Things to buy in Cairo include intricately engraved, hand-beaten copper and brass trays, coffee pots and urns, and exquisite mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden boxes and furniture, which have been handcrafted by artisans using centuries-old traditions. Sheesha pipes and incense also make memorable souvenirs.
Forget the framed papyrus prints, scarab beetles and sphinx fridge magnets made in China that will probably end up in the back of a cupboard or at a future yard sale. For me, the things to buy in Cairo are locally made souvenirs with a history and story that you can actually use.
Also note that you might need to consider adding some extra kilos to your luggage allowance when you book your flights as the shopping in Cairo is just brilliant – especially at Khan el Khalili (pictured above) which is on that Ancient Egypt tour itinerary, and the other bustling souks or markets in Cairo’s bazaar quarter.
The Khan el Khalili is the most atmospheric of all Egyptian bazaars or markets. Located in the heart of old Islamic Cairo, it was established on the site of the mausoleum of the Fatimid caliphs – great sponsors of the arts, architecture and education – known as the Turbat az-Za’faraan or Saffron Tomb, which was located in a palace complex built in 970 AD, the year Cairo was founded.
In the late 14th century, the mausoleum was demolished and a massive caravanserai – or ‘khan’ in Arabic – was built to provide lodgings and storage for visiting merchants and their wares. By the late 15th century, Khan el-Khalili had become an important centre for foreigner traders, who came to sell everything from precious gems to spices, still sold there to this day.
While there are many bazaars in Cairo, along with boutiques and shopping malls, the Khan el-Khalili is a special place to shop for the atmosphere and history as much as anything – even if all you take home is a pyramid magnet.
And shopping the Khan el-Khalili and experiencing Cairo more generally is a much more enjoyable experience since April when Egypt’s parliament passed laws prohibiting touts from harassing visitors at archaeological sites and other tourist sights – whether it’s pestering you to buy ‘antiques’ at the pyramids, hissing at you to come in and see some carpets or pressing you to buy a tour. The hefty fines have been the much-needed and long-awaited deterrence they were intended to be.
From brass engraved trays to glass Oriental lanterns, these are some of the things to buy in Cairo at Khan el-Khalili and the other bazaars.
Things to Buy in Cairo and Tips for Shopping Khan el Khalili and Other Bazaars
An ancient Egyptian tradition, metalwork is a craft that’s probably been practiced for thousands of years, making a piece of metal-ware one of the top things to buy in Cairo as far as I’m concerned. An intricately engraved copper or brass serving tray that can be bought with some foldable wooden legs is something that you’ll probably use. A coffee pot and set of small coffee cups are a must if you’re a coffee lover. You’ll also spot plenty of lanterns, lamps, water jugs, vases, incense burners, candlesticks, cutlery, and kitchen utensils. Also look out for gorgeous silver jewellery. I still wear a silver ring with Arabic calligraphy I bought in Alexandria fifteen years ago. Prices vary tremendously depending upon quality. As you can see from the image above, you won’t have any difficulty finding beautiful metalware in Khan el Khalili. Tip: listen for the sound of metal being hammered upon metal and you might find yourself an artisan’s workshop.
Mother-of-Pearl Inlaid Wood
One of the things to buy in Cairo is an exquisite mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden jewellery box, chest or even a piece of bespoke furniture. One of my most precious purchases from our time living in the Middle East is a handcrafted mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden table and chairs set that we bought from the artisan who had made them at his Damascus workshop. I also have some smaller boxes, which I used to keep earrings and rings in, and give as gifts whenever I returned home to Australia. Egyptian artisans are also very skilled when it comes to crafting mother-of-pearl inlaid jewellery boxes, chests, mirror frames, and furniture. You’ll find plenty of mother-of-pearl inlaid wood in Khan el Khalili. Tip: look closely when selecting a piece – the ‘mother-of-pearl’ should be made from shells, but if it’s a cheap piece it will probably be plastic.
Khayamiya is most definitely one of the things to buy in Cairo as far as I’m concerned. Khayamiya refers to both the Egyptian form of hand-stitched cotton appliqué and the colourful decorative textiles in elaborate patterns that result from this traditional craft dating back to the Mamluk period. Historically, whole tents were made from khayamiya, so there were two layers beneath the vibrant textile, an all-weather exterior and a protective interior layer that also worked as insulation. These were used in Egypt and across the Middle East and are still pitched for weddings and festivals. You’ll see them at hotels and resorts and perhaps spot them hung in people’s homes as you wander the backstreet. You can buy beautiful khayamiya quilts and bedspreads, as well as single-layer wall hangings, cushion covers, and even bags. Tip: while you’ll see khayamiya at Khan el Khalili, the best place to buy it is Share’a el Khayamiya or Souq el Khaymiya, the Street of the Tentmakers or Tentmakers Market, where you might still see some tentmakers working quickly and still stitching by hand using good old fashioned needles and thread.
