SOUK AL-ZAL: THINGS TO BUY IN RIYADH’S OLDEST MARKET
Riyadh's Souk Al-Zal is the oldest and the most visited souk in town. A huge contrast to the glitz and neon of the modern skyscrapers and megamalls, this market offers a glimpse of traditional Saudi culture.
The history of the market dates back to 1901 when it was a premier location for crafts, traditional outfits, carpets and footwear. The market continues to sell these items today, and one can find anything from antiques and artifacts to incense burners, ancient armor and swords over here.
Inside the souk, merchants relax in chairs, chatting to one another across the narrow walkways. It's a laid back atmosphere and the salesmen aren't pushy. They generally speak decent English, are used to foreign visitors and are happy to showcase the traditional items for sale. Every Friday and Saturday, there are live antiques auctions following the asr (afternoon) prayers when the men dressed in thobes sit in circles watching the auctioneer calling out bids for items displayed on a rug on the ground.
Here are some ideas of what to buy in Souk Al-Zal.
THINGS TO BUY AT SOUK AL-ZAL
ARABIAN COFFEE PARAPHERNALIA
The Arabian coffee pots known as dallah, have been used for centuries to brew kahwa, aromatic Arabic coffee.
The lightly roasted green coffee beans and spices like cardamom, cloves and saffron (which gives the coffee a golden color), are first ground into a powder using a mortar a pestle, najeer, and then added to boiling water.
The coffee is served in small demi-tasse cups without handles, called finjaan. The coffee is always served unsweetened alongside with dates.
You can find all of these coffee making items at souk Al-Zal.
INCENSE BURNERS (MABKHARA) AND OUD PERFUME
Wood and metal incense burners, decorated with brass tacks, colored metal, and mirrors, are used to burn scented wood chips to release fragrant smoke--all available at the souk. The wood chips, or bakhoor, have been submerged in perfumed oil and mixed with sandalwood and other essential oils.
There are many perfumes sold at the souk from rose to oud, but oud is the most expensive one. It is one of the most desirable perfume ingredients in the world with an intoxicating musky scent. Oud is difficult to produce, so don’t expect a bargain (unless it is synthetic one).
The traditional Saudi doors were painted with bold geometric patterns and bright colors while the outer walls of these buildings were usually blank and uninviting. The point of entrance to the private world of the family provided a glimpse of the richness that was found behind the thick walls. Nowadays, these doors are often used as wall decorations.
CEREMONIAL SWORDS (SAIF, JAMBIYA)
The ceremonial swords were used for the ardha, a tradtional Saudi sword dance. You’ll find shorter, curved jambiya daggers and longer, saif swords at the market.
TRADITIONAL SAUDI MEN'S CLOTHING
One can get the entire Saudi men's outfit at Souk Al-Zal. The bisht, a full-lenght wool or camel hair outer cloak decorated with golden thread is worn by men to formal occasions.
The ankle-length white shirt of wool or cotton, known as a thawb or thobe, is the everyday outfit. The red and white checkered scarf, or ghutra, is folded diagonally over the crochet cap, kufiyyah, and held in place with a hand made cord igal. You can see the igals made in the souk, and sometimes the bisht taylor can be seen working there as well. For women's abayas, visit nearby Deira souk behind Fort Masmak.
HAND MADE SANDALS
You can see these camel-leather sandals made in the souk, and you can see them worn by Saudi men everywhere.
HAND WOVEN CARPETS
The word ‘Zal’ means carpet and hand-made carpets with geometric patterns, rich colors, and high-quality threads from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kashmir are always great buys in Souk Al-Zal. The Iranian and Kashmiri rugs are the highest quality made of silk or silk and wool mix, while the Saudi ones are usually made of wool.
Many Saudi houses have sitting areas called majilis, decorated with cushions and rugs to sit on the floor, just like in Bedouin tents. Many also have a coffee making area with a fireplace on the floor. These cushions are sold at Souk al Zal at a very reasonable price. Use them in your home or to sit on at a picnic.
TRADITIONAL SILVER JEWELRY
Traditional Saudi jewelry was mostly made of silver, although gold was also used. Jewelers added stones such as turquoise and amber from the kingdom’s rich mines, and decorated the jewelry with tiny bells, coins and chains. The designs have intricate patterns of geometric shapes, leaves, crescents and flowers. If rustic jewelry is not your style, then you can have it framed and display it as a wall decoration.
Visit the Thumairi souk across the street to find gold stores. You can find tips for buying gold jewelry here: Who Doesn’t Love Gold? Tips for Buying Gold in Saudi Arabia
WHERE IS SOUK AL-ZAL LOCATED
Located in the popular Ad Dirah (Dirah, Deerah) neighborhood in south Riyadh, Souk al Zal is just steps away from Fort Masmak museum and the so-called Chop Chop Square were public executions used to take place...not that long time ago. Fort Masmak is the site where in 1902, a young Ibn Saud, or Abdulaziz as he is known in the Arab world, reconquered his family's ancestral home city of Riyadh and reinstalled the reign of the Al-Saud family. Riyadh became the capital of the third Saudi Arabian Kingdom, a position it continues to hold today.