{photojournal} Scenes from a Mall? The Souqs of Syria and Egypt

A souq (sometimes spelled souk) is an Arabic name for a marketplace. The souqs of Syria are like none other, and thought to be the very best in the world. First, some scenes from Damascus (Dimashq in Arabic.)

Remarkably, the souq in Damascus is built around, on top of, and including ancient Roman ruins. Turn a corner, and one may pop up in your line of sight among the bustle of cars, people, and commerce.

Damascus may have one of the oldest continually operating souqs in the world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some of the glitziest garb that the modern world has to offer there.

Don’t worry though. Walk a block or two and you’ll see that the old world ways are still alive and well, for now at least.

One of my favorite things about the Damascene souqs is that the open parts are very narrow, winding streets, with a tangle of vines draped across the tops like a canopy.

The warren of twisted streets is easy to get lost in.

As the sun sets, lights appear from unexpected places.

The souq has been built up around an important and breathtakingly beautiful religious site, the Ummayad Mosque.

Since the Ummayad Mosque is considered the fourth holiest site in the Islamic religion, non-Muslims are required to wear a robe and cover their heads to enter.

For some reason, you can buy Vaseline in bulk. I have no idea why, though.

In the north of Syria, the souq in Aleppo (in Arabic, Al Halab) is often thought to be one of the best in the world. Compared to Damascus, I would say it is slightly less picturesque, more insanely bustling and busy, and equally atmospheric.

It’s impossible to capture the chaos of deliveries and boxes and carts and people and sometimes even a stray car barging through.

One thing that’s a little jarring for westerners is how many kids work in Syria. Education is not compulsory, so apprenticeship is a common path for young ones whose families are in business. They don’t get off with easy work, either–but often shoulder large physical loads and responsibilities.

This apprentice butcher (and his teacher) are having a hard time keeping their eyes off the TV that’s showing the soccer game!

This is one of my favorite photos of all time, full stop.

I can’t believe we haven’t talked about the food yet… which happens to be absolutely incredible. The restaurants in Syria are phenomenal, with Aleppo especially claiming many unusual and delicious recipes. The street food is not to be missed, though. Skirting the Aleppo souq is a row of shawarma stands. Never has one dollar tasted so good. I like the stalls that put french fries inside the pita with the chicken and garlic sauce.

Of course, a well-tended rotisserie item is an excellent second choice.

The piles of stretchy cheese are pretty to look at too.

You can taste an olive before buying–they’ll be happy to give you a sample.

You can taste nuts and seeds too. We went whole days surviving on big bags of delicious roasted pumpkin seeds and lemony pistachios.

The array of spices, herbs, petals, and chiles is dizzying. I love the piles of rock sugar. Is that a starfish for sale?

Then again, maybe roasted lamb heads are your cup of tea. (Note: they are not my cup of tea.)

Moving south, the main souq in Cairo, Egypt, called Khan El Khalili, is pretty impressive as well, but with a very different feel from the Syrian ones. Khan El Khalili is open-air, while the Syrian souqs are mostly a pastiche of covered and uncovered passageways.

Because there are so many tourists in Cairo, Khan El Khalili is far from relaxing to stroll through. Sellers hawking wares will go to great lengths to get your attention. However, if you visit night, the strings of lights strewn haphazardly across the stalls make it quite magical.

Speaking of lights, there are lovely ones for sale in Khan El Khalili. You may find yourself unable to pass up one of these beautiful pieces. Luckily there are also lots of stalls nearby that sell cheap suitcases, so you can get yours home… after you’ve bargained for the best price, of course!

I didn’t try these and I still wish I had! I love the lettering and I bet I would have loved the pancakes.

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