Shopping in a Turkish Bazaar
By “Awake!” correspondent in Turkey
ISTANBUL—a unique city straddling two continents. Although full of exotic Eastern mystery, Western influence gives it a certain flavor that cannot be matched elsewhere in the world. And at no other place in the city is this more evident than in the extraordinary covered bazaar or market. If anything typifies Istanbul, it is the market, so strongly reminiscent of days gone by when Istanbul was Constantinople and was ruled by the Ottomans. We really should visit it!
Istanbul’s Unique Covered Bazaar
Upon entering the bazaar, we are at once embroiled in one of the most colorful and noisy spectacles to be witnessed anywhere. Open every day except Sunday from early morning until sunset, it is possibly the largest market to be found in any European or Mediterranean land.
The narrow cobbled streets twist so much that within moments our sense of direction is lost. Each bend reveals yet another magnificent stretch of market. While our eyes feast upon the riot of color and activity, our ears are assaulted from every quarter by sounds unimaginable and seemingly in every language possible.
Here in the narrow alleys and passages of the market, which is mostly covered and constantly teems with a seething mass of people who talk, shout, laugh and bargain, all at the top of their voices, we step into a seemingly bygone world. Pushing through the crowd are hamals, or porters, carrying vast loads resting on a sort of leather harness on their backs. Their hoarse cries of “Give way!” punctuate the confusion of voices. Sometimes a truck or car, looking strangely out of place, will try to reach a shop or stall, its horn being sounded vainly to clear the way.
Much more dramatic is the passing of one of the horse-drawn carts. Overloaded, with the horses stamping and slipping on the cobblestones, the cart lurches forward, narrowly missing curbside stalls—until the inevitable happens, and oranges, handkerchiefs or other things lie in profusion all over the street while the stall owner and cart driver loudly harangue each other. This is the signal for the crowd to join in with their versions of the accident. All thoughts of buying or selling are forgotten in this new excitement.
As you can see, sometimes the street vendors outnumber the customers. These enterprising business people advertise their wares by shouting out in bits of at least four languages. Many of these salesmen are mere children, who sell anything from buzlu su (iced water) to plastic bags in which to carry your purchases. Though these youngsters lack a formal education, like their adult colleagues they conduct their business very ably, speaking enough of various languages to sell something to passing tourists.
Our feet soon tell us that the bazaar is not a small place. At one count there were over 4,000 shops, apart from the 2,000 small workshops that manufacture many of the goods sold here. Streets and lanes are lined with stalls and handcarts without number, and throughout the market area are scattered twelve warehouses, some of which are connected to vast old Ottoman Hans or Business Houses. There are some twelve fountains, although these are mere relics of the past. Now there are restaurants and teahouses, in which we can take refuge for a few moments’ respite from the turmoil. For the convenience of the Moslems, there are several mosques. Also, there are two banks, a very essential public convenience, and an information center primarily for the benefit of lost tourists. And, for some reason, there is even a primary school—indeed a fascinating start in life for the children who attend.
Bazaar History in Brief
The bazaar was established on its present site (and covering almost the same area) by Sultan Mehmet II. That was in 1461, shortly after the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul). Then the bazaar was mainly a wooden structure, but it has been rebuilt and enlarged a number of times and now includes part of Mehmet-the-Conqueror’s stables and quite a few other interesting stone buildings of the period.
Over the years, fires have destroyed parts of the market—the last big one taking place in 1954. Nonetheless, the market and its precincts remain very much the same today as they were years ago.
No Easy Route Through
Having entered the market by one of its five entrances, we are faced with the problem of finding a way through its tumultuous maze of sixty-odd streets and lanes. Interestingly, different “streets” tend to specialize in certain goods. Why, here is one called “Street of the Turban Makers”! And there is another termed “Street of the Aga’s Plumes.” Down yet another fine old colonnaded arcade are found all the shops selling Turkish carpets and rugs, damasks and brocades. In nearby lanes, we can root about in great piles of goat’s-hair rugs, or admire handmade carpets, all in an atmosphere of amicable rivalry, as shopkeepers vie with one another for our attention.
Fine bargains are to be found everywhere—in all sorts of odd little shops tucked away down dusty little alleyways. The only problem is remembering just where to find the shop again. Since certain things can be found only in specific places, a good memory is a requirement for shopping in Istanbul’s covered bazaar.
Whether you have a good memory or not, doubtless you will enjoy wandering about in this mazelike market. But set aside enough time to get lost. Even that is a pleasure—and an adventure—in what can only be described as one of Turkey’s most unusual attractions.
The “Old Market”
This particular section of the covered bazaar is right in the middle and is known as the Bedesten. Here the more valuable antiques and unusual items are to be found. Just look at all these articles of copper, brass and glass, and even some Byzantine relics. Some of these items are genuine, but, beware, a lot of them are modern, machine-made and rather shoddy goods that tend to dispel the still-enchanting Oriental atmosphere of the market.
In more “modern” parts of the market area, we find dealers in jewelry and gold. Here one sees some very fine, though costly, specimens of handmade jewelry. There is an extensive trade in gold here, and prices fluctuate daily.
Are you a little worried about all the bargaining that goes on here? Well, to enter fully into the spirit of the market, one must bargain and haggle over prices. This is all done in an atmosphere of “friendly robbery,” buyer and seller alike looking for an advantage and each stating an ever-changing “rock-bottom” final price. Sometimes, depending on the values involved, this sort of discussion goes on almost for hours, with the participants drinking teas and Turkish coffee freely supplied by the dealer until agreement has been reached.
‘But there is so much to bargain over!’ you say. Yes, but apart from the mass-produced souvenirs and everyday household items, probably the most attractive things to buy fall into just a few categories: brass and copper ware, carpets, jewelry, ceramics and other handmade items of wood, onyx and meerschaum. Hand-embroidered clothing and leather goods are always popular buys among visitors too.
In the market, do you notice how everything appears to be a little unreal? Actually, the outside world seems very far away. Without concern about various outside problems, here all sorts of people conduct their business shrewdly but politely.
We are about to leave the Bedesten by the gate of the goldsmiths. But, do you see the Byzantine eagle over the gate? Well, it is very old, and one famous historian—Evliya Celebi—said this about that symbol: “Gain and trade are like a wild bird, which, if it is to be domesticated by courtesy and politeness, may be done so in the market.” So, perhaps in some ways the old bazaar has not changed so very much after all.
Well, we have come to the end of our shopping trip. “Unforgettable,” did you say? Perhaps so, for one thing seems sure: Long after the souvenirs you bought here have been lost or forgotten, the memory of Istanbul’s covered bazaar will linger on.