Euro-Asian Istanbul, the Turkish megalopolis that spans two continents, is so rich with the culture and heritage of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras that to regard it as a mere shopping destination may be sacrilegious--but not irrelevant.
Kapali Carsi, the Covered Bazaar, is as historic as any other site. A conglomeration of about 4,200 retailers crammed together in shops and stalls, it's a working anachronism. You enter the bazaar, established in the mid-15th century under Constantinople's reign, through one of 26 gates and wander through an arch-ceilinged city of shops--a precursor to modern malls, minus the chain stores. Covered Bazaar reminded me of Baltimore's Lexington Market, except that instead of food, its retailers sell leather, rugs, gold jewelry, books, ceramics, copper, carved stone pipes, tie-dye dresses, women's underwear, linens and sunglasses.
Merchants stand in front of their shops, eyeing passers-by. Desperately, they try to entice you, issuing occasionally audacious commands akin to pickup lines at a sleazy bar. There was the common "Where are you from?" and the odd "Please, I want to ask you about your shoes" (dirty, well-worn sneakers), the polite "Are you looking for something?" and the flirtatious "Excuse me! I forgive you today."
Mary Lee Settle, author of "Turkish Reflections," captured the essence of this foreign sales technique: " . . . there seems to be a desperate fear that no more buses will come, no more planes, no more cars, and that they will sink back into neglect if they don't trade now, here, and at once. It is a game beyond a game, and when they wave you good-bye with those nice, sad Turkish and Kurdish faces, as if you were their last friend leaving, it is a form of politeness before they meet, as in the Old West, the next stagecoach, bringing gold and news."
One American tourist told me, "You have to develop that skill of looking straight through them or they'll drive you crazy." If you have the time, though, it's better to play along and absorb the culture.
At Covered Bazaar, never accept the first price offered. While leather and jewelry are good buys, Turkish rugs are the main event. Color, quality and material (silk on silk, wool on wool, cotton on wool, kilims) make for a huge variety, but the shopping process--a ritual dance between buying and selling--rarely varies.
As I passed Anatolian Carpets, just outside Nuruosmaniye Gate, its owner, Celal Belli, invited me into his warehouse. There, in a basement, I joined Michelle Jackson and Luke Harrimons, backpackers from Seattle, who were sitting on a kilim-covered couch and sipping apple tea while staff members patiently pulled carpets from shelves. "This," Jackson said, "was almost my whole reason for coming to Istanbul."
Hospitality is part of the ritual, so much so that Belli hauled out a "memory book," filled with emotional testimonials; here the platitudes are given more to the buying process than to the rug sold. Reads one: "In the meantime, remember our days together walking, laughing, and of course drinking tea." Consider this a sign: Buying a carpet is not necessarily a simple purchase. The salesman may offer to buy you lunch or dinner or invite you to be an overnight guest. The point? Said Belli: "We're trying to appreciate each other."
For contemporary shopping, head for Ortakoy, a historic urban village on the Bosphorous. There are more cafes than shops, but the boutiques here are worth the trip because they offer works by modern artists. In Dervish (18 Mecidiyekoprusu Sokak), a family-run shop, highlights include a hand-painted wooden mirror, wooden boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl and silver jewelry incorporating symbols of Anatolian societies, such as the falcon, donkey and dragon. At Kevser (72 Muallim Naci Caddesi), you can buy ceramics made by the country's top potters, such as the elegant Ottoman ceramic replicas made by Ismail Yisit (originals are on display at museums around the world) and Sitki Olcar's interpretations of the vibrant renditions of 16th- and 17th-century Iznik designs. You don't bargain in these shops, though occasionally a merchant will offer discounts. Check out the waterfront cafes, where you can sip tea and play backgammon.
Another favorite shopping place is Istiklal. On this pedestrian thoroughfare (a streetcar runs through the center) in Istanbul's New Town, people-watching is as much fun as shopping. At Tunel Square on the west end, you can find bookstores; Robinson Crusoe (389 Istiklal) has a great selection of English-language novels. Turkish history buffs should check out Metro Kitaberi (513 Istiklal) for titles ranging from "Sexual Life in Ottoman Society" to "Turkey's Biblical Sites." Pasabache (314 Istiklal) has gorgeous Turkish glassware. Sick of shopping? Look for Nevizade Sokade, an alley lined with outdoor cafes.
For more information, contact the Turkish Embassy at 202-518-9601 or www.turkey.org.