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The Fabulous Grand Bazaar of Istanbul

                                                                         by Diana McLeod                                            2008

I’'ve been meaning to write about the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, but it has been challenging for me. On the one hand, there is the romantic side of the Grand Bazaar. It is, after all, one of the most famous historic markets in the world. The glamour and excitement of the Kapali Çarşi has been written about so often (and deservedly so) that I think that I would be remiss if I didn’'t treat my readers to a fun-filled exploration of its exotic aisles. On the other hand, I am, after seventeen years, a seasoned professional buyer. I would be deceitful if I failed to reveal my honest opinions of the merchandise. So, here I am, the starry-eyed explorer vs the cynical critic, in a piece that may get me diagnosed with a serious personality disorder!

THE MAGIC OF THE MARKETPLACE: The Grand Bazaar lives up to its name. When you enter the Medieval gates of the historic covered market, and you get your first glimpse down the first aisle, the colors dazzle the eye, and the arched corridors of the market draw you irresistibly in. There is so much to look at!

The Grand Bazaar is famous for its jewelry. The shop windows were virtually afire with ostentatious gemstones and the gleam of precious pearls. We windowshopped at glittering gold shops, and silver shops, and shops filled with curios and antique pieces and unique treasures. There were outrageous stones- emerald crystals as big as a spool of thread especially caught my eye. Our very favorite pieces were in the shops run by dealers who venture into the wild interior of Asia to buy antique tribal jewelry. These artifacts were very exotic:– from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. We saw fabulous wedding necklaces, headdresses, bracelets and other treasures form the East.

The lamp shops were beautiful! Turkey makes a large variety of decorative glass lamps in every color of the rainbow. Most of these were hanging lamps, so each shop kept clusters of spectacularly colored creations dangling from its ceiling. The overall effect was like looking at a finely detailed stained glass window. The lamps reminded me of the stories of the “Arabian Nights”. A thousand and one lights! Perfect decor for any palace seraglio...

Oh, the silk shops! Lovely shawls and scarves of every imaginable shape and color lay draped or folded in endless patterns that delighted my eye. There were belly dancer costumes, spangled with sequins or little coins, and bedspreads and brocaded pillows with red tassels, and vintage Ottoman style clothing and slippers in silk velvet, and so much more. I fell in love with fabrics all over again.

Turkey has a unique and beautiful style of pottery. Each piece is highly detailed and brilliantly colored, with delicate floral patterns in pleasing arabesques. Pottery shops in the Grand Bazaar were incredible! The quality and the style really drew me in, and I considered bringing some home with us as gifts.

I won't forget the carpet shops. The leading shops in the Grand Bazaar undoubtedly sell the best of the best of Turkish carpets, if you know how to look for them. I could not help but stop to admire. I was, of course immediately spotted by smiling carpet salesmen. These good looking young men sure can work wonders on a gal’s' self esteem! The flirtatious banter that followed was undoubtedly worth the sales pitch!

There was more to see down every corridor! We visited the gold aisle, the diamond aisle, the leather district, and the antiques district. There were inlaid boxes and chessboards from Syria, and “evil eye” shops (the blue glass suncatchers that supposedly protect the home from evil) and typical souvenir shops and Tee shirts and all the rest. I could have spent all day exploring the depths of the market, where fewer tourists go. And of course, we were invited upstairs to view a couple of special collections. They welcomed us with traditional Turkish hospitality, and served us sweet apple tea in little pear shaped glasses. Truly, the Grand Bazaar deserves to be called one of the best tourist attractions in all of Turkey!

BUYER, BEWARE! As I said before, I would be remiss if I did not reveal the other side of my personality. I will now, in all honesty, debunk the Grand Bazaar. Here goes...

The more that we looked at jewelry shops, the more frustrated we became. Dave and I were hoping to find something in the way of good quality local jewelry that we could bring home for our shop. Sadly, the silver shops held almost nothing that actually comes from Turkey, or even from the region. We saw tons of stuff that came directly from Thailand! I saw inlaid shell pieces and plain silver designs that I buy on Khao San Road, and marcasite from Bangkok factories. I also looked at plenty of poorly made gemstone pieces from India, complete with plastic “lapis” and fake “turquoise.” Prices on decent jewelry items were much higher than they are in our shop. The only local products that had any appeal were pendants with Islamic calligraphy done in silver. They were well done, but not even remotely marketable at home.

The gold shops were no better. Prices were absurd, and the myriads of fake, manmade or dreadfully poor quality gemstones being fobbed off on innocent tourists were pretty shameless. Of course, that is to be expected in a place like this. I wouldn'’t shop this market without carrying a gold tester with me!

The silk and clothing shops really annoyed me. The salesmen kept telling me that everything was pure silk and made in Turkey. Actually, most of the stuff is mixed or made with manmade fibers. I can buy it all in Delhi, and, believe me, so did they! Even the “Turkish” belly dancing outfits! (I know exactly where I can get most of these same products in Pahar Ganj). In fairness, a few of the products actually were made of genuine silk. Most of these also came from India or China. Don'’t get me wrong, I really love Indian fabrics, even the manmade ones. I just love them at Indian wholesale prices!

I was really excited about the pottery shops, until I told one shopkeeper that I had a lead test kit with me. He finally confessed that all of the beautiful pottery they were selling uses a lead-based glaze. That means that this pottery is poisonous!!! Using this pottery with food of any kind can lead to lead poisoning! I couldn'’t buy the pottery, since I was planning to buy practical pieces! I worried about the thousands, maybe millions, of people who bring this stuff home with them. How many people use this stuff, or give it as gifts? (One “buyer, beware” tip: always carry a lead test kit with you if you plan to buy pottery overseas in markets! The kits are super cheap, and small, and they weigh nothing, and you can get them at most hardware stores. Don'’t fall victim to toxic pottery!) (Or toxic lead paint in toys!) Tradewinds only sells pottery that has official international lead-free certification.

Carpet shops in fancy tourist traps like the Grand Bazaar should be avoided at all costs. First of all, unless you know carpets, don'’t buy anything because you will pay too much. You may even wind up with a machine-made Chinese carpet that you could have bought at Walmart. Besides, even if you were lucky enough to find the most honest and the most fairly priced shop in the entire Grand Bazaar, you are still guaranteed to pay way too much. Why? Because the shop rents in the bazaar are astronomical! We talked to shopkeepers in some of the shops. There was one guy whose silver shop was about eight feet by six feet square. That's about the size of a small bathroom. He was paying the equivalent of $5,000 US dollars per month for that tiny space. You can just imagine what a large carpet shop has to pay! They have no choice. They must jack the prices up to pay the horrendous rent. (Location, location, location...)

In the end, Dave and I left the Bazaar without buying anything except for one Tee shirt, for a family member who likes foreign T shirts. We haggled hard for the price, and took care to buy it at closing time. I also took home memories, which for me are the most priceless of souvenirs.

Thanks for reading! Diana

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