The Grand Bazaar ~ where to start? This Istanbul landmark dates from the 1400s and is reputed to be the oldest and largest of covered marketplaces in the world. It's no surprise that with over 3,000 stalls and shops lining more than 50 interconnected streets and alleyways, the Grand Bazaar is atop most must-see lists for first-time visitors to the city. Before our trip, several friends who have traveled there (as well as many travel guides) suggested a smaller bazaar near the Blue Mosque for actual shopping, but insisting that the the Grand Bazaar must be visited for the experience.
On one of our first evenings, we walked through the smaller, recommended Arasta Bazaar which was in the neighborhood of our hotel (more later) and determined that yes, we would definitely be returning to shop here. And then we penciled in a stop at the Grand Bazaar on the following day when we had other sights to see in that neighborhood. An hour or two was thought sufficent to soak up the flavor of the place, evade the aggressive dealers and take some photos.
The variety of goods for sale in the bazaar is broad ~ food, clothing, textiles, jewelry, tourist items ~ and the quality ranges from imported junk (China) to high end. We had been warned of the persistence of the sellers, that once you stepped into a shop, you probably weren't stepping out without something and that serious haggling over price is the expected, historic norm. We were on high guard.
But a funny thing happened ~ or didn't. Although many of the dealers were cajoling as we walked by, imploring us to just step in, consider their wares, the atmosphere was quite different from what we expected. If we were good-natured in our refusal, they were similarly good-natured in the rebuff. And when I got up the nerve to enter a rug shop (there must be a thousand in the Grand Bazaar, alone), I was pleasantly surprised to find fixed prices and a friendly staff who explained that many of the better quality shops prefer to do business that way now as tourists, especially, are put off by the bargaining.
We relaxed and started to have some fun. We ventured into shops and stalls, admired and inquired. Haggled a bit, in some cases getting a better price, in some cases not. But in each case, the interactions were relaxed, friendly and quite interesting. Many come looking for jewelry or ceramics. For me, the bazaar was all about the textiles.
I went to Turkey hoping to bring home a suzani. I saw many, many pieces, all qualities and sizes but didn't purchase one. The hanging above looks exactly what I was looking for ~ yet I have no memory of seeing it, let alone taking this photo! Does that give you an idea of Heather's and my state of euphoria (stupor?) as we drifted through the unending warren of delights? (The guys, not so much ~but they were good sports.)
Outside of most rug shops, kilim pillowcovers (cut from flatweave rugs) were stacked high to encourage browsing, I'd guess. Most were geometric but when I asked at one about availability of florals, he ran and got this dealer, aka 'the George Clooney of Istanbul' who brought me to his shop around the corner, dropping piles for me to peruse while he regaled us with humorous stories of some of his exploits in the business. I did get a deal here and the entertainment alone was worth the price!
In sharp contrast to the opulence of the domed ceilings of the Grand Bazaar, the Arasta Bazaar in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul looks a little sad early in the morning on a snowy day. But it's a little gem of a place with many lovely shops and almost no pressure. A quiet place to browse and consider.
I cringe a bit while posting this photo ~ it was about 20° with a brisk wind, I was freezing! ~ but it's my best shot of the interior bazaar area, the nicer shops which are well worth a visit. Iznik!!
And this ~ this is, in my opinion, the crown jewel of the bazaar, a little shop chockablock full of (mostly) vintage textiles. Museum quality textiles. Hats and robes, saddlebags and wallhangings, bolts of ikats (vintage and reproduction) available by the yard. It's a tiny place, the four of us pretty much filled the available floor space as I slowly turned, trying to take in all of stacked and hanging items. I was practically hyperventilating but it was so high-end and nearing closing time, so I didn't want to ask to be shown pieces. We turned to exit and something caught my eye on a bottom shelf.
These are wooden spice boxes from Afghanistan. As the young clerk started pulling them out, each was more beautiful than the last. I was fawning all over them (so much for keeping a straight face...) And then he said something that really knocked the pins out from under me. "We have a lot more at our bigger gallery." I thought they were going to have to carry me out of there but when I heard that their home gallery was just around the corner from the bazaar entrance, not a one minute walk from this shop, we were off.
The people working at the gallery were generous with their time, sharing staggeringly beautiful pieces from their collection drawers with fascinating stories to go along with them. It turns out that while most of their sale pieces for are originals, part of their business is in selling very high-end reproductions of antique Caucasian and Ottoman textiles, all hand embroidered and produced by their shop of artisans in Armenia. They pride themselves on providing sustainable income for skilled women through through this project. Another most memorable interaction!
Are you wondering why my photos from Arasta are both morning and night shots? Because after some of my usual back-and-forthing, I had to run back the next morning to buy a spice box.
So our trip was drawing to a close and something was nagging at me. I had posted an Instagram photo of this rug shop from the Grand Bazaar earlier in the week and each time I looked at it, I was more incredulous that I hadn't gone in to take a closer look at these stunning, graphic kilims. Our plans for Friday were somewhat compromised by the unexpected frigid weather so we decided to spend part of the day back over at the Grand Bazaar.
I'm not sure why I've always been so enthralled by patterns, but the rugs in this shop just about took my breath away.Of various vintages, mostly 40-50 years old (the ones we looked at), those exposed to more sun over the years were softly faded. Others retained the original color saturation of the vegetable dyes used.
Here's the thing about the rug shops. Almost all stock is folded and stacked so browsing necessitates a salesperson unfurling options after you ask to see a certain size or pattern. This is where the pressure comes in so many situations as the more rugs laid out, the stronger the pressure to purchase. We'd heard some real horror stories before our trip but this couldn't have been further from the case here at Recep Karaduman. After many were considered, they refolded what we clearly weren't interested in, leaving our favorites arrayed on the floor for consideration.
Why are these guys smiling? I've heard Turkey doesn't allow its visitors to leave without a rug. That's true, isn't it?