Touted as the first covered market in the world, the Grand Bazaar is as large and noisy as you would expect a 5,000 store shopping mall to be. It was also more vibrant than I had expected, and I reached sensory overload in the first ten minutes. Rick Steves says to spend about 2 hours here, which is about as much time a human has before their retinas start to melt.
- Although the complex was completed during the 15th-16th centuries, the ornate decorations date to 1894, when the Bazaar was restored following an earthquake. In addition to the shops that line its 60 walkways, there are also two mosques, four fountains and a couple of bathhouses as well as several restaurants.
Near one of 27 doors is a window filled with rhinestone tiaras. Further down, a stall of embroidered boots, and beyond that, several shops filled with glass lanterns. A coat from the Topkapi Palace — replicated in blue and white porcelain — catches my eye.
I give my first TL10 (10 Turkish lira) to an artist who writes my name in Arabic style calligraphy. I later learn it is a style called hüsnü hat – writing in Türkish with Arabic alphabet and most often used for religious texts.
I see an unadorned set of 6 tulip glasses and saucers for tea. I begin to barter with the vendor but am met with resistance. He gives me a TL5 discount and tells me how bad business has been the entire time he is wrapping my purchase. I feel badly for initiating the barter and I start to question what I have read about shopping customs in Turkey.
I turn the corner and into the Old Market. Here the ceiling domes are exposed brick, and most of the shops are faced with glass cases. One such case houses an astrolabe and antique swords. Another case displays three pair of chased silver chopines that were worn in Turkish baths. A tiny shop is filled with stacks of Persian miniatures that the shopkeeper lets me leaf through as though they were yesterday’s newspapers. I cannot tell if they are antiques or reproductions and the shopkeeper cannot read the Arabic notations on the back. He offers tea but I decline.
Ali Güzeldemirel’s old copper and brass is the most pleasant find of the day. He offers tea and a seat in his tiny shop, which I accept. He spends the next hour showing me his wares and informing me of both the regular price and ‘my’ price, which eliminates the need to haggle. His prices are more than fair and I buy several pieces to take home for friends.
I watch the tea (cay) merchants as they ran from shop to shop, delivering tea in small tulip glasses on saucers, which they carry on silver trays that are suspended from a handle. Providing tea to patrons must be a cost of doing business here and I make a mental note to only accept tea from merchants I intend to do business with.
I locate the Spice Bazaar which dates back to the mid 17th century. Olive oil soap, piles of saffron, Turkish Viagra, most things I don’t recognize, wishing my sense of smell was better. I try to buy just a few pieces of Turkish Delight but end up with a box which is discounted by 30% without my even asking.
I was prepared to be lost for awhile this morning. I was not prepared to be lost for the entire day. I wander up and down streets filled with shops selling wedding dresses, lingerie, and pageant wear for children, some of which I later learn are for a boy’s rite of circumcision. I end up in a plaza and try to get my bearings. I thought I could use the Ayasofya as a landmark, but one set of domes and minarets looks the same as another and now I am looking at three sets. I find the Hotel Han almost by accident an hour later, where I retire for the evening. It’s been a long and sensory-draining day.