Column: Exploring the Khan El-Khalili souk


A visit to a Middle Eastern outdoor market, called either a “souk” or “souq” (from Arabic) or a “bazaar” (from Persian), provides a sensory experience like few others. The oldest and one of the most famous souks is Cairo’s sprawling Khan El-Khalili, at the center of Islamic Cairo, between Al-Muizz Street and the important El-Hussein Mosque.

Khan El-Khalili is named for Jaharkas el-Khalili, a government official who established an open-air market in the area in the late 14th century. By the 15th century, the market had become an important center of international trade, including trade in slaves. Today, Khan El-Khalili is the most visited site in Egypt, attracting both locals and visitors from around the world.

The hundreds of stores and workshops attack all the senses, sometimes simultaneously. Bright colors can be found in the many shops selling clothing, including shops displaying lingerie, an unusual site in a predominantly Muslim nation. The aromas of freshly baked bread, burning incense and tobacco smoke from hookahs are everywhere. Strong Turkish coffee and tasty Middle Eastern food are available in the many cafes and coffee shops, including the famous El Fishawi’s, established in 1773. The sense of touch can be threatened by the crowds of people walking along the narrow streets and rewarded by the feel of luxurious handmade rugs. Artisans, working on leather and precious metals, fill the air with sounds of hammers, and shop owners create a cacophony of many languages as they seek to entice foreign visitors to enter their tiny stores, where they may be more easily coaxed into buying something. On Fridays at about noon, sounds from the nearby El-Hussein Mosque call the faithful to prayers.

When you visit Cairo, make sure you spend a few hours in Khan El-Khalili. And when you do, make sure to take along your haggling skills.