2 January 2018 by Krishna Ghosh
For many visitors to the Middle East and Africa, it's the local markets that provide the real attraction (or distraction, depending on how you see it). From Istanbul's Golden Horn to the shores of the Gulf and back across to the windswept Atlantic, merchants have been plying their trade in these markets for centuries and today they are still as vibrant as ever. Here's a selection of the best.
Medina, Marrakech, Morocco
Jemaa el-Fnaa, Medina, Marrakech
Marrakech is, for many, Morocco's most exciting city. This hectic melting pot of colours, flavours, sights and smells has been a central trading post for centuries. Still today, it's the best place to do some serious shopping, and a choice of luxurious Moroccan riads dotted around the old medina will keep you well rested in between trips to the souk. Venture beyond the tourist trap of Jemaa el Fna Square, where the snake handlers and souvenir stalls dwell, to discover hand-crafted gems hidden in the twisting labyrinth that is the Medina. You will be rewarded for your trip into the depths of this souk with classic Moroccan wares, from lamps to leather goods, carefully displayed by genuine craftsmen.
The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Grand bazaar, Istanbul
A round up of the best souks simply wouldn't be complete without mention of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. The Kapalıçarşı, or covered bazaar, is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and more than 3,000 shops. On any day between 250,000 and 400,000 people visit the market - lucky then that there are almost 26,000 merchants to serve and haggle their wares.
Spice market, Istanbul, Turkey
Spice Market, Istanbul
Skirting the banks of the Bosporus, the spice market is a lively and welcoming strip of colour and commerce. Piles of intricate spices line the pavement while stacks of sweets and edible goodies will tempt event the most strong-willed. When you've finished stocking up at the market, visit nearby Yeni Cami, or New Mosque, located on the Golden Horn at the southern end of the Galata Bridge.
Gold Souk, Dubai, UAE
Gold Souk, Dubai
More than 300 jewellers carry on their trade inside the Gold Souk, so if you're in the market for something sparkly, this is the place to come. By most accounts this market is known as one of the best places in the world to buy ‘cheap' gold. But rest assured, the government keeps a tight control over the quality of merchandise so you can buy with confidence. If you're prepared top haggle you could bag yourself a genuine bargain.
Muttrah Souk, Muscat, Oman
Weaving, Muttrah Souk, Muskat
Muttrah Souk is actually one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world, a reminder of Oman's rich trading past. The colourful perfume-laden alleyways are packed with little shops filled with gold, tubs of frankincense, old silver khanjars, Bedu jewellery and other exotic paraphernalia.
Inside its silver shops you can rummage through bowls of coins from Portugal, China, imperial India and even Nazi Germany. Outside on the waterfront the pretty fish market functions as it has done for centuries.
Old Medina, Essaouira, Morocco
Old Medina, Essaouira
Essaouira found favour in the sixties when stars such as Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix made their way here. With a touch of French flair, Portuguese architecture, Berber influence and geometric Arab dimensions, the town is a delight to discover. The souk here is small, charming and very relaxed - the perfect place to improve your haggling technique before taking on the bigger markets, in say Marrakech or Tangier. Traders still observe traditional customs here, so if you do buy something, expect to be invited back to the shop for tea. And, once you’ve finished browsing opt to continue the market experience over lunch with a trip to one of the nearby open-air fish stalls. This is an experience not to be missed – prices can be haggled down and the fish is fresh, delicious and cooked right in front of you.
Medina, Fez, Morocco
Tanneries, Fez Medina
The Medina in Fez is the largest in the Arab world, and quite possibly the most authentic – minus the mobile phones, a visit to the narrow, meandering streets of this souk is like taking a step back in time. The urban fabric and the principal monuments in the medina - madrasas, fondouks, palaces, residences, mosques and fountains - hint at Fez's status as Morocco's cultural and spiritual centre. For a real trip highlight, make an early morning visit to a leather-dying pit of one of the many tanneries to witness techniques unchanged since the Middle Ages.
Old City of Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Behind the gates of Jerusalem's Old City lies one of Israel's best attractions. The various quarters - Christian, Armenian, Muslim and Jewish - each offer up their own treasures, all just waiting to be discovered. And although religious souvenirs aimed at tourists are unavoidable, even if you’re not interested in religion a trip here is worth it for the palpable atmosphere alone. Once you’ve soaked up the scenes of the souk, it’s well worth going on a hunt for hummus - an activity which is something of a national pastime in Israel. The old city plays host to some of the best hummus joints in Jerusalem, including Abu Shukri and Lina. Head to Jerusalem prepared for sensory overload and an experience to remember.
Khan El-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt
Khan El-Khalili, Cairo
Central Cairo's most famous souk has a history dating back to 1382. Beyond the remarkable Hussein Mosque you'll find a vibrant market full of art, perfumes and fabrics. And, when seeking an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the market you won’t have to look far. Amidst the myriad of stalls and Arabian boutiques, the historic Naguib Mahfouz coffee shop lies in wait for tired shoppers looking to escape from enthusiastic market sellers – with its fez-wearing waiters and in-house shoe shine, this is a coffee house that provides a cultural experience in itself.