The Wonders of the Great Bazaar: 1838 and today

"THE Bazârs of Constantinople have ever been to home-staying Europeans as a vision of the "Arabian Nights;" travellers have lost themselves in hyperbole in their descriptions of them; and the antique glories of the Atmeidan, and even the solemn grandeur of St.Sophia, do not subject the returned pilgrim to half the questioning curiosity which is elicited by the great exchange of the City of the Three Seas.
In by-past years, ere "the schoolmaster was abroad," the chubby urchins of half the remote villages in England believed that the dust of London was gold-dust, and its pavements silver; and even now, in like manner, there are many individuals to be found, who almost persist in believing that the Bazârs of Stamboul are as sparkling and gorgeous as the enchanted garden of Aladdin; and yet nothing can be further from the fact. The interest of the Tcharchi exists in its great extent, its peculiar arrangement, and the picturesque effects constantly produced by the shifting groups who people it, and whose diversity of costume, countenance, and national character, tends to arouse the admiration and curiosity of every visitor. It must not be imagined that the bazârs of the East are vast apartments filled with rows of trim counters, overstrewn with toys and trinkets, and all the gaud and glitter which are the charm of such lounging-places in London. There is no prettiness in the great commercial mart of the Moslems; their Tcharchi is composed of a cluster of streets, of such extent and number as to resemble a small covered town, the roof being supported by arches of solid masonry. A narrow gallery, slightly fenced by a wooden rail, occasionally connects these arches: and it is extraordinary to look down from one of them upon the changeful and motley crowd below; nor is it, perhaps, less singular to the stranger, when he has gained this giddy elevation, to find himself surrounded by numbers of doves, whom his vicinity fails to disturb, and who appear to be so habituated to human contact and human turmoil, and to have suffered both so long with impunity, as to have become regardless alike of the one and the other.

Every avenue of the bazâris appropriated to a particular branch of commerce; thus, in the street known as the Bezenstein, the two ranges of counters are occupied by jewellers, and are placed on a raised wooden platform, where the merchants spread their carpets, and make their calculations on strips of a strong yellowish paper, resembling parchment, that they rest against their knee; while, without withdrawing the chibouque from their lips, they dip their reed pen into an ink-bottle, nestled amid the folds of the shawl about their waist, and thus gravely await their customers. Beyond the platform is a strong-room, of which the door is made fast; for many of them contain some of the most costly gems in the world, particularly pearls, turquoises, and brilliants; although the dingy and ill-supplied glass-cases on the counters would leas a stranger to imagine that nothing rare or curious was to be met in the Bezenstein; but let the keen and quick-sighted dealers (who are almost entirely Armenians) see a prospect of securing a good customer, and the door of the inner apartment once thrown back, the eye must be steady indeed that is not dazzled by the mass of jewels which surround it.
The "Plate and gold, Basons and ewers" are there in abundance; drinking-cups, lipped with gems; tusbees, or rosaries, where every bead is a jewel; clusters of diamonds in fanciful devices, for the turbans of the young beauties of the harem; aigrettes for the caps of the nobles; housings for the Arab steeds of the Pashas, stiff with pearls and gold rings, chains, and stars; - it were idle, in short, to attempt a recapitulation of the treasures of the Bezenstein.

The avenue of the money-changers is gloomy and uninviting, save to those who can feel a pleasure in listening to the ring of the precious metals, which goes on hour after hour, as the solemn-looking bankers pass heaps of coin, or bars of unwrought gold, from scale, to test their weight and quality. This branch of commerce, also, is almost entirely monopolised by Armenians, many of the principal men of that nation resident at Constantinople being sarafs, or bankers to the different Pashas, and remarkable for their high principle and honesty. There are few Turkish money-changers, - as the Osmanlis are not naturally speculative in their commercial undertakings, and prefer a less uncertain and anxious occupation, - and still fewer Greeks; I believe, simply from the difficulty they find in obtaining clients. The great mass of Constantinopolitan bankers are, consequently, Armenians and Jews, and many of the latter are highly respectable and trustworthy; the interests of their employers being further ensured from the known extent of their wealth, and the constant vigilance which is exercised by the Turkish government over that degrades and oppressed people.

