The Grand Bazaar is one of the most known and ‘must see’ places in Istanbul. It was constructed not long after the Ottomans took over Constantinople and was inspired by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1455. Over many years, the bazaar has undergone expansions, fires and earthquakes…yet still remains a center for commerce in the old city even today. It started as a forum for textile merchants to sell their goods, then expanded into luxury and textile goods. Now it is a showcase of textiles, jewelry, antiques, carpets, instruments, and (as expected for a major tourist attraction) souvenirs.
When I walked in for the first time, it was an overwhelming site. A large domed street stretches on with side domed ally ways leading off in all directions coaxing you to wander down every isle. Every shop is brimming with eye-catching colors and textures.
People are everywhere…. strolling along gazing at the goods; rushing down streets carrying trays of tea for visitors; men delivering carpets; women trying on their newest piece of jewelry, shop keepers welcoming you into their stand in all the languages they know until you acknowledge them; children holding their mother’s hand exhausted and ready for a nap; and those more interested in photographing everything with little intention of purchasing a single thing.
I walked into a scarf shop and immediately a man had noticed which scarf I was eyeing, brought it off the shelf, fluffed it out, let me feel it, then effortlessly draped and tied it around my shoulders in the most exquisite fashion I have EVER seen. This man knows his scarves. They all do.
Another scarf shop with amazing patterns in every direction was a breath of fresh air. The shopkeeper has been in Istanbul 6 months and has been learning Turkish. He is from Syria, and his English is quite good! He demonstrated (on me) the way a lady ties her scarf if she is married or if she is single and gave a few pointers on how to find authentically ‘made in Turkey’ scarves. He said, ”If it is a Pashmina, it’s from India; if someone says it’s a hand embroidered Turkish scarf, they are lying because we do not hand embroider scarves in Turkey…they are undoubtedly Indian; if it’s Alpaca wool then it is from Peru; and camel hair scarves are from Syria. If you want Turkish made, look for the thin and raw silk scarfs with printed patterns on them. All the rest are probably from somewhere else.”
With all the shopping at the Bazaar, you will most probably need a pick-me-up during the day. If this is the case, flag down a man carrying tea or better yet, take a seat at one of the corner cafes. You can get a Turkish coffee and watch all the action simultaneously!
Also, if you find yourself have had too much tea and need a place to relieve yourself, look for “Tuvalet” and the signs Bay (Men) and Bayan (Women). In my experience at the Grand Bazaar, the men are free to walk directly into the facilities but a woman is instructed to ring a doorbell. A few moments after the ‘ring’ a man appears with a key. He will open the door for you, ask if you require paper (from a paper towel roll), and kindly close the door behind you. You will then encounter (maybe your first) “eastern toilet.” This contraption consists of a hole in the ground and a rope hanging from the ceiling. Do not be alarmed! This is typical and is actually more common for public and government building restrooms than the more familiar “western toilet.”