Between the Orient and the reality: Grand Bazaar

Istanbul, summer of 2017

”Wait, is this the Grand Bazaar?”
”I guess so, it’s full of shops.”
”Yes, but I don’t get it – is that it or did Grand Bazaar just swallow these?”

We didn’t know that yet, but we were in the circle of Grand Bazaar where shops contain everyday necessities. Prices are low and the goal was to make it easier for locals – so they don’t have to make their way through the tourist crowd and wait in line to get through metal detectors at the entrance of Grand Bazaar walls. Like we did.

History of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Finally, we made it to the wall. It was build in the middle of the 15th century, after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. The building process took 300 years. After all, there are 60-ish streets and more than 4 000 shops, with almost 400 000 visitors every day. But, what’s that for a city with 15 million residents?

In its glory days it was even bigger. Memoirs tell about mosques, public wells, hamams, schools and thousands of little shops, workshops and wooden cabinets behind fortifications of Bazaar. It opened up every morning with the sound of azan and shopping was something you did by casually negotiating over a cup of Turkish coffee or tea.

A few centuries later, we were standing in a line for metal detectors at the entrance.

metal detectors at the entrance

”Did you see the weaponry shop in front?”
”Yes, haha, and you know what else I saw?”
”Some guy just rushed inside past the detectors and took a pistol from his pants. But he squatted, opened up the cabinet, rolled it up in a towel, took out the other pistol and put it in his pants. I thought he is an undercover cop or something, but he looked too nervous and he kept looking around.”
”What? Where is he?”
”There. Don’t look at him!”
”Great, now he’s looking back and smiling.”
”Then good. At least he is smiling.”

Since pre-Islamic and tribal times, bazaars were safe havens – you’d never walk in carrying weapons. Markets were the main vein of society, so the safety of bazaar meant safety for everyone. It was a place where Turks, Jews, Indians, Persians, Arabs and others met and the members of the guilds acted like members of a big family.

Since pre-Islamic and tribal times, bazaars were safe havens – you'd never walk in carrying weapons

Büyük Valide Han is a witness from that time: when a small Persian community came in the 19th century, this caravanserai became their home. Families that lived and worked here were a bond between Iran and the West. Today, the caravanserai is just a decayed building, a treasure for vagabonds who will give cigarette-money to the local man in exchange for unlocking the door that takes you to the top where Istanbul lies on your palm. Whoever visited the bazaar and felt its fragileness and vulnerability, must have damned James Bond and his motorcycle ride over broken bricks of its ceilings in the Skyfall.

But, to continue where we stopped: in those East-West exchanges lines of shops arose – and stayed until this day. Similar products are kept in the same area: textile, leather, jewelry, souvenirs, gold, silver, spices, lamps, shoes… And if a certain community was ”stronger” in a certain field, other shops would jump on the bandwagon. For example, that’s how the spices part of the Bazaar got its name: Egyptian bazaar.

It is precisely the schedule of shops that provided security in case of theft (although it was very rare and would cause a strong condemnation) or an accident. Also, it helped regulate the prices and ethical trade: in that way, it was easier for the guards to notice outlaws.

Istanbul, Grand Bazaar entrance

One of the most important rules of business, at least until mid 19th century, was ethic: materialism, unfairness and ruthlessness were not considered Islamic while human relations and mutual respect were more important than the profit. Prophet Muhammed, a trader himself, condemned pre-Islamic trade as unethical and unfair towards the poor. Instead of never-ending wealth hoarding, the emphasis moved to a personal relationship with God and the Muslim community. Bazaar guard had a duty to remind traders of it and to listen to customers’ complaints if somebody broke the rules. It wasn’t rare that, if a certain salesman had a lot of customers or purchase reservations, he ”donates” part of it to his sales neighbor. It was precisely the reputation of the salesman that was his best advertisement.

