Soak up the sights in souks

A walk through the narrow alleyways of the souks in the Middle East offers shoppers many a souvenir, writes Neeta Lal

Souks in Middle East. Photos by author

Whenever I’m in the Arab world, I love diving into atmospheric souks or old markets. This is immersive travel like no other. Welcoming strips of colour and commerce, the markets showcase local history and culture, allow engagement with locals, an opportunity to try authentic cuisine and buy loads of souvenirs. What’s not to like?

From Istanbul’s Golden Horn to the Persian Gulf and back across to the briny swell of the Atlantic, Arab nations have been a global trading hub since the Middle Ages. Part of the ancient Silk Road route, merchants have plied their wares here for centuries. The bustling bazaars retain their old world charm while becoming an integral part of a modern city’s everyday fabric. Like Alibaba’s caves, the souks brim with exotica — hand-painted papyrus, copper collectibles, sheesha accoutrements, jewellery, frankincense, oudh, eatables, furnishings, even falcons! On recent visits to Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, I soaked in the sights, sounds and smells of three iconic souks.

 

Turkish bread at the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul Turkey.
Turkish bread at the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul Turkey.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

A riot of colours, flavours, sights and smells, Grand Bazaar is the Big Daddy of all souks. One of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets, it was established in 146 BC. Today, it houses 61 streets, over 5,000 shops with 4,00,000 people visiting it daily catered to by 30,000 merchants!

As I plumbed the cavernous depths of the remarkable souk located next to the Medina, the juxtaposition of colours and scenery, sellers vying for my attention punctuated by frequent azaans (Muslim prayer calls) from neighbouring mosques, felt like a sensory overload. Yet journeying through the bazaar’s twisty alleyways, lit up by incandescent lights, is an endless adventure. Kiosks heave with handcrafted gems, classic Moroccan wares, mosaic lamps, leather goods, shisha pipes, carpets, ceramics, kilim rugs, pashminas, handmade soaps, oudh, frankincense...

There’s a surprise around every corner. Mounds of multi-hued spices, teas and aphrodisiacs labelled neatly tickle my nose while stacks of Turkish delights make me salivate. “Many films have also been shot here including Skyfall and Taken 2,” shopkeeper Yoghur Ahmed from Belarus tells me as I rifle through his antiques, silverware and handmade paper.

If all that walking and shopping has exhausted you ( I walked five kilometres within the bazaar, my app told me, exploring just a fraction of its expanse), fret not. Head to one of the two famous hamams (a Turkish spa) located next to the souk for a rejuvenating rubdown. End your unforgettable odyssey with a snack of pistachio-encrusted Turkish delight and cardamom-infused Turkish tea. Life will never be the same again!

 

Colourful dolls in Doha.
Colourful dolls in Doha.

Souk Waqif, Doha, Qatar

“Turkish ice cream, delicious Turkish ice cream...” The plaintive cry of the vendor theatrically pounding his gleaming steel ice-cream containers with a wooden ladle resonates in the air as I enter Souk Waqif, a warren of narrow lanes next to the Doha waterfront.

Located in the heart of the Qatari capital city, the souk’s provenance goes back a century to when Bedouin traders would congregate here to trade in livestock, spices, wool and pearls. In 2004, following a devastating fire, the heritage site was restored according to traditional Qatari architectural techniques. And it continues to flourish.

Today, Souq Waqif (literally standing market) is counted among Gulf’s most original souks. Cobbled alleys, mosaic lanterns, overarching wooden doors and vaulted ceilings recreate the authenticity of a Middle-eastern market while offering a nice counterpoint to the city’s anodyne glass-fronted skyscrapers.

I amble through labyrinthine lanes accentuated by mud-coated brick walls. Overflowing sacks of fragrant spices, nuts, tea leaves, saffron, sumac, sweets, honey, dried flowers and preserved lemons greet me. Many shops are owned and run by Indians (mostly Keralites) selling mostly clothing, crockery and kitchen appliances.

Arab dallahs (coffee pots), Bedouin weaving, embroidered pashminas, baskets and kilims vie for my attention. Traditionally-attired wheelbarrow-pushing men, ready to assist you with your shopping bags to your car for a few Qatari rials, make for a charming sight.

Engaging conversations with vendors is an integral part of the Souk Waqif experience. Abdul Javed, a young local Qatari whose family has been selling ittars (perfumes) for three generations, tells me that they source all their raw material —rose petals, spices, exotic flowers, herbs — from Singapore as “nothing grows in the desert”. “All production is done at our factory on the outskirts of Doha. We sell to local as well as overseas clients,” he explains dabbing rose oil on my knuckles from a gleaming vial for me to smell.

An array of alfresco restaurants and cafés offer diverse cuisines. We try Indian fare at The Gymkhana where an inventive take on pav bhaji, chaats, Indian breads and desserts tease my taste buds.

Shops hawking gold jewellery shine the brightest. But I’m advised to go for pearls instead. Why? “The island has a long pearl-diving history and to preserve the heritage, cultured pearls are banned in the country. So chances are you’ll not be scammed,” jeweller Haqib Salim tells me!

Dolls on display at the El Dahar Souk, Hurghada in Egypt.

 

El Dahar Souk, Hurghada, Egypt

The Egyptian coastal city of Hurghada — once a tiny fishing village abutting the Red Sea — is today a swanky resort town lined with spiffy malls, scenic beaches and lively backstreet neighbourhoods.

Eschewing the touristy attractions, I gravitate towards the city’s old town — El Dahar — to experience authentic Egyptian life. The area is peppered with fish markets, an old harbour, traditional shops and eateries. While Egypt’s fans rave about the Khan-el-Khalili, one of the world’s oldest souks located in the Egyptian capital city of Cairo, the El Dahar Souk — sited deep in the bowels of the old city — is no less entertaining.

A dusty sprawl of lanes crammed with shops, there’s a lot to take in here. Silver and copper products, leather, painted papyrus, spices, cotton, shisha pipes, postcards, Alabaster statues, a bewildering array of merchandise is on offer, much of it hanging on the shop door to entice visitors. My favourite, however, were shops selling papyrus.

“This is an ancient Egyptian-style plant-based paper with hieroglyphics. Ancient Egyptians used brittle stalks of the papyrus plant to create paper to write on,” shopkeeper Wasir Ahmed tells me as I survey his fascinating wares reminiscent of an era long gone.

Friendly vendors, mesmerising wares, tonnes of atmosphere, Hurghada’s El Dahar Souk ticks all the boxes of a great tourist attraction!

 

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Soak up the sights in souks

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