SULTANAHMET, ISTANBUL, TURKEY – I had long imagined what magic the Grand Bazaar might hold. For me, the name conjured up images of gold, rubies, scimitars, candles, silks, spices. I hoped for sandy walls, hanging rugs, warm lighting, the richness and clamor of a busy market.
Sweeping past the many food stalls and trinket tables outside one of the gates, I entered Kapalı Çarşı to find a much more modern version of the busy market I had imagined. Turkish men stood at the doors of shops, fluorescent lights illuminating the knock-off jeans and “I ♥ ISTANBUL” shirts spilling out around them. You squished through narrow passageways stacked high with packaged wares, waiting to be removed from the plastic and used to replace their equals once sales and space allowed.
It was busy, but without a timeless feeling. It was rich, but with cheap products. I decided not to let this deter me and ventured deeper in, searching for any realization of my expectations (and anything photo-worthy).
I had hope. Throughout the market I found shops that sold scimitars, daggers, scabbards, tea sets made of gold and silver and painted light blues, colorful jewelry with gemstones and pearls. I was constantly surrounded by a thousand evil blue eyes, all promising to protect me. Rugs of rich deep shades and bright calming colors are draped on walls and thrown across floors. Then I would happen upon a lamp shop.
It was in witnessing these that I felt I found the romance of the Grand Bazaar I had been looking for. Crafted hanging orbs in jewel tones, lit glass supported by metal chains and decorations, they captured and took you outside of modern market of today and into the Grand Bazaar of ages past. The shops were little mazes of beauty. They made for the most exotic photographs.
Shopkeepers everywhere were eager to talk, to sell their wares, to catch tourists with full pockets and help in emptying them. They were also eager to pose in front of my camera, and would compete with their products for my attention. Uninterested in spending any money, I would smile politely but move past quickly before any felt too encouraged.
Lost somewhere in the depths of the bazaar, I turned down a path lined with carpet shops. The shopkeepers immediately descended, and I smiled politely, moved through them silently. One called out to me, “Don’t you want to take my picture? I’m the Turkish George Clooney!”
Amused by such a unique claim, I had to turn back to look at him. He did look like George Clooney. I smiled at this and pointed my camera at him, snapping a shot. He invited me to come inside his shop and have tea. “I won’t try to make you buy anything,” he promised.
I believed him. I passed under the carpets hanging around his shop and through the doorway. His entire shop, in and out, was draped in his Turkish carpets. He invited me to sit on a wooden chest he had in a corner of the shop, and handed me the traditional saucer and teacup of Turkey – a tulip-shaped glass filled with dark amber liquid, two cubes of sugar resting next to it, waiting to be dropped into and disintegrated by the tea (“the perfect amount of sugar for our tea,” my Turkish friend stated very seriously).
I sat on the chest, leaned against plush pillows, and sipped my tea while he talked to me about his carpets. He told me of the pieces he was most proud of and of the people from all around the world who had bought them from him. He was eager to talk about those he had become friends with, and about his dreams for the future. He was very enthusiastic about his business, but kept his promise. He never mentioned me buying a thing.
I left the market content. I left feeling like my expectations – the expectations of one who does not truly know into what they are heading – were not met. As is often the case in travel (and in life), needs that I didn’t realize I had met instead. A new friend, a cup of tea, light glowing in orbs of stained glass. Reality was better than a dream.