The Bookseller's Market in Cairo

The Bookseller's Market

by Seif Kamel

Soor Al Azbakeya, The Azbakeya fence, or the fence of wisdom as I call it, is the best place in Cairo to shop for books. Though the setting of the market is new, the market itself is not. It is very old, and offers all sorts of books, from ancient rare books to modern text books.

The busy bookseller's market in Cairo

Imagine one big book store that stretches for blocks. This is Soon al Azbakeya. It is located in a very crowded area near Al Attaba Square in Cairo. Although the place is usually full of people and it is hard to convince a taxi driver to take you there for a reasonable price, there are other ways to reach the market. You can take the underground metro which will lead you right to the door of the market, or if you are already visiting Al Azhar Mosque or Khan El Khalili, it will take you only 5 to 10 minutes to walk to the market and the streets in this area are really interesting, as there are a lot of old houses with fascinating Egyptian decorations.

Another view of the central booksellers market

About 20 or 30 years ago, this was the only place to shop for good books in Cairo. Venders and book sellers were sitting in the street yelling to attract buyers and the place was completely unorganized. It was as if you were walking in a traditional vegetable market in Egypt. With the construction of the underground in the middle of the eighties, the book sellers had to move to the Al Azhar area, but the circumstances there werent much better.

After two or three years, the Egyptian government built a closed market with around 100 metal shops organized in rows. The market is surrounded with a fence with two gates at each end of the market, which became much more civilized and clean.

At the entrance to the booksellers market

My trip to the market started in the Attaba Square, which was like the entrance of a sports stadium at the beginning of an important match. There were so many people going from left to right and from right to left, walking on the pavements and in the streets themselves. And the cars, as you are walking you are trying to find your way in a parking lot. However, the square itself is interesting as there is the main fire house in Cairo with the huge red cars used to put out fires. There are also the antique houses spread around the square.

At the gate of the market, there were several vendors selling cloth, watches, toys, pens, and lamps of Ramadan. This place is always bursting with people because the gate to the underground is located beside it.

Many of the booksellers operate small stalls packed with books.

The scene is completely different inside the Azbakeya book market. The place was somehow empty because it was noon in Ramadan and all the people were fasting. The place is remarkably organized. I noticed so many shops beside each other with the vendors sitting outside of the shops, because the shops are really tiny.

As I walked through the market I started noticing shops with different specializations and shops that sell all kinds of books. The first one that attracted my eye was a shop called Mansoor Bookshop, selling all kinds of children's comic books. I love the Disney stories, especially with Donald Duck, and I spent some time searching the books he had. The books are mainly in Arabic, but you can find some other languages like English and French for less than 2 pounds.

The Mansoor Bookshop in Cairo

There are many shops selling new and old magazines in English. Old issues from popular magazines like the National Enquirer, People and Science and Readers Digest can be found in these shops for less than 10 to 15 pounds. These magazines are very good quality as they were never used. The sellers in these shops buy them when they get old and sell them again for very good prices.

Stores that sell only, or mostly dictionaries of every kind

One of the best things you can buy from the Azbakeya Book Market is a dictionary. Some shops specialize in selling dictionaries in all languages. You can find small pocket dictionaries and also huge ones with every single known word in Arabic, for example. The prices are quite good. A new Oxford advanced dictionary with a CD can cost 35 pounds (less than 7 dollars). There are other brands of dictionaries and all are in a wonderful state, even if they are used. They even sell dictionaries for the old Egyptian language hiloghreify with good prices. Books that teach different languages are sold in some shops as well. There are many books that teach English of course, but you can find very interesting books in English that teach Arabic, which would be beneficial and fun for any tourist that visits Egypt.

Medical books, from old to new

Science books of all sorts can be found in the market. Many books speak about medicine and kinds of diseases and how to cure them are sold there. The most interesting of this collection was a book that speaks about how the pharaohs used to cure diseases. Astrology, mathematics, economics, psychology, and every other subject are sold there in Arabic and English and with great prices. Many students visit the market to buy books because they can buy the books they need for university for 30 pounds, for example, while they are sold for more than 100 pounds in other places.

Many shops specialize in English novels from famous writers like Agatha Christie. They sell used novels in a very good state and they have a very big variety of novels like thrillers, romance, and historical. A novel would cost between 10 to 15 pounds.

Along the avenue of stalls making up some of the booksellers market

There is a shop there called Zaman Book Shop that sells something that I am sure is sold nowhere else in all of Egypt. The place sells original old newspapers issued in the most important days of the modern Egyptian history. The issue of Al Ashram newspaper on the day Abdel Naser, the previous Egyptian president, died or the issue of Al Akhbar on the day the Egyptian Army won against Israel in 1973, and many other rare issues are sold in this shop. Of course you can get copies of these issues from libraries, but they wont be the original copies. This is why this shop is amazing.

The Azbakeya Books Market has many tourism books in different languages, mainly in English, but you can find some Italian and German books as well. New and used guides to Egypt are sold in many shops there. You can find used guides to Cairo, Aswan and Sharm El Sheikh for less than 20 pounds, while they are sold for more than 80 pounds in other places. I found many old issues from the National Geographic magazine sold for less than 5 pounds an issue and in a very good state. There is another magazine, called Travel, that speaks about many regions in the world and they are sold for only 4 pounds an issue.

Lots of English language magazines are also sold

At the end of my tour, I was holding three books which I bought. The first one was an Arabic psychological book, called The Self and World, which seemed very interesting and cost me 3 pounds. The second one was a guide to places to visit in Cairo and it had a lot of beneficial and accurate information. The last one was a Mickey issue that had Donald Duck on the cover. The Azbakeya Market is worth visiting if you are interested in any aspect of the Egyptian culture. You can find books and items you could never find in any other place in Egypt. The market opens from 9 in the morning until 10 at night, and if you visit it at anytime you will find many open shops. The vendors speak English, are very helpful, and they know a lot about books and culture.

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last updated: June 8th, 2011