Almost 100 mln visitors per year and a rent of 3,500 usd per month per m2: this truly is Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, in Turkey known as Kapalıçarşı, the oldest shopping centre in the world and world’s most visited tourist destination.
Its construction was ordered by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1455, two years after his conquest of Constantinople. Open since 1461, it now counts 22 gates, 64 streets, two mosques, four fountains, two hamams and 3,600 shops on nearly 31,000 m2. And, this being Turkey, many excellent restaurants and cafes of course. Already in the 15th century it was turned into a foundation (Vakif) to financially support the Hagia Sophia Mosque, till 1453 a Byzantine church.
My wife and I love to wander around, but even after all our visits we still get lost. The free Grand Bazaar app is useful, but numerous are the times that we found an excellent shop or a café, never to locate it again.
Surprisingly enough the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays and ends the working day relatively early in the rest of the week. This is not typical of Turkey with its 24/7 economy, but apparently the Grand Bazaar can afford to do so.
The Grand Bazaar is of course much more than just an old shopping mall: it is a priceless historic heritage, a way of life, an institute, a dream of 1001 nights and above all the symbol of Istanbul and Turkey. Although its organisational guild-like structure goes back centuries, it allowed for new style democracy and in January 2016 the Grand Bazaar had its first democratic board elections. Here tens of thousands of people work and all together they are known to have serious political influence as “one does not mess around with the Grand Bazaar!”
And now it is again time for renovation; the last major restoration took place in 1980. The James Bond movie Skyfall did not help when in 2011 the roof of the Grand Bazaar hosted a spectacular motorcycle chase scene, damaging some parts. Restoration will start early this year and might take five years.
Thanks to my friendship with members of the board one day I ended on the roof of the Grand Bazaar. I still remember that almost alien, wonderful sight, walking on the paths between the cupola roofs. Coming down it was the expected return to innumerable colours and smells that somehow harmoniously work well together, but in complete contrast to the world above.
As ‘yabanci’ and a potential customer you are everyone’s best friend; tea and discount are offered in once sentence. When it becomes too much my favourite approach is politely asking in Turkish how they are. The shop owners, as they are above all Turkish, then have to answer that they are fine and in return ask you how you are. This dynamics breaks the usual tourist-shop owner relationship, creating peace and smiles.
Gold, silver and diamonds? One might pay too much in some cases, but you are never cheated. There are strict codes in the Grand Bazaar and honesty is one of them.
Turkey has approximately 400 modern shopping malls and over 150 in Istanbul alone, a fact Dutch visitors always surprises, their reactions probably a left-over of our superiority complex in relation to most countries outside Europe.
Some of these modern shopping malls in Turkey I even like, but when all 400 put together they cannot stand in the shadow of the Grand Bazaar, the beating heart of the world, the one place no visitor to Turkey will ever disappoint and where one is happy when lost.