I do not love to shop. My shopping philosophy bears much more in common with the men I know than with the women I know: identify what you want, go in and get it, exit as soon as possible. I don’t like to shop for the sake of shopping. I don’t like to shop around to compare prices. I just want to buy something I need or want with confidence that I’ve paid a fair price, then move on with my life.
But one does not come to Istanbul and skip the Grand Bazaar.
Our hotel host assured us that one also should not buy any of the following in the Grand Bazaar: carpets, scarves, clothing, jewelry, or anything. “Tourist prices!” If we couldn’t resist trying to buy something in the Bazaar, he instructed, we must not offer more than half of what the seller states as his opening price. “Maybe one third.”
Have I mentioned that I also don’t like bargaining? I feel like I’m accusing the seller of offering me an unfair price if I try to pay less (because that’s exactly what I’m doing, because that’s exactly what he’s doing). I want to believe that other people are fair!
That’s not how you play the game here.
Which explains why I was making this face right before we entered the Grand Bazaar:
Excitement and fear. Because, despite what is apparently an actual shopping phobia, the Grand Bazaar is a remarkable historical building AND activity. The Bazaar was constructed in 1460 and underwent several changes until it reached its final form in the early 1600s. (They were founding Jamestown right about then, if you’d like an American history comparison.)
When I hear the name “bazaar” I imagine narrow streets that are crowded with vendor booths. Nuh-uh. Nope.
It’s a building. The whole bazaar is inside a building. It’s a freaking mall. Built in 1460. And, in Istanbullian architectural style, of course, it’s beautiful. Look at those painted, arched ceilings. Wikipedia helpfully informs me that it has “61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops  which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. In 2014, it was listed No.1 among world’s most-visited tourist attractions with 91,250,000 annual visitors.”
That’s a lot of people. But we’re here in April, and it hasn’t been a good tourist season for Turkey so far, thanks to political strife on the country’s eastern borders (which our hotel host was quick to point out is “the entire distance of Europe away!”).
The downside of a place called a “bazaar” not being very crowded is that there is a much higher heckler/tourist ratio, so that you really have to firm up your resolution to ignore the people hollering for your attention on every side.
(Incidentally, Turkish men LOVE my hair. If I thought I stood out in Paris, hoo-boy, let me tell you about Turkey. I got more compliments about my hair walking through the bazaar than I’ve gotten on all other things in my life combined. “Excuse me, please? I want to show you my carpets! Hey? No? But you have such pretty hair!”)
We had a map, upon entering the Bazaar, and every intention of using it to follow a pre-planned course through the streets so that we could see all the highlights. That plan went directly to hell about 30 seconds after going through the gate.
We promptly got lost, and never ever got unlost. We wound up seeing most of what we wanted to see, but the booksellers section never did materialize.
I spent the first ten minutes inside having small, quiet panic attacks (I can’t begin to tell you how sweaty one’s palms get when the urge the flee is hemmed in by an endless labyrinth full of teacups, swords, scarves, spices, and five thousand Turkish men who just want you to take a quick look!). In the back of my mind, I thought it would be awfully nice to pick up a nice set of teacups, and maybe a scarf. Probably not a sword. But maybe some spices. I wanted to have all these things, but every time I considered looking closely at any item, my anxiety about the sales process scared me off.
To quell the growing sense of capitalistic dread, I had to decide to give up on pursuing an actual purchase, and decide to simple enjoy the bazaar as a spectacle. Having taken the pressure to buy away, the bazaar became an absolute marvel and an adventure.
A particular highlight was the antiques section in the very heart of the complex. We oogled astrolabes, the aforementioned swords, jewelry, armor, illuminated manuscripts, and every other manner of treasure you can imagine. Next up, find out how I wound up drinking tea with this guy in the middle of the bazaar.