There are souks and then there is the scintillating Khan el Khalili market. Loud, colourful, crowded and exciting, this market is like a medieval mall with skinny lanes diverging in different directions. Often looping around ancient courtyards, the lanes are lined with shops selling exciting goods like spices, textiles, crystal, handicrafts, and jewellery. Mamluk style architecture can still be prominently seen in the Khan el Khalili market and they offer a trip back in time. Just walking around this exciting souk is an enthralling enough experience and in the evenings, hundreds of Arabian lamps and chandeliers convert this place into a fairy tale. You can hear strains of Arabic love songs pour into the night air which is scented with gurgling sheesha smoke and spicy Turkish coffee. Needless to say, no Cairo visit is complete without a stopover at the famous market and in this Khan el Khalili guide, I will give you all the travel, shopping, and survival tips needed to make your souk experience simply unforgettable.
Absorb the area‘s historical importance
For the most absorbing experience of Islamic Cairo and atmospheric photos, I begin this Khan el Khalili guide with a heritage walk. Not many know that the famous Khan el Khalili originated as a caravanserai in the 14th century and grew into a commercial complex of immense importance. That is why, its creators, the Mamluk sultans, and their predecessor dynasties built many beautiful monuments around that area, many of which are still well preserved. Though mostly khans (caravanserais) were clustered there to house merchants and their goods, the sultans beautified the district with many gorgeous mosques, gates, and watchtowers. Remnants of the glorious past can still be seen around the Khan el Khalili area and the best way to explore them is by foot.
Walk down the heritage lanes and follow the Khan el Khalili guide
Begin with El Sheikh Mohammed Abdu, a busy street that runs behind the El Azhar mosque. It is famous for an old-school bookbinder called Abd El Zaher Atelier, an interesting jewellery shop called Al Khatoun, and a stunning Tanoura (Egyptian swirling dervish) dance performance at Wikalat El Ghori. Continue walking deeper past the Wikalat El Ghori and you will come across a nontouristy market selling home furnishings, utensils, traditional and modern Egyptian garments. That bazaar is mainly for the locals and is colourful, busy, and exciting in a chaotic way. An old and authentic Turkish Fez maker has a shop there and you get whiffs of locally made incense, perfumes, and essential oils. There is also a spice market where you can buy exotic spices like carob, saffron, and cloves, perfume market which is awash with countless heady fragrances and many small handicrafts and antique stores. Buy yourself a carpet, chandeliers, engraved boxes and just about anything at half the Khan el Khalili prices. After your shopping, continue your heritage walk all the way up to the unique covered TentMakers street (Sharia Khayamiya) before turning back or reach the awe-inspiring Al Ghouri complex where you will be stunned by the unique courtyard which joins two buildings like an umbrella.
Read about the heritage of Khan el Khalili here
Crossover to experience the beauty of the Al Muizz Street
Though the Fatimid royal families buried bones were unceremoniously tossed out in a garbage heap to make way for the construction of the Khan el Khalili, the art-loving Egyptian rulers are responsible for creating the incredible Al Muizz. Famously called the Muizz street, this stretch has the maximum number of significant Islamic monuments in the world today and many palaces, mosques, and monuments of the Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman rulers that controlled Egypt can be found here. This area is undergoing a massive restoration process and a walk around here is like going back in time. Add to this small bustling shops of craftsmen making wares to be sold at the famous Khan el Khalili market and you have a setting straight out of The Arabian Nights. A walk down this street, beginning or ending with a stroll through the labyrinthine maze of the Khan Al-Khalili, is an integral part of any visit to Cairo.
Lose the Khan el Khalili guide and go deep in the market maze
You know you have reached the Khan el Khalili market when you feel transported back in time to an old Arab souk. Shop owners calling out customers you to their stalls, a heady mix of the scent of spices, sheesha and Turkish coffee, the hustle and bustle of trade, and rows of beautiful objects beckoning you to get lost among alleys for hours….welcome to the enthralling Khan el Khalili market in Cairo. Sharpen your bargaining skills and dive right into the world of exquisitely polite Arabic haggling. Statuettes, spices, souvenirs, silver jewellery, t-shirts, galabiyyas, belly dancing costumes, glassware, chandeliers, furniture…the list of things to buy at the Khan el Khalili is endless.
