While in Egypt, we ventured to the historic Old Cairo neighborhood that sits on the city’s southern edges. Two thousand years ago, this area once marked the beginning of a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea. Settlements started to form here, and today Old Cario is full of many significant sites – from fortresses to mosques. Here also lies the Khan el Khalili, the old city’s huge and authentic bazaar. In this article, we look at the enchanting area, historic market, and authentic crafts still around today.
History of the Ancient Old CaiRo
You won’t find this part of town near the modern city’s current center. Instead, we journeyed slightly south to explore this ancient settlement area. Founded in 2000 BC, the artifacts and architecture in this part of the town reflect Egypt’s past. The oldest standing structure is the Babylon fortress, built on the River Nile in 525 BC. It marked the boundary between the two kingdoms of Ancient Egypt: Upper and Lower Egypt. A Roman fortress was built a few years later and today acts as the foundation for many other pieces of architecture.
Old Cairo also marks Egypt’s Christian past and the dawn of Islam’s influence on the country. Within the Coptic Cairo area near Babylon’s fort, there is a huge concentration of churches. These were all erected between the pharaonic era and the dawning of Islam. When Islam did arrive in Egypt, more religious buildings appear. Today there lie two mosques in this area of the city. One – the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque – was the first built in the African continent. Each building shows a timeline from the country’s ancient past to the present day.
Experience the Khan el Khalili Market
Between the ancient fortresses and historical religious buildings that line the street is the Khan el Khalili. This is a famous bazaar and souq that was once the trade center of the region. Part of it is now a tourist hotspot, but there are extremely authentic areas venturing out of the center. Large parts of the vast bazaar are still popular among locals and serve as an important trading, commercial, and social center. On the many stalls that line the streets, you’ll see everything from fabric and clothing to jewelry and metalworks.
The historic surroundings and impressive craftmanship available for purchase are undeniably impressive. However, the Khan el Khalili needs to be visited to feel for Egyptian life truly, both now and throughout history. There is a constant ebb and flow of shoppers passing down the souq in Old Cairo. There is a buzz in the air, and the markets are alive with shop owners haggling with potential customers. They have indeed mastered the skill of perfecting and closing a good deal. When visiting Egypt, be sure to bargain with the price and play along with this ancient ritual.
The items seen for sale in Old Cairo’s bazaars are a designer’s dream. Most are handmade and rely on ancient traditional skills being passed down through generations. Many artisans continue to work in the souq Khan el Khalili itself, usually in the courtyards or upper levels of the building. We saw multiple Egyptians sitting cross-legged and working on their creations ready to be sold in their shops. This only adds to the unbelievable authenticity of the area.
The Survival of Egypt’s Khayamiha Handicraft
One of the most beautiful yet dwindling ancient crafts is Khayamiya. This is where elaborate and brightly colored pattern cotton appliques are stitched into heavy cotton. To do this, skilled Khayamiya craftsmen cut small pieces of fabric to size, arrange them, and carefully hand-stitch them onto the fabric. Popular designs include geometric patterning, scenes inspired by the pharaonic era of Egypt, and calligraphy from the Koran. The result is something truly unique and beautiful, like no craft we have seen before. Regardless of the size and complexity of the piece, it is typical for one craftsman to work on it until it is complete.
The word “Khayamiya” comes from the Arabic word “khyma,” which means tent. This refers to the use of the original craft. Traditionally, artisans would hand-stitch decorative and colorful pattern appliques to the inside of tents. Today the craft has evolved and is predominantly reserved for use on wall hangings or bed quilts. However, the art is being lost as many crafters are leaving it behind for better jobs. The master of this ancient craft is 68-year-old Mohsen al-Khayami. He, too, explained even many Egyptians are now unaware of the modern-day applications of this craft. However, hopefully, tourism coming into Old Cairo will help keep this ancient craft alive.