle around the podium and a concentric circle farther out, leaving a pathway in between for the goat-wrangling sellers. The auction begins with about 50 auctioneers (all men), each parading a goat on a rope around the bidding circle, calling out the opening price and exclaiming the animal’s advantageous qualities.
Not that we could understand any of it. But I’m guessing they were saying things like “Thick haunches.” “Shiny coat.” “Good legs.” “Only 60 rials.” “Healthy teeth.” “Big testicles.”(By arriving early, we got a close-up of prospective buyers sticking their hands into the mouths of goats to check their teeth and around the genitals of nannies and billies to check for breeding strengths.)
If a prospective buyer decides he likes the look of, say, a tawny-coloured long-haired billy, he calls its auctioneer over to examine the goat, which he may be buying for meat, breeding or investment. If he likes what he sees, he names his price and the auctioneer parades around the circle shouting it out. Round and round the circular showcase the auctioneer goes, haggling for better offers in this lively bidding pen. As soon as a deal is struck, cash is quickly exchanged and so is the billy, who is immediately turned over to his new owner.
We thought every goat seller was his own auctioneer, but some hire extroverted professionals, adding another layer of animated exchanges. Loud, bustling and chaotic, the goat auction goes on for about an hour. The cattle auction comes next, about the time tourists who think the Nizwa Goat Market begins at 08:30 start to arrive, the time we left.
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Ears ringing with the excitement of this ancient tradition, we had a transaction of our own to conduct in the souq. Buying a hoe. No, we weren’t planning to become goat herders in the mountains of Oman. The hoe was a precautionary purchase for digging out sand around our tires in the event we were stuck off-road in the desert. It was a calm bit of bargaining by Magellan compared to the raucous auction we’d just witnessed. As we wandered back to the now-overflowing parking lot with our hoe, our purchase seemed to delight many Omanis as much as their newly acquired billies and nannies. We congratulated each other on our purchases with the universal thumbs-up.
We stayed at the Golden Tulip in Nizwa as the Falaj Daris, a more traditional Omani hotel we tried to book months in advance, was full. The Nizwa Fort and all of the Souqs are worth a visit. The East Souq has escaped restoration and has Oman’s famous Bahla pottery, the Crafts Souk, showcases antique Bedu silver jewellery sold by weight, the Fruit and Vegetable Souq offers fresh dates that sell for a single rial and the Livestock Souq is pure fun.