Soaking in the souks of Egypt

Soaking in the souks of Egypt

When you think of Egypt, you are most likely thinking of the Great Sphinx, the majestic pyramids, and the vast desert landscape. Yet, away from the quiet and sombre interiors of the tombs lie the paradoxical, buzzing streets of the Egyptian souks. As much a part of the Egyptian history and culture as the famed pyramids, a visit to these traditional Arabian markets is akin to riding a roller coaster – exciting, intimidating, but overall, an absolute delight.
With over a hundred stalls and several “districts” within each market, the twists and turns of the souks are more complex than that of the hieroglyphs. A walk through these bustling streets is a multi-sensory experience. Myriad shades of traditional spices, garments and jewellery intermingle with the twinkle of silver and copperware. The wafting aroma of freshly baked breads, Egyptian street food and Arabic coffee intermingle with the
intoxicating fragrance of oud (incense) and perfumes. 

The air is filled with the sounds of vendors peddling their wares, haggling with customers and trying to get your attention in creative ways. Their unconventional sales pitches range from hisses and tongue clicks to an invitation to a cup of coffee at their shop.

While the whole experience might seem overwhelming to first-timers, veteran shoppers will tell you, it’s all part of the fun.

Egyptian spice market
Street market in Cairo
This is the real Egypt, the Egypt sans the picture-perfect makeup, raw and brilliantly alive. The souks have been the life of the country for over 500 years. The famous Khan el-Khalili market was established in the 14th century and is surrounded by stunning medieval architecture. Soor elazbakeya is a market dedicated exclusively to books while Wekalet El Balah is the place to go for vintage garments.

To immerse yourself into the ancient souk culture, you must unabashedly do as the Egyptians do – haggle. 

Haggling is an art that has been an integral part of souk shopping since inception and it is widely understood that all the prices have been accordingly marked up. The whole process can be quite drawn-out so make sure the artefact you’re after is worth it. Take your time browsing through the umpteen shops, go beyond the ones at the front and beware of cheap Chinese imitations (yes, they’ve found their way to Egypt too). 

Your options for Egyptian souvenirs are delightfully varied. Shisha water pipes, incense sticks, scarab beetle (symbol of the Sun God “Ra”) or Bastet (Egyptian feline goddess) replicas, Kilim carpets, kohl pencils and Egyptian cotton products are some of the tourist favourites. 

When you’ve finally found your diamond in the rough, ask for the price and then boldly offer half of that. The merchant will act like you’ve cut the Egyptian carpet from under his feet or laugh scornfully to break your resolve, but stay calm, smile and stand your ground. If you manage to strike a deal for a price that is one-third of the seller’s original quote, consider yourself a master of the ancient art. 

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