Glassblowing is another ancient Egyptian art, making a beautiful coloured glass object one of the things to buy in Cairo, however, hand-blown glass doesn’t appear to have survived as a craft as well as metalwork or woodcarving has. If you look hard you can still find beautiful hand-blown glass tableware, glass lanterns and lamps, candle holders and candlesticks, and glass perfume bottles, many of which are incredibly pretty and make precious gifts – although some are also rather kitsch. There’s also a trend to use recycled glass, which some traditionalists disapprove of, although I don’t have a problem with this – in fact, I think it’s fantastic, as long as you are aware of what you’re buying. Tip: glass does not travel well, obviously, but shops are long-used to packing for travellers, so tell them how far you’re going and how long you’re travelling for; make sure it’s packed well with bubble wrap, and carry it in your hand luggage.
Egyptians, like their neighbours elsewhere in the Middle East, love to gather at coffee shops and restaurants to puff on shisha pipes as they socialise with friends. The centuries-old tradition of inhaling aromatic tobacco, sweetened with fruit or sugar molasses, through an elaborate water pipe is thought to have originated in Persia or India, but Egyptians claim to have been puffing for at least five centuries making a shisha pipe one of the things to buy in Cairo. You’ll find coloured glass water pipes – some simple and elegant, others very elaborate and decorative – in Khan el-Khalili. Tip: make sure that all the pieces are packed away in the box, as there’s nothing like arriving home and finding an important piece is missing. And buy a few extra bowls (‘hagar’) so you know they’ll fit, as well as a cleaning kit, and packets of extra filtered mouth tips at the same time, just in case you can’t buy them at home.
We used to light oud, along with frankincense, on top of a couple of coals in a traditional incense burner all the time when we lived in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It was part of my morning weekend ritual – right after I sat down with a good book, a pot of mint tea (crammed with fresh fragrant leaves) and a plate of sticky, honey-soaked baklava bought from the Lebanese bakery downstairs. Oud or agarwood can be bought by the bag or boxed. It looks like small wood chips and it’s actually the dark resinous wood of the aquilaria tree, native to Southeast Asia, so probably travelled to the Middle East on ancient trade routes. You’ll smell the heady fragrance of oud wafting from homes, markets, mosques, and churches as you explore the streets of old Cairo. Tip: while I prefer oud’s more potent scent, you’ll also spot bukhoor or incense sticks that are easier to transport although not as heady. Both are sold in Khan El Khalili.
More Things to Buy in Cairo
Other things to buy in Cairo’s bazaars include rustic Bedouin jewellery (which is beautiful, but disregard claims of it being ‘antique’; much of it is just made to look old); the cylindrical-shape, tassel-topped Egyptian tarboosh or fez (which you probably won’t use, but it will add some exoticism to your decor); cat statues of Bastet, a feline goddess who was the protector of Lower Egypt (ancient Egyptians kept domesticated cats, mummifying their beloved pets so they could be buried with them; some 300,000 mummified cats were discovered at the City of Bastet or Tal El Basta); carpets and kilims (most of which are made in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, or Morocco, or are Egyptian-made, copying patterns from those countries); and Bedouin camel-hair kilims and camel blankets, which you’ll see made into cushions and ottomans.
More Tips for Shopping Khan el Khalili Bazaar
- Make sure you read Egyptian Nobel-Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz’s wonderful The Cairo Trilogy before you go to Cairo, as one of the books in the trilogy, Midaq Alley (1947), is set on a lively alley in Khan el-Khalili. It will enrich your experience all the more.
- Before you start shopping, if you’re also a lover of history and architecture visit the beautiful Al-Hussein Mosque next to Khan el-Khalili, built in 1154, with a tall slender minaret, and, also nearby, the impressive Al Azhar University and Al Azhar Mosque, dating to 971 AD. Entry is free but make sure your arms and legs are covered and remove your shoes before entering; women will need to cover their hair with a scarf.
- When you need a caffeine hit, getting peckish, or need to rest your weary feet, call into one of the old coffee houses serving strong black Arabic coffee and offering aromatic sheesha; try the apple flavour. The most famous, most atmospheric and oldest is El Fishawy’s cafe, which opened in 1773. Mahfouz was a regular and was said to have written parts of his wonderful trilogy in the back room. Read more about El Fishawy’s history. If you’re not a coffee-lover, order the hibiscus tea or fresh lemonade.
Luxury Escapes has a number of small-group Ancient Egypt tours in 2018-19, which I shared details about with you a couple of days ago. The 13-day trip for just A$3,999 pp includes return flights with Emirates/Etihad, 5-star hotels, 3-night Nile cruise, meals, transfers, local guided excursions, and more. Note that there are just two days left on that offer.
Book Cairo Tours of Old Cairo and Khan El Khalili Bazaar
Image supplied by Luxury Escapes.