“Come in. It doesn’t hurt to look.” “Where are you from?” “l have a cousin in Minnesota.” “What do you want? Carpets? Jewelry? Beautiful leather jacket? Turkish Delight? I can show you.”
Enthusiastic entrepreneurs stand in front of their shops and step forward to greet you as you pass by. You really should ignore them, but it’s very hard if you want to be polite—and they know that. So I think I met and personally interacted with most of the 4,000 shopkeepers in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and many more along the streets of the city. Sometimes I even stepped into the tiny shop, tasted a sample of their Turkish Delight, smelled their spices, admired their colorful hanging lanterns, even accepted their gracious offer of a glass of tea. The problem came when I wanted to leave. It took every ounce of strength that I had to walk out as they kept talking to me about their “top quality” merchandise, sometimes even following me out the door with more samples.
To keep them going at this pace, a coffee and tea service is available to the shopkeepers in the Bazaar. Several charming tiny stations where coffee and tea are made are located in inconspicuous spots in these alleyways. Glasses of tea and cups of Turkish coffee are made up, placed on a tray, and carried to the vendors throughout the bazaar. No money is exchanged. I presume that this service must be included in the price they pay for rent.
The value of the dollar is very good here in Turkey so you can buy a lot of stuff for very little. As you go into the warren of streets and away from the entrance gates to the Grand Bazaar, the lower are the prices and the more you can bargain. You start by offering to pay half or less of their asking price and go up from there. No matter how good a deal you think you got, you most likely lost at this game. But it seems that both buyer and seller always leave feeling happy with the outcome.
Turkish Delight is the number one product sold throughout Istanbul. On one of my walks through the old city, I met a very gracious entrepreneur named Omer Kutlay Sahin. Omer has not yet decided on the name of his shop so he calls it simply “Sweet Cafe” and it’s a very attractive and appealing place with sparkling clean windows, bright lights, and displays of Turkish Delight and other sweets that make the mouth water. Turkish Delight is a delicious concoction made from a gel base of starch and sugar. Premium varieties are filled with chopped dates, pistachios, walnuts, and hazelnuts and rolled in the gel. Traditional varieties are flavored with rosewater, orange, or lemon, dusted with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, and cut into one-inch cubes.
Omer also sells other traditional Turkish desserts such as baklava and kunefe. Omer’s shop is very well located on the main street not far from the Topkapi Palace Museum. The displays are beautiful and draw you in if Omer himself does not. He offers little cubes of the tasty confection as samples to lure you in. I tried some samples, then went up the short flight of stairs to have a cup of cappuccino and a piece of baklava and watched as customers came in, tried some samples, and left with bags of the tasty delights.
Another interesting product sold here in Istanbul are evil eyes. Made of glass, evil eyes feature concentric circles or teardrops in dark blue, white, light blue, and black and are sold in all of the souvenir shops. They are worn or carried as a protection against not-so-well-meaning people with their evil eyes. It’s possible that these souvenirs are not made in China. The tradition of making evil eyes goes back 3,000 years when father and son worked together over sweltering furnaces in Turkey to create the charming glass discs. They come in many forms—as talismans to wear around the neck, hang from a rear-view mirror, or, as I do, decorate a Christmas tree. I’ve also seen them formed into paperweights, attached to a key chain, and made into lovely vases to decorate the home.
Also popular are Turkish mosaic lanterns, often in the form of chandeliers with four to ten hanging balls in bright colors. And there are specialty shops devoted to ceramics, kilim rugs, leather products, spices, fine cotton Turkish towels, and jewelry.
There are three major markets in Istanbul—the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and the Arasta Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, with 61 vaulted streets, 4,000 shops, and 250,000 to 400,000 visitors daily. It was constructed in 1461 under Ottoman Sultan Mehmed The Conqueror who brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. It is the world’s first shopping mall; it also is one of the most popular tourist sites in the world. Some of its streets specialize in one product such as gold and silver, and others are mixed, catering to a more general audience.
Within the Grand Bazaar is the Sandal Bedesteni, a commercial complex in the form of a mosque with a central courtyard surrounded by related shops. It does not specialize in sandals—the name comes from a kind of woven thread which has the color of sandalwood. It dates from the 15th century when it was mainly devoted to textiles. Today this is an area that has recently been refurbished with tenants that include specialty antique shops and an upscale steak house.
