Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Grand Bazaar

I’ve never been much of a shopper and never lasted long in a mall. Within an hour my eyes would glaze over; after all, Macy’s, JCPenny, and Nordstrom offered the same merchandise, slightly varied by quality, style, and price. Shopping has never been my favorite activity.

Until I found myself in Kapali Çarsi – Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

Many guide books claim the Grand Bazaar to be the world's largest covered structure, with over 75 acres of indoor space. In comparison, the Pentagon in Washington DC boasts only 34 acres and the Giza Pyramid in Egypt occupies a meager 13. Kapali Çarsi, or Covered Market, is the world's oldest shopping mall, with over 25,000 merchants, 4,400 shops, 3000 firms, 2,200 rooms, 40 hans (inns), 22 gates, over a dozen restaurants, 4 fountains, 2 mosques, 1 police stations, and 1 old Hamam (bathhouse), all co-existing in 65 covered streets, each of which has a name and is reflected on a map. And while being an absolute shopper’s paradise, it is also a token of human creativity. Everything is bought and sold in the Grand Bazaar, starting from the unlimited variety of the Turkish carpets to glazed tiles and pottery, and from unique authentic jewelry to leather apparel of all styles, sizes, and colors.

Originally founded by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, who took Constantinople in 1453 and made it the new capital city of the Turkish Empire, the bazaar grew during the reign of Suleyman the First and became a small city in itself. Since then, it has survived three earthquakes and close to a dozen fires, each time rising from the ashes like an Ottoman Phoenix. Kapali Çarsi consists of several bedestens (buildings) and multipl hans (inns where specific type of products are sold and often made right on premises.) The best and most expensive jewelry was and still is traded in the Old Bedesten, the first bazaar building raised, while the Sandal Bedesten, a lofty 16th century hall of twenty domes resting on twelve stone piers, held various auctions in the past. In 1880, the bazaar also included 16 designated drinking-water posts, 8 wells for the use of fire-pumps, 10 “houses of prayer," 12 “strongrooms” for “keeping objects of high value,” and even a school. To this day, members of the same trade set up their shops in the same area, which is still reflected in the street names: tassel makers, purse makers, belt makers, skullcap makers, and so on.

I fell in love with Kapali Çarsi the first time I visited Turkey. I admired its churning sea of humanity, with merchandise as diverse as life itself, and its traders as warm and welcoming as only Middle Easterners can be. They would bargain with you to death, but they would let you leave their shop with a smile as long you would smile back – even if you didn’t buy a thing. And they would treat you as royalty if you purchased a nugget. They would order you coffee and tea on the house while you browsed through their merchandise, they would tell you their family stories and listen to yours while you made your choices and they would custom-make your item while you waited sipping your tea. It was unforgettable and somehow inspiring, and as much as I resisted the tourist’s urge to go on a shopping spree, I had to – for the sake of memories.

I’ve known women who wanted to be taken to famous restaurants and designer boutiques on their birthdays and anniversaries. When I was about to cross into yet another decade, I decided I wanted to go shopping in the Grand Bazaar on my birthday. That, of course, meant we had to travel to Turkey again, but it was worth the trip.

It still remains my birthday wish, year after year. Alas, it doesn't get granted every time I get older.


  1. I love bazaars (and like you, Lina, I hate shopping). My goal in life is to visit as many as I can before I die. This one is definitely on my bazaar bucket list. Your description of it reminds me of the Isfahan Bazaar, which is smaller, but also has a lot of artisans. And you can watch them at work.

  2. Oh! Oh! Oh! I want to be there so badly! My favorite city in the world, and the Grand Bazaar is everything you say it is. Perhaps on my next birthday?