To hear the heartbeats of a city, I visit markets. I watch people; observe what they do and how; hence try to assume the mass-nature and lifestyle. So wherever I go, markets are always in my must-visit list. Here I am portraying few markets of Egypt and going to explain what I think about them.
Market of Gharb Seheil
Let’s start our market-hopping from the southern end of the country. Gharb Seheil is on the western bank of river Nile and very close to Aswan, a popular touristy city of Egypt. Anybody visiting Aswan would notice that the people of this area look different from the rest of the Egyptians. Here, people are from an indigenous race called Nubian. But the cosmopolitan nature of Aswan would not let you find the significantly unique lifestyle of Nubians, until and unless you visit the villages of the nearby islands, and western bank especially the market of Gharb Seheil.
The first thing I noticed after arriving there was the colorful houses behind the makeshift shops. Blue was the predominant color, with cute murals upon the walls. Nubian people love colors and heaps of colored powders were displayed for sale, which is indeed a very photogenic sight. It reminded me the Indian festival of ‘Holi’ (festival of colors), before which colored powders are sold everywhere.
The sale-able products include souvenirs, as well the commodities related to locals’ daily need. Whoever be the target customer, everything is very much Nubian! Unlike other popular markets of Egypt, here the products are mostly made out of natural components like mats, baskets, hats, coasters, bags, small figurines woven by palm-leaves or water-weeds. Some of them are wrapped with colorful wools.
Nubians are fond of colors because of their colorful surroundings; the ink-blue water of Nile with the greeneries on shore and yellowish sand-dunes behind. Even naturally colored sands are found in this area; they packed them tightly in glass bottles following some patterns.
Nowhere in Egypt, I found such a varied display of spices! Most of them seemed unfamiliar to us. Hand-woven Nubian cotton is of very fine quality and colorful stripes & checks are the signature patterns of Nubian textile.
Unlike the other popular markets, here, the products are colorful, but not glittering; attractive, but not gorgeous; they are less royal, more down to earth. Well, apparently! What I missed was the involvement of local ones. Though there were non-touristy items for sale, but nobody was shopping anything. Cafés full of locals gossiping and smoking Sheesha are common sights in any market-place of Egypt, but here, I was disappointed while visiting empty cafés. Their impressive interior decors with the deliberate attempt of showcasing Nubian culture were all in vein. A market loses its charm without local buyers. It seemed less like a market, more like a museum with excellent display of the Nubian ethnicity.
- There is ferry-service from Aswan to reach Gharb Seheil.
- Bargain hard.
- Beware of tourist scams. (To know in details, please click here : How to Handle the Tourist Scams while Visiting Egypt )
What to buy? Nubian cotton, bottle packed with colorful sands.
Cattle Market of Daraw
We heard that in between Aswan and Luxor there is place called Daraw, where a camel market takes place on every Sunday. Since it was a Tuesday, while we were traveling from Aswan to Luxor by a hired cab, we had no expectation. But while passing Daraw, traffic got slow and we saw animals peeping at us from the surrounding vans and trucks. We quickly realized that Sunday may be the most popular day, but actually it is an everyday’s market. Hurrah! What an opportunity!
Numbers of donkeys, camels, cows, buffalos, goats, horses, along with their food and various cattle-handling accessories were the saleable products, but above all, the unadulterated spirit of rural Egypt with its sweat & dust, ‘Galabaya’s (traditional attire) & turbans, simplicity & chaos won our heart.
In the land of pyramids and age-old antiquities, foreign visitors are like aliens in a village cattle market. All the pairs of eyes were stuck on us. Happy! Confused! Skeptical! But above all curious! Some of them were trying to communicate in their language. What else we could do but to offer a silent friendly smile! Kids were running after us; we had some non-verbal fun with them. I found myself as the only woman in this all-male market; a woman of brown skin and black hair roaming in an Egyptian village market is something rare spectacle indeed!
Wherever we went in Egypt, touristy or non-touristy sites, we found Sheesha inseparable from local life. Unlike other places, here people were seen sitting on the ground while smoking. Both of us are fond of Sheesha and expert in handling. So we sat beside them, ordered one and smoke flawlessly leaving them in gasps!
- Foreign visitors mostly like to experience the luxurious Nile cruise while visiting Aswan and Luxor. If you are planning for the cattle market of Daraw, then skip the Nile cruise and travel by road.
- Here, people are not used to see foreigners like other touristy sites of Egypt. Therefore, dress & behave accordingly.