At No. 5 Sandal Bedesteni I met Murat Aksoy, the manager of Sherenian Rugs & Carpets. Around since 1880, his shop focuses on interesting old and antique kilims although he also carries some new rugs. We had a nice conversation and he showed me many of his beautiful rugs, all in excellent condition. He also has a shop on Carol Lane in Dallas, Texas. When Murat learned that I was in the market for a pillow cover, he showed me dozens and dozens of lovely pieces, pulling them out one by one from his high pile and discussing the merits of each. I fell in love with and bought a kilim in rusts and blues as a gift to take back home. I had done some comparison shopping in the Grand Bazaar itself and couldn’t get this one off my mind so I came back to Murat’s shop to buy it. I probably paid Dallas prices for it, but I love it anyway.
The Spice Market, as its name implies, specializes in spices although other food products are generally offered as well, including dried apricots and figs, fresh roasted nuts, and Turkish Delight. It was built about 350 years ago to promote the spice trade in Istanbul. It attracts both locals and tourists and is located north and east of the Grand Bazaar near the Kadikoy ferry pier.
The Arasta Bazaar is an open air market located on a relatively short street near the Blue Mosque and the Hotel Amira. It has somewhat more upscale shops and also includes several cafes and restaurants and The Great Palace Mosaic Museum.
There are no women working in these markets or shops. All of the services are offered by men. Men do the deliveries, serve coffee and tea to the shopkeepers, and tend the shops. Most of the customers are tourists although occasionally you will see some local people out shopping, especially in the spice market.
While I was resting at the only cafe in the Grand Bazaar, I saw something interesting happening in these ancient alleyways. It’s the act of cleansing oneself before praying to Allah, called “ablution”. At the intersection of two streets in the Grand Bazaar is an old square pillar with a faucet on each of the four sides about two feet up from a trough which runs around the base. There’s also a stone slab in front of the faucet that can be used to sit down. I’ve seen ablution spaces outside the entrances to mosques where they are used to wash up and cleanse yourself, a prerequisite to praying. When the bazaar was built, there were several little squares used for daily prayers, five mosques, and seven fountains which probably explains why this ablution space is located here in the center of commerce. A man was cleansing himself right there in front of all the shoppers and shopkeepers. No one paid attention to him as he performed this sacred ritual. I presume he was on his way to pray.
You can spend hours getting lost in this den of streets that make up the bazaar or outside in the myriad of small shops lining the street. I returned to my hotel sweating and exhausted after bargaining down prices that amounted to about 60 cents on a $3 purchase! And most likely I lost in this deal.
If you go:
• Hotel Amira, Kucuk Ayasofya Mahallesi Mustafapasa Sokak No 43, Sultanahmet 34122 Istanbul, Turkey, www.hotelamira.com, email@example.com
• Sweet Cafe, Cankurtaran Mahallesi, Alemdar Cad. #14, Fatih/Sultanahmet Istanbul, Turkey; proprietor OmerKutlay@gmail.com, +90 533 206 3139
• Sherenian Rugs & Carpets, Sandal Bedesteni, No: 5, Kapalicarsi – Beyazit/Istanbul. +90 212 511 83 84, www.sirinoglurugs.com.
• Marbella Terrace Cafe Restaurant, Kucuk Ayasofya Mah. Cayiroglu Sok. No: 32B, Sultanahmet 34440 Istanbul, www.marbellacaferestaurant.com, +90 212 638 0969
• Garden Mezze, Kucuk Ayasofya Mahallesi Sehit Mehmet Pasa Sokak No. 5, Sultanahmet, Kucuk Ayasofya Fatih 34122, Istanbul, +90 532 349 0238
• The Great Palace Mosaics Museum (in the Arasta Bazaar), Torun Sok., Sultanahmet, Istanbul
About the author: Elizabeth von Pier loves to travel. After she retired from her lifetime career in banking, she has been traveling the world, photographing, and writing. She has been published in the Los Angeles Times, In the Know Traveler, Go Nomad, Wave Journey, Hackwriters, Travelmag—The Independent Spirit, and Travel Thru History. She also has recently published her first book, “Where to Find Peace and Quiet in London”. Ms. von Pier lives in Hingham, MA.