Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the first shopping malls in the world

Shopping malls are today a ubiquitous occurrence, so common that they have effectively become yesterdays news.

Right from the days of barter trade, people have always needed a place to exchange goods and services for other goods and services, the Greeks in Ephesus had their Agoras for example. But open air markets for trade was exposed to the elements, which made it bad for business. And so it was only a matter of time when sheltered malls and markets come on stream.

One of the first covered markets in human history is the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul whose construction began in 1455. It began after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople as part of a broader policy to stimulate economic recovery in the war-torn city, but was not a covered yet. By 1638, a Turkish chronicler noted that there were over 3000 shops in the now covered-market.

The peak of trade in the bazaar took place in the 17th century, when the Ottoman Empire entered its golden era and became the centre of an empire that spanned three continents.

Fascinatingly, although the bazaar was grand and large it was only in 1894 that shopfronts were built, prior to that all the shops were made of merchants sitting on divans in front of shelves. Rather than the commerical experience of shopping, customers would sit, chat and do business. As wikipedia explains, “A prospective client could sit in front of the dealer, talk with him and drink a tea or a Turkish coffee, in a relaxed way. At the end of the day, each stall was closed with drapes. Another peculiarity was the complete lack of advertising. Moreover, as everywhere in the East, traders of the same type of goods were forcibly concentrated along one road, which got its name from their profession.”

26,000 people work in this shopping-tourist site and continues to draw some large crowds, up to 400,000 customers daily. It has ceased to stock the most premium of products but sells touristy, kitschy, knock-off items at, according to locals, overpriced value.

Many would argue that because it is essentially a tourist attraction, it is no more an authentic market. And to be fair, that seems like a rather indisputable opinion.

It is still, however, a must do in Istanbul.

Shopping malls are today a ubiquitous occurrence, so common that they have effectively become yesterdays news. In fact shopping malls are increasingly becoming an outdated model of shopping, especially with the rise of online shopping, facing something called the retail apocalypse.

But I will argue this, even though many regular malls will close this one will continue to survive, because it is more than a market now, it’s a tourist and historical site – 91 million visitors dropped into the Bazaar in 2014.

And that in itself if the reason it will continue to thrive.


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