Crossroads Tour: The Grand Bazaar – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.

Touted as the first covered market in the world, it is as large and noisy as you would expect a 5,000 store shopping mall to be. It was also far more colorful and brightly lit than I was prepared for, and I reached nearly complete sensory overload in the first ten minutes. Rick Steves says to spend about 2 hours here, which is about as much time as a human has before their retinas start to melt… 

The Grand Bazaar was completed during the reign of Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer in 1461 and was enlarged during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent during the 16th century. A sign hanging overhead states: “The simple architectural style of the bazaar helps promote the vibrancy and diversity of the goods on sale. The ornate decorations were added during the restoration [following an earthquake] in 1894.” 

In addition to the shops that line some 60 walkways, this complex also houses two mosques, four fountains and a couple of bathhouses as well as several restaurants. Upon entering one of 27 doors, the first thing I see is a window filled with tiaras. Later on, a stall of embroidered boots and bins of beads and textile stamps. Beyond that, several shops filled with beautiful glass lanterns.  A coat from the Topkapi Palace, replicated in blue and white porcelain, also 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 so I don’t pursue it beyond the TL5 discount he has offered. He 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 practices in Turkey.

The next shop is attended by a bouncy teenager with good English skills. I sort through a pile of wooden fabric stamps, select three for my hatmaking, and make no attempt to haggle the price. He drops it by a few dollars between bagging the pieces and collecting my money. I shop for a silver ring, but the jewelry is very gaudy so I move on.

After passing the same teenager three times, which elicits flirts from him and subsequent smiles from me, I turn the corner and enter the Old Market. Here (lower left and center) the ceiling domes are exposed brick, and most of the shops are faced with glass cases. The wooden beamed ceiling (lower right) covers the area where the fine gold merchants are set up, and reminded me of the Ponte Veccio in Florence.

An antique store has a case containing an astrolabe and some swords, which I did not enquire as to price. Another glass case contains three pair of chased silver chopines that were worn in Turkish baths. A tiny shop is filled with stacks of Persian miniatures manuscript pages. The shopkeeper allows me to handle them. I cannot tell if they are true antiques or reproductions, and the shopkeeper cannot read the Arabic that covers the backs of them. He offers tea but I decline.

Ali Güzeldemirel’s old copper and brass is the most pleasant find of the day. I accept his offer of tea and a seat inside his kiosk. He spends the next hour showing me various wares, telling me what the regular price is, and what ‘my’ price is, which eliminates the need to haggle. His prices are very fair and I buy several gifts for friends and a brass kohl bottle for myself.

I watch the bustle of the tea (cay) merchants, who weren’t serving customers, but instead were running from shop to shop, delivering tea in small “tulip glasses” on saucers, which they carry on silver trays suspended on a trio of silver chain. 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 exit the Main Bazaar and locate the Spice Bazaar which dates back to the mid 17th century. Here I find olive oil soap, piles of saffron, Turkish Viagra, and a lot of other things I don’t recognize. It’s a feast for my eyes but I wish 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.  

The Spice Bazaar is about the size of a single arm of the Great Bazaar, so I backtrack the way I came in, passing a finch in a shrink-wrapped cage, hanging in a doorway of a shop. What a clever idea. The bird stays out of drafts but can still see out, and passersby can see him and hear his happy little voice. I pass a baklava shop that has been here since 1871, and exit out into the street.

I was more or less prepared to be lost for awhile this morning. I wasn’t prepared to be lost for the entire day. I wander up and down several streets filled with wedding dress and lingerie shops, and other shops with windows displaying wedding or pageant wear for children, which I later learn are for rites of circumcision. 

I end up in a plaza, and look up 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. It’s been a really long and sensory-draining day.

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