• Karen Frost

Chapter 7: Khan al-Khalili

The setting of almost all of chapter 7 is the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. There's a long history of the bazaar on Wikipedia, but the highlights are as follows: Khan al-Khalili is a famous bazaar and souq (market) in the historic center of Cairo. Once upon a time, it was the center point of the Turkish community in Cairo. Now the bazaar is one of Cairo's main tourist attractions. It is also home to many Egyptian artisans and workshops involved in the production of traditional crafts and souvenirs. Since the medieval period, Khan al-Khalili has been made up of several khans/wikalas with souq streets between them. The district underwent significant modifications and re-developments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, shops in Khal al-Khalili sell souvenirs, antiques and jewelry, while many craftsmen's workshops continue to operate within the bazaar (usually in the courtyards or upper floors of buildings) or in the surrounding districts. There are also several small coffeehouses and restaurants in the bazaar.

Khan el-Khalili in the 1920s (above) and now (below)

Here's a video from the 1970s showing a little bit of the artisans in the market as well:

Oh, Mummy!

If you've ever thought, "Boy, the Victorians sure were weird," you are not wrong. Among other oddities (who knew the Victorians were into nipple piercings?), tourists in the 1800s liked to buy cat mummies during their trips to Egypt. They also held mummy unrolling parties for the human mummies they bought and brought back home. Luckily, the Egyptian mummy market was ready and able to supply the mummy demand, at least when it came to animals. According to this article about the animal mummy business, one cemetery in Saqqara alone contained 7 million embalmed dogs, while another held 4 million mummified ibises. Then there's this gem: during the Third Intermediate Period, "Tens of millions of embalmed animals were deposited in at least 31 cemeteries throughout Egypt. One cat repository, found by farmers in 1888, was reported to have 'a stratum thicker than most coal seams, 10 to 20 cats deep.'" That's deep. In summary, no matter how many mummified animals the weird European Victorians bought, Egypt always had more to sell them.

Modern Egyptian History

Britain unilaterally granted Egyptian independence in February 1922, after protests against the imposition of martial law turned violent. For years, the writing had been on the wall about independence, and the Brits were seeking a way to nominally concede to nationalist demands while still maintaining de facto control of Egyptian resources and foreign policy. December 1923, when the lady adventurers arrive in Egypt, would have been just one month before Egypt's first ever elections, making it a particularly politically volatile time. For anyone interested in the end of Egypt's colonial period, here's a brief but good summary: During its modern history, Egypt had several famous political assassinations, including Prime Minister Boutros Ghali. Ghali was killed on 20 February 1910 by Ibrahim Nassif-al Wardani, a 23 year old student and member of Mustafa Kamil Pasha’s Watani Party, for siding with the British in the "Denshawai incident," a violent clash between British officers and Egyptian villagers.

The Bee's Knees

Upon retiring back home at the end of a long day, the lady adventurers have a cocktail. This was the Bee's Knees, a novelty cocktail created in the 1920s. The ingredients are as follows:

  • 2 ounces gin

  • ¾ ounce honey

  • ½ ounce fresh lemon juice

A Fun Walk Down Lesbian History Lane

While reading Wikipedia's entry on the history of lesbianism, I came across the interesting story of Berenice and Mesopotamia. It's an unusual fictional story written in the second century AD by a Syriac Greek, which I include here for readers who enjoy arcane bits of historical literary trivia: The author of that blog post posits that the ancient Egyptians must have allowed gay marriage, a theory that seems to be confirmed by the following, also from the Wikipedia article: Between 1170 and 1180, Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbis in Jewish history, wrote in the Mishneh Torah:

For women to be mesollelot [women rubbing genitals against each other] with one another is forbidden, as this is the practice of Egypt...The Sages said [in the midrash of Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8–9], "What did they do? A man married a man, and a woman married a woman, and a woman married two men."

Now you know. Gay marriage totes happened in Egyptian antiquity. As a final note, here's a cool video of Egypt taken in 1927:


©2019 by Karen Frost

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