The Kapalıçarşı Bazaar (Covered Market), located on European Turkey’s Istanbul peninsular, across the Bosporus from Asian Turkey’s trap door to Central Asia and the Silk Road, is arguably the world’s biggest and most vibrant Aladdin’s Den.
It is a treasure trove of market stalls that has historically acted as a king-pin meeting place for merchant traders, locals and visitors for over 500 years, all behind the historic Walled City. Gigantic, sprawling and multi-maze-like, the combined area houses over 4,000 shops across 60 streets, stretched like a giant glittering patchwork of old-school bling, between the imposing Ottoman mosques of Nuruosmaniye and Beyazit.
Visitors to the city – ever since the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (1455) – have flocked to the Bazaar’s bright lights like moths to Florence Nightingale’s lamp. Indeed, the Lady with the Lamp’s Crimean War base, at the nearby Renkioi Hospital (1854), would have been as aware of the city’s Grand Bazaar as any modern traveller. Welcoming up to 400,000 people a day, Kapalıçarşı is regarded as the ‘most visted’ monument in the world. It certainly knocks the socks off any shopping mall.
I love it.
On my first visit to the labyrinthine stalls in the early 1980s, and on every subsequent visit, I have made a point of allowing plenty of time to get lost, changing direction at the merest whim. Although my relatively slender spendings will have impacted little on this most magnificent of market’s turnover, I have filled my boots and more just by soaking up the mesmeric charm of such a vibrant trading neighbourhood. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the spices, taste the muddy coffee, feel the bite of the sugar-dusted Turkish Delight and hear the market’s tremendous fever-pitch babble and murmur.
I have never managed not to get lost. In fact, I highly recommend ‘no plan’ as the journey through the Bazaar will soon feel more like a trip through Alice’s Looking Glass than an organised purchasing procedure.
From whatever entrance I have arrived, I have inevitably struggled to find any exit, let alone one that will guide me back to wherever I last took my bearings. You can get delightfully lost at every turn. For example, even if you fancy a soft pair of coloured leather slippers, you’ll soon be distracted by another of the souk areas offering carpets, clothes, ceramics, footwear, jewellery, lighting, leather, furniture, spices, textiles, perfume, precious metals, armour, false limbs, fashion accessories, money-exchange or food-glorious-food.
I urge you to plan a visit. Especially now, when restoration works – following the Grand Bazaar Artisan Association’s claim that 2011 was the Bazaar’s 550th birthday – have given the whole infrastructure an exciting lift. It is guaranteed to give any visitor a walk-through history, as much as an otherworld Aladdin’s Den experience.