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The Colorful Chaos of the Souqs

posted on: Oct 24, 2018

By Emiliya Strahilova/Arab America Contributing Writer

Souqs are the ancestors of today’s shopping malls. They exist since ancient times and prove that the concept of having fun while buying goods has been around for ages.

Evidence of the presence of first souqs in the Middle East and North Africa points to 6th Century BCE. Initially, this kind of Oriental traditional bazaars was located outside of the cities and was serving the needs of traveling traders. In the past, souqs were mobile and were moving from place to place by caravans. Later, their popularity increased and gradually, they became establishments in the hearts of the cities, attracting large diverse groups of visitors.

The term souq (or also spelled sook, suc, souq, sooq) is found in Aramaic language and it means narrow because souqs used to look like covered corridors. Dependant on the weather conditions, markets had an open and a closed part. It’s interesting how modern architecture nowadays is also seeking ways to combine indoors and outdoors spaces when designing shopping outlets. Natural sunlight, plenty of restaurants/coffee shops, and green spots are some of the techniques used to enhance the sense of comfort. Even the idea of cinema can be traced back to times when shows were performed in the middle of the souq for celebrations of special occasions.

In Arabic, the definition of the souq is market or bazaar but there is another theory, according to which, the word is derived from French slang and it means lively chaos. It makes sense, considering the French influence in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, and Syria but also because of the character of all souqs: oriental, bubbly, full of spices, noisy and vivid. Here is a small selection of some of the most delightful ones:

The Dark Souq – Muttrah, Muscat, Oman

Muscat is a beautiful city by the sea. It’s appealing to tourists from all over the globe. Apart from the impressive architecture and the tranquil mountains, Oman has a lot to offer as a shopping destination. For those looking for antiques, handcrafts and silver jewelry, Muttrah Souq is the ultimate choice. Muttrah is situated near the shore, and similarly to other oriental markets, is spread in all directions like a maze. This souq is one of Muscat’s oldest foundations and has been renovated through the years but it kept the same name between locals – the Arabic word for darkness. It’s called that way because of its countless narrow “avenues” piled up with stock blocking the sun arrays.

The UNESCO Heritage Souq-Al Madina, Aleppo, Syria

Al Madina Souq is around eight centuries old. It is strategically located at a world major trading area and it consists of multiple smaller souqs. It has always been rich with regional production. This ancient market is part of the Ancient City of Aleppo, which is the historic city center of Aleppo and is protected by UNESCO.  Sadly, after remaining unchanged for so long, in 2012, Al Madina Souq got seriously damaged in the Syrian Civil War.

The Crossroads Souq-Old City of Jerusalem, Palestine

It’s no surprise that the Old City of Jerusalem souq is aged. It’s a junction of small markets built on the Christian and the Muslim quarters of the city. The vendors are separated thematically in different shopping streets: Souq al-Attarin (Souq for spices),  Suq al-Lahhamin (The Butchers’ Market), Souq al-Qattanin (The Cotton Market), etc. Surrounded by historic sights from Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish descent, it’s hard to distinguish where the souq begins and where it ends. Surely, the people who can be seen in the Old City are an intriguing and vibrant mix.

The Flashy Souq-Dubai Gold Souq

What is more fascinating than sparkling gold and diamonds? Maybe buying them. This is not the only Gold souq in the world but it’s impressive as Dubai is a unique host of anything precious. Dubai Gold Souq is a great place to get an excellent deal. Retailers claim that in total, 10 tons of gold are always present at the market.

The River Souq-Sharia El Souq, Aswan, Egypt

Aswan is an Egyptian town on the east bank of Nile. It’s more relaxed compared to Cairo and Luxor and is famous for the hot and dry weather. The souq is positioned parallelly to the river and offers a broad variety of garments, souvenirs, and foods. It’s also a place to hang out with plenty of restaurants. Sometimes, ships with tourists arrive and that is the peak time for bargaining which can get extreme. Sharia El Souq is named after the Muslim law but is actually combining items from all cultures.

The Oasis Souq-Lahad, Kebili, Tunisia

This is probably the most hidden and quiet markets in North Africa. Souq Lahad is, in fact, an oasis city close to Kebili. It has a pleasant climaте and enchants with strong unmistakable jasmine fragrance. It’s a sanctuary if one is looking for shopping with a dazzling view and easy feeling, away from the crowds. Souq Lahad is not overflowing with locals because it’s meant to be more an attraction for tourists.

The Standing Souq-Waqif, Doha

We can’t talk about souqs without mentioning Qatar’s jewel, Souq Waqif. There’s been a retailers hub in the heart of Doha for centuries but only through last decades, it became one of the most advanced and charming souqs of the Middle East. It’s being renovated and upgraded constantly. This might be a reason why the name Waqif means standing.

Souq Waqif has multiple different sections, covered and uncovered. The most exciting is the local’s art galleries and the animal souq. Last, but not least, this is an entertainment and a recreation venue. All kinds of cuisine can be discovered here and special events and festivals are organized on holidays all over the place.

The Fairytale Souq-Jemma El Fnaa, Morroco

Jemma El Fnaa is the magnificent square in the center of Marrakesh. It’s the meeting point not only of traders but for artists, doctors, fortune tellers, and cooks. This place is known for its storytellers, passing the word of legendary tales of the past.

In the evenings, Jemma El Fnaa is lit up with gentle candlelike lights and becomes a spacious dining room under the stars. The romantic atmosphere of this splendid Moroccan souq is unforgettable.