Souq Al Qaisariya’s hidden gems

Hugging the eastern side of King Abdulaziz Road in the Al Rafaa district of Al Hofuf, the magnetic Souq Al Qaisariya boasts wares that come with a storied past and a lineage that reflects the region’s rich trading legacy. Employing a local guide to talk you through each snug passageway is the best way to extract these tales, and to pick up some savvy haggling tips.

The history of Souq Al Qaisariya 

Although widely believed to have been built in 1822, some historians — not to mention insistent Al Ahsa locals — claim the souq is referenced in historical documents that date as far back as 600 years. While its exact beginnings are disputed, what can’t be argued is that Souq Al Qaisariya is one of Arabia’s oldest markets, with history on show in every nook of its 7,000sqm space.

The souq was almost destroyed by fire in 2001, but thanks to a swift restoration project to repair its clay-walled glories, this important heritage site continues to thrive today. It holds more than 400 stalls spread across a network of maze-like rows and crosswalks — with numbered aisles to avoid getting too lost — that throng with old-world vendors and eager buyers. Its continued importance was underscored by UNESCO’s decision to grant it World Heritage status in 2018.

Textiles and clothing

Hundreds of abayas and dresses hang from the high souq walls, while handmade leather shoes, sandals, branded sunglasses and watches are scattered throughout. The market’s range of custom-made bishts make it a popular visit for men ahead of special occasions, seeing as the traditional cloak is commonly worn for weddings and Eid celebrations. Elsewhere you’ll find an abundance of stalls selling prayer beads in a plethora of colors and styles, while the clay used in henna tattoos is also a popular purchase.

Scented stalls

Traditional incense burners known as mabkhara not only add to the aromatic atmosphere of the souq but also make an inexpensive souvenir to bring home. Available in a variety of decorative styles and sizes to fit any suitcase, traders will be only too happy to let you sample the wide variety of incense — each with their own distinctive scents and purposes. Want something that will bring you luck, rid you of illness, or welcome visiting guests? There will be an aroma to suit. If purchasing a mabkhara, don’t forget to ask the vendor to throw in some charcoal discs.

Food and spices

Hulking bags of flour and rice, and baskets of dried limes jostle for display outside, presenting a streetside rainbow of grains and cereals. But don’t hesitate to delve inside food stalls too, where a trove of smaller items promise to grab your attention, including saffron, tamarind, rose water, cardamom and pomegranate sour sauce.

Then there are the vacuum-packs of dried fish and shrimp that, paired with a spicy dip, remain a popular afternoon snack among locals. If that gives you an appetite, head to Al Said café at the north end of the souq, where they’ll be more than happy to welcome you with a pot of Arabic coffee and some regional delicacies.

Antiques and trades

Throughout the souq you’ll see plenty of colorfully decorated teapots, clay pots and chests, the likes of which are on display at several of the heritage restaurants in Al Hofuf. But a short walk around the perimeter of the souq will further reward keen antique hunters.

Known as ‘blacksmith street’, Al Raffa north road showcases an ancient industry in rude health, as crouching blacksmiths dodge burning sparks to forge knives, sickles and axes from disused car suspensions. Nearby you’ll find small businesses offering specialist repair services on everything from vacuum cleaners to watches, making for unique photo opportunities.

Then there’s Al Qattan antiques store, opposite Ibrahim Palace. Every inch of this shop has something to behold, with thousands of antiques and trinkets making it a museum lacking only annotations.

The good news for those needing answers is that owner Mr Nadj, a former employee of oil giant Saudi Aramco, is only too happy to talk through some of his most intriguing items. These include 50-year-old Coca-Cola bottles, Aramco-issue hooked sunglasses, ornamental swords and daggers, ancient wooden furniture, and a stupendous collection of vintage gramophones.

When to visit

Souq Al Qaisariya opens at 3pm every day, with stalls closing for around 30 minutes at prayer times. A high wooden ceiling offers shade throughout the day and traditional ventilation systems keep the place airy and light, but head there after nightfall to see the market in all its glory – it tends to stay open until around 1am. When you eventually drag yourself away, likely with an armful of wares, you’ll have a better grasp of the ancient heritage of Saudi’s fascinating Eastern Province.