As a long-time resident of Istanbul, readers often ask me to recommend ‘must sees’ when they’re planning their first trip to this wonderful city. While I love to seek out lesser known sights I always tell people to see the main sights first. Sultanahmet, home to the old city, offers a huge range of fascinating things to see and do, all within easy walking distances from one another. One of the best places to encounter history and also to shop for souvenirs is the Grand Bazaar, a short way up the tram line of Divan Yolu in Beyazit. Back in 1990, on my very first day in Istanbul it was the first place I went to, and this is what I wrote in my diary.
“Known in Turkish as Kapalı Çarşı or ‘covered market’, the Grand Bazaar started out life as a small wool market. Originally built in the 1400s around the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, it evolved into a jewellery warehouse, before becoming the huge sprawling bazaar it is today. As the bazaar expanded, roofs, porches, locks and gates were installed, so business could be conducted in all weather and merchandise safely locked away at the end of the day. Rich men built han which were small inns or caravanserai, around the edges of the bazaar. They were used as a place to unload goods and as a base from which to sell items brought from all parts of the empire. These caravanserai are now used as shops in an area called Çadırcılar Caddesi, the ‘Tent Maker Street’. The main street of the bazaar is called Kalpakçilar Caddesi, or ‘Furrier Street’, and like many streets both inside and outside the Grand Bazaar, the names refer to the trade or craft once practiced there. We spent hours wandering these streets and alleys and laneways, gawping in amazement at the blaze of colour coming from endless rows of shops selling gold, silver and jewellery made from precious stones. We stopped briefly to longingly caress elaborate backgammon sets inlaid with mother-of-pearl, before being distracted by the assortment of treasures hanging above our heads. There were richly patterned carpets, beaten copper trays, water jugs and coffee pots, puppets, bags and silken scarves. Everywhere we looked there was colour, noise and life.
After exiting the Grand Bazaar through one of its thirteen gateways, our excitement abruptly gave way to bewilderment. We seemed to be in the middle of a maze of little streets heading in all directions. There weren’t any street signs and nothing corresponded to any of the landmarks on our tourist map. We had absolutely no idea where we were and there was no one we felt we could ask. Still dressed in our Greek island uniforms of shorts, loose T-shirts and dirty sneakers, we were obviously foreign, and it was clear from the glances we attracted that we were definitely out of place. I could see that despite the dust covering everything around us, including the rubbish on the streets, the men hurrying by had remarkably clean shiny shoes matching their impeccably pressed suits, in stark contrast to mine. I couldn’t summon up the courage to stop any of them, so we took a chance and plunged into the mass of people swarming along the nearest street, hoping to be lucky enough to find the book bazaar.
Caught up in the crush of people, I was thrust hither and thither by hardier and more determined shoppers than I, until one shop window suddenly caught my interest.”
You can find out what happened next in my memoir “Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul“.