Birqash Camel Market, Cairo

The market’s camel-thronged grounds

photography by: Hatem Moushir/ Wikimedia Commons

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Often dubbed as the ships of the desert, camels have played a major role throughout the Middle East and North Africa for centuries, serving as the sole mean of transportation in one of Earth’s most inhospitable regions. Since their introduction to Egypt in the 6th century BC, these humpy animals became synonymous with the Land of the Nile. There is probably no better place to witness their national prominence than Birqash Camel Market on the outskirts of Cairo, where hundreds of camels are huddled together, steeped in perpetual stench and clamor.

Across the sparsely-inhabited expanses of the Sahara Desert, camels have been the only reliable mode of transportation for much of human history, traversing the sunbaked region with staggering ease. While nowadays, vehicles and airplanes offer a faster and more convenient way to cross this natural barrier, their four-legged counterparts are still far from being obsolete.


In fact, 25 kilometers northwest of the Egyptian capital lies one of Africa’s largest camel markets, known for its striking sights and an unapologetic character. Located in a small village that bears its name, Birqash Camel Market or “Souk El-Gamal” is a fenced complex where dromedaries are gathered before being sold for various purposes, ranging from hard-working beasts in a farm, for their meat, or even as the protagonists of a camel-themed experience curated by one of Egypt’s copious tourist operators.


The bustling souk has long been a notable part of Cairo, nestled in the neighborhood of Imbaba up until about two decades ago. Yet, as the ever-expanding city encroached upon its premises, it had no other choice but relocating to its current location in Birqash.


Most of the camels here originate from neighboring Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, from where they traveled hundreds of kilometers northwards through the very same routes used by cross-desert caravans a millennium beforehand. Another thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is the market’s incessant hubbub of grunting and haggling, accompanied by a plethora of pungent odors that waft through the warm air.


Traders, dressed in traditional attire, negotiate over prices while inspecting the camels closely, much like one would examine a car before purchase. The animals are then marked with colored crayons to signify ownership, with many of which being led around by a single bound leg to prevent escape, something for which the bazaar has gained a dubious reputation among animal lovers, who raised multiple concerns over their treatment during and after the sale.


The market is open every Friday and Sunday from morning to late afternoon, while its faraway whereabouts make it quite challenging to reach, that is, unless you opt for a taxi ride. Though the souk is anything but a place for the faint-hearted, it is here that one can have an authentic glimpse of a centuries-old tradition that persists to date.