Merchants haggled with shoppers, both tourists and locals. Boys shoved and tugged handcarts that threatened to topple from an overflow of carpets. Cabbies slammed on their brakes and slapped their horns. In the whirl of the action, my husband and I were utterly lost.
Our directions were explicit: We were to meet our guide for a four-hour trip into Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar in front of the Spice Bazaar, called Misir Carsisi or Egyptian Bazaar by locals. The entrance was across the street from Galata Bridge on the Old City side of the Golden Horn, landmarks familiar to travelers since the 17th century, during the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. But not to us.
We turned our map around and realized our destination was on the other side of the Grand Bazaar, also known as the Kapali Çarsi, or Covered Bazaar. Here’s a smart idea, we thought: Let’s cut through the bazaar itself to get to the other side. Inside, the charming shopkeepers, the shimmer of rich textiles, the glimmer of golden objects led us deep into the labyrinth of the nearly 700-year-old original indoor shopping mall. We were dazzled amid its more than 4,000 shops and 61 covered streets, teased away from our objective by the wonders to be seen. The solution was the distraction, so again we headed outside, into the sun-drenched Mediterranean light.
After five days in Istanbul, we still had trouble getting our bearings in the captivating hullabaloo that is the city. Done in by the din and uproar, we searched the piazza for an English speaker who could turn us in the right direction. The tall, blonde woman scanning the environment near the Itimat grocery looked like an Anglophone at the ready.
And she was; in fact, she was Ann Marie Mershon, our waiting guide, and — an even greater coincidence — from Grand Marais, Minn. The 260 miles between our home and hers collapsed in this ancient place.
Touring with a specialist
Ann Marie’s role was more than guide to the sights. She was there to share her understanding of the place as part of a network of scholars and specialists employed by Context Travel to offer small groups — no more than six people — walking seminars built around a theme or topic. Context Travel doesn’t even use the term “guide,” preferring “docent.” Our walk was titled “Crossroads of Commerce.”
Ann Marie traced Istanbul’s two millennia of international trade to its geographic good fortune of straddling Europe and Asia, forming a crossroad with the Bosporus and the Silk Road. Like all good teachers and passionate travelers, Ann Marie taught her lesson by encouraging us to see, feel, touch and taste. As we moved through the marketplace, she revealed the intriguing history behind what is essentially a business story, weaving a chronicle of traders and sailors, religious Crusaders and European adventurers, of harems and evil eunuchs, wise sultans and wily chamberlains.
With Ann Marie at our side, we plunged back into the bazaar. We discussed architecture — sadly, much of the original building has been lost as merchants, stretched for more space, eliminated columns and pushed out walls. We learned that between 250,000 and 400,000 people visit the bazaar daily. We wondered if we were skilled enough to bargain with the masterful shop owners. And we gaped at the cornucopia of leather goods, gold jewelry, silver and copper ware, carpets, antiques or antique look-alikes (more on that later) and aisles and aisles of belly-dancing costumes.
Spices as a souvenir
Then Ann Marie did something unexpected. She led us out of the Grand Bazaar into a vast warren of tiny shops and factories. First stop was her preferred spice market, just outside the Spice Bazaar itself. The courtly and elegantly dressed merchants there sold us sumac, a popular condiment in Turkey; cumin, regular and black (who knew?); turmeric and pil biber, a fiery red pepper. Each spice was scooped out of wooden bins, weighed, wrapped individually and presented with gratitude to the happy shopper who couldn’t wait to get back to the United States to cook up Turkish koftes and domates, a tomato soup. A jar of balli cerez — flower honey packed with pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, apricot seed, fig, coconut, radish seed, black cumin and pollen — completed the purchases. The visual appeal of the artfully arranged nuts and fruits trumped the dread of lugging it around until we returned to our hotel.
Behind the bazaar, we walked a short distance to Büyük Valide Han, a two-story stone and brick commercial building dating to 1651 that was commissioned by the powerful Valide Kösem Sultan. (Valide was the title given to the mother of the ruling Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, akin to “queen mother.”) Hans served as end-of-the-road stops for caravans bringing goods to trade from across Asia, offering rooms for rest, shops for work and water for ablutions. Camels and other livestock slept in basement stables. At night, the han was locked from within to provide safety for man, beast and, most important, the wealth represented by these goods that had trekked from China and Afghanistan.
The han, the largest in the city, remains an active place of work. We followed the dim hallways and traipsed up the hand-cut stone staircases to tiny workshops. In one, a man showed off stunning votive candleholders covered with bits of mirror and, more intriguingly, the “antiques” he creates for the Grand Bazaar. A half-dozen votives were added to our backpack, but the fake antique brass lamps and bibelots were left to age.
Next, we were off to Sair Han, with its long, dark corridor and stunning surprise. A climb up the crumbling stairs led to the building’s rooftop and perhaps the most beautiful view in Istanbul. We looked down onto the iconic places we’d visited earlier in the week: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Beyond the stunning cityscape, we looked over the waterway known as the Golden Horn and across the Bosporus into Asia. Equally breathtaking was the lack of any kind of rail or barrier, so the view is appreciated with a healthy dose of caution.
A shed atop the roof offered another scene entirely: a hat factory. A bevy of women smoked, chatted and sewed navy blue wool fabric into hats, hats intended for the Russian army. After the basic sewing is completed, the factory owner hauls hats to the next room to be steam-pressed into shape. He told us the factory produces some 500 hats a day.
Our appearance meant an interruption of the workday, one greeted with warm delight. Turkish people, even in this city of 13.9 million people, are never too busy to smile, to welcome, to insist upon sharing their pot of tea. So, there we sat, on top of the world in Istanbul, sipping tea and gazing at two continents.
We ate lunch at a simple neighborhood cafe filled with workers from the bazaar. (Ann Marie’s advice for dining in the ancient quarter is to simply inquire where the workers eat and go there for price and authenticity.)
Meeting a kilim artist
Afterward, we walked to the studio of Musa Basaran, our first Turkish celebrity. Basaran has grown famous as a kilim weaver and artist by reimagining the Anatolian, or Turkish, kilim with modern designs, often of fantastical and romantic native landscapes or abstract interpretations of classic Turkish patterns. His color palate departs from the classic deep reds and blues to reflect the rich colors of Turkey: yellows, tangerines, ceruleans and soft roses.
Basaran has received honors and recognition from around the world, but he paused from his work to welcome his friend Ann Marie and her newfound friends into his studio. He served us tea, and described his creative process. We leaned back on his copious couch and took it all in.
As we walked back to the hotel, we realized we had started out the day lost but, thanks to a “docent” who led us astray, we found a bit of the real Istanbul.
Catherine Shannon Ballman writes about travel and food, with a special interest in local foodways. She lives in St. Paul.