Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest, largest and most visited markets in the world has become victim of the virus as silence prevails across its corridors, where once were noises of mixed languages, developing cultures and commerce that has buzzed for centuries.
The bazaar — home to almost 3,000 shops where more than 30,000 people work — was shutdown on March 23 as part of the lockdown that was imposed due to the rising cases of Covid19 that has killed over 4,300 people in Turkey.
Officials say it has been the longest closure in the history of the grand bazaar, which is more than 550-year-old, except for forced shutdowns following fires and earthquakes.
The market is usually visited by 150,000 people every day — and by 42 million last year — while traders shout out deals in dozens of languages to lure tourists into their stores.
Now the stores are all shuttered, except for about 20 stock exchange offices and jeweller’s shops which have remained open for economic reasons, with only special customers received by appointment.
The bazaar has been disinfected every Wednesday since the lockdown was imposed across the country, while janitors cleaned the space every morning.
“God willing we will reopen our market in a healthy fashion on June 1,” Fatih Kurtulmus, chairman of the Grand Bazaar’s board, told AFP in an interview.
“I have faith that our country will begin receiving tourists from mid-June by paying attention to hygiene rules,” he said inside the historic market.
Kurtulmus added that while not much activity is expected in the first weeks, “I believe tourists will fly to Istanbul by the end of June because they cannot do without… the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.”
The bazaar is located on Istanbul’s historic peninsula, home to the Sultanahmet mosque, also called the Blue Mosque, and the ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sophia. The Grand Bazaar was built in 1455, two years after the Ottomans seized Istanbul — then known as Constantinople — from the Byzantines.
The market thrived, expanding rapidly with the rising Ottoman empire, and by the 17th century it had taken on its current shape, giving the bazaar its Turkish name Kapalicarsi (covered market).
“Our Grand Bazaar — the heart of the economy, culture, history and tourism has never been shut down except for natural disasters,” Kurtulmus said.
“We had to take a pause because of the COVID-19 that has shaken the world because we had to prioritise safety and health before the economy.”
The grand bazaar is set to reopen however under strict rules that have been laid out by the health ministry, which include the compulsory use of face masks and a limited number of customers allowed per shop.
Traders are worried as it will take time for the bazaar to see any sight of tourists for sometime. However, the country is gradually easing its lockdown alongside reopening shopping malls.
“Tourism is the backbone of Grand Bazaar’s economy. We will see when the tourists will come,” said Ayhan Oguz, a jeweller on the bazaar’s main alley.
“2020 seems to be a year of economic losses for us. If business returns to normal, tourism opens and flights resume by September, I believe we will also return to normal,” he said.
Namik, another jeweller said: “We are at a low ebb. How will we pay the rents?”
“My shop remains open but there’s no customers, there’s no business,” he added.
Kurtulmus pointed to all the history that the market has survived already.
“I have the confidence that the Grand Bazaar will get up a full head of steam and compensate for the economic loss by the end of the year.”