Khan al Khalili- the Center of Old Islamic Cairo
By: Caroline Umphlet / Arab America Contributing Writer
Khan al-Khalili is the most famous market in Egypt, and even one of the oldest open-air markets in the entire Arab World. Located in the heart of old Islamic Cairo, it stretches about half a square mile and is easily walkable from end to end. The market has a different atmosphere than some of Egypt’s usual tourist attractions, but the chaos makes it all the more Egyptian.
Merchants and traders have been setting up business in Khan al-Khalili since the 14th century. The center was established on the old burial site of the Fatimid Caliphs, but it became a souq during the Mamluk period. Merchants preferred the khan structure where there was a middle courtyard for storage of goods and upper levels for living quarters. Then, shopping at the street-level and could connect easily between each khan. More Sultans and merchants added on their own khan and gradually built up the great international center for trading and selling.
The Market Today
There is every item imaginable that one could be looking for at Khan al-Khalili: from clothes and jewelry to any trinket or souvenir, and even home furniture and outdoor grills. Some would say it is a bit overwhelming how busy, colorful, and hectic it is. Regardless, the vibrant atmosphere is captivating. One could explore the souq for days on end.
Originally, the souq was organized into regions by product. The specific sections for different goods are mostly all blended together now. Only the areas for gold, spices, and coppersmiths are more distinct.
Most of the vendors are Egyptian locals with great English-speaking skills. However, whether they get their products from China or a local supplier is debatable. Nonetheless, they truly have Arab hospitality, offering tea or coffee whenever possible and, of course, giving directions if someone gets lost in the endless narrow streets of the market.
Bargaining is almost a must when shopping at Khan al-Khalili. The general rule is to suggest half of what the seller is offering, or decide on a reasonable price to stick to before even listening to what they offer. Whatever one may be looking for, Khan al-Khalili has incredibly detailed hand-made goods and artwork.
Buildings and Architecture
Walking throughout the cobblestone allies and under the beautiful Islamic architecture gives an authentic ancient feel like no other area in the city. The market is filled with historical Islamic landmarks like schools, mosques, and mausoleums, all from various time periods. The various mosques to see with beautiful arches have incredible detailing and artwork.
The Al-Hussein mosque from the 12th century is stunning and considered one of the holiest sites in Cairo. It was built as a mausoleum for Hussein Ibn Ali, a grandson of the prophet Mohammed.
Bab al-Futuh (left) and Bab Zuweila (right). Photo Credit: Wikipedia and Structurae
Bab al-Futuh and Bab Zuweila sit at the north and south of Khan al-Khalili, respectively. Both are historic Islamic gates constructed during the Fatimid period. Visitors can get tickets to go upstairs for a mini museum and see the whole market from a higher point.
Muizz Street, approximately a kilometer long, is known for having lots of Islamic architecture. A UN study actually found that it hosts the highest amount of medieval architectural treasures in the Islamic world. It is essentially an open-air museum now. The street used to be the hub for economic and religious activity in all of Cairo.
There are countless quaint stands and cafe’s throughout the maze of the Khan. Al Fishawi has been open for over 200 years!
The Naguib Mahfouz cafe is another very popular place. Mahfouz is a famous Egyptian writer who was the first ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 for Arabic writing.
There are also various restaurants for hawawshi, falafel, liver, and other classic Egyptian meals.
Of course, it would not be a true Egyptian experience without sweets like kunafa and basbousa around almost every corner.
There is constantly live music and other performances held at Khan al-Khalili. The market is busy all year round.
It is especially alive during Ramadan because people come to eat Iftar together, shop, and celebrate the holiday overall. There are copious amounts of decorative lanterns (fawanees – فوانيس) of every size and colorful string lights hanging in the streets.
There is no end in sight for the famous Khan Al-Khalili. If anything, the souq continues to thrive and grow along with the people. The lively area is certainly an essential cultural center and retail space for Egyptians and foreigners alike, very much worth the visit, even if just to walk around!
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