Thursday , 29 February 2024


A world tour of malls has to begin where malls themselves were born: Istanbul, Turkey, home to the Grand Bazaar and in the last decade home to some of the most modern shopping complexes in the world.

That’s a lot of time between developments, but perhaps the Ottoman Empire was stingy with building permits. Yet a comparison of the Bazaar and the newest completed mall, Akasya Acibadem on the Asian side of the city shows that in a lot of ways the format – and the shopping culture — remains the same.

Some history: Undoubtedly inspired in some degree by the bazaars of Persia, the Grand Bazaar was built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1455 or so to provide a place to trade textiles. Given Istanbul’s status as the crossroads of the world then, and the gateway to two continents today, it’s not surprising that a substantial marketplace would be built, hosting everyone from Marco Polo to most likely the ancestors of today’s tenants. And I still haven’t figured out who runs it – or if anyone actually does.

The complex grew over centuries, and was built and rebuilt after wars and earthquakes. What it has now is some 3,000 vendors, some of them running the same small stall for generations. Which makes sense, given the labyrinthine layout of the enclosed portion, with side alleys, cut-throughs and wrong turns that have convinced me there is an entire society that has been born in, lived in and never have left the building. There are cafes, police stations, some stunning leather and unique art — and an awful lot of the same Evil Eye and tea set merchandise over and over and over again.

It is confusing, overwhelming and exhausting, particularly for those unused to the bartering culture prevalent here. Merchant after merchant talks as you pass, trying to get attention, and then if they’ve got yours, to make you pay a lot more than your garment, trinket, or rug is worth. Don’t have enough Turkish lira? They take Euro and US Dollars – and probably will accept intergalactic whatevers when the aliens land.

The joy of the Grand Bazaar is that the best merchants find humor in the game, and want you to, as well. They’re not going to get as much for that tea set, rug, whatever as they want, and you’re probably not going to pay rock bottom price. But you’ve built an odd kinship that will continue as you walk in circles and end up passing him (invariably a him) again and again.

A true story:

“Remember me?” says the rug dealer from whom I’d purchased a kilim pillowcase an hour before. “Let me show you this rug – see the color? It’s very unusual to find
purple here.”

“That’s true. It looks lovely, but as I told you I have new carpets and don’t need another,” I replied (and which even was the truth).

“This is small so you wouldn’t put it on the floor,” he counters.

“A wall hanging?” I asked. See how easy it is to get into the game?

“Not really, it’s too big. It’s a perfect prayer mat,” he pitches.

“It is. But I’m a Roman Catholic,” I said. Which stopped the pitch dead with a shrug and a laugh, and we both went on our way.

The Grand Bazaar’s much smaller sibling, the Egyptian Market (also called the Spice Market) is much the same, but naturally with a greater emphasis on food. Want a demonstration of how to judge saffron, a sampling of Turkish Delight or the inevitable tea set? It’s a lot more manageable here. This market also seems to get many more locals.

Akasya, on the other hand, doesn’t do bartering – it’s a modern mall all the way, still in the process of opening. It has 300 retailers, not 3,000, including some of the best local (Beymen, a fashion brand) and a few international retailers (including Crate & Barrel, Victoria’s Secret, Zara and Shake Shack), befitting a project that costs nearly US$500 million. It has a master plan (from a U.S. architecture firm) and foreign investors.

Unlike the single-level, sprawling Grand Bazaar, this project has multiple floors, is flooded with light from multiple terraces and even includes Kidzania, a theme park for children to pretend to be adults. It is a luxury mall for an up-and-coming consumer – many of whom probably live in the apartments that are built right alongside the complex, which also includes a swimming pool and parking. It would be equally at home in Los Angeles, London or Shanghai, though it keeps the curved lines important in this part of the world, and blessedly bans smoking. It speaks international retail. And yes, women sell things.

But in its own way, it’s equally lively, because this center is geared to residents who want to live their daily lives. Women and children abound, picking up life’s necessities. It remembers that at its heart, the shopping place is really a gathering place, an excuse for people, particularly women, to meet in public and be entertained by each other as much as by merchandise.

Both projects have an energy, though, a vitality and an ear for its audience. And if Akasya is really lucky, someone will visit it in 600 years.

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