Istanbul's intriguing markets

I'm rambling down Istanbul's Tigcilar Sokak (Swordmaker Street), a narrow lane of small shops and overhanging balconies. Abruptly, the street and the warm May sunlight end in a low, shadowed archway.

Walking into the dim tunnel light I can barely make out crowds and lights, colorful flags, hordes of treasure. I've entered one of the many gates to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, a covered labyrinth that promises to be truly exotic.

It does not disappoint.

Voices come in all tongues, from English and German to Arabic, French, Japanese, and, of course, Turkish, raised to sales pitch. It is a polyglot worthy of this city of 12 million. Shops are overflowing with goods. Scents of perfumes jostle with those of soaps and teas and food. Waiters scoot by, delivering trays of dolmas or kebabs, rice and fried fish, desserts of baklava and rice pudding.

Streams of native shoppers and tourists weave in and out, a fabric of people in a dream fantasy mall.

Founded by Mehmet II in the 146s, the Kapali Carsi (Covered Market) is a maze of 4,000 shops where more than 20,000 people work. One of the city's two great markets, the Grand Bazaar lies in Old Istanbul, within the 5th-century walls built by Emperor Theodosius II to protect ancient Constantinople.

The shops were originally segregated by product, and some of that pattern remains: a block of leather is followed by silver, giving way to gold, then glassware, pottery, crystal, ceramics....

Kalpakcilar Basi Caddesi is one of the main streets in the Grand Bazaar, and it is crowded with jewelry. Along Ressam Basmacilar there is more variety: pottery, glassware, and such tourist-trade items as turbans, hookahs, belly-dancing outfits, and blue-glass protective "evil eyes."

Scattered everywhere are food shops, money-changers, and carpets, carpets, carpets.

Merchants are not shy. Because rents can run thousands of dollars per month - enormous sums in Turkey - there is pressure to sell merchandise. I was quickly approached by salesmen (never women) who were both charming and determined. They offered clever conversation and tea - usually apple tea, and assured me there was no obligation to buy.

One sales line, pronounced in the excellent English so often heard in Istanbul, was: "Wherever you are going, the shortcut is through my shop." Another was from a young man gesturing with hypnotic waves of the hand: "You are thinking, 'I want a leather coat, I want a leather coat...' "

There is a lost-in-the-candy-store sensation in the Grand Bazaar that is difficult to resist, but do not buy right away. If you are after a specific product, do your homework. Know the price range of the leather or jewelry or ceramics, and have some standards suggested by neutral sources for judging quality. For ceramics, a source like the Iznik Foundation's website ( is a good place to start.

Then stroll the Grand Bazaar and compare. Expect to haggle on prices, getting down to what you know is reasonable. Everything is negotiable, and the first suggested prices are quite high - no matter who is shopping. One salesman, sounding rather like a devious car dealer, said that prices quoted to Germans were high, because Germans bid down so extremely, but that prices suggested for Americans were always reasonable!

Also, practice with the currency. All those zeros can be confusing. Don't cash travelers checks or visit ATMs far ahead of time. Know the rate of exchange the day you shop.

Still, there was a feeling of honesty through most of the shopping process. These men were merchants, and I was a potential customer. Marked prices were understood to be starting points only, and banter was customary before serious dealing.

I did, in fact, talk to several merchants, accepting tea in one shop, without buying a product or being made to feel guilty. I was self-conscious only once when leaving, but that was because the owner's opening line was so good: "Hey, do you think I look like Al Pacino?"

Though the Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth, you can't really get lost. But you may come out opposite your original entrance, facing the Old Book Bazaar or Istanbul University, unsure of directions. I never saw Tigcilar Sokak again, but that only added to the experience.

The other great bazaar in Old Istanbul is the Misir Carsisi (Egyptian Market), also called the Spice Bazaar, which dates from 1664.

It is next to the New Mosque (started in 1597), near the southern end of the Galata Bridge. There are fewer tourists here than in the Grand Bazaar, less English spoken, and many more Turks doing their regular shopping.

About 100 shops line the enclosed core of the market, but hundreds of other vendors fill the streets surrounding the central building.

It is, if possible, more dreamlike than the Grand Bazaar. And because merchant rents are lower here than in the Grand Bazaar, prices are often proportionally less, and there is more variety.

Mounds of henna, saffron, peppers, and pistachios might be followed by jewelry, VCRs, bedspreads, fish. And the fish is followed by candy mountains of Turkish delight, a soft, gummy confection that a little tastes like old-fashioned Chuckles candy.

A sampling of spice prices revealed some real bargains, at least by American standards. The green powder of henna, overflowing from burlap bags, was about $1.15 per pound. It is often 20 times that in the United States.

For products from Europe or the United States, rates were more normal. Turkish pistachio prices were almost identical to those at home for California nuts.

Vendors may specialize: One sold nothing but Q-Tips, another toy airplanes. Or, you might find a mall within the mall. One store, the Filibe Spices Center, offered caviar, candy, honey, oils, perfumes, carpets, and - true to its name - spices.

The rather tame Aphrodisiaque des Sultans shop sold citric acid, currants, gunpowder green tea, luffas, bath soap, bee pollen - and cans of Raid!

What is not found in the Egyptian Market can be found nearby. In the courtyard, next to the New Mosque, is Istanbul's market for flowers, plants, and songbirds. Also outside are vendors of clothing, hardware, fruits, and vegetables. Food products, perhaps because Turkish organic farming has grown tenfold in the past 10 years, looked especially appetizing. Walking toward the Galata Bridge, along with a spectacular view of the city north of the Golden Horn, you'll see many open-air food vendors selling local fare and the universal ice-cream bar.

The only drawback to the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Market is that they spoil shopping at home. After I returned from Turkey, American malls felt "virtual," as flat as computer screens, and my old shopping list was boring.

Now there's only one item on the new one: Istanbul.

Istanbul's markets

The Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Market are open 8:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. daily, except Sunday.

The easiest access to the Grand Bazaar is to walk about a half mile west along Divan Yolu Cadessi, which starts at the Hippodrome. There are several side streets to the right, such as Carsikapi Sokak (Marketgate Street), which lead into the bazaar.

For the Egyptian Market, take a tram to Eminonu or walk toward the south end of the Galata Bridge.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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