Behind The Scenes of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

There’s no place in the world like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Exotic textiles, the finest handmade carpets in the world, jewels fit for royalty, aphrodisiacal teas, and treasures recovered from shipwrecks mark only a small portion of the vast selection on offer in this labyrinthine sprawl — it’s as easy to get lost in the colors and smells as it is in the virtually indistinguishable passageways that twist and turn upon each other in every direction here.

The Grand Bazaar is a microcosm of Istanbul; a crossroads of civilizations, a massive network of craftsmen and merchants who hail from all corners of the globe to ply their trade in the hopes of earning and keeping the good life. It’s an unparalleled spectacle, but it’s a daunting one that can be entirely overwhelming. The city and it’s famed marketplace chug along like a frantically pounding bobbin winder, and catching sight of it while firing away on all cylinders burns a litany of questions into those observing it for the first time:

 10,000 handmade Turkish carpets are stockpiled here. Yes, 10,000. Every single one authentic, traceable, and under the stewardship of a certified Turkish carpet expert who will walk you through the history and culture of these iconic treasures.

10,000 handmade Turkish carpets are stockpiled here. Yes, 10,000. Every single one authentic, traceable, and under the stewardship of a certified Turkish carpet expert who will walk you through the history and culture of these iconic treasures.

What are the stories these beautiful carpet and kilim patterns are telling, and if they are in fact handmade, then who is the artisan behind them?

Where did they find a jeweler who still meticulously engineers his pieces by hand in the same workshop his father and grandfather did, instead of caving to the boom of Chinese factory produced simulacrums?

And perhaps most importantly,

How do I know which one of the two dozen shops selling nearly identical mosaic lamps are trustworthy and genuine?

We quickly grew tired of the incessant touting, the uncertainty of price and authenticity, and the sheer volume of products staring us down. But the story of Istanbul and it’s Grand Bazaar demanded our attention, and so we sought about finding someone to help us slip behind the scenes of the highlight reel and shine a light on the dynamics at play in this tantalizing theater of the absurd.

 Guney, the man behind the new Artisans and Rooftops tour by Walks of Turkey

Guney, the man behind the new Artisans and Rooftops tour by Walks of Turkey

Meet Guney, the affable and studied progenitor of the new Artisans and Rooftops Tour by Walks of Turkey.

“I spent a lot of time up here as a kid”, Guney confessed to us as we took in the sweeping view of the Bosphorous, Galata Bridge, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque from an unpopulated and unbeatable vantage point atop the very roof of the Grand Bazaar.

Guney was our man on the inside, a fountain of knowledge who flooded our imaginations with imagery and trivia about his beloved hometown as part of this unique experience he designed for Walks of Istanbul.

In the course of five hours, he unmasked the hypnotizing pageantry of Istanbul for us by throwing open the doors to the very workshops where the carpet weavers, the locksmiths, the jewelers, and the leatherworkers were meticulously set about creating their next master craft. We enjoyed a previously unavailable opportunity to be present at the source of all those shimmering trinkets and hallmark luxuries displayed throughout the Grand Bazaar, and to meet the people whose lives were dedicated to upholding the rigid standards of artistry that helped to shape and sustain Istanbul as a thriving center of commerce and prosperity throughout it’s many incarnations.

The tour started with us entering a series of workshops that produced many of the crafts feeding Istanbul’s commercial frenzy: First stop was a carpet storehouse where a nimble fingered master weaver showed us how the finest carpets in the world are woven one knot at a time.

We next entered a locksmiths shop, and were shown the first stages of metalwork and the master smiths who have maintained this trade within their family for several generations in this very spot.

 One of our stops on the tour was the workshop of this third generation master jeweler who crafts one of a kind pieces for well heeled and discerning buyers

One of our stops on the tour was the workshop of this third generation master jeweler who crafts one of a kind pieces for well heeled and discerning buyers

 These rings are the bling of rap royalty dreams, but even the good folks over at YMCMB might not be able to afford them...on second thought, someone put me in touch with Birdman

These rings are the bling of rap royalty dreams, but even the good folks over at YMCMB might not be able to afford them...on second thought, someone put me in touch with Birdman

The master jewelers came next: our stop here was easily one of the highlights of the tour, as we were shown one of a kind pieces selected from the private collection of the master jeweler we met. Nowhere in the world have we ever seen anything so exquisite as the pieces he retrieved for us, and it was easy to imagine a sultan or a princess rocking one of these masterpieces.

By the time we strolled around the Grand Bazaar with Guney, we had already been in the madhouse market some half dozen times — but we had never really experienced it, as we always seemed to be scampering away from the overzealous pitchmen who took every pause in our conversation and point of our finger as an opportunity to make aggressive solicitations to us. Everyone of them had a “special deal only today”, and most drove us away before we even had a chance to examine an item and convince ourselves that we must have it. Guney took us straight into a half dozen different hole in the wall shops, introducing us to the proprietors and whisking us away to the backroom to see the final stage of the marvels we witnessed being molded from their elemental forms in the workshops just a few blocks away. 

Finally! We could pick things up and turn them over in our hands to appreciate their awesome beauty without having to immediately engage in a fiery bout of haggling, appreciating them as never before now that we had inside knowledge of their origins and the supply chain that eventually brought them to the shelf. 

 One of the several secret rooftop viewpoints you'll be treated to throughout the tour -- You might recognize this as the location of an adrenaline pumping James Bond scene

One of the several secret rooftop viewpoints you'll be treated to throughout the tour -- You might recognize this as the location of an adrenaline pumping James Bond scene

Another highlight of the tour is showcased in the very title of the tour: the rooftops. Where once we had stood baffled by the overbearing nature of the marketplace, we now strutted about on it’s red tiled roof like a couple of victors lording over their collapsed opponent in the prize ring. We felt on top of the world up there, and in a way we were.

We waited until the last day of our time in Istanbul to link up with Guney and Walks of Turkey, and I’m glad we did; stubbornly trying to uncover the mysteries of this buzzing bazaar on our own revealed to us how inept and uninformed we were regarding Istanbul’s historical and social narrative and the key players it revolves around, and in only a few hours we were able to stitch together all of the conflicting and random bits we had collected throughout our time here into a pattern fit for a flying carpet…and yes, flying carpets do exist -- have Guney show you if you don't believe us! Book your tour here now!!

 

**Shout out to Walks of Turkey for comping the tour. Just to clarify for all you fools, all opinions are our own.