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Wandering through a 14th-century souk

A trip to Cairo isn’t complete without a visit to Khan el-Khalili, the grand bazaar in the historic city centre. This labyrinth of narrow alleys filled with exotic merchandise and handmade souvenirs is a fabulous place to explore. It’s not only the perfect place to shop for interesting wares, but the neighbourhood itself is also home to many monuments and beautiful old cafés.

The smell of spices, the banter of the merchants, the rich blend of colours and textures: Khan el-Khalili is a feast for the senses. For the full experience, just surrender to the dynamic rhythm of the souk, where people have been buying, selling and in particular, bargaining since 1382. Lanterns, water pipes, papyrus rolls, essential oils, copper pots and Pharaoh masks – the further you go into the souk, the narrower the streets and the more authentic the merchandise.

Dried chili peppers
Dried chili peppers

Kahire

Arabian nights architecture

Today the souk counts approximately 900 stands and shops, but at the end of the 14th century it was nothing more than a simple trading post. The sultan at the time built the bazaar on the site of a royal cemetery. Like many old bazaars, the layout of Khan el-Khalili is typically organised by craft or trade. For example, there are sections with coppersmiths, gold merchants and perfumers. Stroll by medieval gates, Muslim schools ('madrassas') and mosques. The graceful minaret of the Sultan Ashraf Barsbay mosque (dating from 1425) towers over the spice market. Nearby you will find the 18th-century Mutahar Al-Sheikh mosque, with its beautiful marble floor.
Soaking up the atmosphere at El-Fishawi

El-Fishawi, a coffee house from 1773

Located in one of the streets of Khan el-Khalili, El-Fishawi is a traditional Egyptian coffee house with a long history: it has been owned by the same family for 7 generations. During the last century, the café was the favourite haunt of famous writers and politicians. And today locals and visitors flock here to savour a glass of Arabic coffee or mint tea. Grab a seat inside the café among the large mirrors or nab a spot outside overlooking the hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Next to each table is a water pipe – the air over the terrace is heavy with the unmistakable fruity tobacco fragrance from the hookah pipes.

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El-Fishawi, El-Fishawi Alley, Khan el-Khalili, Cairo

Wekalet El-Ghoury

A few hundred metres from the south entrance to Khan el-Khalili is another historical landmark that has its roots in the trade. Wekalet El-Ghoury is an original ‘karavanserai’, an ancient inn from 1504 where caravan travellers would spend the night. The camels were unharnessed in the large courtyard with a fountain and the travellers slept on the top 3 floors of the inn. The impressive building is reason enough to visit, but you can also attend a musical performance with traditional Egyptian dance. Today the inn is home to a cultural centre and an artisan workshop.

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Tannoura show at Wekalet El-Ghoury

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Wekalet El-Ghoury, El-Darb El-Ahmar, Cairo

Photo credits

  • Soaking up the atmosphere at El-Fishawi: mobiledisco, Flickr
  • Tannoura show at Wekalet El-Ghoury: Héctor, Flickr