THE GRAND BAZAAR I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was with a bunch of other tourists, at a dead run, trying to keep up with Mike.
WITH MIKE IN THE GRAND BAZAAR
We charge at breakneck pace through a big arched gate, down a promenade lined with cheap fezzes and fake harem stuff, past all the gaudy scarves and baubles and Vegas gold. We run up through a forest of painted columns on a steep stone incline lined with underwear and carpet shops, Mike’s harem for the day of Americans, eager for exotica and bargains, all staying at Kybele, the hotel he runs with his family in Sultanahmet.
It’s a rare Turk who loves old stuff. In a country full of antiquities, modernity is prized. But Mike wears antique silver and scarves and jeans. The other merchants stare at him from their suits. The beaded pillbox hat throws them. ‘They don’t know the difference between Fundamentalist and Hippie,’ he snorts.
We land at tilting tables in the thick aroma of spiced meat and gaze up at the yellow arched ceilings. The Grand Bazaar was started by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461 and has been evolving ever since. It was the first mall and is still going strong. It has over three thousand shops. As many as 400,000 people pour daily through the dozens of arched entrances, but only four of them can fit in some of these shops where there are things like I’ve only seen in museum cases. After lunch we trot past many merchants. There are 26,000 people working here and they all want us to buy something.
They stare with amazed chagrin at the short bearded Turkish man in his quasi-Fundamentalist gear and his train of great big gorgeous American cows. All that money and they can’t get at it. Galvanized, they shriek, “Nize carpet! A sell you nize carpet! ” “Leather, Lady? Good leather! ” “Hey Lady! Dress! ” “Lady! Lady!” –holding up a pair of panties, making them dance– as we pant up the steep slope and turn left through an archway into another world of carpets and electrical appliances and high heels–high heels? — up a long staircase, across lumpy tarpaper roofs and up a final, very old stone flight of stairs, worn in the middle and cracked on the edges, past a sort of gatehouse where a young man mends shoes.
Small boys run up and down with round tin trays loaded with tulip glasses, full and empty. The entire Turkish buying ritual is flavored for me with this strong Turkish chai—made in a samovar and served scalding in a small glass. The little tulip glass is presented in a saucer shaped like a flower, with two or three cubes of sugar and a tiny tin spoon. If you don’t put the sugar into the tea, it melts and makes the bottom of the glass all sticky, so I’ve developed a taste for sweet tea.
At the top of the stairs is a maze of old hallways, some roofed and some catwalked through the open air. We’re at the top of the bazaar. On a roof overlooking a grapevined courtyard is a tent full of textiles.
It’s here that I buy Koran covers for my sketchbooks. Each cover was made by someone by hand, some caravan housewife or goatherd alone in the hills, pieced together from remnants and embroidered and lined, to cover a precious book.
There’s a shop up here full of brass: bowls and pots, old and new, and the scimitar-like crescents from the tops of mosques. There’s a shop full of dangling jingling jewelry, where they sell old silver ornaments by weight and your knees are jammed against your companion’s. I drink my chai and look out past hanging ceramic tent ornaments through a murky window at the cats slinking through sunbleached grass growing on the wall opposite. There’s a place where I find a pair of soft backless shoes, the kind with toes that point up, in glowing red leather.
Then down a narrow dingy hall to the very last shop: a closet with two dusty glass cases and some shelves. First chai, then out come small battered newspaper bundles. They could be anything. Last time it was a blackened bronze bracelet, pitted with age, grooved, with an opening just big enough for my wrist. I slid it on and it was mine. I imagined it on a wrist that turned black along with it. “It will clean itself from your body,” said the man through Mike. “I think maybe a toothbrush and some toothpaste,” I said. Mike was horrified. “You’ll ruin the patina!” he exclaimed, “No toothbrush! Just wash it when you wash your hands and it will turn to gold.” I haven’t taken it off much since I got it in Istanbul so long ago. It’s been in salt water and sun and sleep, sickness, love, heartbreak, and mayhem with me, and like everything else clotted and dark in my life it is slowly but unmistakably beginning to show the glint of gold.
KAPALICARSI: THE COVERED BAZAAR
Grand Bazaar is, in Turkish: Kapalicarsi, literally Covered Bazaar. In oldtime Istanbul, according to classic Islamic tradition, anything or anyone beautiful and precious was covered. Delightful houses were humble on the outside. Gardens hid behind walls. Women were veiled. Those Koran covers I buy for my sketchbooks follow the same priciple. This had everything to do with how the Bazaar evolved.
Women shoppers could not be in an enclosed, Western-type shop with a merchant. So the whole bazaar was enclosed. What a concept! All the precious things covered at once! The stalls were built into the walls of the streets, with wooden covers– divans– flipped up to display the goodies for sale, which were heaped and hung there with no glass barrier: a feast of color and texture to dazzle and delight. The women could bargain out in the open, protected from weather and gossip.
