When I threw out the idea of going to Egypt a couple of years ago, it was because I wanted a picture on a camel with the pyramids in the background. I know, I’m a little nuts given that the prospect of a picture like that could motivate me to plan a whole trip out of it, but if it weren’t for that trip, I would have never seen the Birqash Camel Market… which was infinitely more interesting than the Pyramids of Giza, Khan Al-Khalili bazaar, the Nile Cruise to Luxor, the Temple of Luxor, and well, pretty much everything else that was listed as an Egypt attraction.
Let me tell you about this camel market because you’re not going to find it on any Egypt must-see list. Thousands of camels are brought to the Birqash market (Souq al-Gamaal) after enduring a grueling 24-hour ride from Sudan. The worst part is that they are tired and starving (forget Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) from the trip and the worst is yet to come. One of their legs are tied up so that they can’t run away, they’re auctioned off, and then spray painted to indicate they’ve been bought. Oh-my-gosh the scene is heart wrenching to watch, but at the same time, akin to a train wreck – I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was about as different as anything I’ve ever seen back at home.
Just getting there was an adventure as this place is not a highly visited “tourist attraction”. Most of our Egypt trip was planned by a tour company, and upon arrival, I told the guides I wanted to go to the camel market, but they tried to convince me that it didn’t exist anymore! This contradicted the scant research I read about the market so Mr. T (side note: a friend of mine suggested I add a “Mr.” to T’s name, and I figured why not as it would make T sound so much more authoritative) and I assumed this meant the market was “too authentic” to bring tourists. Ha! That just made us want to go more. Well, as we went from tourist attraction to tourist attraction over the next week, I refused to give up on seeing this market. As luck (or bad luck) would have it, there was some confusion with one of the transfers we were supposed to get (i.e., the transfer guy totally forgot to pick us up – that b@$+@rd) so I called my main tour contact to complain about this mishap. They felt so bad that they offered to take us on a special tour to some kiddie attraction in Cairo (uh, really?). Seeing the window of opportunity, I basically told them I really wanted a ride to the camel market, and after much hassling and of course, their trying to convince me again of the market’s non-existence, they finally agreed. They got their driver to take us outside of Cairo, and after what seemed like an hour of driving through rural villages and fields of burning garbage (talk about being reminded this isn’t a first world country), we finally arrived at Birqash.
I’m not saying the only way to get to this market is to battle it out with your tour company, but it’s definitely worth doing some research to figure out how to get there. I know at least one tour company provides tours here (we saw them when we were there) but you’ll really have to dig.
Anyway, if you are a traveler this place is worth your while as this was the single most impressionable thing I saw in Egypt. As a visitor, be prepared to stick out like a sore thumb, but honestly, none of the Egyptians seem to care. They are too busy beating the camels that run away, participating in the auction chants, or just sitting around sipping “shai”. I don’t even think most Egyptians come here as evidenced by the jaw-dropping reaction of our driver when he stepped into the market. Like a tourist in disbelief, he immediately pulled out his cell phone to snap some pictures (I know he totally wished he had his camera). There are literally, hundreds, if not thousands of camels here – some frothing at the mouth, others trying to break free. If you’re not careful, you could get run over by one.
We stayed for about an hour snapping pictures and feeding some camels (those poor things!) before we felt we’d seen and conquered. Once we left, we headed straight to the airport where we cleaned off our camel-crap-covered shoes. If you go, make sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty/smelly and shoes you don’t care about (you really shouldn’t be traveling with clothes or shoes you care about anyway).
To this day, Mr. T and I think being privy to the camel auction was the true highlight of our trip. Seriously, where else are you ever going to see something like this? I realize this may not be everyone’s cup of shai, but if you’re a true traveler by heart and want to experience the real Egypt, you absolutely need to make the trek to this place. As it turns out, I didn’t even manage to get a good picture of me on a camel with the pyramids (so hard to get the camels to stay still for a photo op), but I’m willing to overlook that since we got these camel market shots instead: