We four stood at the entrance to that glittering Oz. I was enthralled and a bit petrified by the swirls and masses of people flowing around us, but a pebble in their path as they poured into and out of this ancient market. And what a woeful state of affairs — we had only one hour until the greatest bazaar in all of Byzantium closed. My travel companions hmmmed about, deciding how we were to take on the bazaar. Would it be girls together and guys on their own, or would we go in couples? I didn’t care, I wanted only to cross into the shadowy depths of the bazaar, and do it now! Chas decided to remain with Holly in order to safeguard her person and belongings. This meant I was to spend my hour, my only hour in this Aladdin’s cave, in the company of my own husband –not, let’s say, top on my list of shopping companions. But no matter. This was not Mall St Matthews, this was the Grand Bazaar (!) and I was going to enjoy it.
Fourteen hundred years old, the market does not seem to have changed appreciably since Edmondo de Amici visited Constantinople in the 19th century.
The Great Bazaar… is not an edifice, but a labyrinth of arcaded streets flanked by sculptured columns and pilasters; a real city, with its mosques, fountains, crossways and squares… You may linger a whole day in one bazaar, unconscious of the flight of time; for example the bazaar of stuffs, and clothing. It is an emporium of beauty and riches enough to ruin your eyes, your brains and your pocket; and you must be on your guard for a caprice might bring upon you the consequence of sending for help by telegraph. You walk in the midst of towering heaps of brocades from Baghdad, carpets from Caramania, silks from Bursa, linens from Hindustan, muslins from Bengal, shawls from Madras, cashmeres from India and Persia, many tinted tissues from Cairo; cushions arabesqued in gold, silken veils woven with silver stripes, scarfs of gauze in blue and crimson… table covers of all sizes embroidered all over with arabesques, flowers, verses from the Koran and imperial ciphers, worthy of being admired for hours, like the walls of the Alhambra.”
We allowed the crowd to pull us into the entrance and tried to stop to take stock of our surroundings. More than 4,000 stores fill the bazaar, spilling their wares into the miles of cobblestoned streets and alleys. We planned to meet Holly and Chas back outside the same entrance at closing time. We knew we may not find the same entrance where we entered so we all promised each other to wait in the event the others had to find their way around the outside of the behemoth building at closing.
We snapped a photo of the archway where we came in, in order to help us find our way out later, took a deep breath and plunged into the masses. I could hardly contain my glee at being let loose in the Grand Bazaar. We had entered in the jewelery “neighborhood” and I knew that wasn’t in our budget so we turned right, I think, and passed stall after stall heaped with treasures. Our first stop was to choose an ornamental hanging globe, painted in vibrant colors. I selected one to have as a Christmas ornament, and tried my bargaining skills. I tried to seem confident but I’m sure my apprehension at practicing the ancient bargaining dance showed. I talked the shopkeeper down a few lira though.
We continued wandering, randomly choosing alleys to enter, and found ourselves descending some steps into the “old” bazaar. This turned out to be antiques. I’m not particularly a fan of antique shops at home, but the thought of how old these items could be, and the history they could contain, intrigued me here in Istanbul. I peered at a never-ending display of items and tried to politely ignore the calls of the shopkeepers to inspect their merchandise. “Hello, yes please, I am here,” seemed to be their favorite invitation. I was lured in against my better judgment by one man who complimented my “beautiful” necklace (said necklace having been purchased at Target for less than $10) but we extracted ourselves from his wily grips no lighter in the pocketbook.
I dashed relentlessly up and down alleys and careened around corners until Brian realized my problem. I wanted to see it all before I decided where to shop and what to buy. “Just pick one or two shops,” he advised me, “and don’t spend all your time running around.” I could feel the sand slipping through the hourglass and he was right. I could never see it all, whether I had an hour or a day. And besides, many of the stalls sold the same items.
How quickly an exotic treasure comes to seem run-of-the-mill when you see it at every other shop you pass. Tea glasses, check. Hookahs, check. Painted bowls, check. Bellydance costumes, brilliantly colored slippers, check. I concluded that the Grand Bazaar really only sells about 17 items. I’m kidding. But you do have to wade through a lot of repetition. Only the jewel-toned hanging glass lamps held their mysterious appeal through every sighting. Candy to my camera, they drew me to stand under them and gaze, dreaming of sultry Ottoman nights as the the waning sunlight flickered through the thousand and one colors, and drifted down to gild my upturned face .
I settled in the items I wanted to buy — a set of tea glasses — and picturing what they would look like in my living room, selected a set of red glasses. I talked the shopkeeper down a few lira and got him to throw in the spoons. I flatter myself in thinking I accomplished much with my technique, which mainly consists of smiling hugely when I offer my price.
After half an hour of sweaty explorations of the musty and smoke-filled bazaar I wanted to quench my thirst, and my desire for more Authentic Turkish Experiences, with some apple tea. And Brian wanted to try Turkish coffee. Small cafes are scattered throughout the bazaar so it didn’t take long to find one. Our waiter spoke excellent English so I had no trouble understanding when he told me the apple tea was “finished.” Ah well, I ordered mint tea instead. That seemed suitably Near East, and I was pleased to see it arrive in a glass, the fragrance of the steeping mint drifting up to mingle with the smell of centuries of tobacco that cloaked the great hall.
Everything you’ve hear about Turkish coffee being strong? It’s true. Brian’s delicate cup held maybe a heaping tablespoon of the nearly black sludge. I took a sip while I waited for my scalding tea to cool. I love a rich, strong coffee — the grounds in this made it a little unpleasant but I think I could get used to it. I sat in my little chair and looked around, wondering if I were really here, really in a place so fabled and so far from home.
Then I looked at my watch and realized our time was nearly spent. We hadn’t wandered too far from our entrance, so we zig-zagged our way slowly back in that direction. We stopped and bought a print of old Constantinople — this was Brian’s souvenir of choice.
As the shops began closing for the night we made our way through the still-impressive crowds (I pitied the group leader of a cruise ship tour I saw, struggling down a great hall — I can’t imagine herding 40 American shoppers through this den of temptation and attempting to keep them together) to the right exit — the only one we’d even seen. We obviously didn’t plunder far into the cavernous market.
After I used the public toilet just past the exit (50 euro cents and it was not Turkish-style, somewhat to my weird disappointment) I spotted Holly and Chas, returned safely with pockets still full from their adventure. Poor Holly couldn’t decide what to buy and so bought nothing.We remedied that though, with stop at a lamp shop just outside the bazaar walls.
Thus laden we walked back the way we’d come, comparing notes about our excursion. We stopped for an unscheduled (and unbudgeted for) ATM withdrawal and drifted through some of the tranquil green squares. We passed an older gentleman who appeared to purvey a turn on his scales. Curious whether the cruise eating had caught up with me I stepped on them. Naturally the result was in kilograms which was not that useful, but I dropped some coins on the scale. We visited with a fellow selling rabbit fortunes outside the Blue Mosque next. You take the fortune presented by a snuggly white rabbit and then get to pet the little creature. I think the fortunes come from a Chinese fortune-cookie factory for it was in much the same vein, though I’ve since forgotten mine.
Back at the hotel our indispensable innkeeper telephoned a taxi for us, giving me ten minutes to wipe off the worst of the day’s grime and apply lipstick before leaving for dinner in Beyoğlu across the Golden Horn. I had to pause for a moment though, to enjoy the anniversary present left in our room — a tray of lokum, pistachios, fruit and Turkish wine. Just the restorative I needed after our afternoon trip through centuries of history, religion and commerce.