Revisiting the Imbaba Camel Market, Africa’s largest


The first time I visited the Friday camel market in Imbaba on the outskirts of Cairo was shortly after I began my career as a news photographer in 1984. It was a natural attraction for a young photographer due to the market’s vibrant atmosphere and its vivid visuals.  The camel market was also one of the few crowded public places in Egypt where one could take pictures without being hassled. Many Egyptians were sensitive about foreigners photographing scenes which, in their mind, depicted Egypt as a backward country. However, that did not seem to be a concern among the camel traders who gathered in Imbaba on Fridays. They tolerated photographers’ presence allowing them to move freely and document a way of life that, unbeknownst to them, would soon disappear.

The Taka mountains rise up from the fertile plain near the eastern Sudanese town of Kassala. A camel caravan heads northward from Kassala in the early evening. Phot. Norbert Schiller

At the time, the Imbaba market was the largest camel market in Africa. The camels came mostly in large overland caravans from Sudan, specifically from Kassala in the east, Omdurman just north of the capital Khartoum, and el Fasher in the west. The most famous and oldest overland route was called Darb al-Arba’in, or the 40-day route, which traditionally started in el Fasher and continued north across the open desert following wells and oases along the way until reaching Assiut in Upper Egypt.  In modern times, camel caravans making the overland journey stayed closer to the Nile for a more reliable source of water and ended in Daraw, just north of Aswan. The camels were then loaded onto flatbed trucks and driven the last 900 kilometers to Imbaba. Highly prized camels from Somalia were put on ships to Suez.

The Imbaba market, which was reserved for camel trading on Fridays, also operated as a livestock market the rest of the week. Among the farm animals sold there were water buffalos, cows, horses, donkeys, sheep and goats.

One-hundred years of the Imbaba Camel Market. The earliest know photograph of the Imbaba Camel Market was taken in the 1980s (L). The second image (C) is from the 1940s and the last photo  (R) from the mid 1980s. Phot.(L & C) J.P. Sebah and unknown photographer, Norbert Schiller Collection. Phot.(R) Norbert Schiller

Due to Cairo’s increasing population growth and the demand for land, the Imbaba animal market was closed down in 1995 and relocated to the village of Birqash, 35 kilometers northwest of Cairo. Although I could not find any sources revealing how long the market had existed at this same location, I estimate that it must have been there for hundreds of years if not longer. As for the camel caravans, they face an uncertain fate in light of the continued fight between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

While researching the Imbaba Camel Market I came across an excellent piece in the November/December 1989 issue of Aramco World Magazine written by Akram Khater who was then working on his doctorate in Middle Eastern history and living in Egypt. His story brought back vivid memories of the Imbaba Camel Market exactly as I recalled it.

With Khater’s permission I am republishing his text along with my black and white images that I took during that same period. The article also includes historical photographs from my personal collection dating back to late 19th century when the first known photographs of the Imbaba market were taken.



Revisiting the Imbaba Camel Market, Africa’s Largest

Revisiting the Imbaba Camel Market, Africa's Largest

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