What to buy according to my Khan el Khalili guide (and Egypt expat experience)
Unless you want to gift souvenirs in bulk, skip the tacky key chains, fake papyrus rolls and plastic replicas of ancient Egyptian gods. Instead, opt for Egyptian traditional handicrafts which are the pride of this country as old as time. Practised for centuries by generations of craftsmen, look out for beautiful alabaster products like lamps, statuettes, and goblets. You may also like the mother of pearl engraved wooden jewellery boxes, backgammon and chess boards, hand-woven carpets, Fayyoum pottery, locally made glassware, and filigree Arabian lamps and chandeliers. There are many shops selling beautiful silver jewellery and you can try a traditional design like kaf Fatima (hand of Fatima), pharaonic cartouche pendants with hieroglyphics emboss work. Make sure that you buy from a certified shop, ask for the gold/silver authenticity certificate and weigh the jewellery before purchasing. Alternatively, you can also shop for cheaper kitschy items like mosaic lighting fixtures, old books, vintage movie posters, spices, Egyptian perfumes and essential oils and of course, sheesha.
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Bargaining tricks you need to survive Khan el Khalili market (and Egypt)
Be prepared to gear up your razor sharp bargaining skills at the Khan el Khalili market. The prices are not fixed in this souk and bargain hard or know that you will be ripped off. There is a thumb rule for bargaining and this one is coming straight from Tarek, who is half Egyptian himself and has spent a lot of his life in Cairo. That man can bargain anywhere for anything and till now has almost 90% success rate. So, here is the golden rule straight from the horse‘s mouth. First ask the price of the item and be mentally prepared to pay exactly half the quoted rate. Walk away feigning disinterest, as if you don’t like their offer. This is when the ping-pong game of bargaining begins and the price starts getting lower. Visit several shops to understand the general standard price of the item, before agreeing on the price for anything. If the shop owner can sell you a product at your last quoted price, know that he will because he wants to make the sale. On the other hand, think before bargaining hard for a few pounds which may add up to only a handful of cents in your currency. Handicrafts lovers are to make sure to inspect an item closely for workmanship quality before buying the item. Egyptian tourism strictly advises against supporting the purchase of faulty Egyptian handicrafts.
Finish off your Khan el Khalili visit at Al Fishawy Cafe
Shopping in Khan El Khalili is a 360 degrees experience. Exhausting, unnerving, and overly stimulating, most shoppers feel drained out by the end of their visit. This is due to the long walk, sensational sights, and sounds, annoying beggars, pestering touts and stall owners, loud music, and crowd. The best place to cool your toes with minimum annoyances is the iconic Al Fishawy Cafe. Open 24 hours for 7 days a week, the Al Fishawy Cafe is 250 years old. The noticable mirror laden alley cafe has featured in countless movies, travel shows, magazines, and novels. Famous for hosting Egyptian literary giants like Naguib Mahfouz, the cafe is quiet and relaxing in the morning. In the evenings, however, it turns into a total tourist hot spot where hordes of visitors crowd for mint tea and apple sheesha. There is still a lot of charm in it and be prepared to indulge in a cuppa at the Al Fishawy with poetry readings, oudh players singing at your table and women offering henna designs. There is something addictively magical about that place.
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How to reach the Khan el Khalili market
To avoid battling crazy traffic, pollution, harassment and annoyances, skip walking to Khan el Khalili from the nearby Downtown Cairo. Just get into a taxi from Tahrir Square and reach Midan Hussein for around 5-10 Egyptian pounds. You will get dropped off in front of the Al Azhar mosque, from where you can walk through the underground passage to reach the market directly. The market is located across the Al Azhar mosque in a little grassy patch called the Hussein Square. Altenatively you can follow my Khan el Khalili guide and experience this atmospheric area to the fullest. Keep a full or half a day for this experience and enjoy a walk in time.
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The final word of the Khan el Khalili guide
Be prepared to face extreme poverty, dirt, dust, grime, garbage, beggars, annoying men, and flies. Dress sensibly and conservatively with preferably full or half sleeved blouses and mid length skirts or trousers to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Do not mention Khan el Khalili to the taxi driver, unless you want to be fleeced and steer clear of harassment by saying a strong, firm “NO. Shukran”. Having said that, there is absolutely nothing in Cairo like exploring the shopping labyrinth of the Khan el Khalili. The Egyptian capital‘s largest souk has he city’s largest souk has preserved a lot its original structure since its days as a famous 14th century bazaar. Do stroll through its exciting alleys, ancient unmarked, unplanned maze of streets, and discover glimpses of Egypt‘s stunning medieval Islamic glory. If you ever get lost, just ask someone for the Midan Hussein and you will end up right where you started.
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will take on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of an expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.
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