Recently, we ventured back into the maze of Khan El-Khalili for the first time in years, seeking out the monuments of Moez Street, the fame and hype of El Fishawy, and a few nicknacks for a first-time visitor.
Throngs of people, bright colors, and a cacophony of smells and sounds – this is the essence of Khan el-Khalili. In some sense it is a perfect microcosm of Egypt: both embracing and rejecting everything that is Egyptian and everything Egyptians want while both courting and pushing away outsiders and their dollars. But even more than that, the market – like Cairo herself – is a complicated blend of ancient and modern.
Khan El-Khalili has existed for nearly 700 years, since a caravanserai, a khan, was established in the area in the late 1300s. Some of the gates built in the 1500s, including the ‘cotton’ gate (below), are still standing and have become iconic to the khan.
We hurried through the hundreds of stalls lining the khan’s narrow, twisting streets when we first arrived, wanting to get to Moez Street before sunset. We passed stalls of touristic nicknacks, the gold district, and finally a handful of antique shops selling everything from old cameras to phonographs before rounding the bend to see the minarets of some of the city’s oldest mosques (below is the minaret of El Hussein, one of Cairo’s most famous mosques).
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The main street of what we now call Fatmid or Islamic Cairo, Moez Street, was once known as the qasaba and was the main thoroughfare of the city.
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As the evening progressed we picked up some freshly roasted corn and slowly wound our way back into the heart of the market, soon finding ourselves at one of the khan’s most iconic landmarks: El Fishawy cafe. We settled ourselves onto small benches in a little room at the back, under a picture of Morgan Freeman sitting at the exact same table many years before. Our tea with mint and shisha khokh arrived shortly, along with an oud player who offered to serenade us – for a fee of 200LE per 30 minutes.
After a bit of discussion we offered him 100LE to play us just a few songs, and we’re glad we did. For the next 10 or 15 minutes we sat back and listened as he played for us, adding immensely to the ambiance of the evening.
Before heading out, we sidetracked a bit back to the gold market, climbing two narrow staircases to one of the khan’s most renowned gold workshops. One of our party wanted to have a few pieces custom-made, and she quickly sorted the details with the proprietor before we headed back down into the maze of people, stalls, and vendors comprising the khan. We made a few stops, picking up a shisha and a few other things, smiling and shaking our heads at the calls of, “Hello! How can I take your money today?”
Finally, we hailed a car and headed home. But we’ll be back again.
WE SAID THIS: If you want to rediscover Khan El-Khalili for yourself, we recommend having a goal for the day – even if it’s just to enjoy yourself! – and keeping an open mind. Smile at the little things and let yourself get lost in the maze.