Colourful oil lamps, fragrant spices and hand-made hamam cloths: spread out over 60 streets and almost 5,000 shops of the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market in the world offers an enormous selection of goods. Nowhere else in Turkey will you see such a wonderful reflection of the typical melting pot of Turkish cultures, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Turks and the beautiful merchandise that has been sold for centuries.
Istanbul has been the capital of the 3 largest empires in history: the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, at the beginning of the 17th century, the covered Grand Bazaar was the place where all Mediterranean merchandise was brought together. To really soak up the mystical atmosphere of old Istanbul, let yourself get lost in the labyrinth of covered streets.
The Grand Bazaar has been an important trading centre in the Middle East since 1461. Amidst the labyrinth of alleys are 2 ‘bedestens’, dome-shaped market buildings, which were built in 1455 by order of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The high-walled Cevahir Bedesten in the heart of the bazaar is still the place where the most valuable merchandise is sold, such as antiques. During the reign of sultan Suleiman the Great in the 16th century, the bazaar was greatly expanded. In 1894, after an earthquake partially destroyed the market, the Bazaar underwent a major restoration.
The covered market complex stretches over an area of 31 hectares and encompasses thousands of shops, cafés and restaurants, and special architectural elements. There are 2 old mosques and 4 fountains covered with beautiful mosaics. The bazaar also has 2 14th-century hamams. The Oruculer Hamam, only accessible to men, is one of the best and cleanest hamams in Istanbul. The hamam is named after the Oruculer-gate (weavers gate) where the bathhouse is located.
In Turkish, the Grand Bazaar is also known as Kapalıçarşı, which means ‘covered bazaar’. The market was not only covered to operate under all weather conditions, but also to protect the merchandise against theft. Even today, the bazaar is completely sealed off at the end of each market day.
One of the things that have changed over time is the use of light. In the past, merchants only used natural light; oil lamps and fires were prohibited due to fire hazard. Trade began early in the morning when the first rays of sunshine seeped in through the high windows under the domed roofs and continued until sunset. The artisans and merchants are clustered around streets that are named after their wares – that is how streets emerged with names such as Helmet Makers, Napkin Makers and Quilt Makers. Even today, many similar products are sold in one street. The access gates to the bazaar are also named after the merchandise. For example, the northern gate is called Sahaflar Kapısı (used books’ salesmen) and the eastern gate is Kuyumcular Kapısı (jewellers).
“Until the end of the 19th century it was quite common for a family, after a long day of shopping at the bazaar, to go home with furniture, linen, delicatessen items, signed jewellery, new clothes for the entire family and even some weapons for the master of the house.”