Egypt’s largest camel market (souq al-gamaal; admission E£5; 6am-noon) is held at Birqash, a small village 35km northwest of Cairo. Until 1995 the market was held in Cairo’s western suburb of Imbaba, but when land became too precious for camels, one of Cairo’s age-old institutions was relocated to the edge of the Western Desert. Like all Egypt’s animal markets, the Birqash camel market is not for animal lovers, nor for the faint of heart. However, if you’ve got a strong stomach (and better yet a weak sense of smell), a visit to Birqash is an unforgettable day trip.
While admission to the market is E£5, beware of ticket officers who may try to get you to cough up £20 to enter. The market is an easy half-day trip (one to 1½ hours) from Cairo, and one hour in the hot and dusty market is usually enough for most travellers. Note that things are most lively between 7am and 10am on Fridays.
Hundreds of camels are sold here every day, most having been brought up the Forty Days Rd from western Sudan to just north of Abu Simbel by camel herders and from there to the market in Daraw. Unsold camels are then hobbled and crammed into trucks for the 24-hour drive to Birqash. By the time they arrive, many are emaciated, fit only for the knacker’s yard. Traders stand no nonsense and camels that get out of line are beaten relentlessly.
In addition to those from Sudan, there are camels from various parts of Egypt (including Sinai, the west and the south) and sometimes from as far away as Somalia. They are traded for cash or other livestock, such as goats, sheep and horses, and sold for farm work or slaughter. While at the market, watch out for pickpockets. Women should dress conservatively – the market is very much a man’s scene, with the only female presence other than the occasional traveller being the local tea lady. When you arrive, pick a strategic spot and settle in to watch the negotiations. The best area is around the middle of the lot; there are not as many camels at the entrance and at the very back, and it’s noticeably scruffier there.
If you’re interested in buying a camel (either for transportation or for meat – what you do with it is up to you), smaller ones cost about E£2000, while bigger beasts sometimes go for as much as E£5000. Negotiations tend to take place early in the day; by early afternoon, the market is quite subdued.
Getting There & Away
Using public transport, the cheapest way to get to Birqash involves getting yourself to the site of the old camel market at Imbaba, from where microbuses filled with traders and potential buyers shuttle back and forth to Birqash. To get to the old camel market, take a minibus from Midan Abdel Moniem Riad or Midan Ramses to Imbaba (E£1), or one to Midan Libnan (in Mohandiseen) from where you can catch a connecting microbus. Easier still, take a taxi from central Cairo all the way to the old site (about E£10); Imbaba airport (matar Imbaba) is the closest landmark. Once at Imbaba, ask a local to show you where to get the microbus (E£1) to Birqash. From Imbaba, the road winds through fields dotted with date palms, dusty villages, orange orchards and patches of encroaching urban sprawl before climbing the desert escarpment to the market. Microbuses from Birqash back to Imbaba leave when full: depending on the time of the day, you could wait up to two hours or so.
The easiest way to get to and from the market is to hire a private taxi for the morning. This will cost somewhere between E£70 and E£120, depending on your bargaining skills.
Directions from readers:
Take Cairo/Alex highway to Abu Rawash road. You take a right onto Abu Rawash road which is right before the Carrefour/Dandy mall parking lot. You take this until you reach the end of the road where it intersects with the Mansouriyya Canal road. Take a left onto the Mansouriyya Canal road. Keep going for a ways and start looking for signs, either the suk il gamaal sign or Nimos Farm sign, on the left-hand side of the road. Take left onto small canal road and go until the end where you hit a midaan/circle. There will be a sign pointing towards the suk and it’s only a little ways down the road from there. Leaving from downtown on an early Friday morning, this way can get you there in 45 minutes if you use the Mahwar.
The road that leads there is accessed from right next to the Giza Pyramids, but I can’t easily describe how to find it. (note: at the main circle take the road that goes to Kerdasa/ Mansoureyya) If you ask a couple people in the area, one should point you in the right direction. Once on this road, you end up following it straight about 20-25 min and then you make a left at the camel market sign (in Arabic) and drive about 1-2 kilometers to the market.