“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 is 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 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 is 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. Traditional varieties are flavored with rosewater, orange, or lemon, dusted with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, and cut into one-inch cubes. Premium varieties are filled with chopped dates, pistachios, walnuts, and hazelnuts and rolled in the gel.
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, 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 trinket shops. They are worn or carried as a protection against not-so-well-meaning people (with their evil eyes). Unlike many souvenirs, it is possible that these 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 have 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 a single 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 could not 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.
Extracted from Traveling with Elizabeth – EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES AROUND THE WORLD. Now available from Amazon.