- Sunday’s market is a camel market, but on the rest of the days other cattles including camels are sold.
Market of El Balyana
During our stay in Luxor, one day we hired a car to visit the temples of Dendera and Abydos. Around 10kms before Abydos, there is a city called El Balyana, where we saw a local roadside market. It was just an ordinary market selling veggies and fruits, but what I found interesting about this market is the male-female ratio. As I have already said that the cattle market of Daraw is a no-woman market, but here, 90% of the people gathered are women. Nowhere in Egypt, even in the cosmopolitan city like Cairo, I have seen women’s majority in any public gathering. Our driver clarified that in this area the male members of the families mostly work in Saudi Arab, leaving their wives and children in the homeland. So here females are more exposed to outdoor works.
They love to eat birds. Pigeons, ducks, geese were being sold in cages. And I saw a fish-seller! I don’t know whether it is uncommon or not, but nowhere else in Egypt I found anybody selling or eating fish.
- This area is politically sensitive; therefore foreigners roaming and photographing in a local market would seem suspicious. Our driver did not let us get down from the car. We requested to drive slowly so that we could frame few glimpses of that market. Do the same, if you are interested.
- If security persons are seen nearby, or your car is escorted by tourist police, then it is better not to use your camera than going through troublesome consequences.
Market of Luxor
If you go through the map of Egypt, you will find Luxor midway between Cairo of north and Aswan of south. In the market of Luxor, I noticed the items representing the southern simplicity are displayed just beside the northern grandeur. But above all the most unique feature of this market, as I observed, is the deliberate and focused tourist-centricity. Items required during Nile cruise and desert trips like hats, caps, sunglasses were sold in many shops. We saw a liquor shop too! Nowhere in Egypt had we seen such an outlet selling alcohol openly. Here tourism took the upper hand over religious traditions.
If you visit this market after visiting the markets of Gharb Seheil and Khan-el-Khalili of Cairo, it may seem repetitive, but still there are few unusual things to explore. Shops selling seeds and dry fruits are not so frequent in the other places. Most important product here is alabaster stone! In the Tutenkhamun’s Gallery of Egyptian Museum, we saw a number of alabaster-made artifacts. This is a semitransparent white stone, through which light passes creating an amazing luminescence. Only in the market of Luxor, we found shops selling alabaster items.
Nobody should expect locals’ involvement in a typically touristy market like that one of Luxor, but still, they come here just to sit in a café, gossip over a cup of tea and Sheesha or just to play backgammon. If I compare my people watching experiences based on those cafés with the similar ones of Khan-el-Khalili, the biggest market of Cairo, I must say that here life is slower, more relaxing and endless talking to each other is their favorite pastime. Even on a working day, at 8.30 in the morning they just go on and on just chatting over a cup of tea; as if they have all the time in the world.
- Bargain hard. We got the best result of bargaining here.
- The shopkeepers of this market are extremely desperate to make you buy their products. To save yourself from getting ripped off please have a look on our blog: How to Handle the Tourist Scams while Visiting Egypt
What to buy? Artifacts made out of Alabaster stone.
Market of El Bawiti
The best cuisine we tasted in Egypt was the Bedwin cuisine. Their passion for cooking is reflected in their markets. Boxes packed with different kinds of spices were displayed in the local market of El Bawiti, which is an oasis town amidst the Western Desert (Sahara). Desert is dry, but the fruits they sell are juicy; vegetables are fresh & green. Collection of varied types of olives was tempting! Probably these things are locally imported from the fertile parts of the country. How trade influences the age-old lifestyle and food-habit of people! Before being there I used to think that Bedwins live mostly on dates. Well, dates were there! Heaps of dates and their diversity were the first sight that makes you stop…. and buy!
- People do, in fact are bound to do the Western Desert trip with some registered tour operators. They usually don’t take anybody to a local market, unless are asked. So if you are interested to be there, let them know your wish.
- Here, tourists’ footfalls are rare, so unlike other touristy areas of Egypt, here, the shopkeepers will offer you the exact price of any product. No. You are not going to get any souvenir, but if you would like buy dates, olives or olive-oils, this may be the best place for your pocket.
What to buy? Dates, Olives, Olive Oil.
To know more, Please click here : 10 Amazing Places of Western Desert, Egypt (Sahara) : Suggested Itinerary & Tips
Book Market of Coptic Cairo
After visiting the Hanging Church of Coptic Cairo area, the Google navigator was leading us towards the Nunnery and suddenly we found ourselves standing on an alley, in between walls with unending bookracks and countless books in display! It is a hidden gem of Cairo. I did not find any mention of this amazing book-market in any tourist guide book or travel-website. Science, religion, history, geography, Egyptology, anthropology, geology, mythology, and fictions ….the collection serves interests of all. Books, mostly written in Arabic are usually found in the bookshops of Cairo, but here thousands of books written in English are available.