One of the most interesting portions of the Tcharchi, is that known as the Armoury Bazâr, where, in five minutes, a person may, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, be "Armed from top to toe," in the garb and with the weapons of almost every period and nation. The walls on either side are lined with pieces of armour; - antique shields, from that of the paladin to the more modern buckler of the crescent; horse -gear, embossed and studded with shining metals; warlike ornaments, so ponderous that they could, apparently, only have been wrought for giants; helmets of all forms and sizes, many of them surmounted with devices which recall the best days of chivalry; spears, as light as fairy-wands, and almost as glittering; suits of mail, dimmed by the rust of centuries; the English musket, the American rifle, and the Indian bow, hang side by side; while Damascus swords, Egyptians scymitars, and Turkish handjars, are heaped together in picturesque confusion. Leopard skins, saddle-worn and venerable, are there also; and resting against them may frequently be seen the heavy match-lock, crusted with embossed silver in those beautiful arabesques peculiar to the East.

The anxiety of the vendors to secure a Frank customer is quite ludicrous. He is beckoned from one to the other with a gesticulation and earnestness against which it is almost impossible to contend: a score of articles is exhibited in succession, with a rapidity which prevents their being thoroughly examined; and the plain dark steel of Khorassan gives place to the heavy and elaborate Albanian pistol, and that in its turn to the Korân-inscribed Damascus sabre, before the quality of either can be ascertained. Then, suddenly, as though he doubted the taste of his customer for warlike weapons, the dealer thrusts them all aside, and spreads before him a tempting display of delicate amber mouth-pieces for the chibouque; under-coats from the costly looms of Persia; hangings of Tyrian tapestry; and all his hoard of fanciful and expensive luxuries. Others, too impatient to await their chance of wiling the wealthy infidel from the stalls of their neighbours, employ one of their slaves to perambulate the bazâr, and to pass and repass before the Frank, carrying some especially attractive object - such as a jewel-hilted pistol, or a buff coat embroidered with a gold with a skill and intricacy which cannot fail to attract his eye.

All nations alike trade in this fascinating commerce; Armenian spreads his carpet beside that of the Turk; and the sallow Jew elbows the keen-eyed and cunning Greek; here and there a Persian may be seen sitting restlessly in the midst of his wares, his flexible and mobile features partially over-shadowed by his large white turban; while throngs of idlers block up the entrance of the avenue, shoving, laughing, and vociferating, and waking a perpetual thunder amid the echoes of the long building. The Shoe bazâr presents a most gay and novel appearance, from the circumstance of its being customary - and, indeed, a law - in Constantinople for each nation to be shod with its own particular colour. Thus the Turk wears a boot and slipper of bright yellow morocco, the Armenian crimson, the Jew purple, and the Greek black; and this fact, coupled with the utter disregard of the Orientals to every thing like a fit, which enables the dealer to manufacture large quantities with the certainty of a speedy sale, makes the street of the shoe-makers like a bed of tulips.

But the most beautiful feature of this trade is the velvet, gold-embroidered, jewel-sprinkled slipper of the harem, worn by the fair Turks on all occasions of festivity, and, indeed, by the higher classes on all occasions within their dwellings; an article of expenditure so serious in a great Osmanli family, as to have suggested the application of the term bishmalik, or slipper-money, (to which I have already had occasion to allude,) to the grant of a considerable annual income to the ladies of the imperial family.
Mingled among these slippers may also be seen a number of circular analies, or hand-mirrors, with short handles, mounted in gold or silver embroidery, and frequently enriched with seed pearls. These pretty toys are indispensable to the Turkish ladies, as they are the companions, not only of their toilets but of their voyages up and down the Bosphorus, where, reclining on their cushions, they repair, as the swift caique shoots along, the disarray which the sharp sea-breezes create in the folds of their snowy veils and ample mantles.

