Istanbul’s Bizarre Big Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar Kapali Carsi is older – and grander – than 1001 nights
Istanbul is a strange mix of the old and the new, the poor and the rich, culture and kitsch, east and west. Modern, filthy-rich villa districts neighbor slum areas packed with multitudes of struggling, Anatolian migrants. This cultural melting pot on the Bosporus, quite literally a bridge between Asia and Europe, has always been seen as a place where worlds collide and the masses meet. This modern metropolis of 15 million people has served as a center of world trade since the Byzantine era, when its countless luxury goods were in demand everywhere. And today? What results when these cultural collisions between east and west take place? Trade, as usual.
And where does one trade? There where the Turks enjoy trading the best; in the old city of Istanbul, of course. The Grand Bazaar, or the Covered Bazaar as it is also called, is a 550 year old shopping center with a more exotic variety of goods than any of its modern counterparts could ever hope to offer. It is still the commercial center of old Istanbul.
The Kapali Carsi is a giant labyrinth of narrow walkways, 64 streets, 22 entrance gates and over 4000 shops. Parts of the bazaar are covered by beautifully painted cupolas which were constructed by the conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II, long ago in 1461. It’s noisy here, of course. Boys rush back and forth selling black tea and sweet mocha, the shopkeepers advertise their wares with their overworked, hoarse voices and wheelbarrows stacked high with Turkish and Persian carpets negotiate their way through the endless crowds. One quickly gets the impression of having landed in a 1940s Hollywood film, but take a careful look around you and be assured. No, this is the real thing. You’re not at Universal Studios, you are in Old Bedesten.
Many of these shopkeeper families have been bargaining here for over five generations and many of their shops have become institutions in and of themselves. The traders here traditionally congregate in a particular area of the bazaar, depending upon the type of goods they sell. Woolen goods, for example – like the bath towels used for the Hamam, the traditional Turkish bath – are found at one end of the Bazaar. Then one moves on to the clothing area. All types of clothing is available, everything from leather and suede jackets to designer shoe ware. From here you can continue on to the spices. Enjoy the aromas of cinnamon, saffron, mint or thyme. From here you might move on to smaller items like soaps and candles, hand-painted ceramics, Paschmina scarves, porcelain, cutlery, lamps, tiles, antiques and water pipes. And it goes on and on and on.
The most popular items by far, however, are the gold and silver jewelry shops found in the Kalpakcilar and Terzi Basi Streets. But be warned: You might need to bring a pair of sunglasses when you come to browse here – the shopkeepers do their best to blind you with their dazzling offerings. These shops are just as popular with the Turks as they are with the foreign visitors and it is not uncommon to witness entire busloads of visitors being hurried along to bargain from one jewelry shop to the next by experienced insiders.
The Grand Bazaar has more to offer than none-stop shopping, too. Supply and demand have also found expression in the huge selection of restaurants that are available here. Cafés, tea shops, currency exchange booths, post offices, police stations and even a number of banks are always somewhere near around the next corner. And speaking of police stations, security has become a big concern here in recent years, of course. Security personnel are ever-present, as are the surveillance cameras.
You will eventually have to leave the labyrinth, two or three hours here are enough to exhaust anyone. But you will live happy, despite your exhaustion, and a souvenir or two richer for your troubles. The Bazaar Kapali Carsi, like Istanbul itself, honors and preserves the legacy of its great past while continuing down the path of its modern future.
It’s a magnificent city and the Grand Bazaar is a magnificent marketplace.