Glass making was a craft raised to an art during the Mamluke period. Nowadays, there are only a few people left doing the work, and their products are limited to simple tableware. Made with recycled glass bought from the rubbish collectors and mixed to produce browns, white, and greens, most of the pieces are bubbled and fragile but quite charming. Take care when you pack them or they won't survive the trip home. On the other hand, you may well be handed a lot finer glass (usually little perfume bottles), along with a tale about its being the genuine handmade Egyptian article; this is not true.
Egypt's not a great place for a carpet aficionado to be digging around for the real deal, but the carpet factories around the city produce some fine stuff from imported New Zealand wool if you just want a souvenir to throw on the floor back home. You'll see three basic types. First, there are copies of traditional Afghani, Iranian, and Turkish patterns; these can be of reasonable quality, but be aware that they are not real, so don't be bilked into paying real prices for them. Then there are cheesy scenes, usually from a generic Mamluke-esque period past involving layabouts, ruffians, and farm animals. Finally, you'll see flat-weave rugs done in a deliberately "naïve" style, usually depicting a Nilotic scene. Just about the only "genuine" rugs and wall hangings that you'll see are the Bedouin-woven camel's-hair blankets and rugs; designs are extremely simple, often no more than strips of beige or brown, and the texture is very hard.
The production of little inlaid boxes, once the field of highly skilled artisans, has been raised to a semi-industrial level in Cairo to serve the tourist trade. All around Khan al Khalili the Al Hussein district is dense with shops employing a handful of workers churning out piles of them. That said, many are beautiful and they certainly have a long heritage. Check carefully when you buy to make sure that what you think is bone or mother-of-pearl inlay is not actually plastic, however.
When you go shopping in Cairo, keep in mind that there are several different markets for jewelry in Egypt, each with its own clientele and price range. The biggest local market is for fairly simple gold jewelry that is bought by, or for, women as a secure and portable saving instrument that they can take into (and out of) marriage. These are the pieces that you will see being sold by the gram in local jewelry stores around town. Then there are the smaller, and considerably higher-end, boutique markets in Egyptian jewelry by local designers such as Azza Fahmy and Suzanne al Masry, who are gaining an international reputation for work that draws on and modernizes traditional forms. Their pieces are sold through discreet stores in Cairo to an international clientele. Then again, the ancient Egyptians produced some startlingly refined gold work that included colorful enamels and inlays, and in the tourist souks, such as Khan al Khalili, you'll find some first-rate imitations of these. Like the simpler gold work for the local market, these pieces are sold by the gram and should be stamped with the purity of the gold. Finally, there is some very attractive Bedouin jewelry for sale. Don't believe what you're told about age -- the old stuff has pretty well all been bought up now -- or about the purity of the metal, but appreciate the designs.
Many of the souks and handicraft stores in Egypt sell this traditional appliqué work. Historically it was used to decorate tents used in marriage and festival gatherings, but it is now made for the tourist market in the form of cushion covers, bedspreads, and quilts. The source of much of the work is the Tentmakers' Souk across from Bab Zuweila. Traditional and nontraditional designs are fairly easy to pick out. Traditional colors include vivid red, yellow, green, blue, black, and white. Geometric Islamic designs have been used for centuries, while something with Nefertiti's head on it was probably made purely for the tourist market. Examine the stitching carefully if the difference between machine and handwork is important to you: Hand-stitching may be impressively regular, but keep in mind that the length of the thread is limited by the length of the sewer's arm; look for knots, not necessarily irregular work.
Keep a sharp eye out in Cairo, and you'll see these screens made of turned wood covering windows and dividing rooms. Traditionally, it was used as part of a natural air-conditioning system: The wood screen at once blocked the heat of the sun and allowed the breeze to flow through the window to an unglazed pottery container of water. The water seeping out through the walls of the vessel and evaporating kept the contents cool and lowered the temperature of the air that then blew through the house. Though its usefulness has obviously dwindled with the introduction of glass windows, it continues to be made into screens, picture frames, trays, and a variety of other decorative items. If you think you can fit it in your bag, it makes a great souvenir.
This is one trade that seems to have been practiced uninterruptedly since Pharaonic times in Egypt. There is a great show made of the industry in Khan al Khalili, with artisans banging away at huge copper trays etched with scenes of Cairo life. You will also find a huge variety of water jugs and coffee pots, lamps, braziers, candlesticks, and vases for sale. Exercise caution if you're thinking of buying anything "antique": The Cairene expertise in metalwork is matched by their expertise in aging metal to make something produced the week before look as though it's been in the family since Sultan Hassan the Mad was Caliph.
Apparently the ancient art of making this course, paper-like material out of pounded stems was lost until it was revived by Hassan Ragab in the 1960s. It is now for sale almost everywhere you look in downtown Cairo and Luxor, painted with an amazing variety of scenes copied, with greater and lesser verisimilitude, from the walls of temples and tombs. Easy and light to pack or ship, attractive and reasonably priced, these make great gifts and souvenirs. Beware the banana leaf imitations; these are coarser, darker, less supple, and a lot cheaper.
Perfume & Incense
This is an industry that goes back to the days of the Pharaohs but is now unfortunately best avoided unless you really know your stuff. Someone will inevitably try to usher you into a store with hundreds of rows of dusty little bottles lining the walls. There you will drink tea and hear the story of the sun-drenched herb garden owned by the shopkeeper's grandfather. While granddad may have had a garden, the products on the shelf are more likely to be cheap imports thinned out with glycerin.
A better bet is the incense that's sold in any spice store or souk. Though you can find modern manufactured sticks, the more traditional kind, which are sprinkled on hot coals, make for more interesting souvenirs. These are made of a mix of myrrh, frankincense, sandalwood, and ambergris and smell absolutely delicious.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.