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Lost in the Grand Bazaar

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With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I’ve ever been. It’s one of the world’s largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.

Main Entrance Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar, it’s not so much “whether” you become lost but “when”. The jam-packed streets curve confusingly and the shops all look the same. There’s no sky or sun to point the way, and the mad jumble of people, whether they’re shoving by or trying to win your business, will spin you around until you’ve lost your bearings. Enter a store, engage in a bit of haggling, spend too long admiring an oil lamp, and it’s already too late. Good luck trying to remember the direction you came from, or where you were going.

Immediately after the Conquest of Constantinople, the victorious Ottomans set about Turkifying their new capital. The Hippodrome was razed, churches became mosques, and the Grand Bazaar was established near the newly established university in Beyazit. Despite recurrent earthquakes and fires, the bazaar grew and thrived, and was soon famous across Europe as the Mecca of shopping.

Today, an estimated 400,000 people visit the market daily. Over 27,000 people are employed within its walls. The bazaar, in almost every meaningful sense of the word, is a city unto itself. There are restaurants, barbers, banks, a police station, even a mosque — everything a decent-sized town of nearly 30,000 might need to sustain itself.

Souvenir Shopping Grand Bazaar

We love the Grand Bazaar, and invent an excuse to dart inside anytime we find ourselves nearby. Of course, in the wrong mood, or on a Saturday when the number of visitors increases dramatically, it can be stressful. And though the great majority of vendors are respectful, a few are unbearably pushy. True bargains are very hard to find, if they exist at all; we found identical nargiles in nearby Tahtakale for less than half the price as in the Grand Bazaar. And if you’re not proficient in the art of haggling, you’ll leave with either empty hands or an empty wallet.

But somehow, none of that subtracts from the experience of visiting. You don’t have to buy anything to have fun, and we almost never entered the gates with the intention of shopping. We’d go to explore the hans, have lunch, watch gold-makers and silver-smiths ply their trades, and lose ourselves in the maze. Photo opportunities are everywhere, and many of the shopkeepers are happy to chat even if you’re clearly not planning on buying. We were once invited to try some çiğ köfte one guy’s wife had made for his lunch. And a carpet seller took us to the top floor of his shop for a view of the roof. Turkish people, in general, are friendly and welcoming to strangers, and this seems to be even more the case within the Grand Bazaar.

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June 9, 2013 at 8:37 am Comments (7)

The Gül Camii and Aya Nikola

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Istanbul has no shortage of old churches and mosques, and it can often feel like too much of a good thing. As our time in the city progressed, we would increasingly find ourselves saying something like, “Honestly, I think we’ve visited enough mosques”. But what are we going to do? Simply ignore something as amazing as the Gül Camii?

Gul-Mosque-Art

When entering an ancient mosque, we’ve learned to look for the placement of the mihrab: the semicircular niche which indicates the direction of Mecca. Orthodox churches face east, but a mosque should be oriented toward Mecca. If you’re in a mosque that was originally built as a mosque, the mihrab is integrated soundly into the architecture. But if you’re in a former church which has undergone conversion, the mihrab will be off to the side, inelegantly askew.

The mihrab in the Gül Camii (Rose Mosque) was askew, because this was originally the Byzantine Church of St. Theodosia. Dating from the 12th century, it’s a small square-shaped structure, built of red brick, which used to guard the corpse of St. Theodosia. Theodosia was a nun martyred during the 8th century struggle against iconoclasm. While protesting the removal of a particularly revered icon at Constantinople’s Great Palace, she shook a ladder and killed the soldier who was atop it. For this crime, she was executed by having a ram’s horn hammered through her neck. Our ancestors were so creative!

May 29th, the day on which the Ottomans overran Istanbul in 1453, just happened to be Theodosia’s Saint Day, and the church was full of worshipers. According to at least one account, the marauding Turks stormed inside, chased out the Byzantines, and threw the saint’s bones to the dogs. And then they converted her church into a mosque. Poor Theodosia had it as tough in death as in life.

Aya-Nikola-Church-Istanbul

After finding the Gül Camii, we tracked down the nearby Aya Nikola: a Greek Orthodox church. This rundown old building on the shore of the Golden Horn looks nothing like a church, but after ringing the doorbell, we were welcomed in by a friendly Greek woman. The Aya Nikola is small, dark, and lavishly decorated, with a fantastic wall of icons around the altar. But I got the distinct impression it’s no longer in service.

Part of the reason we enjoy hunting down these old churches, is the excuse it gives us to explore new neighborhoods. From the Aya Nikola, we walked along the coast of the Golden Horn up into the hills of Fener and Balat, the old Jewish quarter. It’s rarely visited, but we found this area west of the Atatürk Bridge to be one of the most picturesque in Istanbul.

Locations on our Map: Gül Camii | Aya Nikola

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May 11, 2013 at 8:27 am Comments (0)
Lost in the Grand Bazaar With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I've ever been. It's one of the world's largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.
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