Experiencing the Khan el Khalili always tops the list of things to do when visiting Cairo. While in any other Arab country you might just refer to the old city’s souk or bazaar, Cairo’s souq has its own special name because it is the undisputed souq of souqs. It is unique not only in size and density but also in history, continuity, and authenticity. While the main parts have become somewhat touristy for obvious reasons, even these parts still retain an authentic look and feel that has vanished from many other cities’ more polished modern souqs. And beyond its tourist-heavy center, large parts of the expansive Khan el Khalili continue to serve as an important market and center of social and commercial life for many local Egyptians who visit it regularly to buy fabrics, clothing, gold, jewelry, metalworks, spices, and much more.
I intentionally say that the Khan must be “experienced” as opposed to just “seen” because it’s important to try your hand at the classic, time-honored Arab art of haggling. While haggling is a dying practice in my other Arab countries as they opt for the easier standard practice of fixed pricing, Egyptian shop owners are famous for perfecting the original art of the deal, and they expect both locals and tourists alike to participate. If you don’t and you pay whatever is first asked while shopping in traditional shops (modern stores excluded) or if you simply balk at the price and walk away without returning, you’ve not only been suckered out of either the real price of your item or the opportunity to go home with your item, but you’ve also totally missed one of the best experiences to be had while visiting Egypt.
For those unfamiliar with the real art of Egyptian haggling, it goes something like this. You walk by a shop or are browsing inside and are enticed by something you see. The shop owner notes your interest with glee and when you ask the price he gives you an inflated price to test your willingness to overpay. At this point the uninformed tourist will usually balk or get mad or walk away or all of the above. However you, because you are an avid Egypt Travel Blog reader and a sophisticated traveler, realize that an ancient dance is just commencing. You let out a polite chuckle, tilt your head away, and then counter-offer for 60-75% less.
The shop owner then begins his Academy Award-winning performance. He acts flabbergasted, shocked, sad, and even insulted. He insists on his original price and begins to tell you all about the quality and value of said item. Although you know it’s all an act, his excellent acting talent does affect you and you feel a little bad. You wonder if you went too low and perhaps did insult him a little. So you come up a bit in price.
Upon seeing that you still want the item and are willing to be coaxed upwards, the shop owner persists in extolling the virtues of the item in question. It may suddenly become one of a kind, or made of real materials when others are mere imitations. He may scratch it or bend it or otherwise try to demonstrate its quality to justify a higher price. When you fail to be convinced, he will relent a little and come down by about 10%, still insisting on the original value and purporting to do you a favor by giving you small discount because you are his new friend.
But you are still too savvy to be fooled. You come up yet a little more and the shop owner begins to abandon the “quality and value” tactic in favor of harder bargaining. You get a lot of “my friend, my friend” thrown into the negotiations, and finally you get him down to about the 50% mark.
This is when you need to decide if you really want it or not. If you pay between 50% and 60% of the original offer, this can be a good parsimonious bargain that is generous to this talented salesman but not a complete rip-off to you. If you’re honestly indifferent as to whether you could go home with the item or not, you can still hold out for paying 60-75% of the original offer.
But here’s the thing, and I’m very guilt of this myself – sometimes you find yourself dancing round and round with the shop owner in this way over a $2 or $3 item. When you’re in the heat of the haggle and the numbers seem higher because they are in a foreign currency, you often forget that you’re spending 15 more minutes of your life to save an extra 25 cents. Finally, you achieve a breakthrough and one of you relents. Either you realize you’re wasting your precious time in a beautiful foreign land haggling over 25 cents and you give in, or the shop owner gets frustrated with your stubbornness and cheapskate-ness and he relents. Either way, you both are suddenly happy to be done with the dance and to have made a deal.
If the shop owner is a real pro, he’ll try to entice you into another interesting item or two on your way out the door. But if you take the bait, expect the dance to start all over again as if you didn’t already just prove your chops. This is, after all, the Egyptian way, and it’s a time-honored tradition that dates back to the founding of the Khan el Khalili.
The site of Egypt’s Khan el Khalili bazaar was originally a royal graveyard until the late 1300s when a local emir (or prince), whose last name was not surprisingly el Khalili, cleared out the site’s deceased royal inhabitants and began building a large market for local commerce and international trade. While most of the original mud brick buildings have crumbled and been replaced over the centuries, many sturdier medieval stone edifices do remain in the Khan, such as several elaborate arched gates under which thousands of market-goers still pass each day.
The full Khan el Khalili experience is also incomplete without taking a break from shopping and haggling and relaxing at one of the coffee shops or restaurants scattered throughout the souq. There are several decent places to sip coffee, smoke sheesha (or hooka, as Westerners often call it), and/or grab a snack overlooking the plaza that abuts the al-Hussein Mosque. There are also a few less high-pressure establishments nestled deeper inside the maze of the souq that you may come across and find quite pleasant for a pit stop. Two famous spots for food and beverage within the Khan are Fishawi’s, which has been open and running since 1773, and the Naguib Mahfouz Cafe, named in honor of Egypt’s famous literary Nobel laureate.
The hustle and bustle of the Khan waxes and wanes with the ebb and flow of Egypt’s tourism numbers from year to year. In years when tourism is depressed, some shops in the Khan may close down or have reduced hours and shop keepers may be a little less energetic. There can be pros and cons to this for visitors though. While the Khan may not be at full capacity during these periods, the shop keepers tend to also be less aggressive and more laid back, although you’ll still get a great experience coming here even during the slow times.
But when tourism is booming is what then Khan really comes to life and is its most crowded and loudest, when the shop keepers are the most active in trying to lure you in and load up your luggage with gifts and souvenirs, and when the true beautiful chaos of Cairo’s most amazing market is in full bloom.