Situated in Istanbul’s walled historic district, the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest enclosed markets in the world. Construction of the bazaar’s first buildings began in 1455 soon after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The early structures ultimately evolved into the maze-like Grand Bazaar. Today the Grand Bazaar still functions as a market; there are over three thousand stalls tucked in amongst its 61 covered streets.
Built on a rectilinear plan, the Grand Bazaar is a warren of narrow colonnaded alleyways. The building’s architecture fits unmistakably into the Istanbul’s Ottoman era style. Situated amongst the covered alleys are 3,600 places of business that employ more than 25,000 people.
The Grand Bazaar is undoubtedly popular. It is claimed that between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors pass through the bazaar’s hallways each day. These numbers are staggering (and hard to verify). Based on 365 days, the daily numbers translate to between 90 and 150 million visits per year, a figure roughly equal to the sum of the population of Turkey, about 71 million, plus Turkey’s annual tourism tally, about 31 million. Though there are plenty of people in the Grand Bazaar’s hallways, it did not seem like there was that many.
I was expecting the Grand Bazaar to be crowded and edgy on the inside. In my imaginings there would be strange smells, exotic merchandise, and a hint of danger. But that’s not the case. Though the market is crowded in any economy, the goods are as familiar as a K-mart anchored suburban shopping mall, correcting for the understandable over abundance of Turkish rugs, lanterns, and nick-knacks targeted to the multitude of tourists. Still there are differences. One won’t find many suburban malls with origins in the 15th Century. Nor would one find the Grand Bazaar’s well-practiced army of polylingual touts at a local suburban super mall. It quickly becomes apparent to a tourist traipsing through the bazaar’s hallways that the biggest danger is not crime; it is being convinced by a salesperson to buy one too many rugs.
Though the Grand Bazaar edges towards commercial predictability, it remains worthy of a visit. And it is visited. It has been claimed in 2011 that the bazaar was “the most visited place in the world”. Though an assertion of this sort seems near impossible to authenticate, there are without a question an abundance of visitors crossing through the Grand Bazaar’s thresholds each day.
Near the Grand Bazaar is another vault-covered shopping area, the Spice Bazaar. Officially known as the Mısır Çarşısı or the “Egyptian Bazaar”, the Spice Bazaar is the second largest covered shopping complex in Istanbul.
The Spice Bazaar has a grittier feel. As expected the air inside is aromatic. The frequent stalls displaying carefully arranged brightly colored pyramids of spices have a pleasant exotic smell. Though the bazaar remains the center of Istanbul’s spice trade, other businesses have moved in and displaced many of the spice stalls. Today the majority of the businesses in the market do not sell spices.
Though there are plenty of tourists, the Spice Bazaar’s hallways have a crowded local feel. It’s hard to say whether the numerous Istanbulites present are actually shopping or not. Perhaps they are just walking to the public transportation hub close by near the New Mosque and the Galata Bridge. After all, just how much spice and Turkish delight can an Istanbulite buy?
Rumor has it that the best bargains are not found in the bazaars. Instead it said that better deals are had at the shops on the bazaar’s perimeter. Perhaps this is true. Certainly the streets outside the Grand and Spice Bazaars offer a more typical Istanbulite shopping experience. Serious shoppers might want to look outside the covered markets. But if you are like us and are more interested in seeing a rung on the evolutionary ladder of the modern mercantile experience than actually purchasing something that you don’t really need, join with the tens of millions and place your feet inside Istanbul’s grand covered markets. You might not come away with the best price but you will take home an unforgettable experience.