Cairenes have plied their trades here since the khan was built in the 14th century, and parts of the market, such as the gold district, are still the first choice for thousands of locals. Open from early morning to sundown (except Friday morning and Sunday), although many shops are open as long as there are customers, even on Sunday.
The agglomeration of shops – many arranged around small courtyards, a sort of medieval ‘minimall’ – stock everything from soap powder to semiprecious stones, not to mention toy camels and alabaster pyramids. The khan used to be divided into fairly rigid districts, but the only distinct areas are now the gold sellers, the coppersmiths and the spice dealers. Apart from the clumsy ‘Hey mister, look for free’ touts, the merchants of Khan al-Khalili are some of the greatest smooth-talkers you will ever meet. Almost anything can be bought here and if one merchant doesn’t have what you’re looking for, he’ll happily find somebody who does.
One of the few specific things to see in the khan, the historic ahwa Fishawi’s is in an alley one block west of Midan al-Hussein. The other landmark, on the southwest side of the khan, is Midaq Alley, the setting for one of Naguib Mahfouz’ best-known works. The tiny stepped alley may not be populated with the same colourful characters as the novel, but the way of life here is little changed from the author’s 1940s depiction. Such is the alley’s fame that the street sign is kept in the coffeehouse at the foot of the steps and produced only on payment of baksheesh.