Egypt Feature Story
Souq al-Goma'a (Friday Market)
by Lara Iskander
If you have already been to local markets like Al-Hussein and Khan el-Khalili, and are looking for a new and unrivalled experience in the heart of Cairo, or if you are curious to explore a real popular Egyptian market (non touristic), then the Friday Market is the place you should be going to next. Everything is sold there.
This is not like any usual market; it is one of the biggest in Cairo and maybe in Egypt. If you have already been to the flea market in Paris, Petticoat Lane or Brick Lane in London, you will find that this market does have a familiar air, however, keep in mind that Souq al-Gomaa draws tens of thousands of Cairos poorest every week. There, they can both buy and sell almost any kind of junk, ornament, or treasure at a price that they can afford. It does occasionally draw foreigners, struggling students, married couples and curious visitors.
The market is located under Al-Tonssy flyover (the Autostrade), between the Southern Cemeteries and the Khalifa district, south of the Citadel. You can easily take a taxi there as it is a well known market or if you are up to the full adventure, a microbus from Midan el-Sayyeda Aisha or Maadi.
Upon arrival, prepare yourself for huge crowds and incredible masses of people, so thick that you end up being pushed in different directions against your will. For this reason an early start is recommended; aim to be there before 8 am on Friday morning. Though parts of the market are open all weekdays till late afternoon, Friday is special as various markets of the capital like the Tuesday market, Sunday market, animal market, come together in that spot only on that day.
Souq al-Gomaa is a very popular market where low to middle class Egyptians can find all their needs at cheap prices; from kitchen utensils and footwear to furniture. The market seems to have no beginning and no end; you can see it from a distance sprawling out chaotically under the bridge. It is stretched out on an old abandoned railway, along little alleys and in between houses and shacks, some of which are probably occupied by the sellers themselves. As I stepped in, I was suddenly hit by the flows of crowds; swamps of people walking all around, stopping to buy, vendors and stalls placed inches from each other with a huge variety of items and goods on sale, everything you can possibly expect to find.
Most of the crowds are formed of big groups of youngsters coming to the market on their day off to enjoy an outdoor excursion. Apart from the second-hand and stolen goods sold there, you will come across entertainers, a magician or Hawy, eating glass, swallowing fire and others performing card tricks. However, beware of pickpockets; the market has earned a new name over the years: as Souq Al-Harameya, or the thieves' market.
Though at first sight, it would seem that the market is not really organized, nevertheless, there is some kind of route to follow through the different sections, each specializing in a certain trade. The first area we found ourselves in was full of clothes vendors; T-shirts, jeans, blouses, socks, underwear and mountains of shoes, most of which are second-hand clothes that the poor could afford. Fish mongers and food kiosks are found around every corner yelling liver, stomachs and intestines!!
As we pushed our way through the crowds, the only possible way to get through, and made it to the other side of the market we came upon vendors with colorful sheets spread on the floor. Even though we were still a few meters away, I still could not make out exactly what they were selling. As I came closer it seemed very odd; they were selling all these old and broken gadgets, old broken glass bottles, dolls, toys, remote controls, plastic soap bottles, broken alarm clocks. The variety of these items was amazing, nevertheless, I just could not understand why someone would buy them. Though at first they would seem useless, when I asked around I was told that these items are sold as spare parts for broken things and for children at 25/50 piasters per piece. Almost anything one can possibly think of was lying there.
As we passed through this 'quieter' area, we moved onto a section full of computer spare parts, hard disks, ancient floppy disks, broken keyboards, cracked computer monitors and remote controls. Next to them were plenty of old tapes, VHS, CDs of music, old and new movies, both Egyptian and foreign.
Used and probably stolen mobile phones and ancient TV sets are not foreign to the market. Other stalls had old books and pictures of old Egyptian artists on display; pictures of previous Kings, portraits of Abdel Nasser, Sadat and many others. More interestingly, you can find old coins from various Arab countries and old Egyptian bank notes, papyrus, pharaonic statues and souvenirs. I kept wondering what else we were going to find on sale in this astonishing market.
So next we found ourselves walking into a more modern part of the Souq. Here they were selling all sorts of furniture; tables, beds, wardrobes, chairs, and these were no second hand products as most of what we had seen so far in the market. Everything seemed new and in good shape, but definitely sold at a better bargain than any furniture stores in downtown Cairo.
We had already heard about an animal market where you could find all sorts of animals and pets and in particular dogs, and were keen on getting there. We asked for directions and made our way, passing through other sections of the market selling curtains, mattresses, carpets as well as lamps, chandeliers and even childrens toys; without doubt, an incredible variety which serves many newlywed couples to furnish their home at cheap prices.
Each vendor had his own selling technique; many called out to the crowds with the prices of goods, others sang and played music to attract customers attention while others just sat or stood there waiting for buyers to approach. As we walked along we heard the typical bargaining between customer and vendors, a classic characteristic of most popular markets in Egypt.
We finally arrived to the animal market to find a huge variety of animals; monkeys, different breeds of cats, dogs, birds, parrots, desert tortoises and to my surprise, even poisonous snakes and lizards. In another section we saw goldfish, sold at a price ranging from PT50 to LE100. Plenty of people were out there looking to buy while others, I am sure, just like us were only there to watch. We were told that a bit further was a big market for cattle and other farm animals. However, we did not have the time to make it there, though obviously this would be of very little interest to most tourists anyway.
We left the best for the last because this is were you can enjoy exploring but where you can also buy and that is at the antiques market. It was so interesting just to look at what is sold in that section of the market.
We found old and maybe even ancient typewriters, weighing machines, heaters, chandeliers, silver plates, copper frames, statues, ashtrays, fer forge fences, wooden doors, all parts of old houses that were torn down. It just felt like we had gone back in time with all the antiques surrounding us and the old portraits of actors and posters hanging on the walls. If you really like antiques and have the patience to look thoroughly, I am sure you will find things to buy at a good price. However, if you are not interested in buying, you are bound to enjoy your time just looking and handling all these old items.
When buying, do attempt to bargain as prices tend to go higher for foreigners. Though it is not a well known market for tourists, resident foreigners are often seen there exploring and searching for old and antique objects and furniture, of which there are plenty, and therefore the locals are used to bargaining with them.
The Friday Market occurs every Friday from 8 a.m. until about 2 p.m., but many sections of the market such as the antique quarters are open during the rest of the week.
Again, it is advised to be there quite early in the morning to fully enjoy it before it becomes overcrowded. Also, take into consideration that it is a rather masculine market both in respect of customers or vendors. Though security and police officers are within sight and people are friendly, it is still recommended to be accompanied by male friends in order to feel more at ease.
last updated: June 8th, 2011