Shopping Tales: Crystals and Alabaster

I do have to admit, the shopping here (when stores are open) can be really good. I’ve been on two designated trips to “factories” (really just showrooms) but both were really exceptional.

A few months ago I took a trip to the Asfour Crystal Factory. We didn’t actually see anything being manufactured, but we were let loose for a few hours in their enormous showroom.

Their primary products are chandeliers. Big, ornate, shining, shimmering, glimmering, awe-inspiring chandeliers. They have hundreds on display and apparently can also make them to order (again, keep in mind previously learned rules for custom ordering in Cairo). Standing under these behemoths, and pushing aside the fear of being crushed, you could almost imagine being Belle in the arms of the Beast, twirling around the ballroom (or you could imagine standing in the lobby of any 5-star hotel in New York, but the former is more fun).

In addition to chandeliers and sconces, they also had lots of chachka, some jewelry, tiaras (I think it would compete with my safari hat), statues, etc. They also had some stunning pieces on display like this Pharaonic chair made out of crystals. I didn’t dare ask how much it was, or even if it was for sale.

Apparently a lot of expats take advantage of these opportunities and buy a chandelier for their home in the states. Since we don’t really have a home, have no idea what it would look like if we did, and I’m just not sure that we’re the crystal chandelier types, I opted to just get some little animals and a pair of earrings. But it’s a relief to know that if the urge to get a 500-pound chandelier strikes, we now know where to go.


Just yesterday I toured a local alabaster factory and showroom. I had been, several times, to their store on Road 9 in Maadi and had gotten quite chatty with the proprietor there. Ron and I have been mulling over the idea of getting an alabaster hanging lamp for our dining room (see, I guess we’re more “rock” people than “crystal” people), and at one point months ago we had attempted to go out to the factory in Moqattam. Instead, we drove around for hours, just getting lost and unfortunately not really finding anything of interest (usually we do, which makes getting lost all the more fun – this trip just made us feel lost and defeated).

I had since seen the factory sign when we went to the orphanage – we must have passed it two or three times when we were getting lost and never saw the sign – and in this case there really was a sign! Anyway, the embassy arranged a tour so I went.

It was really fascinating. They get the alabaster stone from Upper Egypt (which is really southern Egypt – wikipedia explains it well, “…the terminology derives from the flow of the Nile from the highlands of East Africa (upstream) to the Mediterranean Sea (downstream).”). They bring huge blocks to Moqattam where they then break them down further using dynamite and chisels (what fun neighbors to have). You can see the pink tones even in the uncut chunks.

Also along here is a limestone quarry and we were able to peer over and see how they methodically cut out chunks. The quarry was so deep we could not see to the bottom. I didn’t even want to ask how people got in and out, though I did see ropes hanging down (yikes).

Next, he took us into the actual factory, which was made up of two rooms. The first room had two huge stone cutters. They were incredibly loud and rather ferocious. You can see that OSHA might have some very valid concerns here. Next door there were several machines in a row that were obviously used to cut down the pieces to their desired shape, be they vases, bowls, etc. The noise and dust were incredible, with everything being coated in fine white powder, like confectioners sugar, but most likely more harmful. Even though this is Cairo, where entire families ride on one motorbike (mom riding side-saddle in back casually holding baby on her lap), I was a little surprised that no face masks or protective eye or ear gear was being used.

Finally, we were let loose in the showroom. The store in Maadi is just a little room, but this showroom was much larger. There are essentially two types of alabaster, machine-made (like we saw, which results in very smooth cream/white coloring) and hand-made, which is darker and looks like it was found in some ancient remains (see photo). I did partake of some items, getting some Christmas shopping out of the way, and promised that I’d bring my husband back so we could look at the lighting options.