Khan El Khalili [خان الخليلي‎], Cairo, Egypt – shop till you drop!

So we signed up for a tour but decided to land early to adjust to the time difference and hopefully get some time to explore the city on our own. Time we did have, barriers to explore however were aplenty. Firstly, having signed up for our Contiki tour, we both failed to do any form of research and hence went into Egypt blind and uninformed. Secondly, language was a huge barrier as hardly anyone, including the staff at our hotel, spoke in English.

Challenged, frustrated and eager to explore, we grouped up with an Aussie traveler who was also in early from our tour to venture out and get lost. As part of our tour itinerary, we knew that we would be visiting Khan El-Khalili which is the go-to market where locals and tourists alike visit to shop, but there’s a huge difference between where the tourists goes and where the locals head.. This we would never have known had we not ventured out on our own.

Back to the start of our adventure, having walked the streets and been faced with multiple obstacles to entry on the public transport and communicating with the locals, we decided to hop on a cab and head to Khan El-Khalili since it was a place that was recommended in our tour and a place every local knew.

Upon arrival, i experienced a sensory overload – from the earthern buildings to the overpowering scent of a mixture of spices to the overpowering chatter of the people and sounds of animal cries – i was ready to throw in the towel, call it a day and return to the sanctuary of the hotel yet the adventurer in me screamed for me to place another foot forward and enter the market.

We probably looked like 3 stupefied people as we stood there with bewildered faces, taking in the sights, sounds and smells as we contemplated our next steps. What happens next was totally unplanned and should be cautioned against if you’re travelling alone or in small groups, which we were..

As we stood with our backs to the road and our taxi speeding away, a boy who looked about 20 dressed in a pink polo tee, a red cap and Nike shoes, munching on a kebab approached us and said ‘Hi, is this your first time here?’ At this point my alarm was SCREAMING – make minimal conversation and move on! But the fact is, it’s so comforting to hear a local speak English that you almost feel like an affinity to the person. Striking up a short conversation, he informed us that there are two parts to the market – one dedicated to tourists where vendors are able to converse in basic English but with steeper price tags on the items and the other, dedicated to locals where one can strike a deal.

At this point, we made it clear that we were going to explore the tourist site as none of us spoke Arabic and he was casual about it and engaged us further in small talk as we strolled down the cobbled path towards the first store. Suspicions mounting on his overt friendliness, he walked along with us as we entered the first store along the lane.

As we trawled through the goods on offer, the store keeper struggled to communicate with us as we inquired on his wares. The pink polo boy who continued to shadow us effectively rendered his services and served as translator for us. As the exploration of that store continued, we eased into the familiarity of pink polo boy’s presence and relied on him as our crutch as we navigated the language barrier in our thirst to learn more about Egypt and her wares.

Through him, we learnt that the gold seat you see above is made of camel hide and the glistening boxes are the handiwork of piecing together shards of broken mother of pearl to form the intricate designs on each of box.

We were even shown an Egyptian knife, very similar to the Southeast Asian kris, which i suppose is due to the origins of the Islamic religion. Don’t quote me on that though!

Having shared a couple of laughs with pink polo boy, we left the store in two minds about his ulterior motive. On the one hand, he seemed to be genuine about hanging out with us but the rational side told us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in the world and he is obviously looking to gain something out of tagging along with us.

As we stood awkwardly at the door step of the store, he suddenly asked us if we would like him to be our guide at the market. Puzzled and suspecting the worse still, we hesitated to reply. That was when he reached into his pocket and I thought to myself, we’re absolutely done for.. Turning a smile on us, he produced a card [highly dubious looking] indicating that he was an authorized volunteer youth guide.

Looking back, it was a risk that we were taking as we could have been led into any number of dens or isolated lanes and been robbed etc. Thankfully he turned out to be a genuine chap who knew his way around the market and wanted to practice his English with foreigners. Let’s just say we were a blessed trio that day.

After confirming his services, he explained that he would be taking us through the local side of the market in order for us to get better deals. Not knowing better, we agreed and played follow-the-leader for the rest of the day.

From breads to live produce, the market was a colorful sight to behold as we navigated the streets in search of items to purchase and take home. Oh, and if you think your eyes are playing tricks on you in the image below – the Egyptians to eat rabbits as part of their diet – not for the faint-hearted or bunny lovers like me I’d say.

As our young guide took us deeper into the market, my anxiety mounted once again as we entered abandoned buildings and uninhabited lanes. As if sensing my anxiety, he explained that he was taking us to a well known local store specialising in Mother of Pearl jewelry boxes where we can see the craftsmen create the pieces and learn how to differentiate genuine goods vs inferior goods.

So here’s what you need to know when selecting a Mother of Pearl souvenir in Egypt. Firstly, there is an extensive number of products utilising mother of pearl – from furniture, gameboards, utensils to boxes and some of them are beautiful works of art while others are just junk. Why? Some of these items claim to have inlays of mother of pearl but actually are made of plastic and it can be hard to tell. Had we not had our local guide with us, i’m certain we would have been scammed at the tourist side of the market. As with differentiating genuine vs faux pearls, look out for shine and nuances of rich colour under the reflection of light. Try and spot the difference in the boxes pictured above. Made of wood with inlaid pieces of mother of pearl and velvet lining the interior, the jewelry box will prove a hit with your girlfriends.

With that, it’s purchase #1 for me. Note the image on the extreme left – the jewelry box reflects the same pattern on the dollar bill. And yes, i couldn’t resist snapping a shot with the boy mending the store. Them eyes be mesmerizing!

Another local souvenir not to be missed is papyrus art. Here again, there are tricks of the trade to be learnt. Purchase an inferior product, you’ll see the papyrus begin to flake and the paint, fade.

So here’s a couple of tips when selecting papyrus art:

  • true papyrus is typically heavier in weight, strong, difficult to tear and somewhat opaque
  • unpainted papyrus paper will return to its original flat state after you crumple it
  • has varied degrees of brown and veins can be seen when held against light
  • if you purchase it from a reputable shop, the papyrus art is usually stamped

I fell in love with this painting of the Queen but the price tag, well it was too hefty for my pocket.

Another uniquely Egyptian souvenir you cannot leave without is the cartouche. The idea dates back to the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty under the reign of Pharaoh Sneferu, where each Pharoah’s name was written in hieroglyphics within an ellipse with a horizontal line at one end. Arriving at the Pharaonic Works Gold and Silver within Khan El Khalili market, we observed a group of craftsmen create their wares and artwork.

We decided to fashion our own and the craftsmen efficiently translated our names into hieroglyphics. There’s something extremely pleasurable about watching your order come to live.. if you know what i mean.

As the craft master added the finishing touches to our orders, we sipped hibiscus tea [which is a local favorite] and picked up a couple of additional jewelry in the store. With our local guide with us, we managed to haul our goods off at a discounted rate as we watched him haggle with the owner. At the end of the day, i guess all of us left happy.

So that’s the top three things you can get when you find yourself in Egypt. You may not be blessed with a local guide as we have but the tourist side of the market offers the same goods but just keep your eyes peeled for counterfeit products and be sure to bargain!