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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

What is the Grand Bazaar?

The Grand Bazaar is a historic shopping mall, dissected by 80 streets, which contains over 4,000 vendors.

Grand Bazaar

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Grand Bazaar History

The Ottoman Empire, at its height stretching from the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula, and from Crimea to North Africa, owed much of its success to trade. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the covered bazaars that were a feature of all Ottoman towns of any size.

By tradition, the covered bazaar was centred on a bedesten (literally ‘place for cloth’), a brick or stone building, usually roofed with a series of small domes, that could be securely locked at night to protect the bolts of cloth and other valuables. Around this central core there was an arasta (or line of small shops), often arranged around a courtyard that, like the bedesten, could also be locked at night. The patrons of these foundations were usually the Ottoman grand viziers (or chief ministers). As trade increased, more and more shop-lined streets accrued to the bedesten and arasta, along with workshops for artisans.

The largest of all these foundations in the Ottoman world was the Grand Bazaar, although literally translated from the Turkish, Kapalı Çarşı, it’s more properly called the ‘Covered Market’. Established by Mehmed II soon after he took Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453, it was constructed as part of a general growth and development plan for a city that had become a shadow of its former self, but which Mehmed had decided would be the new capital of his empire. Although partially rebuilt several times – notably in the 16th and 20th centuries – the Grand Bazaar has changed relatively little in form and appearance since it was first established.

At the heart of the Grand Bazaar, which today attracts some 300,000 shoppers daily, are the Iç Bedesten (or Interior Market) and Sandal Bedesten. The former of these was part of the original inception of the bazaar, the latter added in the 16th century due to an increased trade in valuable fabrics such as silk. This labyrinthine complex today sells everything from imitation designer jeans, handbags, watches and perfumes, through to the finest quality Turkish rugs and 22-carat gold jewellery. Shops within these sorts of bazaars are traditionally grouped according to type, with jewellery shops all in one part of the bazaar, spice sellers in another, and so on. The Grand Bazaar is no exception to this rule.

Some 26,000 people work in the micro-world that is the Grand Bazaar. It has its own police force, post office, banks and money changers as well as a health centre. A major attraction for both locals and visitors, the Grand Bazaar featured in the James Bond movie Skyfall, with a spectacular motorcycle chase across the bazaar’s iconic domed rooftops.

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