The best shopping in Egypt is usually done away from the tourist zones. Encouraged by the government ban on some imports, shop owners are increasingly commissioning stylish home items from traditional artisans, with some beautiful results. Look out for traditional Siwan, Bedouin and Nubian handicrafts such as embroidery.
The undisputed shopping capital is Cairo’s medieval souq, Khan Al Khalili, which is just as much a tourist circus as it is one of the Middle East’s most storied markets. There are some treasures to be had, assuming you have the time (and the patience), but beware trying to leave Egypt with an antique or antiquity in your bag. Increasingly, fixed-price shops elsewhere in Cairo stock familiar Egyptian crafts, often with better quality than you’d find in the souq.
Appliqué & Fabric
Embroidered cloth in intricate patterns and scenes is available as pillow cases, bedspreads and wall hangings. Stitches should be small and barely visible. Printed fabric used for tents is inexpensive when sold by the meter (about LE20) and a bit more if worked into a tablecloth.
Gold & Silver
A gold cartouche with a name in hieroglyphics is a popular gift, as is a silver pendant with a name in Arabic. Gold and silver are sold by weight. Check the international market price before you buy, then add in a bit extra for work.
Wood boxes and other items are inlaid with mother-of-pearl and bone in intricate patterns. Surfaces should be smooth and not gummed with glue. An inlaid backgammon set, with pieces, should cost about LE300.
This bubble-shot glass in blue, green and brown is made from recycled bottles and fashioned into cups and other home items. It’s extremely fragile, so pack it well.
Papyrus dealers are as ubiquitous as perfume shops, and this Egyptian invention makes an easy-to-carry souvenir. True papyrus is heavy and difficult to tear; it should not feel delicate, and veins should be visible when it is held up to the light. Good artwork should be hand-painted, not stamped. A small painting on faux papyrus (made from banana leaves or paper printed in China) can go for just LE10; a good-quality piece can easily be 10 times as much.
You can’t escape Egypt without visiting an essential-oils dealer. Most are less than essential, being diluted with vegetable oil. Be sceptical if a salesman drips more than a tiny drop on your arm and then rubs furiously. And watch when your bottles are packed up – make sure they’re filled from the stock you sampled. Lotus (sawsan) and jasmine (full) are the most distinctively Egyptian scents.
Spices are a good buy, particularly kuzbara (coriander), kamoon (cumin), shatta (chilli), filfil iswid (black pepper) and karkadai (hibiscus). Buy whole spices, never ground, for freshness, and skip the ‘saffron’ – it’s really safflower and tastes of little more than dust. The shops that sell these items (attareen) also deal in henna, soaps and herbal treatments. The best are neighbourhood dealers, not in tourist zones.