Psst, King Tut going cheap

Belinda Jackson learns to keep mum when shopping in the mother country of civilisation.

'Let me give you some advice for shopping in Egypt," said the elderly Cleopatra on my second day in Egypt. She leaned in close, peered over the rim of her spectacles and raised a dagger-like finger. "If you're not interested, say no. If you're interested, say no. Then start talking."

A year spent in Egypt and it's still great advice. Cheaper than Morocco and even better value now our dollar is flexing its muscle, Egypt is hot news in 2010, with tour companies saying Aussies are flocking to the cultural craziness of Cairo for all the colour and oriental whimsies of Arabia-meets-Africa. And forget Britain, this is truly a nation of shopkeepers.

There are three main shopping districts close by the main sights and hotels: traditional Islamic Cairo, bustling Downtown and upmarket Zamalek, with a few finds around the Great Pyramids at Giza.

The most famous shopping destination in the city is the mad market of Khan el-Khalili in Islamic Cairo, 10 minutes in a taxi from Downtown, traffic permitting. People have been haggling here for 700 years, so it's not just a recent tourist phenomenon designed solely to fleece you.

I set aside a bright Monday morning to go shopping, starting at Hussein Mosque, where taxis and buses disgorged loads of tourists at the cafes in front of the holiest site in Egypt (its relic is allegedly the head of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad). With arms, legs and hair covered, I wandered into the women's entrance of the mosque to view the elaborate casket. In comparison, tourists in the market were decked out in everything from long white gellibayas (a man's long kaftan) to risque boob tubes, much to the market guys' delight: Egyptians themselves are a conservatively dressed bunch.

"Psst, need a plaster-of-paris bust of King Tut?" enticed a market boy. Um, no thanks.

"Cleopatra on papyrus? Only two pounds," said his mate. Is that Egyptian or English pounds?

"What about an Egyptian husband?" added a cheeky third.

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Perfumes, spices, scarves, gold ... what are you looking for?

The Khan is the place to find your souvenir T-shirts and fridge magnets, mostly made in China, and the saffron is generally yellow dust but I did find locally made leather slippers and bags (as well as dodgy faux-designer ones), cool cotton embroidered shirts ideal for desert safaris for about $10 and boxes of divine almond-stuffed dates for a quick shopping snack. Egypt is famous for its inlay work. Elaborate backgammon and chess boards and jewellery boxes are easy to find, as are their cheap imitation brethren: a small jewellery box should set you back about $4.

After an hour's intensity, I escaped the madding crowd by the mosque and wandered deep into the labyrinth, hunting for pressed brass lamps that wouldn't break in my luggage. Traders advised me to go for the slightly more expensive brass over rust-prone iron: made in tiny, chaotic workshops behind the market, little machine-pressed brass star lanterns start as low as 50 pounds ($10). Try El Gamil lamp shop, a bright display in Seket El Kabwa, straight down the main drag from Hussein Mosque and to your left.

Khan el-Khalili is also the place to bring all your broken jewellery, which will be repaired in the time it takes to drink a cup of sweet tea and listen to chat-up lines that were old when Moses was a boy. I had good results from the friendly Gouzlan jewellers, near Naguib Mafouz restaurant, home of the cleanest loos in the market.

If haggling's not your bag, you can easily shop Cairo in fixed-price stores: many will charge you double for the privilege of having a price tag dangling from the product. The best shops stock fair-trade items and locally made products.

Near Khan el-Khalili, Al Khatoun, on Muhammad Abduh Street behind Al-Azhar Mosque, promotes local arts and crafts, much of it by co-operatives of local women. Their gorgeous handprinted fabric made into tablecloths and curtains had me cooing, as did the old Egyptian movie posters and khayameya, the simplistic traditional patchwork, great on cushions. I needed to ask to find the shop, down the back alleyways, but the locals knew what I was looking for.

I spotted handicrafts near the Khan down the mediaeval thoroughfare of el-Muizz Street. Where the road forks is the former Ottoman water cistern and Koranic school, Sabil-Kuttab Abd al-Rahim Katkhurda, which has been transformed with a small display of ceramics and silver jewellery in traditional styles. There were chic and chunky rings from 75 pounds and its 1 pound admission fee was worth it for the school's Ottoman wall tiles alone. Continuing along el-Muizz Street were more shisha (water pipe) shops than you could dream of and holes in the wall selling Egyptian kitsch (busts of the deposed King Farouk) and lamps.

