Cairo’s Darb El-Barabra

The History of a Present-Day Center for Joyful Shopping
Shops at the alley sell gilded chandeliers, home decorations, and party necessities. (Photo by Salwa Samir)
Shops at the alley sell gilded chandeliers, home decorations, and party necessities. (Photo by Salwa Samir)
Alleys branching from the Darb are selling the sebou (baby shower) supplies as well. (Photo by Salwa Samir)

When an Egyptian bride thinks about preparing her new home, or someone thinks about buying the necessaries for the celebration for a newborn, or buying any piece of home decor, whether old or modern, they think of one destination: Darb el-Barabra, one of the well-known popular markets in Egypt for happy occasions.

The Darb (alley) el-Barbara is located near Attaba, a vital square in the heart of the Egyptian capital. It dates back to the Fatimid era. When the Fatimids came from Maghreb and conquered Egypt in 969, they established the city of Cairo north of Fustat as their capital, Gamal Abdel Rahim, Professor of Archaeology and Islamic Arts, Faculty of Archaeology, told Majalla.

“Some of their armies were Berbers. When Jawhar, the leader of the conquest of Egypt, for the 4th Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah, built Cairo he surrounded it with a wall made of clay, to be inhabited only by the caliphs,” he said.

“The areas outside the wall were inhabited by the rest of the population. The Darb el-Barabra was inhabited by his army of Berbers, who were called Barabra by Egyptians,” he added.

In 1092, Badr al-Jamali, the vizier (high ranking advisor) for the Fatimid Caliphate under Caliph al-Mustansir, reconstructed the enclosure with stronger brick walls and monumental stone gates to strengthen the points of entry. Parts of this wall and some of its famous gates remain like Bab Al-Nasr, Bab Al-Futuh and Bab Zuweila.

Prof. Abdel Rahim added that when Saladin conquered the Fatimids and overthrew their dynasty in 1171, he demolished the wall and let people live wherever they wanted as there was no one place specified for rulers and others for commoners. He built a citadel which became the residence of rulers from the 13th to the 19th centuries.

“Thus Darb el-Barabra was just for Berbers to settle in. The trade appeared later in the Mamluk era and flourished in the Ottoman period from the 17th century until modern days,” Abdel Rahim said.

Once entering the alley your eyes will be caught by the glittering and gilded chandeliers hanging at the entrances of the shops and in the small alleys that branch out from it. Chandeliers are made of different materials including crystal, whether original of pure glass or those made of plastic.

It is noteworthy that chandeliers have a deep root in Egyptian history, dating back to 5000 years. The Egyptians must have used some form of

hand-held torch, which is generally described as bunches of reeds or sticks soaked in a flammable liquid.

The earliest clay or stone lamps were shallow bowls in which a wick

floated in a pool of oil, later versions were hand-floated to

create a spout for the wick to rest in.

The ancient Egyptians made the wicks by twisting together the fiber

from flax plants. They had a limited types of vegetable oils available to use as fuel, primarily castor or linseed oil, as well as an animal fat source.

During the Ottoman period (from 1517 until 1867) the industry of chandeliers became more common as people used them in lighting their houses. They were made of many materials such as wood, brass, iron and tin sheets in addition to those made of stainless steel, copper, ceramics and more.

At Darb el-Barabra, there are also shops selling toys, plastic and natural plants as well as roses, sweets, candies and many items for decoration.

The variety in its goods prompts women who are about to get married to shop in Darb el-Barabra where everything regarding home decoration is available with affordable prices.

The darb and alleys branching from it are selling the sebou supplies as well. Sebou (baby shower) is a celebration marking seventh day after the birth of the newborn. This deep-rooted festival is ancient Egyptian as many murals during the New Kingdom (c.1550 BC–c.1069 BC) era depict similar steps of the celebration.

They sell sieves in which the infants are placed. It is a rounded tray with a bottom net originally used to separate flour from any impurities. But the sieves are well decorated and look like padded beds. They sell the blue-color sieve for families who have male infants, and the pink color for the female infants.

In the sebou, the mother takes the decorated sieve in which the infant sleeps and places it on the table or on the floor. Then the elder female of the family, usually the grandmother, sits beside and starts banging the copper pestle on a mortar many times, while uttering instructions to the baby like being dutiful to his/her parents.

The celebration also includes distributing small boxes full of candies, peanuts and popcorn to the attendees, also available at Darb el-Barabra. The small box contains a card with the name of the newborn and the date of birth written on it, and is tied with a satin bowknot with the name of the baby.

Darb el-Barabra also sells decorations for all kinds of parties, whether for a birthday or a graduation, even the balloons that say “Get Well Soon” if you are going to visit a patient.

There are also shops selling antique pieces of decor, the prices of which vary according to their value.

In addition, on the occasion of Prophet Mohamed's birthday (scheduled this year on October 7), the shops are filled with familiar toys for the celebration such as dolls made of sweets and others made of plastic at a cheap price and with a distinctive design. The same joyful atmosphere is felt during Ramadan, as most shops sell decorative lanterns and Ramadan-related toys.

Every night, Darb el-Barabra is illuminated by the lights of the chandeliers of its shops that you can see from a very far distance, as if the sun shines only there to attract visitors to its joyful atmosphere.

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