Through pools of light from the high windows, horses, donkeys, carriages and the occasional camel were all ridden through the Bazaar. Down each avenue was a trough for water and waste. You can see traces of these still, under the modern floor tiles. Westernization brought imitation of Europe, so shops were built out into the streets, turning most of them into narrow labyrinths. Despite modern electrical wiring these have an undersea feel on dark winter days. I’ve been in the Bazaar in a blackout, though, and you can always find your way because of the windows. Here’s Muhammed in front of his shop Ak Gumus on Yesil Direkli Street up by the Post Office, looking down Sari Haci Hasan Street.
Here is beloved tissue seller Gemici from the same spot looking up.
OLD VIRTUES & THE TOUT POLICE
Many visitors today are intimidated by the loud aggressive persistance of the touts, the guys that stand in their doorways and exhort, charm, plead, annoy and wheedle you into looking. But they can’t follow you. The Tout Police will Get Them, and I’m told it’s a hefty fine. The Tout Police are the last vestige of the old ways. In Ottoman days of yore, pushing ones work or goods was anti-Islam, as was advertising. The Bazaar Greeks were the aggressive traders. Turks would sit silently and smoke nargile while you shopped, only showing what you asked to see.
Freedom from jealousy and indifference to profit were Islamic virtues. A French visitor to Istanbul in 1830 wrote with astonishment that. after he had selected a wallet, the Turkish shop owner advised him to buy a better one for the same price from his neighbor. It wasn’t uncommon for a shopowner who had sold something that day to send business to someone who hadn’t.
Democracy and Westernization brought the present exhortionate hullaballoo. I find that I have come to view it with affection. The touts can tell where you’re from at a glance, and they have stock phrases. We retaliate. They say, “Excuse Me!” And we say, “Okay, you’re excused.” They say, “You dropped something: my heart!” We stomp on the floor and grind it to bits, grinning. They stagger and clutch at their chests, and nobody stops for a minute. On top of this cacophony, down in the bottom of the Bazaar they call out the exchange, fluctuating figures bawled out in Turkish, letting me know I’m not in Kansas anymore.
COMMISSION MAN Sultan Abdulhamid’s reign, in the early 1900s, brought the Translator Guides. These would follow and buttonhole the visitor, advising him as to what he wanted. Then they’d translate from the shop owner and take a commission on the sale. They were multilingual with amazing memories, remembering the tourist from visit to visit: where they stayed, what they ate, etc, and they drove everyone crazy. People would buy things just to get rid of them. The modern-day equivalent is the Commission Man, the guy who dogs you on the street trying to steer you to a carpet shop. Most are obnoxious jerks, but some are classy and charming.
Democracy also brought Advertising. Turkey’s excessive signage is notorious, but it could be worse. This horrifying photo is what the Grand Bazaar looked like in 1979.
This abomination vanished with military coup of the early 1980s. Some general must have had good taste. Shortly afterwards the Bazaar interior was covered with cheerful yellow and painted with classic Ottoman tulip designs by art students. I have drawn this tulip painting many times. It’s beautiful, but I think they must have all gone mad.
Istanbul’s Old City is Greco-Roman geometry overlaid with Ottoman clusters. The Bazaar is a fine example of an Ottoman cluster. It was not planned or built all at once but evolved over time, built as needed in a meandering fashion by a nomadic culture.
It started from two giant brick enclosures: the Bedestens. This famous 16th Century miniature shows the Cevahir Bedesten, or Inner Bedesten, at upper center. The smaller Sandal Bedesten, just inside the Norosmaniye Gate, is harder to see. The streets between are not yet roofed. Notice the Hippodrome with obelisks and Snake Column at upper right, and the City Walls and Marmara at lower right.
The Sandal Bedesten was named for thread from Bursa the color of sandalwood. Here’s the Sandal Bedesten now. The renovation is boring but the people are not.
The big one in the center, Inner Bedesten, is now the Old Bazaar. A Byzantine Eagle at the Southern entrance has given rise to a belief that it was originally a Byzantine structure, but the Eagle could as easily been lifted from somewhere else. These two Bedestens were built by Mehmet the Conqueror, and gradually the streets between were roofed over and the sprawling structure organized into trades. Here’s the oldest photo ever found of the Bazaar’s outside, from 1856. That’s the Blue Mosque at the top. The Sandal Bedesten is below it at left, the Great Bedesten at center, and our old friend Buyuk Valide Han down front, outside the Bazaar.
The Inner Bedesten was built with stalls for animals, which are now very tony shops. Here’s Nick in his famous Calligraphy Shop, which features a wall of photos of celebrity customers: movie stars, bestselling authors and world leaders, including the Clintons.
