Visitors to Egypt are spoilt for choice when it comes to souvenirs: traditional crafts such as jewellery, textiles, glassware, leatherwork, brass and copperware all offer good value for money if you’re prepared to haggle and be choosy. One thing not to buy is any kind of supposed antiquity. The export of antiquities is strictly prohibited, and you could end up in prison if caught trying to smuggle them out. Another thing to avoid is ivory products: their sale is legal, but almost all Western countries prohibit their importation. Inlaid or carved bone makes an acceptable substitute.
Many Westerners are intimidated by haggling, but it needn’t be an ordeal. Decide before you start what price you want to pay, offer something much lower, and let the shopkeeper argue you up, but not above your maximum price. If you don’t reach an agreement, even after a lengthy session, nothing is lost. But if you state a price and the seller agrees, you are obliged to pay – so it is important not to start bidding for something you don’t really want, nor to let a price pass your lips if you are not prepared to pay it. Haggling should be good-natured, not acrimonious, even if you know the seller is trying to overcharge you outrageously.
Don’t be put off by theatrics on the part of the seller, which are all part of the game. Buyers’ tactics include stressing any flaws that might reduce the object’s value; talking of lower quotes received elsewhere; feigning indifference or having a friend urge you to leave. Avoid being tricked into raising your bid twice in a row, or admitting your estimation of the object’s worth (just reply that you’ve made an offer).
Cairo’s bazaars offer an infinite choice of jewellery, textiles, leatherwork, glassware, brass and copperware and perfumes, plus the world’s best selection of bellydancing costumes. Alabaster figurines and vases are cheaper on Luxor’s west bank, while Aswan’s bazaar is best for spices, incense and basketwork. Siwa Oasis has its own crafts tradition, as do the thoroughly un-touristy bazaars in Assyut and Medinet Fayoum.
Jewellery comes in all kinds of styles; gold and silver are sold by the gram, with a percentage added on for workmanship. The current ounce price of gold is printed in the daily Egyptian Gazette; one troy ounce equals about 31 grams. Barring antiques, all gold work is stamped with Arabic numerals indicating purity: usually 21 carat for Bedouin, Nubian or fellaheen jewellery; 18 carat for Middle Eastern and European-style charms and chains. Sterling silver (80 or 92.5 percent) is likewise stamped, while a gold camel in the shop window indicates that the items are gold-plated brass.
The most popular souvenirs are gold or silver cartouches with names in hieroglyphics. Prices depend on the size, the number of characters and whether they’re engraved or glued on, but expect to pay around £E500–1000.
Among brass and copperware items favoured as souvenirs are candlesticks, waterpipes, gongs, coffee sets, embossed plates and inlaid or repoussé trays (the larger ones are often mounted on stands to serve as tables). Be sure that anything you intend to drink out of is lined with tin or silver, since brass and copper react with certain substances to form toxic compounds. Remember also to test waterpipes for leaky joints.
Egypt produces many of the essences used by French perfumiers, sold by the ounce to be diluted 1:9 in alcohol for perfume, 1:20 for eau de toilette and 1:30 for eau de cologne. Local shops will duplicate famous perfumes for you, or you can buy fakes (sometimes unwittingly – always scrutinize labels). Salesmen boasting that their “pure” essence is undiluted by alcohol will omit to mention that oil has been used instead, which is why they rub it into your wrist to remove the sheen.
Spices such as cinnamon (’irfa) and sesame (simsim) are piled high in bazaars, but what is sold as saffron (za’faraan) is actually safflower, which is why it seems ridiculously cheap compared with what you’d pay for the real thing (consisting of fine red strands only, hence the ruse of dying safflower red). You’ll also see dried hibiscus (karkaday); the top grade should consist of whole, healthy-looking flowers.
Most Egyptian kilims (woven rugs) and knotted carpets have half as many knots (sixteen per centimetre) as their Turkish counterparts, so should be cheaper – especially ones made from native wool rather than the high-grade imported stuff used in finer kilims. More affordable are tapestries and rugs woven from coarse wool and/or camel hair, which come in two basic styles. Bedouin rugs have geometric patterns in shades of brown and beige and are usually loosely woven, while the other style, deriving from the Wissa Wassef School, features images of birds, trees and village life. Beware of stitched-together seams and gaps in the weave (hold pieces up against the light) and unfast colours – if any colour wipes off on a damp cloth, the dyes will run when the rug is washed. Another high-quality brand that’s (less widely) imitated is Akhmim silk, woven into tapestries or hand-printed scarves and robes, sold by selected shops in major tourist centres. Decorative appliqué work (cushion covers, bedspreads and wall-hangings) and riotously patterned printed tent fabric are best bought in Cairo’s Tentmakers Bazaar.
Although few tourists can wear them outdoors without looking silly, many take home a kaftan or galabiyya for lounging attire. Women’s kaftans are made of cotton, silk or wool, generally A-line, with long, wide sleeves and a round or mandarin collar (often braided). Men’s galabiyyas come in three basic styles: Ifrangi (a floor-length tailored shirt with collar and cuffs), Saudi (with a high-buttoned neck and no collar) and baladi (very wide sleeves and a low, rounded neckline).
Egyptian leatherwork is nice and colourful, if not up to the standards of Turkey. Jackets, sandals, handbags, pouffes (tuffets) and decorative camel saddles are all made in Cairo’s workshops for sale throughout Egypt. Cairo also offers a range of palm-frond basketwork, mostly from the Fayoum and Upper Egypt. Fayoumi baskets (for storage, shopping or laundry) are more practical, but it’s hard to resist the woven platters from Luxor and Aswan, as vibrantly colourful as parrots. You may also find baskets from Siwa Oasis, trimmed with tassels.
Hand-blown Muski glass, made since medieval times (nowadays from recycled bottles), is recognizable by its air bubbles and comes in navy blue, turquoise, aquamarine, green and purple, fashioned into glasses, plates, vases, candle holders and ashtrays. Elegant handmade perfume bottles are another popular souvenir. The cheaper ones are made of glass and are as delicate as they look. Pyrex versions cost roughly twice as much and are a little sturdier (they should also be noticeably heavier).