Grand Bazaar haggling for survival

The world’s most visited tourist attraction in Istanbul may collapse from sheer indifference.

The Grand Bazaar is a celebration of orientalist cliches and a tribute to craftsmanship [Fredrik Drevon/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul – With its alluring vaulted alleys and mesmerising abundance of all things exotic, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is at once a celebration of orientalist cliches and a tribute to genuine craftsmanship. Whether you are looking for the perfect wedding rings or gawking at carpet sellers, the Grand Bazaar delivers – but today, there is a risk the whole structure could come crashing down.

Without swift restoration, the roof threatens to collapse, experts say. “Since many artisans have removed walls and built basements to expand their shops, the overall support has been reduced. In the case of a future earthquake, this would mean serious trouble,” architect Afife Ondin Aktan told Al Jazeera.

Visitors to the legendary shopping labyrinth are repeatedly approached by vendors touting lamps and leather jackets with tongue-in-check sales pitches, such as: “What can I do to take your money?”

For five years, Aktan worked on the Grand Bazaar renewal project through her previous employer, the Utopia architectural firm, a consultant for Istanbul’s Fatih municipality. The first section of the bazaar, the so called Ic Bedesten, was likely built by Sultan Mehmet, the 15th-century conqueror, and is now 45,000sq m in size. The Kapali Carsi, or covered market, attracts around 200,000 daily visitors, six days a week.

When it rains, the Grand Bazaar is flooded causing plants to grow inside [Fredrik Drevon/Al Jazeera]

But Aktan says the bazaar is neglected simply due to indifference.

“The roof is used as a garbage dump. Windows and ventilation shafts are in disorder and the roof leaks in many places. When it rains, the Grand Bazaar is flooded, which explains why plants are growing inside,” Aktan said.

In addition to leaks, broken tiles and extensive shrubbery, the roof is encumbered by countless airconditioning units, generators, satellite dishes, water tanks and makeshift workshops. The bazaar’s electrical system includes an overwhelming variety of cables running through windows left open indefinitely, allowing water to pour in. 

Inside the Grand Bazaar, significant cracks have appeared in the ceiling. The vaults and walls of Fesciler, Halciler and Yarim Tashan streets have at least a dozen cracks that run metres in length. Many appeared during the latter part of 2014 due to water pouring in from the deteriorating roof; consequently, several temporary steel supports have been installed to prevent roof arches from collapsing.

Basic maintenance such as replacing broken windows doesn’t appear to be on the agenda for Hasan Firat, president of the bazaar traders’ association. Although some 20,000 people work in the Bazaar, not one janitor is employed.

Basic maintenance such as replacing broken windows does not appear to be on the agenda for Hasan Firat, president of the bazaar traders’ association. Although some 20,000 people work in the bazaar, not a single janitor is employed. According to Aktan, Firat – who did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for an interview – is not doing much to maintain the bazaar.

In addition, the Fatih municipality has not set a restoration schedule. The project is still under evaluation and awaiting approval from the Yenileme kurulu, or renovation council.

Municipality officials did not respond to questions about the estimated cost and duration of the restoration project. “When we receive the preliminary project approval, we will start the process of resolving technical and security issues,” the municipality’s survey project manager, Cihan Kan, told Al Jazeera in an email.

Fires devastated the Grand Bazaar in 1546 and 1660, and most recently in 1954. During an earthquake in 1894, many domes and vaults collapsed. “After each disaster the bazaar was rebuilt more stoutly than before,” author Jane Taylor wrote in her book, Imperial Istanbul.

However, looking at the bazaar’s crumbling vaults today, “stout” is not the first word that comes to mind. Serdar Selamet, assistant professor at the department of civil engineering at Istanbul’s Bosporus University, told Al Jazeera that if a fire breaks out in the Grand Bazaar, a lot of people will pay for it. “Due to the level of damage, the bazaar has become a serious fire hazard and an embarrassment to Turkey”, Selamet said.

The bazaar has become a serious fire hazard and an embarrassment to  Turkey, professor Serdar Selamet says  [Frederik Drevon/Al Jazeera]

He recommends that restoration start with the roof, preferably during summer. “I would remove all the trash and tiles from the roof; place membrane and do other necessary things to  prevent leaks, and lay new tiles,” Selamet said. “After that, the inside of the bazaar should be renovated section by section, since the vendors will surely not allow the entire bazaar to be shut down.”

The cables currently running in messy bundles along the walls should be rerouted in plastic tubes underground, said Selamet, whose main expertise is structural fire engineering. 

Even if the restoration project passes the bureaucratic hurdles, the question of financing remains. A full 98 percent of the bazaar is privately owned, but preventing a roof collapse or fire is clearly in the interests of the Fatih municipality.

Although packed with overpriced pashmina scarves and dancing Dervish key chains, the Grand Bazaar provides a romantic setting for locals who flock here to buy the special gold coins Turks use as wedding gifts. 

For tourists, the bazaar is an El Dorado of random discovery and urban adventure – the perfect place to get lost.

‘If the bazaar collapses, the next time we will choose another shopping centre’  [ Frederik Drevon/ Al Jazeera]

Nasser Alhajri, a Saudi Arabia national visiting Istanbul with his family, said he did not come for the shopping. “It is too expensive. I came here to enjoy the atmosphere,” Alhajri told Al Jazeera.

When asked what he would do if the roof collapsed, Alhajri told Al Jazeera that “there are no emergency exit signs here, so we would follow the Turks”, jokingly adding “if the bazaar collapses, the next time we will choose another shopping centre”.

Among vendors and artisans, knowledge about the restoration project is scarce. 

“I don’t know how it will be financed or when it will be done. They have been talking about this project since 2011,” said Cengiz Uzun, who has sold textiles in the bazaar for 30 years.

Souvenir vendor Yildiz Yeni told Al Jazeera he pays close to $1,300 per month to rent his six-metre-square shop.

The roofing situation is very bad, but closing the bazaar for restoration would be bad for business, Yildiz said, reflecting the fears of many vendors.

Source: Al Jazeera