So the Bazaar continued to evolve. Each section was dedicated to a particular trade. Weapons, shoes, cloth, clothing, brass ornaments, jewelry, gold and silver, perfumes, foodstuffs, and slaves.
The trades were organized into guilds. Each kept to its own area of the Bazaar. Here’s the Presentation of Artisans to the Sultan, back in the day.
The present Bazaar is zoned by what is sold where. A store in the silver zone can’t sell you gold.
Many businesses are passed down from father to son for centuries. Here are several generations of the Sengor family, who have been selling carpets on Takkeciler Street for a very long time. I drew the mother and grandfather from photos.
Another old photo from the end of the 19th century:
This has got to be where Sark Cafe is now. Here it is from the other direction.
I went all over the Bazaar with my book of old photos, conferring with groups of fascinated salespeople and taking pictures. The engraving below is likely near the mosque up on Yaglikcilar Street.
That big dark center arch probably went in an earthquake. Here’s the spot today:
There are 13 hans within in the Grand Bazaar. You go up or down a twisty little alley, your shoulders brushed by lame, beaded fringe, bunches of shoes and so forth, and come out into a courtyard surrounded by fascinating shops. Many pussycats live in these hans, fed and sheltered by generations of shopkeepers.
Each han has its own personality. This little one, Cukur Han, has a plaque stating it’s 19th Century, but the wall and archway look to be much older. See the carved Roman chunk above the window and the little column shoved in sideways?
I found this when visiting my friends Emin and Nurettin at Nurem in Cukur Han, wholesale traders and manufacturers of suzanis (embroidered tribal hangings), ikat (woven fabric that resembles tie-die), and patchwork.
The present bazaar boasts its own post office– the PTT– a police department, and modern plumbing, as well as the mosque and fountains which have been there for centuries.
On Fridays, the Imam’s sermon is broadcast, and half the bazaar gets out in the aisles to pray. Rather than prayer rugs the faithful use pieces of cardboard, rising and falling in salaams to Allah, while people step over them and business goes on as usual.
In 1894 Istanbul suffered a terrible earthquake. The Bazaar lost much of its architecture, which accounts for wonderful pictures like this:
I always wondered what happened here and now I know. Here’s a photo from 1894:
SECURITY The Bazaar is not and never has been open at night for any reason. During the reign of Abdulhamid, police had to break in because of a fire. In 1913, poet Pierre Loti was locked inside and had to talk his way out. And in 2006, a friend left my birthday present in his shop and could not for love nor money get in any of the four entrances he tried.
Nowadays, you’re safer in the Grand Bazaar than most places. Merchants eager for happy tourists brook no thieves. A few years ago, a mob of men, women and children flailed and stomped a purse snatcher before the guards could do anything. The battered thief was lucky to escape with his manhood intact.
THE AESTHETIC POLICE
The Aesthetic Police: a concept of a group with total power who would enforce charm and good taste on benighted areas worldwide.You could call them in, and the hideous shopping center that’s replacing that fine old tree-hung neighborhood would be stopped in an instant. Hideous restoration would cease. Trees would be trimmed properly and not amputated into bad sculpture. Billboards would be obliterated. There would be a death penalty for littering. Aesthetic Police: I always thought that this was just an expression. But then I encountered Celik Gulersoy.
President of Turkey’s Auto Club for many years, he was a force in the community. He stood down an Istanbul governor who was armed with bulldozers and a prime minister, saving those 17th-century houses behind Hagia Sophia, now Konuk Hotel. He created the chandelier-hung Istanbul Library there in Sogukçesme Street and found the Byzantine cistern that is now Sarniç Restaurant. He created Green House Hotel and its fountained garden. He longed for a generation of young people who would value and nurture trees, as the Ottomans did. He fought tree-butchers and asphalt-layers and excessive signage and all those who would uglify and kitsch up the Great Mysteries of this ancient place. I never got to meet Mr Gulersoy, but I wish he was King of the World.
Celik Gulersoy loved the Grand Bazaar so much he wrote a book about it: The Story of the Grand Bazaar. A battered, borrowed copy provided much of the material shown here. Thanks to Gazanfer Bey, manager of Konuk Hotel, and the Staff of Istanbul Library, I now own the last copy in Istanbul. Many thanks to them for their help in researching this post. All the time I was writing it, I was hearing that song from Kismet:
Baubles, bangles, hear how they jing jingalinga Baubles, bangles, bright shiny beads! Sparkles, spangles, my heart will sing singalinga Wearing baubles, bangles and beads! I’ll glitter and gleam so, make somebody dream so….
–Robert Wright and George Forrest, 1953
All Trici Venola’s drawings are Plein Air, drafting pens in sketchbooks 7 X 20″ / 18 X 52 cm. All drawings are part of The Drawing On Istanbul Project by Trici Venola. All modern photographs ©2012 Trici Venola. Thanks for reading this post. We love your comments.