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The History & Heritage of the Souk

The souk is the beating heart of many ancient cities from the Near East to North Africa. Souk - an Arabic term translating as the marketplace, is the cradle of traditional urban culture in Arab-Islamic societies.

We explore the historical & cultural significance of the souk…

Although familiar to visitors of Middle Eastern cities as tourist attractions that brim with local goods & souvenirs, the origins of the souk trace its way back to the evolution of Islamic societies of the past and the burgeoning of the region as commercial centers of trade.

The traditional souk was not just a market but an economic institution, a communication network & a way of life. Its open & multifunctional character makes welcoming to people from all walks of life who exchange news, information & opinions about the affairs of the time.

There is a lack of archaeological documentation on the development of souks, but the first records tell of its early existence in 3000 BC, suggesting that they originated in Persia This Caravanserai, is defined by historians as an Anatolian Seljuk monument, 13th Century CE.

The history of the souk is interwoven with the history of the Arab people due to their mercantile nature.

The Arabs of the time were well-travelled, journeying to Africa, Europe and the Far East to trade their goods and sell their wares. The trade routes that existed between these regions hence bore the exchange and market stations that gave birth to the first souks.

Before the 10th century, souks were mostly identified as caravanserais & were dotted on the outskirts of the city. Caravanserais were roadside inns that catered to the throve of merchants, traders, pilgrims & travelers that journeyed across the network of trade routes.

Vezir Han, Çemberlitaş, Istanbul, 1937 One of the many hans (caravanserais) in the Bazaar District, this huge structure was built between 1659 and 1660.

With the expansion of the Muslim empire, a more settled, sedentary lifestyle succeeded the nomadic culture of the Arabs. In turn, commerce became a necessity & the souk moved inwards into the city & solidified its place as the backbone that extended into traditional urban life.

As these markets grew to thrive, artisans & craftsmen collected themselves in and around the souks to benefit from the active stream of visitors. Souks grew to hold entire towns, encompassing mosques, schools, public baths, factories, offices & retail facilities.

With the dawn of Islam, souks began to adopt a structure that made them unique from markets elsewhere. Souks across the Muslim world share similarities in architectural configuration, social networks, proportion parameters & functions in their various traditional urban spaces.

While souks, like Souk Okaz, existed in pre-Islamic times, most of the souks in the Middle East & North Africa took shape during Islamic rule. For example, it was during the Umayyad era that the tradition of having covered markets within the Arab-Muslim city began.

A prime feature of the souk was the Friday mosque that could gather large numbers of people. Whether it was a linear pathway extending from the mosque or a large enclosure in which the mosque was central the souk made it a focal point of all its interactions Souk, Abu Dhabi.

Business transactions and social conduits in the souk also followed a religious code of ethics, reflecting how economy and religion intersected in its development.

The world’s oldest and largest souks continue to attract throngs of people daily, such as the Grand Bazaar of Isfahan in Iran and the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul.

The souks of Marrakech are the largest you can find from all four corners of Morocco and it’s astonishing to think that for a thousand years the district has acted as a thriving central hub for trade and commerce without very little changing at all.

Although souks have their core similarities, they also have distinct local differences reflecting the architecture, crafts and produce of the area. This is souk Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia.

This photo was taken 112 years ago, in a souk in the Tunis medina, Tunisia. This autochrome by Gervais-Courtellemont is original colour from 1909. It's not colourised.

Souks are full of character of the city, with not just people but also lots of local cats. A cat in a souk, Morocco.


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