A great find was the glorious rabbit warren of Khan Misr Touloun, opposite the 9th-century Ibn Tulun mosque, in the historic but ramshackle district of Sayyida Zeinab, a 10-minute taxi ride from Khan el-Khalili. I climbed the minaret for great views over Cairo then nipped over to the shop for cute kids' toys such as felt puppets, antique Bedouin clothing, beads, cards ... and an hour was gone.

On day two of my Cairo shopping epic, I made for Mar Girgis in the heart of Coptic Cairo, firmly on the tourist trail. The district's rich proliferation of churches includes the basement room where the Holy Family is said to have sheltered while fleeing Herod's Egypt and the country's first mosque, Amr Ibn Al-As. Just a few minutes' walk down the road is Souk el Fustat.

There are fixed prices in this sanitised souk, which has a branch of the fabulous Nefertari (also in Zamalek) for 100 per cent natural handmade body products, uber-fluffy Egyptian cotton bathrobes from 200 pounds and untreated cotton bath towels. If you're not into mass production, chat with the artisans who manufacture Egyptian objets d'art, including handmade chandeliers and pottery, cotton weaves from Upper Egypt and a range of bags, cards and rugs made from recycled material as part of a community project.

Downtown is great for cheap shoes: if you're a girl who likes a pair to match every outfit, then you're in budget-shoe heaven. The shopping bag was loaded with cute sandals from 20 pounds on Talaat Harb Street, a concentrated shoe strip. There are a few shops selling Egyptian leather but the cheap stuff was off the boat from China.

While Downtown, I popped into Oum El Dounia for fair-trade products including a huge, fab Egyptian cotton scarf that has been my constant travel companion ever since. Nearby, the super-fun Nomad in the Nile Hilton lobby, opposite the Egyptian Museum, yielded imitation Bedouin jewellery, dresses and scarves while the gift shop at the Townhouse Gallery on Nabrawy Street has gorgeous cards, coffee table books and oversized beaten copper jewellery that I snapped up for a song.

Leafy and quiet (by Cairo standards, that is), the suburb of Zamalek is embassy central and chic to boot - a short hop from Downtown, with plenty of cafes. Cilantro is the local (superior) alternative to Starbucks and Maison Thomas is a landmark for coffee and pizza; both are on 26th of July Street. A hot tip from the canny Khan Misr Touloun shop owner led us to gorgeous Samir Amin (15a al-Mansour Muhammad Street), a must-stop for handcrafted leather and metal belts, jewellery, bags and notebooks from just 20 pounds and if you can't get out to the famed Siwa oasis, where Alexander consulted the local oracle before taking over Egypt, visit the upmarket Siwa shop (17 Ahmad Heshmat Road). The handmade Siwan jewellery and chic, understated clothing range was not cheap but divine.

Nearby, celebrity jeweller Azza Fahmy (15 Taha Hussein Street) is the byword for bling, specialising in Islamic designs in silver and nurturing upcoming designers. She also has boutiques in the lavish Four Seasons Nile Plaza shopping mall and the Sofitel Gezira.

Out in Giza by the most famous pyramids and close to the Cataracts Hotel on the Sakkara Road, stop into Ramses Wissa Wassef art centre to see second-generation weavers at work producing colourful, distinctive tapestries, a sight that was recommended by Abercrombie & Kent guide and carpet buff Muhammad Ossama between long pulls on his shisha pipe. Best to call ahead on +202 3381 5748.

He also reminded me that you can't export anything more than 100 years old from Egypt. However, modern Egyptian artists are making high-quality Pharaonic reproductions if you're looking to recreate the whole ancient-Egyptian look - while in Giza, try Karnak, at the entrance to the pyramids and ask for the good stuff. How much? I hear you ask.

"Know what you want to spend and let the seller name the price," advised Muhammad. "If they ask you, 'What's your price?' just shrug and say, 'I don't need it.'"

You might say you don't need it. But you're not saying you don't want it. And that's the mantra of shopping in Cairo and the world over, isn't it?

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights to Cairo; the most convenient way is via the Gulf states with Qatar Airways, Emirates or Etihad Airways . See qatarairways.com, emirates.com or etihadairways.com.

GETTING AROUND

Taxis are cheap and plentiful but (except for the new yellow ones) unmetered. Ask your concierge or a friend how much you should pay, have the correct money and pay the driver through the window once you get out. Otherwise you're in for a serious lesson in haggling from a master.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Most of Khan el-Khalili is closed on Sundays but is open while the rest of Cairo closes on Friday mornings, the Islamic day of rest.

Egypt uses the Egyptian pound. One Australian dollar is equal to about five Egyptian pounds. Credit cards are accepted in most of the larger shops but be prepared to do a dash for cash in the markets.

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