Several centuries later the Mısır Çarşısı still attracts
Mısır Çarşısı is in Eminönü, located across the shore road from the ferryboat landings used for travel between the two sides of the city. The dried food and nuts stores can be found there.Lonely Planet has now listed the Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar) as number five on its Best Fresh Food Markets List. And just last July the Hagia Sophia made it on to the same organization’s list of the Ten Most Beautiful Buildings in the World. Istanbul is moving up in the world. Was it the spice trade that first promoted international trade as some would speculate or was it some other commodity?
Istanbul’s Mısır Çarşısı is in Eminönü, located today across the shore road from the ferryboat landings used for travel between the European and Asian sides of the city. But centuries ago it was cargo ships that tied up in this area to debouch their cargos of grain and spices. The Byzantines did the same and even had a market here called the Makron Envalos. The Romans and others who came here before the Byzantines probably also used the area for trade as well.
Certainly the whole of the area is covered in Byzantine remains, although you’d never know it today. Maritime trade was carried out by Genoese and Venetian ships, plying their trade between the Black Sea and their home cities in present-day Italy. Istanbul was a logical place to stop before going on to the Mediterranean.
We owe the 348-year-old building to two valide sultans. As valide sultan, the mother of the reigning sultan not only had control of the palace harem, but if her son was too young or too weak to rule she ruled the Empire through the grand vizier and her supporters.
In the case of the Mısır Çarşısı, the idea to build a mosque and mosque complex on the site started with Valide Sultan Safiye Hanım and construction began in 1597. Its architect Davut Aga had been the pupil of Mimar Sinan. However, he died two years later and Dalgıç Ahmed Çavuş took over the job. Safiye’s aim was apparently to extend Islamic influence into a district predominantly inhabited by Jews, but this goal was thwarted by dissent, particularly among the Janissaries, that arose over its cost and the need for it. The valide sultan may actually have been pandering to the local Turkish merchants and businessmen who were growing alarmed at what was perceived to be the growing importance of the Jewish community. However, it was not at all unusual for the women of the imperial family to have mosques, schools, fountains and the like built. When Safiye’s son, Mehmet III, died in 1603, his successor Ahmet I had no interest in continuing the work. Safiye in any case was confined to the harem and died in 1605.
Over the ensuing decades, nothing was done to revive and complete the mosque at Eminönü and it fell to ruins. Eventually another valide sultan, HalideTurhan Sultan, who was the mother of Mehmet IV, was persuaded to finish the mosque after what had fallen to ruins was further destroyed in the Great Fire of 1660. The fire consumed two thirds of Istanbul and who the fire failed to kill died of the plague that broke out soon after. Thousands died, making finishing the mosque and mosque complex at Eminönü a sign of hope for a struggling city.
Center for merchants
No one is really sure how the building got its name. The bazaar certainly sold spices and undoubtedly the merchants in the area did as well, and one could suppose that corn and grain were sold in the area because the ships bringing these commodities would dock here and unload. However, they don’t seem to have been sold inside the bazaar. The word misir not only means corn and spice but is also the word for Egypt. It is also supposed that the bazaar, after it was built were assigned the revenue from certain foundations and perhaps it got money from one or more foundations in Egypt while it was and thus acquired the name. The market also at one time or another was known as the Yeni Çarşı (New Bazaar after the neighboring mosque’s name).
The Mısır Çarşısı was built using stone fill, dressed stones and bricks in an L-shape. It has six gates whose names give us an idea of either the location of the door or what it was being sold in it when it was first opened: the Fish Market Gate, Garden Gate, Flower Market Gate, New Mosque Gate, Linen Weavers Gate and the Eminönü Gate. Eighty-six shops were found in it and these were divided into herb sellers, blanket makers and cotton sellers. Behind the shops were places where products could be made or stored.
There are two “roads” through the building which were probably built so that horses could be ridden into the bazaar. They meet at a crossroads in the middle where a muezzin calls at prayer time to summon the faithful to the mosque. Today there are so many people walking through the market, either window shopping, looking to buy or just using it as a shortcut that you couldn’t get a horse in there if you tried at various different times of the day. It is certainly not the place to be if you panic in large crowds. Indeed it would seem that the Mısır Çarşısı has had the same characteristics for centuries. We read of its busyness in the memoirs of the 19th century Italian travel writer, Edmondo de Amicis.
“Upon continuing along the road, one passes under an old gate with an arch and decorated with vine branches and comes to a large freestanding building through which passes a road that is bordered with dim stores, full of people, chests, baskets, sacks and goods, long, plain, covered over and packed with people. As soon as one enters, the sharp smell of herbs slaps a man’s nose so that one turns backwards. While every kind of spice that comes from India, Syria, Egypt and Arabia has been collected here, it is the Mısır Çarşısı that has turned them into essence, pills, powder and lotion that paint the hands and faces of the concubines, provide beautiful scents for homes, hamams, mouths, beards and food, that gain strength for nervous pasas, that soothe unhappy wives, that numb the addict and distribute dreams to the magnificent city, drunkenness and delight. Walk for a little in the bazaar and man becomes muddled and at once grows faint but with this hot, heavy atmosphere, the influence of the smells that make one drunk, even when one’s gotten out into the open air it continues for a time and in one’s mind it remains fresh as one of the most intimate and meaningful traces of the East.”
Has very much changed today? Not really. It hardly seems likely that there were restaurants like Pandelli’s and Bab-ı Hayat inside the Mısır Çarşısı Nor would there have been electric appliances or watches, but one can still find colorful spice stores with the shopkeepers noisily trying to catch your attention. The dried food and nuts stores are still there, although one can get these products in any market around town. The crowds are still there and one visitor has commented that the large numbers of people just trying to move around the bazaar was so distracting that she came away without buying anything. The secret to shopping there successfully? Go before 11:00 a.m. or after 5:30 p.m. Otherwise be prepared to forcefully draw the shopkeeper’s attention.