Many great civilizations have lived in Cairo and the city has a rich history. There are plenty of opportunities to buy some unusual and original gifts. A great place to start is Khan el Khalili in Old Cairo which has a wealth of fantastic souvenirs. Nearby, Khayameya, which is nicknamed ‘the tentmakers’ market’ has been in existence since the 16th century and is well known for its beautiful fabrics. There are several other colorful markets to explore too. Muizz street is a good place to browse as it is one of the main shopping streets and has a colorful mixture of antique shops, handmade crafts and a multitude of great gift ideas.
1. Choose an attractive piece of pottery
Imagine the fun of wandering around a whole market dedicated to pottery! The market is in Fustat in Old Cairo and you will find pieces of pottery there that are not on sale anywhere else. Excellent pottery has been made in Egypt for centuries and it was the Egyptians who discovered how clay could be covered with enamel, using soapstone to ensure that the pottery did not crack when it was fired. Aswanian clay is considered the best quality but is a porous clay. As in all markets, it is well worth bargaining for the piece you like, aiming to reach an agreement at the halfway point of the starting price!
2. Adorn your room with an elegant sculpture of Bastet
In Ancient Egypt, many gods and goddesses were worshipped and one of the best known was Bastet, the feline goddess, who is said to protect Lower Egypt. This elegant goddess is usually portrayed in two distinctive positions and sculptures of her are available in all shapes and sizes in everything from plastic to the most beautiful granites in rare colors.
3. Pack a shisha pipe
Sharing a Shisha is a 500-year-old tradition and groups of men can be seen sharing a coffee and shisha together in many of the city’s cafés. Shisha is available in a wide range of colors and sizes. Many have hand-blown glass bowls, whilst others have copper bowls with their colorful pipes decorated in silver. The newest designs of shisha are made in glass and stainless steel as this combination is the most durable. There is a great selection of tobaccos to choose from including fruit tobaccos and the much stronger mu’assel which is made from molasses.
4. Wear a fez
The distinctive red cylindrical hat with its long tassel was originally designed in Fes in Morocco but between 1805-1952 was a common sight in Cairo. There used to be three different colors worn; a black or navy fez was worn by teachers, professors and businessmen, pale blue ones were worn by Muslim Quran readers and white fez wrapped in a turban, by the Bedouin. Today, the fez on sale are in bright scarlet and either plain or decorated with brocade.
There is still one workshop in the city where fez are still made and this is in El Goureya Street. It is possible to watch an artisan at work there, making the distinctive cylindrical shape of the hat with palm wicker which is then covered with kilim fabric which is fixed into place and then ironed before the decorative tassel is added.
5. Choose some khayamiya fabric
This decorative and durable fabric was traditionally made into tents to be used for shade from the sun and the sandstorms, but don’t panic, we know that you will not have room in your suitcase for a tent! The finest fabric is strong and decorated with Arabic script and Islamic decorations and often, gold threads too. Whilst the fabric is still made into tents, for visitors to Cairo, it is also used to make more practical souvenirs such as attractive cushion covers, table runners and wall hangings. Khayamiya – the tentmakers’ market is a good hunting ground and so is the shop in the textile museum in El Maez Street.
6. Select a mother-of-pearl jewelry box
The craftsmen in Cairo have long been known for their woodwork which includes excellent furniture. A popular souvenir is an ornate jewelry box which is made in beechwood or light rosewood. The boxes are available in rectangular, hexagonal, octagonal and even pyramid shapes. Their lids are intricately decorated with mother-of-pearl or cheaper conch shell and to keep prices down, some even have decorations using slivers of white plastic! The inside of the box is lined with plush velvet.
7. Try some irresistible sweets
It is a definite ‘must do’ to pop into one of the city’s bakeries! The Egyptians love sweets/desserts and it is traditional to take a box as a gift when visiting friends or family. There are many to choose from but the best known are baklava made with phyllo pastry soaked in syrup with walnuts or pistachios, Saraya pie which is a wonderful combination of bread pie, caramel, and cream, dates stuffed with almonds and semsemia which is toasted sesame seeds in a sugar syrup flavored with rosewater. These all taste so good, it is probably best that you buy double the quantity you think you will need to ensure that you get to take some home!
8. Fragrance your home with incense
The wonderful fragrance of Cairo can be easily recreated in your home using incense. There are two types that can be bought in the city. Oud is the most expensive and the best quality. Oud is agarwood, made from the dark aromatic resin taken from the heart of Aguilania trees affected by a certain mold. Oud is considered the best incense and the favorite fragrance in Cairo but is not the easiest to find. A cheaper version is made from wood powder mixed with fragrances such as Ein Al Alfreet.
The other main type of incense is Bokhor incense sticks which are sticks made from wood mix blended with fragrances and aromatic oils. These incenses can be bought in a variety of shapes and with various different incense burners. As well as giving your home a distinctive fragrance, burning incense is said to ward off evil spirits.
9. Admire colorful kilim art
Kilim making is one of Egypt’s oldest crafts and is the weaving of cotton, wool, and silk to create the most beautiful rugs. The threads are colored using natural dyes and are woven in different combinations and length of stitches to create contrasting textures. Large kilims are used for rugs and throws, whilst smaller pieces make dramatic wall hangings. All are vividly colored and many are decorated with Islamic patterns and geometric designs.
10. Treasure a piece of papyrus
Papyrus paper has been made in Egypt for thousands of years. It is made from reeds grown in the delta of the Nile and was discovered by Egyptologists in the 1940s. Today it can be easily bought in all the markets and is available in different sizes. The most expensive pieces are those that have been hand-painted, the machine printed ones are much cheaper to buy, but the great news is that both types keep their color for years. The natural color of the papyrus shows its age. The light creamy colored papyrus is new but the older pieces are much darker brown in color.
The classic paintings are of Tutankhamun, the Sphinx, and pyramids or Arabic scripts but it is possible to buy original work from one of the city’s up and coming artists. A fun option is to have your name handwritten in ink and in hieroglyphs.