Why you should care
Because the Grand Bazaar now deals in bling, not history.
For more than 15 years, Mustafa Acik sold tiles and other ceramics from a five-foot-wide shop that looks onto the Bodrum Han quarter of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, a vast, covered arcade established more than five centuries ago. Many of Acik’s one-off wares were embossed with stunning Oriental and Ottoman designs — the type of souvenir that appealed to American and European tourists who once thronged the ancient market. But no longer. A new type of customer, one with little desire for ceramics or history, is now filling the alleys of the bazaar, and beyond.
Istanbul’s storied markets have survived earthquakes and the rise and fall of some of civilization’s greatest empires. But today their age-old character is being undermined by two contemporary threats: terrorism and political upheaval. Whereas Acik and other merchants once sold kilim rugs, handcrafted ornaments and other indigenous items, they’ve recently begun to rely on the interchangeable Main Street staples, such as brand-name clothing and designer bags, demanded by the Arab and Asian tourists who now dominate the bazaars. “I stopped selling ceramics because there were no longer enough customers buying them,” Acik tells OZY. “Now I sell jewelry.” Most of it is mass-produced. “There’s no doubt; the traders are being forced to sell new products,” agrees Serdar Celikbelik, the general manager of the Grand Bazaar. “It’s a big problem.”
The landlords [in the Grand Bazaar] are so desperate they’re offering rental prices at a 50 percent discount.
Mustafa Er, merchant, Istanbul
Just three years ago, Istanbul was the fifth-most-visited city in the world behind London, Bangkok, Paris and Dubai. But Westerners have been scared off by a suicide bombing in January 2016 that killed 12 Germans and a Peruvian, and a shooting and suicide bombing attack last June at the city’s main airport that left 45 people dead, including at least 17 foreigners. Both are thought to have been the work of ISIS.
Then there was the botched military coup last July. Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded by declaring a state of emergency and cracking down on opponents, which agitated Western governments and rights groups. The tensions slashed international tourism from 12.5 million in 2015 to 9.2 million in 2016, a drop of 26 percent. American visitation dropped 43 percent from 2015 to 2016, while tourism from the United Kingdom and Russia, two major sources of visitors, was down last summer by a third and almost 80 percent, respectively.
What’s happening in Istanbul’s bazaars may be seen as an example of the long arm of terrorism — its soft power. Merchants in the Christmas market in Berlin, or the owners of the Krudttønden café in Copenhagen, or the vendors along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice — all sites of terror attacks — can sympathize with the shopkeepers of Istanbul. Rolling threats of suicide attacks and bombings in Baghdad’s 1,300-year-old Shorja market have left it neglected, while some of France’s most popular tourist sites, including the famed Mont-St.-Michel monastery, have seen huge falls in visitor numbers due to terror fears.
Making up for some of the shortfall in Istanbul are almost 3 million tourists from wealthy Arab countries and more than 1.5 million more from Asian states, mainly Iran, Azerbaijan and China. Citizens of many Muslim-majority states can visit Turkey visa-free or without having to navigate the maze of paperwork often required for them to enter Western countries. And many of those nationals share the worldview of Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government; Erdoğan is ranked the fifth-most-influential Muslim by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, an NGO based in Jordan. Emphasizing diplomatic and public relations initiatives with Muslim-majority countries has boosted Turkey’s status as a destination. In 2015 only Malaysia welcomed more Muslim travelers than Turkey, with 25.7 million arrivals.
And travelers from those parts of the world are not put off by safety concerns. “Istanbul is secure,” Duis al-Adeen, a women’s clothing buyer from southern Algeria, says as he relaxes with his family outside the Blue Mosque. “We’ve chosen [Istanbul] to celebrate her birthday,” he says, pointing at his daughter, who is playing nearby on a patch of grass. Adeen also says that less stringent visa requirements put in place by the Turkish government have allowed him to pursue business opportunities more easily in Istanbul. “We feel like Erdoğan is a brother to us.”
As a result, traders in Istanbul’s bazaars who want to stay in business are stocking up on chocolate and Hermès clutches. “It’s all changed,” says Acar Bey, a former Grand Bazaar trader who declined to give his full name. “The customers today, people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, want bags, shoes and T-shirts, so that is what stores must sell.”
Some experts think that the city’s bazaars, which have endured multiple crises over many centuries, will bounce back and once again offer a shopping experience that can be found nowhere else in the world. But these days it’s not a common sentiment among tradespeople in the belly of the arcade, who don’t see new sources of tourism as a solution. Mustafa Er works at a clothing store that looks out onto an increasingly common sight: a boarded-up storefront. “The family packed up and moved to America,” he says of his ex-neighbors. Their product? Ceramic tiles and pots. “The landlords are so desperate,” Er says, “they’re offering rental prices at a 50 percent discount.”
Olgun Ozturk sells jackets out of a tiny kiosk in the Grand Bazaar. Two years ago, he welcomed 100 browsers a day, he says; today, no more than five. “It’s because there is no longer good news about Turkey,” he says. “The reason for all this is terrorism.”