The Grand Bazaar doesn’t have its name for nothing, it covers about 32 ha. It’s in the quarter Beyazit, the centre of Stambul, the oldest part of the city between the university and the Nuruosmaniye Mosque.
It equals 42 football fields! Several halls have been built side by side, the central ones with cupolas, the whole area is surrounded by walls which have 17 gates as entrances/exits. 60 mostly dimly lit streets criss-cross through it, about 4 500 shops employ more than 20 000 people.
Historians guess that already in the times of the ancient Greeks there was a bread market on the spot, the first buildings, the nucleus of the present day bazaar, were erected in 1461 under Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople. Seven great fires and four earthquakes couldn’t destroy the bazaar, after each catastrophe it was not only rebuilt, but also enlarged.
We went to the bazaar with a Turkish acquaintance. When we entered she steered directly to a goldsmith’s shop saying that one of the shop-assistants was a friend of hers and she wanted to say hello to him. My husband and I looked at each other in horror which increased when we were invited at once to sit down and have a glass of tea: was she a tout and would we be allowed to leave the shop only after purchasing a gold bracelet, a gold chain or a pair of earrings?
We had been afraid for nothing, she really only wanted to chat. While we were standing there waiting for her, another shop-assistant came to my husband and addressed him in fluent Italian, he told him that he was a Catholic (one of about 6 000 in Muslim Turkey) and had been to Rome.
The men - not once did we see a woman - standing in front of the shops and stalls trying to lure potential buyers hardly ever make a mistake as to the nationality of the passing tourists and most of them know the respective language well. This does not mean that the Turks are especially talented when it comes to foreign languages, but that only men with good language skills have a chance to find a job there, and it’s a top job we were told.
Something which has occupied our minds up to now is the fact that shops offering the same goods are clustered together in one street or even quarter. In the Grand Bazaar you can find rows and rows of shops selling only jewellery or carpets or leather clothes or ceramics or souvenirs made of copper or in the so-called Egyptian Bazaar only spices or caviar to name just a few articles.
What’s the idea behind the bazaar principle? We can’t get to the heart of the matter. If there’s only one shop selling a special article the people in charge can dictate the price, can be sloppy and unfriendly, people will (have to) come to them anyway. Competition can be good in so far as it makes the salespeople give their best to attract and satisfy customers.
But what if there are lots of shops, one beside the other, selling precisely the same goods? A customer can buy only, say, one copperplate so that the chance to sell one is 1/20 for each shop. How can the shops survive with so many competitors? The bazaar principle can also be found outside, we passed streets with up to ten shops side by side selling lamps or bathroom appliances or lawn-mowers or haberdashery. All oriental countries do business this way, why?
You can spend hours in the Grand Bazaar, lose your way and if you aren’t attentive, lose your money, too (rucksacks to the front!), maybe it’s a relief for you to know that there’s a police station in it, too. You can also find a post office, a mosque, a bank, a refreshing fountain and coffee and tea houses. (The Bazaar is open Mo - Sa, 9 am - 7 pm, closed on Sundays and holidays)
Because of the (first) war in Iraq there were only very few tourists in Istanbul, a situation we enjoyed very much. Not so the business people. The negative side for us was that we were addressed all the time without interruption, not molested, no, one can’t say that, but when the fifteenth smiling young man asked us where in Germany or Italy we came from, if we liked Istanbul, how we were, if we wanted to come in and only just have a look, not buy anything, God forbid, oh no, maybe drink a glass of tea, take a piece of this sweet, sniff at that caviar, the feeling of being molested wasn’t far away.
A special problem for me is that the bazaar is closed, no natural light comes in. I didn’t get any attacks of claustrophobia because there were so few people, but I don’t dare imagine a hot summer day with the normal number of tourists. The mere idea makes me shudder!
No doubt, the Grand Bazaar is a must-see in Istanbul, you’ll only know if you enjoy it, when you’ve been there.