Al Darb al-Ahmar District
Trades and Markets
by Lara Iskander
Al Darb al-Ahmar, (the red road) in Cairo may not be as famous or as visited as al Darb al-Asfar (the yellow road) and Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, but nevertheless, it retains much of its past riches and historical atmosphere.
The Al-Darb al-Asfar area and Darb al-Ahmar were originally connected as they all formed part of the Qasaba, the main road running from the Northern Gates (Bab al-Nasr and Baba al-Futuh) down towards the Citadel, meeting the Darb al-Ahmar road at the Southern Gate, Bab Zuweila.
Al-Mu'ezz Street, part of the Qasaba is named after the conquering Fatimid Khalif and it was the chief thoroughfare of Islamic Cairo.
Over the years, the Qasaba urbanely developed and was divided into sections, each characteristic with different crafts or markets which they were named after.
View of the Darb al-Ahmar street and Al-Mu'ayyed Mosque next to bab Zuweila
Unchanged over the centuries, the neighbourhood of Darb al-Ahmar is a maze of narrow, twisting alleyways lined with splendid mosques and medieval facades. This quarter became a fashionable residential area in the 14th century, as Al-Nasir Mohammed developed the Citadel area. It contains several interesting mosques and monuments of which are Al-Mu'ayyed Mosque and Mosque of Inal el-Yusufi, both in the surrounding are of Bab Zuweila. The alleys of this Southern area carry different names nowadays, starting south near the Citadel with Bab al-Wazir Street then Darb al-Tibbana and afterwards al Darb al-Ahmar. Further near the massive 10th-century Bab Zuweila, the area is named Suq al Silah Street formerly the Weapons Bazaar.
Facing the ancient Zuweila Gate is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Cairo - Shari Khayyamiya. Khayma means "tent" in Arabic. There, in the Street of the Tentmakers, the ancient craft of making huge tent pavilions, or Suwan, out of beautiful cloth patterns has been carried on for hundreds of years. The Khayyamiya bazaar erected by Ridwan Bey in 1650 is one of the best-preserved examples of a covered market left in Cairo. The building is undergoing restoration work nowadays but not preventing the daily trades and activities of taking place.
The market witnesses non-stop activities and a constant flow of traffic and traders except on Sundays, when the shops are closed. Sellers of brightly colored appliqued cloth in pharaonic and Islamic patterns sit in their small boutiques and workshops lining both sides of the street.
All down the street the owners hang samples of their work out like banners. The insides of the shops are usually covered from floor to ceiling with more samples. Sitting silently, the craftsmen work eight hours a day for months with the needles sewing and putting together this amazing tent.
The craftsmen in their workshops where they display their various products
This art, inherited from father to son over centuries now has become somehow scarce and faces an uncertain future for only a hundred or so craftsmen still remain in the business.
The colourful printed fabrics are mostly put up by the "Farasheen" during feasts, Moulids celebrating religious occasions, weddings and to screen unsightly building work.
Now much of there work has turned to pillow cases, wall coverings and comforter covers. The tents are lined from top to bottom with exquisite geometric patterns - usually in brilliant reds, greens, blues and yellows.
A View of the Mahmud el-Kurdi Mosque
The geometric designs used in Cairo's tents today come mostly from appliqued arabesques, calligraphy and marble inlay patterns found in the walls and floors of Cairo's medieval mosques.
Along the end of the Bazaar lies several ancient mosques and monuments such as the Mahmud el-Kurdi Mosque built in 1395. The mosque has an impressive entrance portal facing the market street. The building has been recently restored and reopened to the public.
The Darb al-Ahmar area hostess several other interesting trades and crafts. Facing Bab Zuweila and going further up north in Suq al-Silah Street one will come across the Saddlemakers Market called Suq al-Surugiyyiah which produces all kinds of leatherware.
Further along, the street is full of shops where you find stands of drums, belly dancer costumes, wooden tables and chairs, embroidered cloth, and many other simple products such as old oriental tea pots and cups.
Also, one of the main things sold on in the area are the water-pipes, "Sheeha's" of all shapes and sizes all made of beautifully decorated and coloured glass.
Basketry is also one of the trades of the area; used for different objects mainly containers, stools, tables and mats. They are made from simple materials such as palm leaf and grass.
Another main attraction is the Attarin area, spices shops, which are spread all over old Cairo streets. There you'll find endless sorts of colourful spices, herbs and strange mixes used for a wide range of things; cooking, hair dies and healing herbs.
More Shops along the Street
Seen along the streets are other interesting trades where owners have the products; perfumes, carpets, brass and copperware, glass, ceramics piled up on show outside their workshops almost crowding the whole street turning it into a pedestrian alley. This is particularly during holidays and feast days when the whole neighbourhood comes alive to its utmost with its central market surrounded by the ancient Islamic buildings.