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A souq or souk (Arabic: سوق, Hebrew: שוק sūq, also spelled shooq, soq, souk, esouk, suk, sooq, souq, or suq) is an open-air marketplace or commercial quarter in middle eastern and north african city.
A souq or souk entails the concept of a free market where vendors can command the going market price for their products. The term is often used to designate the market in any middle eastern, Arabized or Muslim city, but in modern times it appears in Western cities too. It may also refer to the weekly market in some smaller towns where neutrality from tribal conflicts would be declared to permit the exchange of surplus goods. In Modern Standard Arabic the term refers to markets in both the physical sense and the abstract economic sense (e.g., an Arab would speak of the souq in the old city as well as the souq for oil, and would call the concept of the free market السوق الحرّ as-sūq al-ḥurr).
A souq is an open-air marketplace. Historically, souqs were held outside of cities in the location where a caravan loaded with goods would stop and merchants would display their goods for sale. Souqs were held when there was a caravan or more available. At that time, souqs were more than just a market to buy and sell goods; they were also major festivals and many cultural and social activities took place in them.
Later, due to the importance of the marketplace and the growth of cities, the locations of souqs shifted to urban centers. Types of souqs that originated from this are:
A seasonal souq is held at a set time, yearly, monthly or weekly. The oldest type is annually which usually included more activities than others and was held outside cities. For example, Souq Ukadh used to be held in pre-Islamic times in an area between Mecca and Ta’if during the month of Dhu al-Qi'dah every year. While many products were sold, it was more famous for poetry competitions. Some of the most prominent poets were judges such as Al-Khansa and Al-Nabigha. An example of an Islamic annual souq is Al Mirbid just outside Basra which is also famed for its poetry competitions in addition to its storytelling activities.
Changes in political, economic and social styles have left only the small seasonal souqs outside villages and small towns, selling livestock and agricultural products.
Weekly markets have continued to function throughout the Arab world. Most of them are named from the day of the week when they were held. They usually have open spaces specifically designated for them inside cities. Examples of surviving markets are the Wednesday Market in Amman that specializes in the sale of used products, the Ghazl market held every Friday in Baghdad that specializes in pets; and the Fina’ Market in Marrakech that offers performances such as singing, music, acrobats and circus activities.
These are far more common but much less famous as they focus on the commercial activity and do not have much interest in entertainment. Until the Umayyad era, those markets were only an open space where the merchants would bring in their movable stands during the day and remove them during the night; no one had a specific right to a spot in the market and it was usually first-come first-serve. During the Umayyad era the governments started leasing the land to the merchants and then selling them. The merchants then began to build shops on those small lots to store their goods during the night. That is when the Arab traditional experience of a souq evolved.
The souqs are traditionally specialized due to planning constraints at the beginning. The souq is divided into small souqs, each usually housed in a few narrow streets and named after the product it specialized in such as the gold souq, the fabric souq, the spice souq, the leather souq, the copy souq (for books)..etc. At the same time they were all collectively called a souq and assigned their individual name.
Though each neighbourhood within the city would have a local Souq selling food and other essentials, the main souq was one of the central structures of a large city. A central marketplace, it was where textiles, jewellery, spices, wooden sculptures and other valuable goods as well as the money changers were arranged in a line.
A quadrilateral of stone-vaulted streets parallel to or crossing each other or a tight mass of buildings too packed together for roads to intersect them.
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The workshops were further away from this centre of exchange as were the main residential quarters – though the wealthier merchants or scholars might live within the centre of the city.
The souq was a level of municipal administration. The Muhtasib was responsible for supervising business practices and collecting taxes for a given suq while the Arif are the overseers for a specific trade.
In a souq, the final price of an item is reached by bargaining with the shopkeeper. Traders of a given commodity would all sell in the same souq, thus ensuring a competitive market. In some African countries the souq was a place where people could come and talk, or sit down to tell stories.
Square of a souq in Marrakech, before owners open their stall
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