The touting and hassles associated with Khan Al-Khalili are documented in guidebooks and traveler stories alike. Heeding the warnings, I arrived in the historic marketplace stony-faced and ready to deflect whatever dogged seller hurled my way. To my surprise, the Khan Al-Khalili that greeted me was completely unlike the chaos-ridden bazaar I had expected; Ramadan has rendered the marketplace a calm, cool, refuge in the middle of a cacophonous city.
The 600-old souq has become a must-see stop on the tourist trail through Islamic Cairo. Catering to expectations of “the Orient, the sprawling web of alleyways house stalls hawking everything from antique gold and silver jewelry, tables, shisha, to stuffed camels, plastic pyramids and hieroglyphic printed t-shirts.
I began my walk by the Mosque of Sayyidna Al-Hussein, turning left into the covered marketplace. The aroma of spices wafted through the medieval architecture and complemented the arid heat to create the illusion of encountering the Middle East of centuries past.
Expecting constant attack, I instead walked through complete silence occasionally broken by a feeble “Hello, can I help you? quickly deflected by a shake of my head. Men sat outside their stalls reading the Quran, barely raising their eyes as I lingered in front of their wares.
The covered walkways provided shade from the midday sun. I took my time admiring colored glass lamps, relishing serenity around me. I stood by stalls, checking the goods on display, attempting to lure a tout to interrupt me, to no avail.
Ramadan had completely altered the famed atmosphere of the market. Strolling through the smaller alleys, further north, I noticed many shops were actually closed and the open ones seemed almost unattended.
I walked to Sekket El Badstan, one of the main streets of the Khan. Even there, amidst the well staffed stalls, I was left in relative solitude to peruse the tourist bobbles, brassware, and shisha. I had found tranquility within the most anarchic tourist attraction of Cairo.
I left the Khan to walk along El-Muski Street, a larger street bordering the Khan. Modernity clashed with souvenirs, Egyptian house-wares were spread out next to belly-dancing costumes, bras juxtaposed with fez caps.
The street was alive with Egyptian customers and tourists alike. I remained unnoticed by sellers as I passed; the few, pathetic shouts of “Bon journo! faded quickly into background noise.
Crossing Al-Azhar, I headed toward Bab Zuweila, through the modern clothes and carpet market. Suddenly, I began to crave the feel of the market I had been forewarned of, and yet wandering through stall after stall of fabric, next to stalls of shoes and clothes, I remained undisturbed. I walked back to the Khan at dusk. As the sunlight faded, Ramadan transformed the market once again.
Families of shopkeepers broke fast on the ground next to their shops, Egyptian families flooded the market, filling the cafes around Midan Hussein, eating on tables pulled out of nowhere and set up on the square.
I decided to walk through the market again. After iftar, the sellers seemed rejuvenated and the spirit of the fabled Khan came alive. My second pass through Sekket El Badstan was more like it: “Come look at my shop! ,
“Looking is free! , “Yes, yes, I have what you need! came from all directions. Touts stepped in front of me, trying to block my way. Scarves were pulled off tables and opened for me to see. Laughing at the contrast of only a few hours before, I managed to disengage from the throngs of sellers and enjoy my fill of having my own Khan touting stories.
A visit to Khan Al-Khalili during Ramadan yields two different markets, the first quiet oasis of peace in the early afternoon, transforming to the boisterous famed personality of the market at night. Enjoying the peace of the market during the day, ambling through the narrow alleys and shopping to your hearts content without worrying about touts, watching iftar, and taking a stroll through the lively streets in the evening, a visit to Khan Al-Khalili is the perfect way to spend a day in Cairo.