The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

Jan 13, 2016 2 comments

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, encompassing a total of 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. Despite a steady rise in modern shopping malls in Turkey, the Grand Bazaar is still the most visited tourist attraction in the country. In 2014, it became the most visited tourist attractions in the entire world with over 91 million annual visitors.

The Grand Bazaar was commissioned by Sultan Mehmet II in the winter of 1455-56 shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. In the beginning, the Grand Bazaar traded only in textiles and was called Cevâhir Bedestan or “Bedesten of Gems”, where the word “bedesten” meant "bazaar of the cloth sellers” in Persian. The Grand Bazaar was a brick and wood structure with large vaulted arches, and walls built by plastering over bricks or stone.


Photo credit: Neil Howard/Flickr

Some years later, Sultan Mehmet II had another covered market built, called the “Sandal Bedesten”. The name comes from a kind of thread woven in Bursa, which had the color of sandalwood. Sandal Bedesten lay north of Cevâhir Bedestan and is now the second oldest building in the Grand Bazar.

After the erection of the Sandal Bedesten the trade in textiles moved there, while the Cevahir Bedesten was reserved for the trade in luxury goods. In the beginning the two buildings were isolated, but soon many sellers opened their shops between and around them, so that a whole quarter was born, devoted exclusively to commerce. By the beginning of the 17th century the Grand Bazaar had already achieved its final shape. The enormous extent of the Ottoman Empire in three continents, and the total control of road communications between Asia and Europe, rendered the Bazaar and the surrounding caravan inns the hub of the Mediterranean trade. According to several European travellers, at that time, and until the first half of the 19th century, the market was unrivalled in Europe with regards to the abundance, variety and quality of the goods on sale.

The Grand Bazaar is still a massive market employing 26,000 people and visited by between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. The streets are covered by canvas and lined on both sides by small stalls selling everything from clothes, jewelry, furniture, carpets, ceramics, shoes, books, spices and more. Stalls selling similar goods are usually grouped together. Prices are rarely fixed, so haggling is part of the game of shopping at the Grand Bazaar.


Photo credit: LWYang/Flickr

At the end of the day, each stall is closed with nothing more than drapes, although there are gates and patrolling guards on duty. Despite the immense wealth present in the Bazaar, thievery is extremely seldom. The most important such incident happened eons ago in 1591, when 30,000 gold coins were stolen in the old Bedesten. The theft shocked the whole of Istanbul. The Bazaar remained closed for two weeks and people were tortured, until the money was recovered from a young Persian, a seller of musk. The culprit was executed by hanging.

Aside from a few natural calamities of fires and earthquake, the Grand Bazaar had a mostly peaceful existence, until last year when city officials started a renovation project. The idea was to convert parts of the huge marketplace into hotels in a bid to boost tourism in the area. The scene turned a little ugly when several shopkeepers were evicted from the Bazar leading to protests in the streets.

“This is very short-sighted planning that is entirely profit-oriented,” Mücella Yapici, of the Istanbul chamber of architects, told The Guardian. “It destroys the history and the culture of Istanbul. They chase out the original residents, small businesses and traditional trades. In the end, tourism will kill itself, because tourists don’t come here to see luxury hotels, shopping centres and glitzy residences. But there will be nothing else left.”

“So much of the historic peninsula has been developed for tourism already,” said Ugur Tanyeli, an architectural historian. “It’s a terrible loss for Istanbul. The whole city is being eaten up by tourism development and is turned into a lifeless place with no culture of its own. Little by little, it becomes like Las Vegas.”

Mayor Demir has but assured that renovations would return the bazaar to its original state. “Nobody will be forced to open a hotel,” he said.


Photo credit: Stew Dean/Flickr


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Photo credit: Fèlix González/Flickr


Photo credit: SpirosK photography/Flickr


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Photo credit: David Veksler/Flickr


Photo credit: C.C. Chapman/Flickr


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Photo credit: Robbie/Flickr


A cafe inside Grand Bazaar. Photo credit: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho/Flickr


Photo credit: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho/Flickr


Photo credit: SpirosK photography/Flickr


Photo credit: Stephen Downes/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Istanbul Trails


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