A Sea of Shopping in Istanbul

A Sea of Shopping in Istanbul photo

Centuries seem to fall away as you look out over the city of Istanbul. Slim minarets pierce the air and in the early morning stillness you hear a muezzin wail one of five-daily invocations that summon the faithful to turn toward Mecca. Founded in 600 B.C.E, the city now known as Istanbul was once called Byzantium, then Constantinople. Whatever its name, it has always been a beacon to poets, explorers, and adventurers. Soon you'll slip into its midst as you head for the most intriguing of its attractions — the Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 criss-crossing covered streets and over 5,000 shops and stalls, divided according to different trades, that attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. It's so big it even has its own post office. Shops stand alongside cafes and restaurants where vendors close deals over cups of dense, grainy Turkish coffee served with tall glasses of water. Within its confines peddlers sell green plums or soft breads. Artisans vend brightly colored tiles or carved alabaster and onyx. And everywhere carpets hang for sale.

Located inside the walled city of Istanbul, in the district of Fatih and in the neighborhood of Mahalle Kapal, it stretches roughly from west to east between the mosques of Beyazit and Nuruosmaniye. The Bazaar is within easy walking distance from any of the popular Istanbul hotels congregated in Sultanahmet.

Construction of the Grand Bazaar started during the winter of 1455-56, shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Sultan Mehmet II the Conquerer had an edifice erected devoted to the trading of textiles. Its name, Cevâhir Bedestan, means "bazaar of the cloth sellers." The building lies on the slope of the third hill of Istanbul, between the ancient Fora of Constantine and of Theodosius. It was originally near the first Sultan's palace.

An overwhelming array of treasures await your discovery. The rule of the day in the Grand Bazaar is to haggle. The vendors expect it. And it will liven up your shopping experience. Here in this massive area is where shopping and history meet.

Into this sea of shopping you'll plunge. Barrel vaulted ceilings and skylights and brass-and-tile fountains accent the arched passageways. Though ravaged by fires twice in the 20th century, it has been rebuilt each time along its original lines.

Grand shops with glittering display cases stand beside humble stalls. Merchants here understand the cost per-square-foot rule. They cover every inch, from floor to ceiling. Goods even hang from the massive domed roof. You'll find gleaming brass and copper, leather goods, jewelry, fabrics, clothing and — at every twist and turn — carpets.

Turkey is legendary for carpets, and buying one is an experience rich in nuance and negotiation. Embrace the process, because it's an"invisible souvenir" and also fun. Perhaps you'll select a beautiful old damaged kilim that could be made into a pilIowcover. It's only in the last few decades that Kilims have become collector's items and many older Kilims have been abused or discarded. Over dainty, tulip-shaped glasses of green apple tea, you and the dealer engage in intense but leisurely bargaining that leads to not only a wonderful price but also a memory you won't soon forget.

Perhaps you'll discover an old Turkish pillow cover in the antiques section called the Bedestan, at the heart of the Grand Bazaar. And you don't have to be a book collector to appreciate the Old Book Bazaar — located outside the Bazaar's western gate. It's a treasure-trove of volumes in many languages.

As you stroll among the stalls, you may notice those curly toed slippers in beautifully worked leather that resemble something out of the Arabian Nights. You may want to snap up several for one-of-a-kind souvenirs. The Grand Bazaar is open daily except Sundays and bank holidays from 9 A.M. until 7 P.M.