In our city Kolkata, we have a similar book-market called College Street Boi-Para; needless to say, this place reminds us our own city.
What to buy? Books on Egypt written in English.
Khan-el-Khalili of Cairo
It was our last night in Egypt, when we went to explore Khan-el-Khalili, the famous market of Cairo; without least expectation of ‘exploring’ anything actually! From my previous experience of visiting Grand Bazar of Istanbul, which I found very touristy & stereotype, I regarded Khan-el-Khalili nothing more than a souvenir-selling market. But while I stepped into the market-complex, I started regretting why I had not kept more time in this place! Khan-el-Khalili is exactly what I craved to visit; a place to get completely soaked in the local life & culture. Here are the key features of Khan-el-Khalili:
Photo-hunters’ Paradise: The shine and vibrancy of the products displayed in the shops with the background of a picturesque medieval architecture would not let you stop clicking. And there you will see people full of life ….with bright smile ….and words in their eyes ….too tempting to frame!!!
From Alpin to Elephant: From the costumes of belly-dancers to the costumes of Sufi saints, from the gold-plated Islamic calligraphy to the posters of Audrey Hepburn, from precious jewelries to stuffed animals …..you will find everything here! You can spend hours strolling there just to explore how many types of Sheesha & the accessories related to Sheesha could be! The impressive and versatile collection of the items displayed reflects the taste and sophistication of the local people. Khan-el-Khalili is a right choice for the foreign visitors willing to buy souvenirs. Near the entrance, there are shops selling thousands of miniature pyramids, Tutenkhamens, Nefartitis and different animal-headed deities of ancient Egypt. But I must recommend you to go inside and look for some exclusive artifacts like Arabic Atar (perfume), traditional metal lanterns, boxes decorated with mother of pearls and so on. Only thing that is relatively rare here are the alabaster stone products.
- Bargain hard.
- Beware of tourist scams. (To know in details, please click here : How to Handle the Tourist Scams while Visiting Egypt )
- If you want to buy painting on original papyrus, don’t buy it from Khan-el-Khalili. The stuff they sell looks like papyrus, but not an original one. There are Govt. registered shops on the way to Giza selling original papyrus.
What to buy? Boxes decorated with mother of pearls, copper lantern, atar.
Full of Life: Even in this era of virtual socialization, the people of Egypt love to chat over a cup of tea and Sheesha. Khan-el-Khalili is the best place in Cairo for celebrating one’s social life. On evening, especially on the evening of every Friday & Saturday, the entire area turns into something like a carnival ground. People come here with friends and family; cafes are full with locals; noise of flying vendors selling what not, musicians singing and playing traditional instruments, people clapping and dancing around ….full of fun & frolic! And everything is Egyptian, very much Egyptian, unlike the nightlife of other big cities imitating Western culture! I must mention the liberal vibe that I observed there. Nowhere in Egypt, apart from Khan-el-Khalili, I had noticed all female groups or kids with both of their parents visiting any café.
As I said earlier that it was our last night in Egypt. I felt like a farewell party is going on …and sitting amidst this celebration of life, I was sad inside.
- Most of the shops & cafes are closed on Sunday. For best experience try to be there on the evening of Friday and Saturday, while you would like to see people around you in weekend mood.
- Naguib Mahfouz Café is the most popular café among foreigners, but I found it quite expensive and touristy. And there is no point of being surrounded by foreign visitors! If you think alike, the good old cafe El Fishway, which is locals’ favorite is the best choice for you. Don’t forget to notice the shabby, but traditional interior of that café.
Special Note : Egypt’s largest camel market is held on Birqash, a small village 40 kms away from Cairo. Friday & Sunday are the most popular days. Other attractions of or near Cairo took so much time, that we could not manage time for being there. There is a covered alleyway near Khan-el-Khalili with stalls selling appliqued textiles(cushions, mats etc), tapestries and rugs. This is called Tentmakers’ Market, a very photogenic area of Islamic Cairo. We went there on a Sunday, being unaware that those shops remain close on Sundays. We regret for our poor pre-trip study! We have kept these two markets in our wish-list!!!
Until then, if you visit these markets, please do share your experience in comment-box.
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat