One of my favorite outings in Cairo is to immerse myself in the vibrancy of the Khan El Khalili Bazaar. In the early fourteenth century, sultans and merchants established an economic trade area for their spices, silks, and camels. The market still exists today and you can buy most anything there, from a fresh chicken to a patchwork quilt, a piece of handcrafted wooden furniture, an oud instrument, or a scarab amulet. And of course, spices!
As we approach “the Khan,” Gothic Islamic mosque spires pierce the horizon. An array of structures forms a craggy roofline like something a child would draw. Inside its walls, the open-air marketplace is a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys; some quiet, narrow, and full of dusty antiques and vintage treasures. Other passages are a wonderful circus of riotous color and sound.
Vendor stalls are stacked like doll-house rooms laden with shiny gold statues, jewel-toned galabeya dresses and brightly patterned textiles. Pedestrians instinctively make way for delivery mopeds, carts selling roasted sweet potatoes, and donkeys pulling wagons with fruits and vegetables piled high. Cyclists expertly weave between obstacles with large trays of soft, round pillows of baladi bread balanced on their head.
Once you walk a while, camouflaged architectural details emerge: faded signs with subtle, flowing Arabic script, scrolling wrought-iron gates, and decorative mashrabiya latticework on second story balconies. Carefully placed stones line artful archways that frame beautifully carved doors.
Shoppers without an objective can become overwhelmed. There are blank books embossed by hand with gold-leaf initials and delicately carved tables painstakingly inlaid with mother of pearl marquetry. Silver jewelry with inspired designs entices you to buy more earrings and bracelets than any one person could wear. Canvas bags overflow with aromatic spices of anise and cinnamon. Shelves of hand-blown glass bottles in pastel hues stand patiently, waiting to hold scented oils you can mix like an alchemist: sandalwood, patchouli, opium, amber, or frankincense that “induce relaxation, affection, sleep, or healing.”
As daylight fades, market browsers flag down taxis and the ambience shifts. A mysticism appears in the shadows. Streets glow with glittering lanterns and illuminated coffee houses. Shops gleam with brass and copper wares. Locals in cafes shuffle in their wooden chairs, huddling around tiny tables, engaging in lively conversation over shisha and mint tea.
“As the sky prepares to settle its tired, aching feet into the night’s velvet slippers,
I settle into my armchair, soaking the teabag of my thoughts into warm liquidy stars.”
-Indian poet, Sanober Khan
May you embrace the spice of life,