Thursday, 6 August 2009

Istanbul: When The Grand Bazaar Was The Center Of The Ottoman World

ISTANBUL, August 15, 2009 – For centuries, the world greatest emporium for buying carpets was Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

And, specifically, the address was the Grand Bazaar, the richest and most popular shopping palace in the city.

The Grand Bazaar was the biggest terminus of the Silk Roads that moved west across Eurasia and it was to here that carpets and luxury goods of every kind flowed.

The Ottoman Empire itself, one of the world’s largest empires from its founding in the 14th century to its decline beginning in the 18th, was the biggest customer. But merchants from all over Europe also came to buy the goods wholesale and take them home for resale.

What could you find in the Grand Bazaar? What couldn’t you find in the Grand Bazaar!

There were rugs from Central Asia, from the Caucasus, from Anatolia. There were rugs smuggled by the tons across the border from Persia, the Ottoman Empire’s great eastern rival. The border was often officially closed but the carpet trade was so lucrative that both sides turned to a third party – their Armenian populations – to act as the go-between for the business and let them freely cross the frontier.

The carpets were sold in the Grand Bazaar along with rich silk and brocaded fabrics, precious stones, gold, silver, pearls, shoes, books, and jewel-encrusted weapons. The value of the goods was reflected in the rent merchants paid to occupy a space in the bazaar: many times more than for anywhere else in the city. And the bazaar extended through miles and miles of covered, labyrinthine lanes.

The story of the Grand Bazaar is told in a book of the same name written by the late Celik Gulersoy in 1980.

Gulersoy, a leading historical preservationist, conjures up the atmosphere of the bazaar in the Ottoman era through the impressions of Turkish and European writers of the time.

One vivid account comes from a French traveler in 1877, during the last years that the Grand Bazaar could still be seen in its original form. The writer, M. de Gasparin, is an incurable romantic. But there is clearly enough color in the bazaar to spark any imagination:

“An Arab, with his spear in hand, sitting surrounded by the Persian shawls which he brought by his caravans, used to walk after a long row of camels in the desert. Another merchant is from the depths of Central Asia. Another one, with a thin face and pale complexion, has passed the sand and the seaside beaches of Syria on horseback and brought golden colored silk from Lebanon and soft clothes and pleasant scarves from Tyre and Sidon ... Egypt has sent that nearly black-skinned merchant who has brought the heavy cloth of that country, a mixture of silk and wool. This thin-faced bronze, tanned man comes from Morocco, leaning against milk-white threads and lapis blue dresses. Wherever these men may have been, whatever adventures they may have lived and whichever foreign country has injected the traces of other skies into their faces, their brows have lost nothing of their majestic nobility and their meaningful eyes have lost nothing of the depth that comes from authority, self-respect, and self-assurance. These merchants do not call the passers-by to their shops. They do not even have an inviting attitude; one could sense no greed in them, nor any worry in their posture … If a buyer came, ‘Masallah,’ if no one entered their shops, ‘So what?’”

That is a very different image than the bazaar of today, where hustling a customer is the rule. But the Ottoman bazaar was a very different place before Turkey modernized at the turn-of-the-last century.

The traditional arrangement was for the traders to line both sides of the bazaar’s covered streets. Not standing in the doorway of walk-in shops like today, but sitting on divans with nothing behind them but a large cabinet or a set of shelves. The cabinets, fixed to the walls, showcased some of their wares and hid the rest.

“The space occupied by any one of these tradesmen was generally small, about six to eight feet in length,” Gulersoy says. “In the bazaar jargon, these were known as ‘dolap’(stalls) and they had a depth of about three to four feet. Sometimes they were separated by thin curtains or wooden latticework partitions. It was possible for the customer to sit on the divan next to the tradesman and examine his choice while conversing in an easy, comfortable manner and drinking coffee or smoking a ‘long pipe.’”

At night, the cabinets were closed up.

Why did the merchants favor this open-street arrangement for the bazaar?

One reason, says Gulersoy, was “the old traditional practice of women covering their faces in the presence of men. There was a need to prevent women from having to enter closed places where there were men. There was a tendency to resolve all social matters out in the open.” He adds that “the custom was that all the shopkeepers, Muslim and non-Muslim, sit on their benches quietly and only answer when the customer directs as question at them.”