But decidedly the most glittering street in the Tcharchi, is that appropriated to the embroiderers; where silks, stiff with the most elaborate needle-works, wrought in gold and silver threads; almost impalpable muslin, gay with clusters of bright-coloured silken flowers; tobacco bags of cachemire, which appear to have cost the maker years of labour; and costly scarfs from Persia, with golden borders formed of verses from the Korân, or love-ballads from Hafiz, are to be seen on all sides. All the embroidery wrought in Constantinople, with very few exceptions, is the work of Armenian women, who, secluded even more strictly than the fair Turks within the recesses of the harem, emulate their thrifty and pains-taking husbands in their untiring industry; but much of the most costly, particularly that which is worked on cachemire, is imported from Persia.
The Fruit Bazâr stands close to the water's edge, and abounds with dried fruits of every other variety capable of preservation; the only inconsistency being the sale of cheese, and Russian butter, packed in calf-skins, and most unpleasant in appearance, among the more attractive articles already enumerated.

The Broussa silks occupy a very considerable street, as the produce of the celebrated looms of that city is greatly esteemed by the Turks, both for pattern and texture. The staple trade of the ancient capital of Bithynia being raw silk, two-thirds of the houses are colonized by the "spinning-worm;" and the silk is consequently used by the weavers with a profusion which renders the quality of the manufacture so solid, that many individuals have been deluded into the belief that it was mixes with cotton - a material which is to them much more expensive and difficult of access. The colours are seldom bright; for the waters about Broussa are so highly mineralized, as to dull the silk very materially in the process of spinning; put it probably derives from the same circumstance ists unusual strength and durability. The workmen of the city are extremely expert in interweaving gold and silver threads in the warp; and the silks so weven are greatly esteemed in the harems. The plainer patterns are used by both sexes indiscriminately; and nearly the whole costume of every respectable Turk or Armenian is composed of Broussa silk. The demand is hence very great, and the supply commensurate with it; and there are few busier localities in the Tcharchi than this. A few Genoa velvets and European satins may be found in the bales of the merchants; but as they are comparatively unsaleable, the Frank lady who seeks them has no opportunity of being fastidious in her selection.

The Confectionary Bazâr is also extremely well worthy of a visit, for the Orientals excel in all the delicate preparations of sugar and parfume which can be produced. Preserved rose-leaves - a feast for the fairies - look as bright, as soft, and almost as sweet, as though they hat just been shaken to the earth by a truant zephyr wandering in the gardens of Noshapor; gums, mixed with sugar, perfumes, and the juices of fruits, are moulded into a hundred pretty shapes, and may be purchased of as many different flavours; cakes of sherbet-paste, casks of chalva, (a composition of flour, honey, and oil,) delicate sweetmeats from Smyrna and Scio, and strings of sausages, hung in festoons, and filled with the inspissated juice of grapes, mixed with walnuts or almonds, are among the most popular articles of the sekeljhes (Confectioners), if we except, indeed, the kaimac, signifying in the Turkish language the excess of excellence, will give some idea of the estimation in which this dainty is held by the natives; and, truly, it deserves the appellation it has obtained, for there are few edibles in the luxurious East more delicate than the kaimac. The rush of customers to the counter on which it is freshly set forth, is most amusing, and very unfavourable to the vendors of mahalabè, another preparation of milk, forming a species of blancmange, which is eaten with rosewater, and sugar, or honey. In the immediate neighbourhood of this confectionary colony, the water-venders ply a busy trade, and constantly thread among the crowd with their classically-formed vases, or jars of red clay, upon their shoulders and a wooden case strapped before them, containing large crystal goblets, scrupulously clean and cool: their cry is harmonious and melancholy, but they are brisk, civil, and industrious; and for about a farthing and a half the pedestrian can always secure a refreshing draught.

The lapidaries have also their distinct locality, where curious antique gems may occasionally be purchased, but always at an exorbitant price, the merchants having discovered the partiality of the Franks for that species of ornament; they cut and engraves well, but the expense is greater than in Europe.

