İstanbul's Kapalı Çarşı, or "The Grand Bazaar," has taken on new faces each time I return to Turkey. Recently, I returned with camera in hand to explore some of its hidden pockets, backstage infrastructure, and peaceful courtyards.
Like many newcomers to Istanbul, I initially found the Grand Bazaar to be an exciting and vibrant space with exotic wares and opportunities to bargain over a glass of tea. Ottoman antiquities, carpets, lamps, spices, jewelry, and more are on display, seemingly unchanged since the bazaar opened in 1455.
A few years later, I came to understand the bazaar differently. It started to appear not as an authentic shopping experience, but as a kind of interactive renaissance-faire performance for tourists. Indian jewelry is rebranded as Turkish. Imitations of old items are passed as one-of-a-kind antiques. The same 'unique' Ottoman detritus mysteriously reappears all over the city. Visitors arrive with certain expectations of Turkey, and, in turn, the shopkeepers perform what is expected of them. They are character actors in an exotic experience that many tourists are seeking. This is not where locals come for a deal.
Recently, however, I have taken interest in the Kapalı Çarşı once more. Exploring the surrounding areas and the bazaar's hidden spaces has given me a huge appreciation for the backstage infrastructure that keeps the bazaar alive. In the center of this infrastructure are the "hans," hidden courtyards which once served as inns during the spice trade. Now they serve as quiet pockets of recess from the chaotic bustle of the bazaar's main streets.
The hans are home to storage depots, workshops, and restaurants that cater to shopkeepers. They also contain studios that specialize in refurbishing items in preparation for sale. Stores specialize in labels for clothing, empty boxes for jewelry, mannequin parts, and so on. Intercom systems allow for the quick delivery of steaming hot tea to the shops to facilitate sales. A whole secondary layer of trade exists here: a bazaar within a bazaar that functions to support the Kapalı Çarşı behind the scenes.