If it were possible to distill the essence of the Middle East and North Africa into a single experience, it would be a jaunt through the spice-ladened air of a busy souq. Souqs, collections of adjacent vendors often sprawled out over a plaza or multiple semi-enclosed streets, have served as the economic hubs of Middle Eastern metropolises since their first appearance, which some researchers contend was as early as 2,000 BC.
Despite the vast distances and imposing geographies separating them, the major cities in North Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf have historically been connected by an extensive web of trade routes, such as the King’s Highway and the Silk Road. Merchants used this infrastructure to transport incense, spices, fruits, nuts, gold, glassware, jewelry, cloth, dyes, timber, perfumes, and more from city to city.
These same traders required spaces where they could display and sell their products, and it was out of this need that the souq flourished. Some souqs were dedicated to one type of ware while others contained dozens of shops, each selling a specific category of product. Intangible but equally important, culture and knowledge were freely exchanged at souqs, forging a sense of interconnectedness among disparate peoples.
While the days when traders traveling with caravans would stop to unload and sell their products are gone, these ancient marketplaces have not been abandoned. Both locals and tourists continue to frequent souqs all across the world. Visiting all of them would be a challenge, so here are the ones whose history, architecture, surroundings, and products are the most extraordinary.
1. Old City, Jerusalem
While better known as home to some of the world’s holiest and most contested religious sites, Jerusalem’s Old City is also one of the world’s most interesting souqs.
Rising on both sides of a labyrinth of narrow stone streets are buildings whose ground floors are occupied by shops, restaurants, bakeries, and butchers. Upper levels often serve as residences for the owners of the businesses below, as hostel rooms, or as quarters for a religious order. Over some stretches of the Old City, arched roofing shades shoppers while in others, balconies provide the only respite from the sun. There are four quarters in the Old City: Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish. Each has something to offer, so set aside time to explore all four.
People-watching is almost as entertaining as the contents of the souq itself. While navigating the narrow streets and dodging the occasional cart piled high with baked goods or dates, tourists hunt for pashmina scarves or bejeweled camel figurines to bring back home. Others stop to admire strands of colorful beads hung outside a shop’s entrance, or to inspect the beautiful ceramics for which the Armenians are famous. Hungry from hours of exploring, still others purchase and munch on zalabia, a delectable, curlicue-shaped fried dough saturated in honey and rose water.
Once you’ve explored the souq by foot, walk to the Austrian Hospice, which is past Damascus Gate on Via Dolorosa. Stop by the cafe for a refreshing iced coffee with whipped cream, and then head to the roof. For a small fee, you’ll gain access to the best vantage point in the city. The elevation affords a view of the striking gold and blues of the Dome of the Rock; the peaks of old churches; the worn roofs of apartment buildings; and the people scurrying in and out of shops and restaurants.
Of course, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the mosques on Temple Mount should not be missed. Since they’re located within the Old City, the souq leads up to their doorsteps. Lesser-known spots are hidden within the Holy City for those who don’t mind straying a little, and if you’re already exploring the souq, it would be a shame to skip them.
For example, few people know that it’s possible to do a little spelunking beneath the souq. Zedekiah’s Cave (also known as Solomon’s Quarries) lies just underneath the Muslim Quarter. Access to the cave is located just left of Damascus Gate, and entry is free. Even more fascinating, however, is a mysterious cistern that can only be reached through St. Helena’s Coptic Chapel, which itself is on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pay a small entrance fee to the resident monk and ask to see Helena’s Well. He’ll direct you to a series of 51 steps leading down to a cavernous chamber containing a few feet of water.
2. Khan el-Khalili, Cairo
Cairo, Egypt’s crowded capital, has long been a trade hub. Cairo’s position on the route of the pilgrimage to Mecca for thousands of African Muslims meant that there was a steady flow of people who wanted to stock up on food, clothing, and the like, and the souqs were there to fill their needs. Of those that have survived, the most memorable is Khan el-Khalili.
Although Khan el-Khalili’s existence can’t be traced back to the days of pharaonic Egypt, the presence of a market in the spot certainly isn’t new. The seeds of what would grow into the magnificent marketplace were planted in the 14th century, when Cairo was at the crossroads of trade routes stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.