The Kapali Carsi or Covered Bazaar or Grand Bazaar is one of Istanbul's most intriguing sights. This labyrinth of vaulted roofed winding streets and domed buildings evolved over a period of 250 years. In the 15th century Sultan Mehmed II (1451-1481) built two stone bedestens, or exchanges as a source of income for Ayasofya Mosque (today Haghia Sophia Museum). Here merchants could store and sell their valuable merchandise. Known as the Cevahir and Sandal Bedestens respectively, these became the hub of Istanbul's commerce, and numerous stalls and shops were built around them. In time the lanes lined by these shops were roofed over for the convenience of shoppers, creating the bazaar as we know it today. This ancient shopping centre has suffered serious damage from earthquakes and fires over the three centuries since it attained its final form around 1700.

Fires in 1701 and 1750 were followed by the earthquake of 1766, and further fires in 1791 and 1826. Then came the great earthquake of 1894, and most recently the fire of 1954, after which restoration work continued for five years. For those unfamiliar with the Kapaliçarsi and without a map it is easy to become lost or wander in circles. It covers an area of 30.7 hectares (75.8 acres), and consists of over 3000 shops and 61 streets, not to mention ten wells, four fountains, two mosques, and several cafés and restaurants. Around 25,000 people are permanently employed in the bazaar, and an indeterminate number of street vendors ply their wares in and around it. The heart of Turkey's gold market and unofficial foreign exchange market beat here.

Over the centuries travelers to Istanbul have found the exotic atmosphere of this great bazaar, a miniature city within a city, irresistible. In the past the bazaar was lit only by high windows beneath the vaults, since the shopkeepers opened at first light and closed at dusk. In the centre of the complex is the high domed hall of the Cevahir Bedesten, also known as the Eski or iç Bedesten. Here the most valuable items and antiques were to be found in the past, and still are today, including copperware, amber prayer beads, inlaid weapons, icons, mother-of-pearl mirrors, water pipes, walking sticks, watches and clocks, candlesticks, old coins, and silver and gold jewelry set with coral and turquoise.

The other 15th century hall, the Sandal Bedesten (also known as the Yeni or Küçük Bedesten) is roofed by 20 domes and lies at the northeast corner. The wayward, seemingly random plan of the other parts of the bazaar is part of its fascination. Surrounding the bazaar itself are numerous commercial buildings known as hans, each a warren of small workshops on several floors, often named after trades, such as Varakçi (Gold Leaf Maker) Han, today long superseded. Until the end of the 19th century a family could go on a shopping expedition to the Kapaliçarsi and purchase new outfits from top to toe, all the furnishings and household linen they required, have seal rings carved to order, and even equip the master of the household with a variety of weapons; all under this one roof.

Today souvenirs and gifts seem to dominate, with rugs and jewelry a close second. The various tradesmen still tend to be grouped together along particular streets, whose names often recall items that have long since disappeared. There are the streets of Helmet Makers, Fez Makers, Napkin Makers, Quilt Makers, Calligraphers and Book Dealers, to name but a few. The book dealers have since moved out of the main bazaar into a small open-air bazaar known as Sahaflar Çarsisi next to Beyazit Gate. A leisurely afternoon spent exploring the bazaar, sitting in one of the cafés and watching the crowds pass by, and bargaining for purchases is one of the best ways to recapture the romantic atmosphere of old Istanbul.

Reference: Tansel Tuzel/SKYLIFE

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