Khan el-Khalili (Arabic: خان الخليلي) is a famous bazaar and souq (or souk) in the historic center of Cairo, Egypt. Established as a center of trade in the Mamluk era and named for one of its several historic caravanserais, the bazaar district has since become one of Cairo’s main attractions for tourists and Egyptians alike. It is also home to many Egyptian artisans and workshops involved in the production of traditional crafts and souvenirs.
Cairo itself was originally founded in 969 CE as a royal city and capital for the Fatimid Caliphate, an empire which by then covered much of North Africa, parts of the Levant and Hijaz. Jawhar Al-Siqilli, the general who had just conquered Egypt for the Fatimids, was ordered to construct a great palace complex to house the caliphs, their household, and the state’s institutions. Two palaces were eventually completed: an eastern one (the largest of the two) and a western one, between which was an important plaza known as Bayn al-Qasrayn (“Between the Two Palaces”). The site of Khan el-Khalili today was originally the southern end of the eastern Great Fatimid Palace, as well as the location of the burial site of the Fatimid caliphs: a mausoleum known as Turbat az-Za’faraan (“the Saffron Tomb”).: 57 Also located here was a lesser palace known as al-Qasr al-Nafi’i (today the site of the 19th-century Wikala of Sulayman Agha al-Silahdar).
Under the Fatimids, Cairo was a palace-city which was closed to the common people and inhabited only by the Caliph’s family, state officials, army regiments, and other people necessary to the operation of the regime and its city. The first attempts to open the city to merchants and other outsiders took place in the later Fatimid period, on the initiative of powerful viziers. Between 1087 and 1092, Badr al-Gamali, the vizier under Caliph al-Mustansir, undertook the task of enlarging the city and building the stone walls and gates that still partly exist today. At the same time he also opened the city to the common people, but the decision was quickly reversed. Between 1121 and 1125, al-Ma’mun al-Bata’ihi, vizier under Caliph al-Amir, undertook many reforms and construction projects, including the creation of a mint, the Dar al-Darb, and of a customs house for foreign merchants, known as the Dar al-Wikala, at a central location not far from the current site of the Madrasa of al-Ashraf Barsbay (15th century). This introduced foreign trade into the heart of the city for the first time.: 199 (vol. II)