The Tobacco Bazâr is a very important feature in the Tcharchi; the quantity consumed yearly in the city being immense, and the qualities numerous. Those most esteemed, however, are from Salonica and Latakia; the former by the women, from its mildness and perfume, and by the more luxurious among the men; and the latter by the lower classes, on account of its great strength. Other varieties from the Crimea, Ormus, and many parts of the East, and also from Hungary, are in abundance; and when it is remembered that in Constantinople a visit is never paid, a bargain is never negociated, an hour is never passed, without the eternal chibouque, there will be no necessity for the assurance that this is the most bustling of all the bazârs. The narghilè, or water-pipe, which is seldom used until after the mid-day meal, and which greatly resembles the hookâh of Hindostan, is always filled with Shiraz tobacco, sprinkled with rose-water, and frequently rendered still more odoriferous by having a scented pastile placed on its summit, while the water through which the vapour passes is impregnated with the perfume of some flower or spice.

The Spice Bazâr is perhaps, however, the most perfectly oriental department of the Tcharchi; for it is laden and groaning with all the costly condiments of the Levant, in enormous quantities. There are pyramids of cloves, hillocks of ginger, piles of cinnamon, bags of mace, and a combination of sweetness which wafts the sense at once to the "spiced groves of Araby the Blest."

The Porcelain Bazâr is very beautiful; for within it are congregated every species of ancient and modern China, from the pure, well-finished, fresh-looking cup of Worcestershire manufacture, to the elegantly-formed but time-worn vase, dug from some Athenian ruin. The mimic flowers of Dresden are beside the productions of Sèvres; and the combination of colour are extremely pretty. Jars of artificial flowers, and or-molu, buhl, and alabaster clocks from Paris and Geneva, abound; for the Turks are very partial to these ornaments, and scatter them over every room in their houses; and, altogether, the Porcelain Bazâr is a very agreeable lounge.
In order to avoid the imputation of tediousness, we will conclude the chapter with a description of the Shawl Bazâr - a mart of luxury and expense which is the terror of many an Eastern husband. The goods exposed are rather gaudy than valuable, and consist principally of Scotch and French manufactures, both of which are eagerly purchased by the middle and lower classes; these are hung against the walls, or spread over the carpets of the dealers, in juxta-position with Greek coiffures of gold-spotted muslin, scarfs of lama-gauze, and embroidered bathing wrappers. But in the private store behind the merchant lie the most precious shawls of Lahore and Thibet, gold stuffs from Bagdat, and all the more costly articles of an oriental toilette. Many of the traders in this bazâr are Persians; and wo betide the unsuspecting Frank who falls into their clutches! they have all the cunning of the Greek, the pertinacity of the Armenian, and the roguery of the Jew, to which is superadded their own national fearlessness of a lie, and proficiency in dissimulation. Does the worthy merchant show a shawl for which he is aware that he would be well paid by a thousand piastres, he will begin by demanding two, or even three thousand; and so long as he believes that there is the slightest probability of effecting his purpose, he will swear by the beard of his father, and the grave of his mother, that he is selling it far beneath its value, because he sees something fortunate in the aspect of his customer -or because he has dreamt a dream - or for some other equally probably and rational reason; when, no sooner does he become convinced of the impracticability of the cheat, than he unblushingly decreases his demand by two or three hundred piastres at a time, until he has reduced it to a fair amount.

The mania of the Greek ladies for cachemires is a national characteristic; and as well all the oriental females are both extravagant and fastidious on the subject of shawls, this branch of commerce is very weighty; while the bazâr is also visited by the slaves, whose business it is in every great household to superintend the wardrobes of the harem; and who barter, chaffer, and exchange, with a knowledge of the comparative value of the articles quite equal to that of the merchants themselves; and who bring hither all the cachemires requiring repair, to a number of grave old Moslems, who are squatted upon their carpets - spectacle on nose, and needle in hand - at the lower end of the street; and who perform their task most skilfully, weaving in every thread of a corresponding colour to the pattern of the shawl, and perplexing the eye to discover the fracture.

Such is the Tcharchi of Constantinople, where a week may be wholly and not unprofitably spent, without ennui or weariness.

Source: Pardoe, Julia: The Beauties of the Bosphorus. Illustrated in a series of views of Constantinople and its environs, from original drawings by W.H. Bartlett. London: George Virtue 1838, pg. 29–36.

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