Istanbul has a walloping array of shopping malls, but none of them compare to the one that started it all. The Grand Bazaar, perennially marked as a must-see on every visitor’s checklist, is more than just a place to buy souvenirs. Even though it’s filled with repeats of the same copies of Iznik pottery, Turkish tea sets in improbable colours and Oriental lamps, it’s also a place with a rich legacy of shopkeeping at its finest, a tradition that is also diminished by a maze of small shops selling cheap imitations of designer logo-bedecked merchandise for overblown prices. Despite all of this, the real Grand Bazaar, the one made up of passionate merchants and craftsmen who believe in their products, does live on. We set out to find its true soul through its fascinating and unique shopkeepers.
Nick Merdenyan: Lord of Leaves
You’ll almost always find Nick Merdenyan, the ‘Lord of the Leaves,’ sitting in his peaceful shop, Nick’s Calligraphy, at the corner of the oldest part of the Bazaar, the Iç Bedestan, which dates back to Byzantine times. He has been there since 1968 selling Meerschaum pipes, but it was in 1991 that he made the sale of his first dieffenbachia leaves decorated with illustrations in gold leaf and paint for which he is now famous.
Merdenyan’s unusual art began purely by chance. A cousin of his had given him a dieffenbachia plant. Merdenyan had cut off two yellowing leaves from the plant, stuck them in a book in his library and forgot all about them until he came across them a few years later, perfectly dried and flat. He asked a friend who happened to be a calligrapher working with untraditional materials like glass and leather if he could work with leaves as well.
That very day, an American couple passed through Merdenyan’s shop and loved the leaves so much that they wanted to buy them, though Merdenyan says he never had the intention of selling them. Now, 24 years on, he’s still producing and selling these beautiful leaves, but
with the help of a team that includes two graduates of Mimar Sinan University.
Nick’s Calligraphy, Kapalıçarsı, Iç Bedesten 24, www.nickscalligraphy.com (0212 513 5473).
Sevan Bıçakçı: Master Jeweller and ‘rockstar’
There is no better word to describe Sevan Bıçakçı and his jewellery than ‘original’. The 50-year-old jewellery craftsman, designer, and visionary began his path to his current visual extravaganza at the age of 12 when he apprenticed for a master jewellery craftsman right here in the Grand Bazaar. By the age of 17, his master told him that he no longer had anything to teach him, and so Sevan opened his first shop.
His creations – bishop-worthy rings with sculptures cut into the stones, rings set with orchids delicate enough in appearance that they may fly off the finger in a breeze, and cuffs with his signature dagger, to name a few pieces of his work – are set in cases in the walls of his understated yet sleek store located just a couple streets outside the Grand Bazaar’s mess.
Sevan Bıçakçı, Gazi Sinan, Pasa Sokak 16 (0212 520 4516).
Epoque’s Exceptional Antiques
Beyond the throngs of bazaar-goers and lokum salesmen, there’s a quiet shop with a 19th-century decor. The gold lettering above the door reads ‘Epoque’, no doubt a reference to La Belle Époque, the prosperous, lush and vibrant period from the 1870s to The First Word War. On one of the storefront windows, you’ll see
the Turkish variant ‘Epok’ set against a display of antiques from disparate periods.
‘This is a small Topkapı museum,’ says Ibrahim, a veteran employee of the shop. From 19th century paintings and precious old Ottoman handmade objects for the house to pocket watches and Russian silverware, Epoque has a sizeable collection of antiques. It’s a museum you could buy from if your wallet is deep enough. Nothing comes cheap here, as the most affordable item by Epoque’s standards is about US$1,000 (Dhs3,675). A painting could run you close to US$200,000 (Dhs735,000). The shop counts two of Turkey’s most affluent families among its clients, so that should give you an idea of the kind of bank account you’d need to comfortably shop here.
If you’re in the mood, however, for a quiet respite from the bazaar’s chaos, Epoque is an intriguing place to have a look around. Ibrahim and the store’s manager, an elegant old Armenian named Yetvart, won’t pressure you into buying anything, as they understand their collection is more than the average bazaar-goer can afford.
Epoque, Sandalbedestani Sokak 38 (0212 527 7865).
The woman behind the Bazaar’s best belly dancing costumes
Beyond the bazaar’s boundless bustle rests a quiet shop across the way from a çaycı. Brassieres, skirts, and fully costumed mannequins line the walls of Gülseren Camcı, a shop for belly dancers. The space is a kaleidoscope of reds, blues, greens, pinks and purples in fabric and beads. The woman behind it all is Gülseren, who’s been running the shop for 30 years, and when she started, she was the only woman running a shop in the entire bazaar. ‘Everyone was looking at me,’ she said. It was a man’s game back then, and still is in many ways. Gülseren, however, persisted, and her hard work earned her the respect of her peers, though she has met opposition in some instances.
Gülseren originally designed and made all the costumes herself, but she later enlisted the help of local women to put the clothes together. Outfits can range anywhere from 50TL (Dhs63) to several hundred depending on the intricacy of the design and the materials used. Most of her customers are understandably belly dancers
from all over the world, but not only. Many women come to her shop because they’ve always wanted to have an authentic belly-dancing dress in their wardrobe.
Gülseren Camcı, Kapalıcarsı, Alemsah Sokak 12 (0212 512 9751).
An Alternative Tour of the Grand Bazaar with Monica Fritz
The Grand Bazaar can be sensory overload for the uninitiated, so much so that its visual splendour can get lost. Yet, the true magic of the Bazaar, beyond the seemingly endless amount of things you can buy, is its aesthetics. Every street and every corridor is a kaleidoscope of colours, shapes and people. It’s a photographer’s dream, which is what American photographer Monica Fritz seeks to share with everyone through her Photography Walks. Monica’s a travelling photographer who’s lived in several countries throughout her life, and for the last 19 years, she’s been in Istanbul. Photography’s always been her passion, and with her camera, she’s been able to go beyond the superficial. With her Photography Walks, she wants to show people the bazaar beyond the chaos.
Need to know
Turkish Airlines flies direct to Istanbul from Dhs2,534 return.