Shopping in Turkey: Istanbul’s Most Revealing Market

Spice Bazaar in IstanbulI’m bouncing along in a stream of shoppers at a neighborhood pazar, one of Turkey’s weekly general street markets. Tented from the hot midday sun, this narrow Istanbul road is lined with merchandise that wasn’t here just a few hours ago: rows and rows of olives in plastic tubs, stands of feta cheese and wooden carts packed with squash straight from the farm.

Freshly baked bread wafts on the same breezes that set cotton dresses swinging at a clothing stall, while a local pop star wails on tape about lost love, supported in heartbreak by a whirling arabesque backbeat. For a small fee, the young Turk trailing me with a basket slung over his shoulder trucks my purchases like a sherpa. With his help, I can purchase far more than I can carry.

Besides being imperial capital to Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman rulers, Istanbul has long been a capital to traders, an ancient mercantile center at the crossroads of the world. Serving as the last stop on the Silk Road, a trading route carrying the goods of India, China and Southeast Asia, the city distributed riches of the East to the Western world.

When I began traveling to this city straddling the continents and cultures of Orient and Occident, I discovered each marketplace has its specialty.

The fabled and sprawling covered Grand Bazaar is often the hard sell realm of tourist goods, while other markets focus on a particular retail segment, some dealing exclusively in wallpaper or barbeque sets, others in books or nuts.

More interesting shopping excursions have come from wandering Istanbul’s twisted streets, and perusing goods of individual vendors who crop up along the roadside. On the Galata Bridge, which spans the headwaters of the Golden Horn, connecting the old town center to what was once a Genoese trading concession, I spied an Anatolian grandmother in a head scarf spreading unlikely wares on a baby blue blanket — power tools.

But the market area most intriguing to me centers on a 17th-century stone building along the waterfront. I head there with an open mind and an empty belly.

Known as the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar, this fragrant stone market boasts shops stocking a rainbow of traditional spices, medicinal herbs and confections. Workers mind piles of dried herbs, green henna dust and clumps of oozing honeycomb while patrons sniff and taste, point and shovel. Loaded down with lukum (jellied chunks of Turkish delight) and pistachios and fresh marshmallows, I make my way to the waterfront entrance of the market.

Off to the right of the entrance, I search out the oddest of the mundane in the Flower Market, located just behind the Spice Market. In a cramped passageway opening into a square, gardening supply vendors are joined by stalls catering to pet owners. Workers tend to mountains of animal chow while hanging all manner of collars and restraints from the rafters. I can’t help but wonder what beast requires these types of harnesses.

Before I lose myself in reverie  happen upon a remarkable man whose shop consists of a chair on which he sits. Two containers sit at his feet. In one, rubber-covered, millet seed-filled objects are arranged in colorful rows. I recognize them as the squeezable stress-relieving toys popular with office workers in the 1980s. In the other crate, young half-pound bunny rabbits cower and bury themselves in a ball of fur. Children crowd around the rabbit box, reaching in and squealing with delight. If there weren’t so much competition, I might pick up a bunny.

Instead, I scrutinize the stoppered five-gallon jug half-filled with water at the man’s side. Inside it, writhing black leeches swim and climb. No one reaches in playfully and no one buys. Yet, the fearsome creatures must sell since the jar is heavy, and the man would not lug it here if they didn’t.

Used in traditional medicine, the sight itself of a jar of leeches is not unusual, especially since the Spice Bazaar has historically been a center for natural medicinals. In fact, there are several bottles of aquatic blood sucking worms for sale in this marketplace simply sitting in the sun unattended. There must be no need to guard a vessel of carnivorous parasites. But these particular leeches are kept close, perhaps to provide the sitting man a uniformity of presentation.

As I wander over age-old cobblestones while pigeons take flight in my path, the image of this one-man shop replays in my mind. Do his offerings reveal a brilliant diversification strategy? Are his products related in some way? If he were to add another line of goods, what would it be?

This much seems clear: I have just visited the rare merchant who deals as easily and equally in the stress-reducing, the blood-sucking, and flesh-crawling as he does the soft and comforting. Such is the wonder of Turkey’s markets, where accommodating merchants and their diverse goods sit at the crossroads of the world.

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