Monday, April 16, 2007

Khan el Khalili

One of the must-dos on every Egypt tour, the Khan el-Khalili, once known as the Turkish bazaar during the Ottoman period, was built in 1382 by the Emir Djaharks el-Khalili in the heart of the Fatimid City (Islamic Cairo).

Legend says that this market was involved in the spice monopoly controlled by the Mamluks (Slave dynasty of Egypt, ruling the country as an independent state from 1250 until 1517, and as subjects to the Ottoman Empire until 1811), which encouraged the Europeans to search for new routes to the East and led Columbus, indirectly, to discover the Americas!!

Locally known just as “the Khan” its very reminiscent of the local wholesale bazaars that you get to see in the eastern world especially in India. Just imagine the Byzantine lanes of Sadar Bazaar in Delhi or Crawford market in Bombay. The difference being that this place is full of history, gorgeous artifacts, hordes of smiling Egyptians who follow you around with promises of wares never seen before…

For Indians, there is the added charm of every shopkeeper waylaying you with a curious mix of Hindi and English, not to mention a keen curiosity to satiate their quest for information about the Hindi film industry, its stars and of course Amitabh Bachhan. As you walk past myriad shops, cries of “ Hindi? Kaisa hai? Achha hai? AmitaR Bachhan?” dog your footsteps.

An enterprising young gentleman in an attempt to transcend the Egyptian obsession for “Amitar Bachhan” had moved his object of affection Aishwarya Rai. Little did he know that he’s transferred his affections to yet another member of the same family!Claims of kinship to the Bachhan family are heard ever so often that you can’t help but involuntarily smile…

The market comprises a number of crisscrossed small streets selling everything from artifacts, the Egyptian galabiyas, spices, sheeshas, hand blown glass to rip offs on designer leather bags. Louis Vuitton, Gucci, YSL etc are available in every shape and size. Bargaining is the order of the day!

The process of bargaining with the Egyptian shopkeeper woefully wringing his hand, shaking his head, but giving you a brilliant smile when the deal is done, is all a part of the Khan experience! An Egyptian friend of mine told me that the thumb rule was to start at one third of the price! I have stuck to this formula and have generally got good bargain (or so I’d like to believe!)

The trip has to be rounded off with a cup of Nescafe (Turkish coffee for the more adventurous) and hot Egyptian pancakes topped with butter and sugar (yum!) in one of the many local cafes populating the Khan. Small aluminum tables flanked by wooden chairs, surrounded by locals sipping coffee or partaking the sheesha, while many a vendor passes by hawking Gucci, Prada, Dior sun glasses, is the perfect end to a delightful sojourn in one of Cairo’s most popular markets!

I am enclosing some photos picked from the web. While they give you a flavour, you’ve to walk through the lanes, breathe the air and live the Khan experience to understand it!

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