Whether you are new in Cairo or an old hand at the tourist sites, there is a new souq in town that every visitor needs to know about. What is a souq? A street market, particularly in Arabic speaking countries; a place where people buy and sell goods; a bazaar.
In this little hidden market you will find some of the nicest décor for your flat, birthday/anniversary/housewarming presents for souvenirs to take home on the “summer flee from Egypt heat” trip. The name of this market is Souq El-Fustat.
Fustat was first populated in the 7th century by a crusading army of Muslim Arabs. The Romans that had occupied the area, known then as Babylon, surrendered to the forces of Arabs and the Egyptian peasants and townspeople welcomed the conquering Muslims as liberators. The victors chose not to occupy Babylon, but instead set up their own tent city just to the north. This is the area we now know as Fustat. Fustat is home to the oldest mosque in Cairo, and is located just north of Coptic Cairo.
Today, we can visit this area, so rich in history, and because of the recent works of the Ministry of Tourism and specifically the vision of Dr Mona Zakaria, head of the Old Cairo Development Project, we will find it to be one of the most culturally rich, cleanest and safest areas on the tourist map. The primary objective of the Old Cairo Development Project was to reverse the decay of one of Egypt’s – and the world’s – most valuable cultural areas. Historic buildings situated in Old Cairo include Egypt’s first mosque, Amr Ibn Aul Aus, Egypt’s largest Jewish temple, Ben Ezra, and seven ancient Christian churches, including the Hanging Church and St. Sergius, where the Holy Family resided during their flight to Egypt. The Old Cairo Development Project has many phases and goals. A great deal of work has been accomplished within the total budget of LE 18,750,000 (about $ 4,000 000). Some of these projects that have been successfully completed, or are well under way, would be:
- Renovation of 350 apartments surrounding the monuments, including infrastructure repairs (water, sewage, drainage, electricity, roofs, windows, staircases, fences, facades etc.
- Renovation of the bus station and the police station, and the construction of the fire station
- Two new youth-centers
- Construction of a 12,000 m2 pottery production village (underway)
- Removal of 34,000 m3 of garbage.
- And, our Secret Hideaway, Souq El-Fustat
To get to this area, you can drive or take the underground Metro. Taking the Metro is probably the easiest way, unless you have a driver that can assist in the parking adventure, as parking is limited and primarily taken up by hopeful taxi drivers awaiting tourists needing a lift to other sites of interest. The main Helwan/El-Marg metro line is the one to be on. Take this to mahatat (station) Mar Girgis. Exit to the east. After going through the turnstiles and stepping out the station doors, the Greek Orthodox Church and Monastery of St. George will greet you. Turn left and follow the road to the north. As you walk along this street, notice the new facades on the residential buildings and stores on your left. A gallery of photos is displayed at the souq that will look strangely familiar if you have paid attention. Before and after pictures adequately show what has been taking place over the last few years while this project progresses. To finally find the market, walk to the end of the street where the police barricade is. Go around, over or under it and cross the street kitty-corner. The Souq El-Fustat is housed in this gorgeous new building. Wander down to the center to find the entrance with the shops. You will be treated to an array of shops selling crafts that are some of the best in Egypt.
The primary purpose of Souq El Fustat is to create a space for artists, craftsmen and designers to develop their working studios and commercial distribution. The workshops and craftsmen are chosen very carefully to avoid another Khan El-Khalili, and these include metalwork, ceramics, candle making, glassblowing, leatherwork, etc. Quality is emphasized in the high standards of workmanship. They especially look for those crafts, which are on the verge of extinction. Many of the artisans and designers are developing their work from objects in the museums, thus revitalizing already extinct crafts. In this way, they also hope to encourage aspiring artists.
Personally, I’ve been in the market for hand blown champagne flutes, and I found the finest examples, I’ve seen to date in one of the stores selling blown glass of all sorts. Prices are not unreasonable either, and it should be noted that prices are marked and will be held. Negotiating isn’t typically practiced in this market because the shop owners are rarely actually on site. Employees, on site from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., will open shops and handle the money transaction with you. The plan is to have the market remain open until 10 p.m. in the future. This will make for a pleasant summer evening shopping trip, or accommodate those that work most weekdays. The souk is open seven days a week, but as with so much retail in Cairo, some shops are not available on Sundays.
I felt compelled to write about this market, partially, for the following reason. The market is unique in that it also operates as a school using an innovative residential teaching approach. Local artisans receive subsidized rents in exchange for giving two classes a week each, roughly, a six-to-ten- hour commitment. At present, there is one art-class, one weaving-class and one metal and woodwork-class. A pilot art-class was successfully completed in May 2001 and involved 40 students.
The artists and artisans of the market have also undertaken the responsibility of apprenticeships and in this way both the cultural heritage is secured as well as it is giving employment to the local community.
Special programs have been started to train the single women in the neighborhood. During the work with the residential buildings, the project discovered a large amount of single-mother-households without any possibility to sustain them. Single women and their children are suffering the most from poverty. Empowering these groups is an important objective in addressing the poverty problem.
They are hopeful to give these women the opportunity to learn a craft, which they can practice at home, i.e. weaving, embroidery etc, in order to help them sustain themselves. The day I last visited the market, I saw a training class for some women in action. They were being given instruction on garment construction. The Old Cairo Development project has an over-all comprehensive view on development, and is more about social evolution than only restoration. Every part is co-dependent and essential to the success of the whole. The aim is to make the Old Cairo Development Project a primary foundation model from which other development-projects can evolve.
Not only is this a great place to buy goodies for those of us that love to shop, but it is also a market with a focus other than to simply make money. For these reasons, I wanted badly to spread the word to the expat community. We have a fabulous opportunity here to purchase the gifts and souvenirs that we want, and while doing so, we will actually help a community in our host country that needs all the charity it can get.
Have you visited Coptic Cairo recently? Have you ventured into a Coptic cemetery? Seen a real Coptic tomb? Seen the old vs the newest of Coptic churches? Had the opportunity to buy jam from the nuns? If you would like an escort to Old Cairo and some of the best bits of Coptic Cairo, call Casual Cairo detours. For hints and escorts to more fun locations around Cairo and beyond, contact Debbie Senters at Casual Cairo detours for all your English speaking touring needs. This post was written by Debbie Senters at www.casualcairo.com, we have used Debbie on our trip to Egypt and found her to be awesome! Thanks for the info Debbie.