Yes, it’s kind of stereotypical in an exotic way: the idea of riding a camel to traverse the expanses of Northern Africa. Being part of a bedouin caravan that moves across the backdrop of an unforgiving desert, lush green oasis, or crumbling pyramids. It’s such a deeply ingrained notion that many travellers would render a visit to Egypt incomplete without a must-have photo (or encounter at least) with nature’s even-toed ungulate. Preferably in front of the Sphinx or the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Well, if you long for the opportunity to do something unique in Egypt and crave a close encounter with a dromedary – or several in one go – this is your chance.
Located 35 kilometers west of Cairo is the Birqash Camel Market (Souq al-Gamaal). It’s exactly what the name implies: a market for the sale and trade of camels. Camels that are used for transport. Camels that are used for work purposes (farming), and yes…camels that are used for human consumption.
Hundreds of camels are sold and/or traded at the market on a daily basis. The majority of camels are from Sudan – with some from Somalia – and they enter Egypt by way of the Abu Simbel road in the south. Those that aren’t sold at the Daraw market near Aswan are given a second chance and transported to Birqash.
Merchants come from all across the country (sometimes beyond, such as Libya) to do business at the market. This includes young boys – some no older than 10 – who learn the trade from their fathers, and farmers from nearby villages who bring livestock such as sheep, goats and chickens to trade.
Foreigners/travellers are charged a fee to enter the market, which runs about 30 LE/per person. If you have a DSLR hanging off your shoulder you may be expected to cough up some additional cash, but I wouldn’t pay more than 10/15 LE per camera. Though the market is traditionally a male-dominated sphere, visitors (especially females) don’t really encounter any harassment. The men are too busy looking at the camels and trying to get the best deal to be bothered by the presence of curious foreigners.
Local merchants also hawk their goods at the market, the goods being mainly water, peanuts, chips and…meat. Yes, there’s camel for sale sometimes, though I can’t say I’ve tried it. There’s also camel milk available, which isn’t for your average Intolerant, or anyone with a queasy stomach for that matter. I’ve taken a good sniff of the milk which gives off an overpowering sour stench. The taste – I’m told – is equally cringe worthy.
Some of the local farmers have livestock on offer, which is much better quality than what you buy in the supermarket. The first time I visited Birqash my travel guru friend @eveningfrits bought a goat that had been blessed and slaughtered just as we were heading out of the souk. Though the conditions weren’t overly sterile, the knife and cutting board were clean and we waited a good half hour as the meat was properly bled and sectioned off. Frits procured a leg and a bit of the flank for roughly 60 LE (10 USD) and the meat was so fresh that I swear to God/Allah/Jesus/Buddha I saw a few veins still pumping the whole drive home.
Frits seasoned and stewed the meat with much care, and though I wasn’t planning on eating any (I kept thinking “poor goat, poor little goat”) I did try some in the end. Though I may sound like a pompous, carnivorous prick, I don’t really care: it was some of the best goat I have EVER had.
Given that the animals are not treated all that kindly, those who are faint of heart – along with any PETA activists – should either avoid the camel market or endure the visit with a modicum of grace and tolerance. While I don’t agree with way the camels are handled, I’m glad I’ve made the visit as spending a morning at Birqash provides a fascinating look into life outside of Egypt’s urban centers and tourist hubs. It’s a sobering reminder of how layered and diverse Egyptian society really is.
*All photos were taken by the multi-talented @eveningfrits*