The Ottoman Grand Bazaar was not just the richest shopping center in Istanbul, it was in many ways its economic heart.

Its core, two separate covered markets called the Inner and Outer Bedestan, was built by Mehmet soon after he conquered Constantinople in 1453. Over the following years, the streets between the two covered bazaars were covered over, too, along with the surrounding streets, creating a covered city.

This covered city was not just a marketplace but a bank, too. The Inner Bedestan, built with walls 1.5 meters thick that stand to this day, was Istanbul’s 'coffre fort' where the richest citizens could keep their valuables in security. The Inner Bedestan also had the city’s wealthiest merchants, who lent money at interest for business ventures and themselves might own trading ships or major shares in camel caravans.

When sultans wanted to impress the citizenry with the Ottoman Empire’s wealth, or celebrate special occasions, they would sometimes call out the Grand Bazaar's merchants to parade in public. One Turkish observer of such a parade, Evilya Celebi, wrote this account in the early 1600s:

“Sultan Murad IV, before the Baghdad campaign in the year of the Hagira 1048, summoned the authorities to his audience chamber and said, ‘If I conquer the city of Baghdad in this expedition, I want all the soldiers and shop owners of Istanbul, according to the old regulations, with their guild wardens, sages, sheiks, stewards, Aghas, guild caretakers, and guards, to parade in front of Alay Kosku (a pavilion not far from the Grand Bazaar formerly used by the sultans to watch parades) both on foot and horseback, in groups, with eight military bands playing. Take down all these instructions correctly. Those who supply false information, I will cut in four.”

Celibi then describes the merchants as they march with their wares. Some of them ride on carriages decked out like parade floats:

Carpet dealers – 40 shops and 111 men. They parade with their 'mounted shops' adorned with Thessaloniki, Ushak, Kula, Egyptian, and Isfahan rugs.

Silken Robes of Honor dealers – 5 shops and 105 people. This guild joins the parade weaving the seven types of the Royal Robes of Honor and adorning the robes.

Not just the merchants and craftsmen parade, so do the hundreds of officials and employees of the bazaar:

The Trade Watchmen of the Inner Bedestan – 70 persons. The head of these is the second officer of the Sultan’s black eunuchs. These are all guaranteed people, devout Muslims who light the oil lamps in the Market Hall … when their post is vacated … the vacancy is filled by one of the Bedestan porters who is worthy of the post.

The Porters of the Inner Bedestan – 300 persons. Each night they carry the tradesmen’s chests and merchandise to the outer cellars of the Bedestan, stacking them there as a safeguard against fire. These porters parade with their load supports on their backs, rope in hand, and sword in belt.

The Market Hall Criers – These men have warrants and trade charters and are magnificent and trustworthy men who serve in the Inner Bedestan. All of them join the parade with jewelry on their clothes, wearing swords, double-edged scimitars, fur, and other valuable clothes.

And on, and on.

As the parade suggests, the Grand Bazaar was a highly organized institution, as much or more than an urban shopping mall today. Its administration was overseen by the royal court and its commerce was carefully regulated by a guild system.

The guilds insisted that all the merchants of a single trade be located in a single street or area of adjoining streets in the bazaar. The close seating arrangement was a form of price control because it prevented individual merchants from underselling their fellow guildsmen or overcharging and driving away customers.

Today, the Ottoman market has long since become a free market. The guild system, abolished in 1913, has given way to shop owners of all kinds mixed together and competing for the highest prices.

It is ironic for visitors to realize that today's hustling chaos is a world removed from the calm, rich, self-satisfied air of the Grand Bazaar’s heyday.

Just how different was it?

Gulersoy tries to answer the question this way:

“While gold poured down on the Throne City, the Covered Bazaar was also filled with gold, silver, silver thread, silk, jewelry, and crystal. But when the empire fell, the pale and dead colors of the sunset reflected on these walls.”

He adds: “the mood of Istanbul in each period is shown in the Grand Bazaar … certain other ages came, and copper took the place of gold and bead that of pearl.”

Today, the Grand Bazaar is only one of many places in Istanbul to buy carpets and there are many opinions about which is the best.

But the Bazaar does offer one thing that no other venue can provide. That is, 1,500 years of history and the sense that, like the starting price of a carpet, there is more to the story than meets the eye.

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5 comments:

Don said...

Love your blog! Am going to Istanbul shortly and you provide great background. Thanks.

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