The Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), built in the 15th century, is the oldest covered market in the world. Covering an area of 54.653 square meters, it also still ranks as one of the world’s biggest covered markets. In other words, keep on reading if you want to be prepared before entering this maze of 56 interconnecting vaulted passages, housing over 4.000 shops with persistent shopkeepers eager to use their relentless sales tricks.
The Grand Bazaar Started Out Small
The Grand Bazaar was commissioned by Mehmet II (1444-1481) immediately after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 to provide financial resources for the Hagia Sophia.
The construction of the Grand Bazaar began in 1461. The Grand Bazaar, which was a wooden structure at the beginning, is now entirely built of stone and brick. Bricks were used for the vaulted arches, cut stones were used at the base of the arches, and walls were built by plastering over bricks or stone.
The oldest building is the Cevahir or İç Bedesten. The second oldest building is the Sandal Bedesten. Bedesten, a vaulted and fireproofed segment of the Grand Bazaar, gets its name from bez (cloth) and means cloth seller’s market. Both bedestens are typical examples of classical Ottoman architecture.
The Cevahir Bedesten, initially built for cloth trading and separated from the rest of the Grand Bazaar by four gates, later developed into a market for gold and precious stones. Located in the center of the Grand Bazaar, it also houses a bank.
Named after a type of cloth woven of silk and cotton fibers, the Sandal Bedesten spans an area of 2.435 square meters and is covered by 20 lead-plated domes. The Istanbul Municipality used the Sandal Bedesten as an auction house 1914 to 1980.
The Grand Bazaar Today
The Grand Bazaar reached its present size after the surrounding streets were provided overhead cover using canvas and the neighbouring hans were integrated into it. Hans (inns) are two- or three-storied buildings. The shops within the hans were called hucre (cell) and they faced the square or rectangular inner court.
Every street was dedicated to a profession. Today most of these professions have disappeared but their memories live on through the names of the streets. Initially the roofs of the domes were covered with lead sheets. Later clay tiles from Marseille were used and today they are covered with ordinary tiles.
Competition was banned in the Grand Bazaar. Up to the 19th century, the shops, called dolap, did not have a name or signboard.
The Grand Bazaar underwent restoration only after the 1894 earthquake. It was after that when Western style signboards and display windows started being used. While there were 29 hans before the restoration process, only 17 were left after the restoration.
Up until recently the Grand Bazaar was home to 5 mosques, 1 school, 7 fountains, 10 wells, 1 water dispenser and 1 ablution fountain. Today only 1 mosque and 1 ablution fountain are left.
It has 21 gates, 2 bedestens, 17 inns, 56 streets, nearly 4000 shops and employs more than 30.000 people.
Tourist Trap or Not?
For centuries the Grand Bazaar was the most vital centre of commerce, handicraft and finance in the Mediterranean and Near East.
Today, many may refer to the Grand Bazaar as a tourist trap, but that’s a distortion of the truth. Sure, without proper preparation for a visit to the Grand Bazaar, you may be an easy prey for the seasoned shopkeepers. But if you know how to bargain like a Turk, you can make excellent deals for authentic leather items, carpets, gold, silver or souvenirs; just like the locals do.
In the end, the Grand Bazaar was and is a place where (import/export) businesses flourishes. The fact that it became a tourist attraction is of course a nice extra.