Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Maritine crossroads / Bazaar

Pierre Loti's description of the traffic on the Bosphorous:
I watch the coming and going on the strait, which during the day tends to become the world's most heavily traveled corridor. At its center, farther out, huge ships steam past one another, forever communicating between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Closer in, there are the caiques, vessels of every kind, the little paint-daubed sailboats that, on breezy afternoons, hurl themselves mindelessly against the quay of the house, sometimes demolishing its fragile marble balustrade.

Turkey is bounded by the Black Sea to the north, the Aegean Sea to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the south; that's 5,176 miles of coastline. That explains, partly, why the geographical area has seen the birth of 13 very significant civilizations. The link between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara—the Bosphorus—has been, and continues to be, a key factor in the development of this area. The Bosphorus is still Turkey’s major maritime route, the main medium for transportation and exchange, and the most direct route for connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

It fascinates me to see the myriad kinds of activities this strait hosts. Two days ago, when it was sweltering hot, I walked along the European edge from Eminönû, past the Ortaköy Bridge (one of the two that connect the European and Asian sides of Istanbul) to slightly beyond trendy Ortaköy, which put me right about in the middle of the Bosphorus. The edge is lined with numerous ferry piers that are indeed indispensable transportation for thousands of Istanbullus transferring back and forth across the continents, and especially during summer weekends, to the nine Princes’ Islands. The ferries, first imported from England in 1854, are generally named after neighborhoods: Rumeli, Trakya, Göksu, Beylerbeyi, Tophane and Besiktas.

Shipping and cruise lines dot the edges. Fishing is a national pastime and a main industry. The shipbuilding market volume now nears $10 billion. And of course, transporting oil has taken on even more significance after the break-up of the former Soviet Union; over 7,400 tankers carry more than 125 million tons of oil through the Bosphorus. In addition to all that activity, at any time of the day you can see people rowing, sailing, swimming, sitting… (I should note, too, that the environmental harm has increased exponentially. For example, on 13 March 1994 the Cyprian tanker Nassia and the freighter Shipbroker collided into a huge fire that killed 29 crewmen; the spilled crude patched miles of water and washed onto the shore to affect everything.)

Trade results in… bazaars! Bazaars are festive, magical, intriguing, beguiling—and a source of frustration to someone like me who doesn’t like to bargain. In Turkey’s bazaars, as in most bazaars in the Middle East, the initial quoted price is simply a place to start haggling. You can expect to pay 30 to 50 percent less—if you can maneuver the exchange and unspoken rules of respect and protocol. For example, I sat in a jeweler’s store in the Grand Bazaar while he offered chai and made conversation about the elections, the States, world news—all sorts of topics discussed in multiple languages. He was very courteous and solicitous.

My only role was to be genuinely interested in buying the gorgeous gold earrings I’d stopped to look at; somehow, vendors can actually tell if you’re truly interested and they leave you alone if you’re not. It is understood that if I wasn’t really interested I would not go into his store, drink his tea and waste his time; once I entered his store we were bound by a common agreement to exchange goods.

I was very tempted to buy the earrings, but felt increasingly uncomfortable as in between the topics of conversation, we discussed (what seemed to me to be) and exorbitant price that he was apparently very reluctant to decrease. I couldn’t keep increasing my initial offer because, really, I didn’t know how much the earrings are actually worth. Some people enjoy that sort of exchange and even get a huge kick out of walking away with a cheap price. I don’t feel triumphant in that, especially if I have to haggle with a woman who may seem so very financially poor in comparison to me. Haggling evokes way too many mixed feelings in me; so, needless to say, I left sans the earrings.

In the Middle East, bazaars are always located next to a mosque, since that kind of trade is what supported the establishment and growth of the mosque and in turn what provided the vendors with a place to pray, sleep (since most mosques also have caravanserais, bed and breakfast sorts of lodging), and store their merchandise. (There’s a growing body of scholarship on this topic; perhaps later I will provide titles of recent books and articles.) The Grand Bazaar, built at the command of Fatih Mehmet after the conquest, is one of the most famous markets in the world and is right near my hotel. It is a city within a city that consists of 75 acres of alleyways and a vast network of covered streets and buildings. At the center are domed buildings, called the Old Bedestan (warehouse), where stores with the most valuable merchandise are located.

When you enter the Grand Bazaar, the place looks like a bewildering maze, but soon you realize that there’s an orderly grid like arrangement. Shopkeepers are clustered together according to the kinds of good or services they provide. There is a street of jewelers, leather workers, silk fabrics and other textiles, food, sweets, rugs… anything and everything you can imagine. The stores are owned and operated by individuals, but the municipality of Istanbul owns some of the buildings.

In the mid-19th century, Théophile Gautier wrote of the Grand Bazaar: “There are jewelers whose gemstones are put away in safes or in glass cases placed beyond the reach of thieves. In these dark boutiques, rather like cobbler’s workshops, riches of the most incredible sort abound.”

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