I highly recommend a visit to calligrapher Nick Merdenyan’s stall. Since 1968, Merdenyan has created delicate pieces on the surface of dried leaves, bringing traditional calligraphy and embroidery techniques to this demanding, brittle medium. His work has captivated local and international visitors since he first began plying his trade there in 1968.
Six centuries of fostering international trade in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
by Alper Tizer, Vice President of Turkey and Greece
The initiatives and innovations of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II helped shape numerous aspects of Turkish society, and to this day he is revered as a national icon—a potent example of a leader who, while continuing to expand the range of his empire, was also deeply committed to the welfare of his people. He formulated a unified code of law, and created a number of colleges in Constantinople, several of which still thrive in present-day Istanbul. It was on his order in the mid-15th century that the seeds of the Grand Bazaar were planted.
Already an active marketplace prior to Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Bazaar’s wares soon reflected the vast holdings and growing power of the Ottoman Empire. The first of the Bazaar’s two bedestens (domed buildings built to protect more valuable items) was completed under Mehmed’s orders in 1461, intended to nurture commerce and generate funds for the Hagia Sophia—the magnificent Orthodox basilica which he had recently transformed into a mosque as part of his efforts to convert the city to Islam.
While scholars continue to debate the exact date of its construction, a second bedesten was built years later. Called the Sandal Bedesten (its name deriving from a type of thread similar in color to sandalwood), this structure stood less than 50 meters from the original bedesten and became the market’s principal hub for textile trade. The original building (subsequently dubbed the Cevahir or “Gems” Bedesten) eventually focused on the sale and trade of luxury items—including jewelry, art, and expertly tooled leather goods. Today, the first bedesten houses the bazaar’s most valuable items.
Through the centuries, the bazaar has survived a series of devastating fires, catastrophic earthquakes, and regime changes, continually reemerging as a vital and important locus of trade. However, the textile industry’s gradual shift towards Western Europe in the 19th century dampened activity in the Grand Bazaar, lowering prices and rents in the market’s thousands of stalls. But today, the bazaar has rebounded substantially, fulfilling Mehmed II’s goal of furthering international commerce by catering to both international travelers and to local residents.
Exploring the Grand Bazaar remains a captivating experience, with more than 5,000 vendors set up along 60 streets in central Istanbul. During your visit, be sure to spend time in shops and avenues furthest from the central bedesten. Here, you’ll experience local Turks purchasing daily provisions and practical items, giving you invaluable insight into the daily lives of Istanbul’s people.