Markets are how early civilizations managed transactions and the exchange of goods. Long before we had streets lined with goods for our cash-filled wallets, sellers would gather en masse wherever they could find a quorum. It only makes sense, right – the more sellers in one spot, the more buyers, and thus a cycle is born.
Some of the oldest marketplaces in the world are the souks of the middle east. These markets, found in most Arab and Muslim countries, were of great importance to functioning society and in some cases were also where government functions were carried out (similar to a ‘city hall’ in Europe).
Today souks are still a part of the fabric of everyday life in many towns, but they also make for great fodder for visitors. The intense sights and sounds, the juxtaposition of colours and scenery, the sellers vying for your attention….Here are ten of the best souks in the Middle East, all almost worth of a trip on their own.
Khan el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt
The first stop in our list, Kahn el-Halili in Cairo, might be one of the oldest souks as well, with foundations reaching back to 1382. It’s sometimes just called the Kahn, and in historic times this market was so powerful it influenced the routes of trade from Asia to Europe and some say inspired Columbus to sail to America to find new trade routes! The souk is a huge stop on any visitor’s itinerary, and that’s not just because of the shopping and people watching, but also for restaurants and coffeehouses. My oh my, if these walls could talk…
Covered Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
As one of the world’s oldest countries, Istanbul has plenty of great sights to see, including the famous Grand Bazaar. The map of the bazaar looks like the map of a small European capital city. It’s one of the largest markets in the world: from its birth in 1461, the Grand Bazaar has grown into a maze of 60 streets and nearly 5,000 shops (though this number is rough given shops often merge, split, and change). Ceramics, jewllery, ceramics, spices and antiques are some of the highlights. If you loose your strength, fear not: there are two hamams (a Turkish spa), and two mosques.
Spice Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Some souks are general trade centres, and other souks are very specific in their services – and the Spice Bazaar, as the name implies, is a colourful place with only one main product. It’s hard to believe that there are 88 of the beautiful rooms in this souk, with the graceful ceilings that seem to sweep across the old market floor. This is one of the best souks for photographers – all of them are, but this one is special.
Djemaa el Fna and Medina souks, Marrakesh, Morocco
Lisa Bergren also told us that Morocco is one of the best romantic places in the world. What better place to explore the country with your special someone than here at the souks of Marrakesh? The Medina quarter is the old part of the city, and this souk to me is more like a huge dramatic theatre. If you could sit here and watch all day, you’d see as the stalls and wares slowly change and morph as you go; as more tourists some so do the touts and the snake charmers, and then as darkness comes so do a new set of strange sights and smells.
Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Hidden inside the gated walls of Jerusalem’s Old City lies many of Israel’s best tourist attractions. Perhaps the gates themselves and the whole atmosphere of the area add to the charm of this souk – like many of them, this one is a sensory overload. Everyone will be ready to sell you something, sit down for you to chat, and you’ll find yourself at juxtaposition between the various quarters that lead in/out of the souk: the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Jewish Quarter. Come prepared and be ready for the experience – it’ll blow you away.
Covered Souks of Aleppo, Syria
It is hard to fathom that the Aleppo Souk is a covered souk that extends for 20 miles. Yes, 20 miles. That explains the tizzy of tiny trucks, noisy sellers, and the hustle and bustle of trade. The only word to describe the atmosphere is magic: as you walk past the varying shops and stalls, side streets open up into hidden courtyard, religious grounds, and other secret hideaways. But careful, dear readers: an old Syrian proverb says “An Aleppine can sell even a dried donkey skin.”
Gold Souk, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Samar Owais recently also gave us an update on some of the best things to do in Dubai, and unsurprisingly, the Gold Souk was high on the list. There are over 300 jewelers in this souk, and if you’re in the market for some sparkly goods, you’ll have a one of a kind experience, including same-day alterations and intense haggling! Next door to the Gold Souk is the Spice Souk, which you smell before you see, adding to the atmosphere of this only-in-Dubai experience.
Manama Souk, Bahrain
Manama is the capital of Bahrein, and the Manama souk is definitely of capital quality. It’s interesting, as here you’ll find smaller shops and stalls and then all of a sudden, round a corner and you’re in a department store or an electronics warehouse. It is divided into several quarters, called fareeqs, though the divisions won’t help you if you get lost – it’s huge, like most of these souks. One item to look out for are the pearls – Bahrain is one of the few places in the world you can buy natural, not cultured, pearls and they come in many shapes, colours, and sizes. A great souvenir for someone special!
Mahane Yehuda, Israel
If you thought going to your local grocery store when hungry was a bad idea, think again: coming to Mahane Yehuda on an empty stomach can be fatal. That’s because this souk has over 250 vendors ready to sell you the best of Middle Eastern cuisine: juices, cheese, meats and fish, veggies, snacks – if you want it, they’ve probably got it somewhere around here. It used to be known as a place for discount prices, but now you’ll find design stores and boutique shops as well as the traditional wares.
Souk Al-Mubarakiya, Kuwait City, Kuwait
Kuwait City’s Al-Mubarakiya Souk is one of those places where they have one of everything. Your shopping choices here range from the tacky (a scimitar?) to the exquisite (perfumes, dried foods) - you half expect to turn around and trip over a magic carpet floating just above the ground. Some say this is the best place to eat in town – if nothing else, you cannot leave without having a hot cheese samboosa from the “famous” kiosk, ask anyone and they’ll show you right where it is. Like every souk on this list, it’s just one of those secrets – secrets that everybody seems to know, but they’re harder to find than you think.
Editors Note: Special thanks to Marco Lucarelli for researching the list of recommended souks.