Bazaar, Bath & Beyond
In the market for a flying carpet? Rugs galore, and everything else imaginable, can be had in Istanbul’s great Kapali Çarsi (Covered Bazaar), a mini-city that sprawls across sixty-five streets and 50 acres and includes some 4,000 shops, tiny cafés, and restaurants – all surrounded by a wall, and entered through any of eleven gates.
Originally built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 1450s, it’s been substantially rebuilt over the years due to fires, though its original style of arched passageways and tiled fountains has been maintained. One of the largest (and oldest) shopping malls in the world, it offers a sea of choices for local curios and souvenirs: carpets, jewelry, icons, leather, water ewers, meerschaum pipes, ceramics, bronze, and copperware.
Take a deep breath and plunge into the maze of twisting byways, where merchants offer small glasses of tea to discombobulated tourists in search of the elusive bargain. The occasional Istanbullu still comes here to buy a few meters of fabric or a gold bracelet for a special occasion, and, as is often the case, the side streets are the most authentic and evocative of the old days.
Once you’re shopped out, a traditional Turkish bath is just the thing to help you decompress. There are still more than a hundred to choose from, but the best place to take the plunge after a long and dusty day of bargaining is the Cagaloglu on Yerebatan Caddesi. The Cagaloglu was a gift to the city in 1741 from Sultan Mahmud I, and it is believed that King Edward VIII, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Franz Liszt, and Florence Nightingale have all visited its magnificent white-marble domed steam room – Tony Curtis unquestionably did.
Public baths were originally founded by the Romans, who passed the tradition on to the Byzantines and from them to the Turks. Baths were a public utility because of water shortages, and provided a perfect marriage between the Koran’s demand for cleanliness and the pleasure of corporal indulgence in a beautiful setting. Although most Turkish homes (especially in the cities) have adequate plumbing today, the baths remain a social institution.
Incidentally, the penalty for a man discovered in the women’s baths used to be death; these days, you can escape with your life, but expect to find the men’s and women’s baths separately housed in interiors that have not changed much since Ottoman days.