Lucie lived in Cairo for some time – she never managed to see the pyramids or the Sphinx due to her illness – but her recollection of visiting the Khan el-Khalili to set up her home, is delightful:
‘I went to the bazaar to buy the needful pots and pans. The transaction lasted an hour. The copper is so much per oka, the workmanship so much; every article is weighed by a sworn weigher and a ticket sent with it. More Arabian Nights. The shopkeeper compares notes with me about numerals, and is as much amused as I. He treats me to coffee and a pipe from a neighbouring shop while Omar eloquently depreciates the goods and offers half the value. A water-seller offers a brass cup of water; I drink, and give the huge sum of twopence, and he distributes the contents of his skin to the crowd (there always is a crowd) in my honour. It seems I have done a pious action. Finally a boy is called to carry the ‘batterie de cuisine’, while Omar brandishes a gigantic kettle which he has picked up a little bruised for four shillings. The boy has a donkey which I mount astride ‘à l’Arabe’, while the boy carries all the copper things on his head. We are rather a grand procession, and quite enjoy the fury of the dragomans and other leeches who hang on the English at such independent proceedings, and Omar gets reviled for spoiling the trade by being cook, dragoman, and all in one.’
Khan el-Khalili was built on the site of a mausoleum known as the turbat az-za’faraan (Saffron Tomb), the burial site of the Fatimid caliphs. During the 1380s, the Mamluk Sultan Barquq’s Master of the Stables, amir Jaharkas al-Khalili, pulled down the Fatimid cemetery to erect a large Caravanserai – khan in Arabic – a building to house merchants and their goods at the heart of the city. (He, rather disrespectfully, disposed of the bones of the Fatimid royal family by dumping them into the rubbish hills east of the city!) So Khan el-Khalili was born. However, Sultan al-Ghuri, Egypt’s last important Mamluk sultan (1501-1516), changed the layout of the district. He demolished al-Khalili’s original khan and in 1511, rebuilt it as a commercial complex with monumental gates and perpendicular streets, some of which exist today, including the Wikala al-Qutn (meaning ‘of cotton’) an ornate gate and upper stories whose external facade is lined with iron-grilled windows where the merchants’ rooms were located. Two other monumental gates, the Bab al-Badistan and the Bab al-Ghuri, also date from this time.
Bab al-Ghuri and the Bab al-Badistan Gates
If you get the chance to visit Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, (it’s on most tourist/tour guide’s itineraries) do take time to soak up the souk! The medieval architecture is breathtaking and the labyrinthine maze of passageways and streets will have you enchanted for hours. I was more interested in the architecture than the goods on sale – most of it aimed at tourists – but you will find that perfect bargain…if you barter hard! Intricate jewellery, dazzling woven carpets or leather slipper – all can be found. Look out for the beautiful street cats that slink through the alleys and once you have ‘shopped til you want to drop’, take a rest at one of the many coffee shops, some replete with beautiful antique wooden benches and textiles, and have a Arabic coffee, Egyptian tea with mint or relax with a shisha water-pipe.
The al-Hussein Mosque is also adjacent to Khan el-Khalili, and Al-Azhar University and its mosque are nearby, all of which are stunning.
All photographs copyright – Philippa Faulks 2016