The orld’s oldest shopping mall.
During the Roman era Anatolia was the bread basket for the entire empire, and even today there are more Roman ruins in present day Turkey than anywhere else in the world. Even during the Trojan War the citizens lived well with a secret underground passageway that brought in fruits, vegetables, and meats into Troy from the province of Lydia — the Greeks could not understand how the walled city held out for ten years.
The Bazaar’s main entrance.
During the Middle Ages the Grand Bazaar of Constantinople was created, around the 1540s for the Spice Market, then a century later for the Grand Bazaar — and today the Bazaar holds treasures to be found. You may not find a magic flying carpet to ride, but the rug merchants will fly out of back rooms to offer their stout Turkish coffee. The beans are ground and placed loose in expresso-type glasses, with hot water and honey and sugar added to keep you awake to hear the merchants’ spiels and haggle — “yes you need a $60,000 hand-woven carpet”, that are still made today in places such as Cappadocia. The first coffee beans were discovered in a hidden canyon in Ethiopia about 4,000 years ago, but probably were called something else, because coffee is an Arabic word, i.e. Arabica.
In the James Bond thriller Skyfall 007 races a dirt bike through the Grand Bazaar that spans many buildings and centuries and also includes the Spice Market. The Grand Bazaar is still the main market for Istanbul, and in fact I have seen motorcycle parts, car wheel rims, and other assorted auto products in the various stalls. Most merchants hawk food items or gold and silver jewelry, or clothing, including real silk wedding gowns — there’s an entire Silk Market. There are bins of olive soap and pumpkin fiber soaping bags, which I have never seen in any other market in the world.
Haggle with the merchants.
I have been to the Grand Bazaar many times when traveling to the city along the Bosphorus, and it is always a fun and fascinating adventure. I have tasted the sweet Turkish Delight — squares of caramelized toffee and honey topped with white walnuts, which are all homegrown in Turkey. They are served pre-flight on Turkish Airlines. There are stalls filled with smoked fish, mostly smaller Mediterranean sea bass, and even some of them are caramelized. There is always grilled lamb kabobs to be sampled. Sausages hang like gallow nooses from the ceiling.
How about a sandwich?
Taste unique finger foods wrapped in grape leaves, such as zucchini fritters. Try a freshly squeezed pomegranate elixir, a new crop for the country. Every type of fruit is grown in Turkey, from melons to peaches, apricots, and berries, and they can be purchased fresh, dried, or shrink wrapped within the Bazaar. They take Turkish lira, Euros, dollars, or whatta ya got? Rubles . . . maybe not. Russia imports 80% of its tomatoes and other vegetables from Turkey. Who would want to boycott the Grand Bazaar?
The Great Silk Road ended at the Grand Bazaar.
Marco Polo passed through Byzantine constructed Constantinople on his journey to China to later report back the wonders of the Far East, three centuries before the Grand Bazaar became the world’s first mall. The Bazaar is where the Secular West meets the Islamic East. There is an entire section of the Bazaar devoted to books, many are rare texts. There is a thriving international art colony here promoting cultural awakening displayed down each crowded corridor.
Hey, try a glass of tea with a couple of tahini cookies while admiring yourself in the antique mother-of-pearl Syrian hand mirrors. Sure there are knock-offs here, check those Iznik tiles. But that $700 lambskin jacket is so soft and light weight it is the real thing. Even the Grand Bazaar has a knock-off, half the size, and in Las Vegas at Ballys Hotel and Casino.
Everyone in Istanbul shops at the Bazaar.
Many of the homes in the European side of Istanbul have been restored as shops or boutique hotels and the proprietors visit the Grand Bazaar to stock their shelves with goodies or furnish their lobbies with Turkish sofas and the bedrooms with sweet honey candles.
Even in the Roman era the city was known as “The Golden Horn”, which is actually a scimitar-shaped wedge of waterway accessible from the salty Bosphorus. At one time wheat grew on both sides of the Golden Horn, but now the Fisherman’s Bridge connects Constantinople with the newer Istanbul, packed with apartment complexes and high rises into the rolling steppes; hundreds of anglers are out on the bridge daily, and their catch no doubt lands in the Grand Bazaar fish market or on your evening meal platter. The Golden Horn scimitar is represented on the star and crescent red flag of Turkey today. Damascus steel was the best metal for swords because the Arabs had a secret, olive pits were tossed into the crucibles that made them burn hotter and thus eliminating more impurities.
Golden treats from the “Golden Horn”.
Napoleon once stated, “If the earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” But General Ataturk, commander at the battle of Gallipoli in WWI, and later the first president of modern Turkey, moved the Turkish capital to Ankara, up in the cold mountains in the country’s interior. Ataturk dissolved the use of the Arabic language and invented the Turkish language, even though most of the population is Muslim. He also banned the traditional Fez, turban, and Whirling Dervishes tekkes (lodges).
