Egypt is the spiritual home of the hardcore haggler. The meek and mild are advised to stay within the confines of their hostel, as stepping even a foot outside the front door opens up a wealth of shopping opportunities. Whilst I was sailing down the Nile, a small series of rowing boats hooked themselves onto us and started throwing up items for our perusal. You have been warned; no corner is free of the vendor and no place is safe for the haggle-shy individual.
Haggling is a way of life in Egypt and vendors expect you to knock their initial prices down. The first price quoted to you can be as much as ten times the worth of the piece. As most sellers begin proceedings with such a high price, it is important that you come back with a rock-bottom one. For instance, if a vendor tries to sell you a straw camel for £10, you offer him 10p. Sure, they will fuss and look like you are crazy – but they do expect this. This is how it works when shopping in Egypt. It’s important that you set the maximum price that you will pay and stick to it. More often than not, when you walk away from the vendor complaining that their price is too high, they will follow you. As long as you stick with your maximum bid, most of the time they’ll agree to it.
My boyfriend and I were taught the importance of haggling very early on in our trip. Being the confident chick that I am, I forced my laid-back bloke to haggle the price on two cotton T-shirts down to £1 – from an initial £50. Bargainous I thought, as I smugly congratulated myself on being a strong-willed (read: pig-headed) lady. We were then told of the OAP who had just returned to her cabin on our boat in tears after being told of our expert haggling skills. She had paid the full £50 and not even for two T-shirts, but one. Just goes to show you, you can be ripped off if you aren’t equipped with a bit of savvy and some common sense.
An important thing to remember when shopping in Egypt is to check the currency that the vendor is quoting to you. As most Egyptians quote you in ‘pounds’, make sure you ask whether this is Egyptian or English pounds. Most Egyptians prefer you to pay in English – as sterling is so strong over there, but either way agree the currency between yourself and the seller. This way, you won’t end up spending £50 sterling on a fez, when you meant to pay 50p.
Another thing that Egyptian vendors will try to trick you with is the infamous Nubian pound. Often halfway through haggling, the Nubian pound will come into proceedings in an effort to hike the price up a bit. There is no such thing as the Nubian pound – it is just a ploy used in Egypt to confuse tourists into paying over the odds for an item. The only currency used in Egypt is the Egyptian pound. You could play them at their own game and start using monopoly money as currency – but this is not recommended.
If there’s one thing Egypt is renowned for (aside from the pyramids, camels, Tutankhamen, the desert, the Nile, hieroglyphics and tombs), it’s gold. Old Tut’ was dripping in it and by the end of your stay, walking down any street in Cairo, Luxor or Aswan, you will undoubtedly pass by numerous jewellery shops. I even saw one called Yorkshire Bob’s. (He’s a long way from home, I thought) Anyway, it is important to be careful when purchasing gold in Egypt. Many jewellers insist that their pieces are 18ct gold, when in fact many are little more than 9ct. It is crucial that you know what you are buying and that you are certain as to the quality of your purchase and pay an appropriate price. Otherwise you run the risk of being less Old Tut’ and more Old Tat.
One of the most popular gold items for sale in Egypt is an authentic Egyptian cartouche. A cartouche is a kind of nameplate. It consists of a number of different hieroglyphic symbols enclosed in a loop which are then hung as a pendant on a necklace. All gold shops sell these and many can engrave your name (and your partner’s name) onto it within the hour. Once again, be careful with the quality of gold you are purchasing and never, ever show your new cartouche to another vendor on the street. Some say that they will test the quality of gold for you and then replace your cartouche with a shoddy fake, keeping the quality metal for themselves.
Another nice item to buy in Egypt is papyrus. The first writing material known to man is available throughout the country to buy as wall hangings, but once again approach any pieces with caution. Many of the roadside vendors may insist that they sell only authentic papyrus, but more often than not they are selling banana leaf – which looks a lot like papyrus, but doesn’t last anywhere near as long. Papyrus will last for thousands of years – early writing examples still exist on it to this very day – but you will be lucky if a banana leaf replica will last until you return from your travels. Real papyrus can be easily identified, as you can still see the individual strips that have been laid together and flattened to make a bigger sheet. Banana leaf copies are usually made from one entire leaf and such lines are not visible.
Egypt is definitely the place to go if you’ve got to furnish your flat on the cheap. Carpets, decorative lamps and ornaments are everywhere and if you haggle wisely, you can get them for some great prices. Many of the ornaments are made from onyx or alabaster – a traditional Egyptian material. Alabaster is marble-like and almost impossible to break. This is important to remember, as many vendors will try to sell you plaster replicas which will just crack and flake away over time. If the item is truly alabaster, vendors will drop it on the floor to prove it. If they’ve something to hide, they probably won’t.
In short, Egypt is home to more than two thirds of the world’s treasures and you can pick up some treasures of your own if you keep your wits about you. Know your Nubian pound from your Egyptian, your alabaster from your plaster and your carats from your chrome and you won’t go far wrong. Also, it’s great fun shopping in Egypt…
Top Tips for Shopping in Egypt
The first price quoted is always extortionate – don’t be afraid to counter-bid with a rock bottom price.Don’t be afraid to walk away when the haggling starts to go in circles – if your price is about right the vendor will chase you down the street.Be aware of quick Egyptian hands – many will insist you wanted three items instead of the two you had agreed to pay for.Always shop around – Egypt is a bit of a deja-vu where shops are concerned – somebody will always be selling the same thing a few shops down – and possibly cheaper.Check the quality of any gold or alabaster pieces you may want to buy.
Top Egyptian Buys
Gold (check the quality though!).Galabiyah – authentic Egyptian dress jazzed up for the tourist market with glitter and sequins. Only costs about a £1! And good for fancy dress back home.Authentic papyrus wall hangings/ keepsakes.Alabaster ornaments.Fake football shirts and designer sportswear. (Make sure to check the name of the back of any footie shirts as I saw a guy walking around in a Real Madrid shirt with Beckha on the back…)