Souq it up in Cairo

Egypt’s capital city boasts bustling local markets where one can get lost in time 
The Khan el-Khalili market
The Khan el-Khalili market

The Al Azhar Mosque in the heart of Cairo, Egypt, with its twin minarets reaching for the sky proudly straddles Islamic Cairo, surveying one of the world’s oldest cities. It is also the site of the world’s second oldest continually operating Islamic university. Even if it is an important centre of Sharia studies, it receives thousands of visitors daily, from all religions. A perennial peace becomes the atmosphere despite its corridors and hallways thronging with students possessed of the carefree animation of youth. Across from the mosque is a different world—a bustling lane lined with shops leading to El Gamaliya, the centre of the Cairo governorate.

The cafes along the cobbled street almost block the view of the row of shops and stalls selling touristy curios. Some of the wares seem to have skipped the last century in this lost empire of pharaohs—a set of old photographs, a broken record player.

The Khan el-Khalili market is adjacent to the walls of Saladin Citadel, erected by the great Saladin: the sultan of Egypt and Syria, and the scourge of the Crusaders in the 12 century. It has been the city’s guardian for 700 years. Once the resting place of the esteemed Fatimid Caliphs, traders from all over the globe have been doing business in the souq since the 14th century. Its intricately carved gates and winding alleys are remnants of the 16th-century Mamluk era.

Shops selling lanterns and wall plates in the souq
Shops selling lanterns and wall plates in the souq

Today, it welcomes visitors to explore Cairo’s essence, offering occasional views of the distant Pyramids of Giza. During the day, not many shops are open. But as the sun sets and the sound of prayers rise to the skies, they light up. Shop owners get busy setting up shisha tables. Vendors advertise marmar (marble) lamps, silver-plated jewellery and replicas of  Egyptian gods and mythological characters.

The souq, while not sectioned off anymore like in the old days, maintains distinct areas for gold merchants, coppersmiths and spice vendors. Stroll through stalls teeming with jewellery, spices and craft pieces; almost any desired item can be found here.

Discover eateries selling a diverse array of foods including street food, and traditional Arabic coffeehouses, known as maqha. Locals and tourists gather here, to savour spiced Arabic coffee, a sweet hibiscus tea called karkade and smoke hookahs. El Fishawy, an ancient cafe dating back to the mid-1700s, is the most renowned and beloved of them all.

The facade of El Gamaliya
The facade of El Gamaliya

Fabric stores have a whimsical marketing strategy; their owners will always be found outside, calling out to passersby holding out a few samples of merchandise. Though they are mostly counterfeit Egyptian cotton, the designs are attractive. As in any large market, the souq has everything from cushion covers, rugs, hand-embroidered jackets and other items including the dazzling outfits for belly dancing, should anyone fancy a swirl. The Oriental practice of haggling has survived to this day in this age-old market, considered a ritual by the shopkeepers.

The smart tourist can buy everything at almost one-third of the quoted price if they are adept at bargaining. It’s a mandatory tug-of-war, since  without negotiation, the seller may even get a bit offended. Sellers of items of stone display the authenticity of their product by beating the items on the ground, and are not beyond a bit of flirting with female shoppers. Omar Botta, a young Egyptian curio shop employee, says, “The Khan el-Khalili is a treasure trove of things to take back home. Don’t be offended by the flirting, we only want our guests to leave with a smile and fond memories.” 

Get, Set, Go
Nearest Airport: Cairo International Airport and Sphinx International Airport

Flights: Jazeera Airways, Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, Etihad and Gulf Air ply daily routes to Cairo from India

Transport: Uber is widely available

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The New Indian Express