What is a Souk?

Mary McMahon

In the Arab world, a souk is a market, which may be held in a designated commercial quarter, or in an open-air location. Souks are an important part of life in the Middle East and their merchants carry a wide assortment of products from rugs to vegetables. Many people who visit Middle Eastern countries enjoy taking trips to their souks to soak in the local culture and purchase artisanal items like wood carvings, rugs, and jewelry. The term “souk” is also sometimes used to describe a specific stall or cart in a market.

Souks are marketplaces found throughout the Middle East.
Souks are marketplaces found throughout the Middle East.

Markets have been around in the Middle East for thousands of years. Most major souks probably started as informal meetings of merchants in open spaces, slowly developing into a more formal market. Ancient souks may be partially enclosed, with features specifically designed to facilitate commerce, like alcoves to set up stalls, or even small storefronts which can be closed and locked for the day. Some souks also have partial ceilings to protect shoppers from the elements, along with narrow streets which do not permit cars, making the souk very pedestrian friendly.

Jewelry may be purchased at a souk.
Jewelry may be purchased at a souk.

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The commercial quarter is usually bordered by workshops, with residences at a further remove. Everything from glassware to meat can be found at a souk, with merchants coming to the market from the surrounding area to sell their products. Many countries in the Middle East have long artistic traditions, and beautiful examples of artwork in all shapes and sizes can be found in these markets, often at very reasonable prices.

By tradition, shoppers at a souk must negotiate with shop-keepers to reach a price. Negotiations may be protracted, which can be confusing for Western visitors, who are used to paying the marked price and moving on. Especially for large items like carpets, customers are expected to sit down with the shopkeeper, and they will be offered tea and snacks while the price is discussed. Price negotiations may also include a fee for storage or delivery. The first deal of the day is supposed to be especially lucky, and it sets the tone for the rest of the shopkeeper's business day.

If you happen to be traveling in the Middle East and you have the opportunity to visit a souk, you should certainly do so. Some regions have particularly famous markets with a long and interesting history, and a souk is a great place to pick up mementos of your trip. You may want to find a local guide to ensure that you are educated about local cultural norms so that you have an enjoyable day at the market.

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