If you didn’t know better, the shopkeepers of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar would present forlorn figures. Foreign tourists troop past them, their gaze focused steadfastly on the far distance, flicking neither left nor right, as if to engage in any way would see them kidnapped and robbed at gunpoint. Or worse, sold a carpet.
“Hello,” the shopkeepers cry out plaintively. “Hello. I am here.”
The tourists seem dressed to a stolid uniformity. Freshly pressed khakis, checked shirts and gleaming white runners. Bum bags and badly-concealed money belts bulge from their already bulging silhouettes. In the midst of the Grand Bazaar, one of the city’s most fascinating attractions, which has drawn visitors to its expansive confines for more than 600 years, they seem intent on getting from one end to the other in the quickest possible time. Without buying a carpet.
A shopkeeper catches me watching him. He smiles and gives a non-committal shrug, his eyes twinkling with a guarded humour. It’s all a game, he seems to say, one that has been going on forever and doubtless will continue for much longer.
On busy days, when there are as many locals as tourists, the press can be close to overwhelming. The only living beings not disturbed are the cats who display an admirable calm. They’ve been the true locals of the bazaar for centuries, countless generations, and there’s nothing they haven’t seen or survived. They sit peacefully in the midst of the walkways, letting the tumult flow around them with Zen-like calm, feline pebbles in fast-flowing steams of humanity.
Anything you could possibly desire can be found in these wide dusty passages. Gold jewellery, leather coats, fake designer handbags. Beautiful decorative objects such as richly-inlaid backgammon boards and the distinctly colourful ceramics that hail from Kutahya in Turkey’s west. Clothing, fabrics, souvenirs, antiques real and otherwise, silverware and copperware, it’s all available.
Aisle upon aisle, row upon row, in covered laneways and serpentine open streets. The market developed in Byzantine times; some parts were roofed over, grew, sprawled, got bigger and then expanded further.
A precise figure is unknown but guidebooks estimate there are around 4,000 shops. A good pair of walking shoes are a necessity but more so is enough curiosity to take the time to stop and chat occasionally to the shopkeepers. You may have no intention of buying anything but it’s a social custom that pays unexpected dividends.
And when you do find something you like, there are protocols in play that it helps to know about beforehand. If you’re in a shop and you’re offered a drink, whether it be Coke, Turkish coffee or mint tea, that means the transaction is set to move to the next level. If you agree, you’re committing to the negotiating process. It’s just a matter of finding the right price.
This isn’t an Asian street market. You can’t haggle in quite the same way. Don’t over-act, throw your hands up in the air, or raise your voice. That’s not how it’s done. If you don’t like the price and it’s not going down to where you want it, be polite, thank the shopkeeper for his/her hospitality and make for the door. If you get at least three stores down the alley and you haven’t been made a better offer, it can’t be done.
Quality in the Grand Bazaar tends to be high. Expect to pay for it. You’re not in Wal-Mart. If you make a deal you’re happy with, you’ll end up with something truly special.
When it all gets too overwhelming, there are numerous restaurants and cafes throughout the market in which to relax and watch the passing parade. As I was leaving one café, I was stopped and, as is invariably the case, asked where I was from. Sydney, Australia, I replied.
The young man was beautifully dressed despite the high summer heat and impeccably polite. “Please,” he said, “I’d like you to meet someone.” The first rule of the careful tourist is never go anywhere with a stranger but the Turkish coffee bolstered a gung-ho reaction and I was up for anything except a carpet.
I baulked when he steered me towards a carpet shop but he was insistent in a way that piqued my interest. Behind the counter was a young Turkish girl. She laughed as we were introduced. She’d grown up on Sydney’s northern beaches. Her father owned this section of the markets and she spent six months of the year in Istanbul running her own carpet business.
I’d discovered something I wasn’t expecting and that made my visit all the more worthwhile. Next time I may well consider a carpet.
Words and photos © David Latta