What Has Come of Istanbul’s Famed Spice Bazaar?

By Cagan Duran (Istanbul).For centuries, Istanbul was the destination for the world’s spice trade. But, as the tumultuous 20th century changed much of the world’s economic structure, Istanbul’s famed Spice Bazaar now holds a different place in commerce.
Entering this, we are immediately assailed by an odor so powerful as to fairly knock one down: this is the Egyptian Bazaar, where are deposited all the wares of India, Syria, Egypt, and Arabia, which later on, converted into essences, pastilles, powders and ointments, serve to color little hands and faces, perfume apartments and baths and breaths and beards, reinvigorate worn-out pashas, and dull the senses of unhappy married people, stupefy smokers, and spread dreams, oblivion, and insensibility throughout the whole of the vast city.

Edmondo de Amicis (1846 – 1908) an Italian novelist visiting the Egyptian Bazaar.

Known as Misir Carsisi or sometimes the Spice Bazaar, The Egyptian Bazaar takes its name from the abundance of Egyptian products that have moved in and out of the bazaar since the 18th century.

As vivid historical accounts such as de Amici’s have recounted over the centuries, Istanbul hosted the mass convergence of people and goods from the Mediterranean to China during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Much of the city’s economic fervor was a blessing of geography. The Balkans, Black Sea and Mediterranean intersect at the natural harbor of Istanbul, making the city an attractive point for trade routes, including the ancient Silk Road.

Spices lined up at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Spices lined up at the Egyptian Bazaar.

This natural port of Istanbul—specifically the Eminönü district—would become host to the world’s spice trade, which the New Spice Bazaar, commission in the 1500s and finally constructed in 1664, would become the physical anchor. Before the physical marker of The Egyptian Bazaar was built, there already existed a Byzantium trade market which was called as “Makron Envalos” in it’s location. In Ottoman times, at the turn of 17th century, Safiye Sultan, who is the wife of Sultan Murad III, aimed to construct a complex of buildings adjacent to a mosque. In 1664, the complex was finished and it included the Egyptian Bazaar, which was called the “New Bazaar” at the time.

Sketch of the Egyptian Bazaar. Courtesy of Cagan Duran.

Sketch of the Egyptian Bazaar. Courtesy of Cagan Duran.

The Egyptian Bazaar is constructed in an “L” shape, which includes five gates, 88 cells, and 18 shops outside. Herbalists and sellers of cotton were the first craftsmen in the bazaar. Traders distinguished their stall with a specific symbol on the wall, such as a fire tower, a small ship, an ostrich egg, or a tassel. If a person bought a product from the Spice Bazaar, he identified the shop with this specific sign. Today, I stood at the bazaar unsure where to take my first step. I barely heard my mother tongue. Murmurings of Spanish, German, English, French, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian enveloped me, and these were just the languages that I could differentiate from the buzz of the bazaar. I watched the sellers joke and tease with customers, cajoling them into purchases.

Bustling passages in the Egyptian Bazaar.

Bustling passages in the Egyptian Bazaar.

I decided upon stall number 75. There, I found the vendor Mahmut Yıldırım, who has run the shop called Temiz Baharat or “Clean Spice” since the 1970s. He started to work as an apprentice before becoming a connoisseur himself. Yet, while Yildirium has worked in the trade for years, he explained that there are less and less apprentices now. “Young people do not prefer to stay with us long,” he explained.

The economic role of the Egyptian bazaar has changed significantly since it was first commissioned in the 17th century, and particularly so throughout the 20th century. Already, prior to the Ottoman fall after World War I, new European trade relationships had usurped the importance of the Mediterranean trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. Istanbul, which was once the Ottoman empire’s hub of mass consumption and a robust, culturally diverse unification point for spices and goods from the Mediterranean and Far East trade routes (the Silk and Spice trade, for example) had instead become an importer of new, increasingly popular European imports from the west. How retail was managed, too, changed along with a shift in product origins. The control of markets became more centralized and separated from the local religious community—which had previously guided financial protocol in Istanbul. Although most city dwellers still preferred small, independent retailers for most of the 20th century, large, modern wholesalers and chain markets began to creep into urban commerce (The evolution of Istanbul in world economics is explained in the article “The Changing Morphology of Commercial Activity in Istanbul,” Nebahat Tokatli & Yonca Boyaci, 1999).

Spice shop at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Spice shop at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Down the corridors of the Egyptian Bazaar.

Down the corridors of the Egyptian Bazaar.

Goods sold at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Goods sold at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Yildirium mentioned the opening of Megacenter in 2005, a competing spice wholesaler. Megacenter, he claimed, is now the biggest dry food wholesaler in Istanbul. Prior to Megacenter, it was from the Egyptian Bazaar that people from all around Turkey would come for their spice and medicinal supplies. While many spices do still flow into the bazaar from Turkish cities such as Bursa, Gaziantep, Antalya, Mersin, Adana, Malatya, Kayseri, and Diyarbakır, the increase in urbanization throughout all of Turkey (not just around Istanbul), as well as the competition from modern wholesalers, has compromised the Egyptian Bazaar’s prominence.

Tourist group at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Tourist group at the Egyptian Bazaar.

The crowds of people I witnessed, who seemed to come from all corners of the world, are more than likely tourists, and not the world’s traders as it had once been. In 2013, over 10 million tourists visited Istanbul and many of them wind up at the Spice Bazaar, which is the second most visited place in Istanbul. Today, it is tourism and some of the older, nostalgic people of Istanbul that define the Egyptian Bazaar’s purpose—not an empire.

The second main gate outside of the Egyptian Bazaar.

The second main gate outside of the Egyptian Bazaar.

The Eminönü district, the old Istanbul, is no more a single center that determines the nature of trade of Turkey. How many other historic markets of the world have met the same fate? How many others have remained economic cornerstones?

Posted in Istanbul