Auctions Speak Louder than Words

Nizwa Goat Market
Just two kids

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.

(Click any image to start the slide show)

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.

(Click any image to start the slide show)

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 raOman20150306_0293_webucous 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.

9 Responses

  1. Great way to get the local flavour by attending the sale.
    Several ladies are wearing intriguing headgear, I refer to the vertical divider that appears to divide the face, I wander if it has significant meaning?
    Very interesting to see the dark coloured robes, possibly a sect difference, compared to those wearing white. The white has to be at least 30 % cooler, especially in the ambient temperature of Oman.
    Great photos of the market area and facial expressions.

    1. Spice had a long lens on her camera so was able to zoom in to catch some brilliant portraits. One colourful auctioneer was animated and moving fast, but with patience, she got the image she was pursuing.

    2. Yes, it’s called a parrot mask, although it probably has another name in Arabic, and is worn more by women in southern Oman near Yemen. They wear the darker coloured robes as well; it’s the Zanzibar influence, which goes back to the seventh century ( and in 1832 Sultan Said moved his official residence to Zanzibar from Muscat.) I think the colour of the men’s dishdashas is a personal choice. They are always spotless and pressed—dry-cleaning is a good business there!

  2. Terrific pics and video. You captured the vibrant colours and excitement of the day! It looked like all the folks were polite and the animals treated well – except maybe the goat in a bag. LOL. Good to get to an auction early. Did you dare eat there?

    1. We didn’t eat any goat in Nizwa. However, we went to a goat butcher in Salalah and then our guide bbq’d it for us in the Rub’ al Khali. Delicious! Check out our video in The Question. We had hoped to have it cooked on hot stones in the traditional Madhwi or Shuwa style, but the process would have taken too long.

  3. Amazing event! Did you learn a lot about goats? I read the book Spice suggested about the empty quarter and enjoyed it! Did you have to use the hoe?

    1. Thanks T. Magellan used a separate microphone, which really captured more of the sound than our camera’s capability. There are a thousand stories behind those incredible faces aren’t there?

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