Going to Khan el-Khalili

As I wrote earlier, the fantastic shopping mall close to my hotel in Heliopolis, Cairo, did not offer much in terms of authentic Egyptian shopping experience. So one evening during my recent visit, I and a few friends decided to explore the largest and most famous market in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili.

Khan was established in the 14th century and has a history of flourishing trade for decades. It was called the Turkish Bazaar during the Ottoman period and has been refurbished numerous times over the decades. The market occupies several quarters in the Islamic part of Cairo, bustling with activity from early morning until very late at night. The bazaar district has unfortunately been subject to two attacks in the past 10 years, which has probably somewhat affected its popularity as a major attraction to visitors.

Khan el-Khalili

My first visit to this market was about 15 years ago so I was eager to see what, if anything had changed. Not much had. Maybe the commerce was a bit slower now, but the shops were full of merchandise from clothing and all kinds of household stuff to souvenirs, antiques and jewelery. The many coffee houses and street food vendors were busy even at the late hour of our visit. And the shop keepers were as eager as ever to advertise their merchandise.

Walking through the narrow streets and alleys, I was offered scarfs in many glorious colors and materials. I was wearing a scarf but the eager shop keepers tried to convince me I needed one in each color to match all my outfits as well as for use in different temperatures. But I passed on the offerings of beautiful scarfs as well as the exquisite belly dancing outfits. The latter were a bit too daring and much too unflattering even for my occasional Zumba class.

I was looking for a few small gifts that would fit in my purse as my poor carry-on was already overloaded and also overweight, as it proved out later.

There were numerous shops specializing in souvenirs, mostly replicas of famous ancient monuments and symbols or of figurines found in the tombs of the pharaohs. These souvenirs were made of various metals, bone, wood, stone and clay. Many were hand carved and some were beautifully painted by hand. In one of these shops, my friend found a couple of small scary-looking mummies in their colorful sarcophagi for her grandsons.

The antique shops were many too, literally overflowing with all kinds of “old stuff” from light fixtures, incense burners and jars to cameras, telephones, microscopes, dolls and old decorations, just to mention a few items. Stepping into these dusty shops was like stepping at least 100 years back in time.

Some of the antique shops also boasted nice collections of interesting old photographs and paintings in their original frames. One of my friends ended up adding a beautiful old photo to his daughter’s antique photo collection.

Many jewelery shops offered new fine jewelery, not much different from what one could find in any large city in this part of the world, but others were specialized in more traditional Egyptian silver jewelery, like the ones pictured below.

 I found a pair of beautiful traditional silver ear rings and an interesting key chain. As nothing here has a price tag, I had to hone my bargaining skills to get a “fair” price. Lots of interesting back and forth!

Of course I also wanted to add a couple of scarab beetles, mythical symbols of resurrection, transformation and protection, to our collection. Hundreds to choose from, and another bargaining session! I have to admit I’m still not very good at this “sport”, the shop keeper usually wins, at least that’s the feeling I’m left with most of the time.

A visit to Khan el-Khalili is in many ways an adventure, an excursion into the past and the present at the same time. I hope you liked your visit.