Nobody else would be here on Saturdays…

As soon as we noticed the exit, we rushed outside for a smoke – once you get lost in glitter, ”free” candies and salesmen who are just waiting for eye contact, God knows when you’ll see the next chance. We stood by a pile of garbage examined by local cats, watching men in bars lazily blowing smokes of shisha. Small stairs behind us led to what seemed to be an unattractive plateau with shop stands full of Turkish literature, timeworn books and historical maps. Shop by shop, we ended up in a small alley that led us to the green oasis: a garden antique shop. It was a quiet green break from a touristy atmosphere, where cats rolled around the floor and salesmen just sat in the peace of their shops.

Istanbul, cats, books, Grand Bazaar

The small oasis is called Sahaflar. The name came from old book salesmen who once were highly appreciated for their skills. They had a great education, guild memberships and a special license for the job. The first books that were published and sold were religious ones, Ottoman manuscripts and historical maps. They were sold in madrasas of Fatih neighborhood, in hours between prayer in the mosque.

Between trees there was the Turkish flag and a statue dedicated to Ibrahim Muteferikka – Hungarian student who was captured by the Ottoman army in the 17th century. Eventually, he converted to Islam, learned the Turkish language and made his new country proud by printing the first book in Turkey in 1732. It was an Arabic-Turkish dictionary, for which he needed a special consent from Sultan Ahmed III. Despite the pressure from then caligraphs, he managed to persuade Sultan in benefits of book print: useful in education, preservation of lost or damaged manuscripts, easier alteration and finally, what he thought to be the most important and final goal – smartening up of the people and strengthening of the empire through literacy and education.

Westernization, ”selling the snails in a Muslim neighborhood”

The aim of building the majestic bazaar was to push the economy of Istanbul (today the bazaar employs around 20 000 people) – which was going well until the 19th century. What happened then? Well, means of mass production developed rapidly and so did the textile industry in the West. Pro-Western bourgeoisie pushed out small Turkish, Greek, Jewish and Armenian manufacturers, as their products seemed to become outdated. Trade with European countries brought in Western ideas about architecture, esthetics and sales, while the economical and technical predominance of West over East manifested itself in world trade fairs.

Once small and stuffed bazaar shops with its darker and handy interior emphasized the role of the salesman and his skills. The customer depended on his informations on goods. Joint tea or coffee drinking was a normal part of the shopping process. Once the customer and the salesman established a relationship, it grew stronger according to the service quality, price and often – religious, ethnical and neighbor solidarity (let’s not forget that the reputation of the salesman was his only marketing tool).

Joint tea or coffee drinking was a normal part of the shopping process

This, however, changed once Western ideas came to the East, along with wide avenues, modern infrastructure and new facilities in the city. The bazaar look has changed forever. Ceilings opened up to the sky and daylight, hallways became wider and shops opened up to their customers: glass windows tempted them in to see goods in a new line-up.

It was around the time when Flaubert was strolling around brothels of Istanbul, daydreaming of moving here where he will ”buy himself a slave”. It was the time Orhan Pamuk referred to while explaining ”huzun” – the state of mind, sense of sadness after the decline of culture and Empire. Eastern thinkers were faced with European images of themselves, which in turn affected their self-view:

”Most of the time, it’s not the Europeans that look down on us. When we look at them, we are the ones that start doing that.”

Between Orient and reality

Today, Grand Bazaar is one of the top TripAdvisor attractions, a must-see in every tourists’ schedule in Istanbul, El Dorado for travel bloggers with their visions of Orient, a nest of cheap souvenirs and Ottoman Disneyland for naive visitors. But, it’s so much more than that. By creating connections between men and women, nomads with citizens, citizens with elite, locals with foreigners, Bazaar was a historical bridge between civilizations and worlds.

Istanbul, Grand Bazaar

New commercial centers in new neighborhoods took a huge part in trade, announcing a new world and new reality. And yet, deep-rooted friendships and crafts still exist here in the Bazaar – you just need to find them. Despite growing pressure, the rhythm of life is still laid-back.

If only for a day or a moment, the commotion of Bazaar labyrinths and random chit-chats or quiet coffee moment in a local bar, will offer an image of the city, its history, everyday life and people’s relations in a much more vivid way than any museum ever could.

The article was originally published in Croatian media:

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