The bizarre and wonderful world of bazaars

February 25, 2010

By Judy McEuen
Travel Writer
Troy Media

Judy McEuen
Judy McEuen

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, Feb. 25, 2010/ Troy Media/ — I love world bazaars – souks, suqs, markets. Call them what you will, they’re just so much fun to prowl in. By definition bazaars are shopping quarters, especially in the Middle East. They were probably the precursors to our flea markets, shopping malls, and supermarkets all rolled into one. The word seems to have originated in Persia, but now you find bazaars all over the world.

You can bet I’m not talking about the somewhat new definitions like church bazaars or Christmas bazaars or anything like that. I’m talking about those great chaotic, crowded, colorful marketplaces set amid shadowy passageways and arcades around the world.

As much fun as seeing the holy sites

We were recently in Jerusalem and getting lost in that crowded, covered, jumbled maze of narrow alleys of the Souk was as much fun as seeing the holy sites of three religions and uncovering all that history.

Khan el-Khalili in Cairo is a major souk in the Old City. There are streets and streets of tourist curios, but there are also streets full of cloth, spices, perfumes, and traditional jewelry.

The Grand Bazaar or Covered Bazaar of Istanbul, Turkey is just amazing. It’s one of the largest covered markets in the world, and maybe the oldest. There are something like 56 interconnected covered passages and over 4,000 shops. I think you could wander for days looking at the jewelry, pottery, carpets, and spices.

India and Pakistan have bazaars too. Chandni Chowk in Delhi, India has miles of streets, each dedicated to different professions: cloth, gold, pots and pans. We wandered in the Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore, Pakistan years ago when we went to Lahore for a wedding.

And it’s wonderful getting lost in the souks of Marrakech, or Fez or even Rabat or Casablanca in Morocco.

Dubai touts the world’s tallest building and its great new shopping malls, but it was its Gold Souks that called to us. The Gold Souk is one glittering shop after another – amazing stuff. We loved prowling the spice souk, and we bought some frankincense and myrrh. It was fun to see all the glamorous fabric in the textile souks too. Sure, we stopped to see Ski Dubai in the mall, but we spent way more time in the bazaars.

We bought a camel saddlebag in the Old Muttrah Souq in Oman – guaranteed to be old of course but we loved it, no matter what. We got it for the price we wanted to pay and we were able to bring it home as luggage. It looks great next to our elephant howdah, elephant saddle and camel saddlebag. Great memories.

Watch your budget

World bazaars can be bad for your budget. If you stop to look, you will soon be in a discussion with the merchant, and they can be very persuasive. You will, of course, be expected to discuss the merchandise and haggle over prices. You will undoubtedly be offered coffee or tea. Do not start the bargaining process unless you are serious about wanting to buy.

Remember, they are absolute professionals at bargaining and persuasion. Unless you’re a real expert, it will be hard to tell if something is old or not, even if they tell you it is. If you find something you love, and you can get it for the price you want to pay,that’s good enough. Get it and enjoy it for the memory.

But I love those marketplaces and souks and world bazaars for the cultural experience: It doesn’t matter if I buy anything or not.

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