The Grand Bazaar (Turkish Kapalıçarşı, meaning ‘Covered Bazaar’) in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors every day.
The Grand Bazaar is located inside the walled city of Istanbul, in the district of Fatih, stretching roughly from west to east between the mosques of Beyazit and of Nuruosmaniye. The Bazaar can easily be reached from Sultanahmet and Sirkeci by trams (Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı stop).
The construction of the Grand Bazaar started during the winter of 1455/56, shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Sultan Mehmet II had an edifice erected devoted to the trading of textiles. It was named Cevâhir Bedesten (‘Bedesten of Gems’), also named as “Inner Bedesten (İç Bedesten). The word bedesten is adapted from the Persian word bezestan, derived from bez ("cloth"), and means "bazaar of the cloth sellers".
In a market near the Bedesten, named in Turkish Esir Pazarı, the slave trade was active in this zone also during the Byzantine Empire. Other important markets in the vicinity were the second-hand market (Turkish Bit Pazarı), the "Long Market" (Uzun Carsi), a long porticoed mall stretching downhill from the Forum of Constantine to the Golden Horn, which was one of the main market areas of the city, while the old book market (Sahaflar Carsisi) was moved from the Bazaar to the present picturesque location near the Beyazıt Mosque only after the earthquake of 1894.
Some years later Mehmet II had another covered market built, the ‘Sandal Bedesten’ (the name comes from a kind of thread woven in Bursa, which had the colour of sandalwood), which lay north of the first. After the erection of the Sandal Bedesten the trade in textiles moved there, while the Cevahir Bedesten was reserved for the trade in luxury goods. In the beginning the two buildings were isolated. However, soon many sellers opened their shops between and around them, so that a whole quarter was born, devoted exclusively to commerce.
At the beginning of the 17th century the Grand Bazaar had already achieved its final shape. The enormous extent of the Ottoman Empire on three continents, and the total control of road communication between Asia and Europe made the Bazaar and the surrounding hans or caravanserais the centre of the Mediterranean trade. According to several European travellers, at that time, and until the first half of the 19th century, the market was unrivalled in Europe with regards to the abundance, variety and quality of the goods on sale. In the Bazaar there were 67 roads (each bearing the name of the sellers of particular goods), several squares used for the daily prayers, 5 mosques, 7 fountains, 18 gates which were opened each day in the morning and closed in the evening (the modern name of the market, "Closed Market" (Kapalıçarşı) comes from these). At that time the market was not yet covered.
Recurrent calamities, fires and earthquakes hit the Grand Bazaar. In this period, because of the new law against fires issued in 1696, several parts of the market which lied between the two Bedesten were covered with vaults. Despite that, other fires ravaged the complex in 1750 and 1791. The quake in 1766 caused more damages, which were repaired by the Court Chief Architect (Hassa baş Mimari) Ahmet a year later.
The 19th-century growth of the textile industry in western Europe, the introduction of mass production methods, capitulations signed between the Empire and many European countries, and the forestalling of the raw materials needed to produce goods in the closed economy of the Empire were factors which all lead to the decadence of the Market. By 1850, rents in Bedesten were ten times lower than two to three decades earlier. Moreover, the birth of a West-oriented bourgeoisie and the commercial success of the Western products pushed the merchants belonging to the minorities (Greek, Armenian, Jewish) for moving out of the Bazaar, perceived as antiquated, and for opening new shops in quarters frequented by Europeans, as Pera and Galata.
The last major catastrophe happened in 1894, a strong earthquake that rocked Istanbul. The Minister of Public Works, Mahmud Celaleddin Pașa, supervised the repair of the damaged Bazaar until 1898, and on this occasion the complex was reduced in area. To the west, the Bit Pazarı was left outside the new perimeter and became an open-sky road, named Çadircilar Caddesi (‘Tentmaker’s Road’), while the old gate and the Kütkculer Kapi were demolished. Among all the hans which belonged to the Market, many were left outside, and only nine remained enclosed in the structure.
In 1914 the Sandal Bedesten, whose handlers of textile goods had been ruined by the European competition, was acquired by the city of Istanbul and, starting one year later, was used as an auction house, mainly for carpets. In 1927 the individual parts of the bazaar and the streets got official names. The last fires of the bazaar happened in 1943 and 1954, and the related restorations were finished on 28 July 1959. The last restoration of the complex took place in 1980.
The Iç Bedesten has a rectangular plan (43.30 m x 29.50 m). Two rows of stone piers, four in each row, sustain three rows of bays, five in each row. Each bay is surmounted by a brick dome with blind drum. The inner and outer walls contain 44 cellars (Turkish: mahzen), vaulted rooms without external openings, which were also used as safes. The sunlight comes from rectangular windows placed right under the roof. Due to the scarce illumination, the edifice was kept open only some hours each day, and was devoted to the trade of luxury goods, above all textiles. The building can be accessed through four gates:
• “Second-hand Book Sellers’ Gate” (Sahaflar Kapısı) in the north,
• “Skullcap Sellers’ Gate” (Takkeciler Kapısı) in the south,
• “Jewellers’ Gate” (Kuyumcular Kapısı) in the east, and;
• “Women’s Clothiers’ Gate” (Zenneciler Kapısı) in the west.
The Sandal Bedesten has also a rectangular plan (40.20 m × 42.20 m), with 12 stone piers bearing 20 bays surmounted by brick domes with blind drum. In this case shops are carved only in the outer walls. In both edifices, each bay is tied to the others through brick arches connected by juniper beams, and masonry is made with rubble. Both buildings were closed by iron gates.
Different from the two Bedestens, all other structures in the Grand Bazaar were originally built from wood, and only after the 1700 fire, they were rebuilt from stone and bricks, and covered. All the bazaar edifices, except the fur dealers market (Turkish Kürçküler Çarsısı), a later addition which is two-storeyed, are one storeyed. The roofs are mainly covered with tiles, while the part burnt in 1954 now uses tarmac. In the bazaar no artificial light was foreseen to prevent fires, and smoking was also strictly prohibited. The roads outside the inner Bedesten are roughly parallel to it. However, the damage caused by the many fires and quakes along the centuries, together with the repairs done without a general plan, gave the market - especially in its western part - a picturesque appearance, with its maze of roads and lanes crossing each other at different angles.
Until the restoration following the quake of 1894, the Grand Bazaar had no shops as we know them in the western world, along both sides of the roads merchants sat on wooden divans in front of their shelves. Each of them had a space of 1.8 to 2.4 m in width, and 0.91 to 1.22 m in depth. The name of this space in Turkis was dolap, meaning ‘stall’. The most precious merchandise was not on display, but kept in cabinets. Only clothes were hung in long rows, with a picturesque effect. A prospective client could sit in front of the dealer, talk with him and drink tea or Turkish coffee. At the end of the day, each stall was closed with drapes. Another peculiarity was the total lack of advertising. In addition, as everywhere in the East, traders of the same type of goods were concentrated along one road, which got its name from their profession. The inner Bedesten hosted the most precious wares: jewellers, armourers and crystal dealers. The Sandal Bedesten was mainly the center of the silk trade, but also other goods were on sale there. The most picturesque parts of the market, besides the two Bedestens, were the shoe market (Turkish Pabuççular Pazarı), where thousands of shoes of different colors (Turks were bound to wear only yellow shoes, Greeks blue, Jews black and Armenian red) were on display on high shelves, the spice and herbs market (later concentrated in the Egyptian Bazaar), which stood near the jewellers, the armour and weapon market, the old book market and the flea market. This kind of organization disappeared gradually, although nowadays a concentration of the same business along the same streets has started to reappear again.