Beyond the pyramids, this souk, one of the oldest and largest in the Arab world, will immerse you in Egyptian culture and allow you to try your hand at haggling.
Any trip to Egypt involves a visit to the wondrous pyramids of Giza, one of the great legacies of antiquity, but a visit to the capital Cairo would be incomplete without a trip to the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, one of the best preserved medieval Arab souks, where you can still find anything you want, from souvenirs and trinkets to carpets, incense and spices.
Khan el-Khalili is known as the market of a thousand and one shops and remains a fascinating place to observe life in Egypt, a country that has always been a meeting point of cultures. In fact, the colossal market, in Islamic Cairo, the same neighbourhood as the Al Hussein Mosque and Al Azhar University, was built in 1382 as a caravanserai, a kind of inn and rest area for merchants and their camels for transport, by the Mamluk Sultan Djaharks el-Khalili on the grounds of what had been a Fatimid cemetery.
Even if you don’t intend to buy anything, it’s worth wandering around Jan el-Jalili, an area with a medieval feel and well-preserved ramparts, where the Mamluk architecture dazzles, and wandering through the narrow streets inside the market to just browse or, if you prefer, practice the art of bargaining. Here’s all you need to know and what not to miss in Khan el-Jalili:
Although the Grand Bazaar has been modernised and tidied up, there are still areas that respect the original architecture of arcades and vaults, and you can even poke your head into the original caravanserai between Sikka and Badestan alleys. Khan el-Jalili is always a spectacle of noise, people and colour. The best thing to do is to let yourself be carried away by the fragrances of spices and perfumes, taste the quality of fabrics and textiles, nibble on some typical sweets, dream of nights of coloured lamps and music from the hanging instruments, and follow the smell of the food stalls. You don’t need a guide or maps, but most agencies and tour packages offer a tour of the market, which has more than 900 stalls.
Khan el-Khalili will always be a good place to bring back a nice souvenir from Cairo.
Whatever you want
There is no one speciality or product that is typical of Khan el-Jalili, although the Najasin area is famous for its copper handicrafts. It’s a typical Arab market, reminiscent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to some extent, and overflowing with a wide variety of goods. It should be remembered that it is not a souk set up for tourists, even though they visit it every day, but Egyptians also come here to buy what they need. It is like a city within the city, creating a unique and enveloping atmosphere.
The Alley of Miracles
Yes, that’s the title of the famous novel written by Naguib Mahfuz, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner for literature, who was a regular at the souk. Basically because the book is set in Midaq Alley, which has made it one of the busiest alleyways in Khan el-Jalili. If you don’t go with a guide, you can ask for directions, as it’s not far from the entrance. Or you can watch the film, which was also shot there, and try to recognise it. It is also essential to visit the museum dedicated to the writer and inaugurated in 2019 in the bowels of the market, and the restaurant he used to frequent, which now also bears his name.
The Mirror Café
It is not an Arab adaptation of Versailles, but the Café Al Fishawy stands out for the profusion of mirrors and antique furniture inside. It’s a must-see destination in Khan el-Jalili, a great place to sip tea or smoke shisha, the Arabic water pipe. What makes this establishment unique is that it has been open uninterruptedly for over 200 years. Opened in 1769, Al Fishawy has been serving its customers 24 hours a day ever since, without ever missing an appointment.
Café Al Fishawy, Cairo-Egypt
At any time of the year, but it also depends on the season. In summer, it is best to wait until the afternoon, when the heat subsides a little. The evening visit also allows you to sample the culinary delights and attend the Al Ghoury show, where the tanoura, the whirling dervishes, seek a mystical trance to the sound of music.
The art of haggling
Even if you’re not used to haggling, Egyptians and Arab traders in general take it as a sign of disrespect when customers don’t want to discuss prices. It is not so much about getting a discount and avoiding being taken for a ride as it is about participating in a custom. Therefore, we should at least play the game, even if only symbolically. If we really don’t want to buy, it is better not to ask what it is worth. When you ask for the price, the trader thinks that you are really interested and starts to deploy his convincing skills and does not understand that the interested party is backing out. The best advice is to think that they will never sell a product at a lower price than they want to sell it for, no matter how much fuss and fuss they make. You can start by lowering the price ten times the price you have been given and go up from there until you reach an agreement. A warm greeting and a hearty thank you at the end will be the best indicator that the deal has worked out to the satisfaction of both parties.
Khan el-Khalili is located in historic Cairo. It is also adjacent to the Al Hussein Mosque, which is supposed to hold the remains of the head of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. It would make sense to visit the mosque, but unfortunately, entry is forbidden to non-Muslims. Built in 1154, but largely remodelled in the 19th century, you can admire it from the outside and watch the bustle of worshippers moving between the place of worship and the market. A little further away and outside the Al Gamaliya neighbourhood, in the Cairo Citadel, is the Hassan Mosque, an architectural jewel of the Mamluk sultanate, dating from the 14th century. And then, of course, complete the trip with the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum and the Nile River.
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Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo
The Khan el-Khalili Grand Bazaar is where Cairo best lives up to its reputation as a city of frenetic streets, an explosion of smells and colours that for centuries has been the commercial centre of the country. The market is a unique way to soak up Egyptian culture quickly in the historic and Muslim centre of the country’s capital.