On a enlightening tour around Turkey with Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com) I visited a huge Silk Road camel caravanserai, or resting place, where the tourist show featured the unique and beguiling Whirling Dervishes, all dressed in white gowns and cone hats, except for the Master Dervish, dressed in black and who directed the dancers. There were actually many Silk Roads leading back from the Far East, a braid work of trails that seemed to centralize in Turkey before they ended at the western outpost of Constantinople. There are no Whirling Dervishes at the Grand Bazaar, but you can see them perform at the giant Istanbul shopping malls Akmerkez and Kanyon, and at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center. And you can also buy a Fez or turban in the Great Bazaar.
The Spice Market dates to the mid 1500s.
But I must say each time I visit the Grand Bazaar I get lost in the countless covered corridors, and then I do work myself into a dervish trying to figure my way out. Part of the Bazaar has open air alleyways that eventually lead to my favorite area — The Spice Market. Yes, there are finds of rare Frankincense and Myrrh, but more likely in the drawers and bins you will see saffron, paprika, thyme ,tarragon, basil, ginger roots, curry, cinnamon, oregano, and peppers of all descriptions. Wait for me while I stop to indulge in a shot of potent Raki, a clear brandy liqueur distilled from grapes during the wine-making process; it is served as an aperitif and has an anise and cinnamon flavor. The rug merchants also serve it to help close the haggling.
Fresh cut flowers are also used in teas.
You will find flower petals of roses, carnations, and lilacs, and other blooms in the Spice Market, used to pep up the cook pot. Lilacs have spread around the world but were first discovered in ancient Anatolia; or you can buy fresh cut flowers to liven up the table. Or try a spray of perfume decanted from the buds and leaves and petals.
Much of the ancient fortress sandstone walls still stand in the Old City of Constantinople, grass growing in the cracks of the cut stone. There are many great places to meet people in Istanbul; Hagia Sophia Plaza is the most famous, where the old mosque is now a museum.
Meet people at the Hagia Sophia plaza.
After a tour of the Blue Mosque between prayers, sit out in the beautiful plaza gardens by the fountain on a park bench, you never know whom you will meet. At the Pharaoh Tutmose III obelisk a young Turkmen lass sat next to me with her mother, so they could work on their English delivery, and to my astonishment, I was being proposed to, and not by the mother. After the obligatory picture with mother, I visited the old segregated bath house, where pizza and Ottoman ice cream are served in an open air restaurant. The Romans utilized the same hill on the plaza, and you can see the stone mile marker Zero. All roads in the region led to this datum point.
The beautiful Blue Mosque domes.
One afternoon after a grilled corn on the cob from a vendor in front of the Spice Market a venerable Moslem cleric sat next to me with his adult son and we were soon sharing hot roasted Chinese chestnuts, yep, from the Spice Market. Smiles were our only communication. And of course a visit to Istanbul is only complete with a tour of the former Ottoman Empire seat of government, Topkapi Palace, which is a walled city above the Bosphorus that is a short walk from the Grand Bazaar. I did duck into see the Harem, but even today the area is prohibited. Osmanli is the Turkish name for the Ottoman’s 500-year-old city, with their rule ending after WWI.
The entrance to the Spice Market.
I had a chance to cruise to the Princes’ Islands. actually four islands in the Sea of Marmara, that was reserved through Travelium Limousine Service. The ferry leaves regularly from Mother Queen Mosque on the European side of the strait. I met two honeymooning Egyptians on the cruise and Neesum and Ackman joined me for lunch at Miltos Restaurant on the largest island. We dined on mezos, or starters, washed down with the local Efes pilsner beer named after the ancient city of Ephesus, on the Turkish coast. The main dishes were superb sea bass, often called sea bream, and spicy chicken. Then we explored the island by horse carriage to view the summer homes and mansions of Istanbul’s wealthy. Later we rented bicycles (4TK lira per hour) and visited a local island market teeming with fresh produce, such as oblong potatoes and foot-long scallions, which are often also seen at the truck stop Kafaterias along major highways where you will find some of the best food in Turkey.
Princes’ Island ferry at Mother Queen Mosque.
Boats plying the Bosphorus all sail for six hours in one direction and then six hours in the opposite direction so as not to create more shipping congestion and disasters. Back in the European side of the city I dined that night at a restaurant called the Spy Restaurant, right on the trolley lie leading to the Hagia Sophia Plaza. During the Cold War the Spy Restaurant was the place spies dropped off microfilm or swapped whispered secrets, bringing to mind the James Bond pot boiler, From Russia With Love, filmed in Istanbul.
Island farmers’ produce market.
Istanbul is a city of villages, each with its own unique international menu. One afternoon I ate at the Karavanseri restaurant in a garden setting, one of the oldest family-owned ethnic eateries in Istanbul; across from me an Iranian family feasted on Turkish Delights and Baklava filled with honey, sugar and nuts — the kids’ faces beamed with oozing honey.
One important note: If you are within the Spice Market and want to walk back to the Hagia Sophia Plaza, you must traverse back through The Grand Bazaar, much of it uphill; or you have to walk around the Bazaar to catch the trolley, which has a stop at the Plaza.
Hey, Dorak, how much for the box of fresh Baklava in the pastry window? Yeah that one, and add some Acibadem kurabiyesi (almond cookies) and Demir Tatlisi (rosette cookies). Weigh them out while I get some dried olives and Turkish figs.
The Grand Bazaar satisfies all sweet tooths.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor of Jetsetters Magazine