On my last day in town I visited the Istanbul Archeological Museums. It is probably a bad idea to visit a museum when you face a deadline for checking out of your hotel and an afternoon flight. These things distracted me from any real enjoyment of the exhibitions and I found myself doing a “drive by” viewing of the antiquities.
On the other hand the Museum doesn’t really go out of its way to engage the visitor. There were no curators or docents available to answer questions, only police who spoke no English. I was curious why so much of the statuary had been damaged by apparently violent removal of heads and bare arms, while the remainder of the statue was left relatively intact, but there was no one to ask.
The Tiled Kiosk portion of the museum was unimpressive and, again, the significance of the displayed pieces escaped me. I had hoped to see mosaics, but there are none. I should have gone instead to the Kariye (or Chora) Museum instead to see what look to be brilliant examples of Byzantine mosaics but will have to do that on a future visit.
I also went to the Grand Bazaar for gifts. The place is a huge mostly covered market, with over 4000 shops and eateries. Although it is tourist oriented some real business continues to be done here – down one alley I watched an spirited auction of something I couldn’t identify that looked exactly like the pit at the NYSE used to.
The experience is useful if only because it is so foreign to American style of trade. There are no Target stores or chains of any sort, just small merchants trying frantically to cut a small piece off the passing crowds. There is no window shopping; if you pause for even a second to look at the wares you are approached by the proprietor with questions about where you are from, what you want, etc. There are literally no price tags on anything – it is all wide open for bargaining.
Many of the shops sell basically the same items, and so must hustle to make lira, and hustle they do. The rug merchants are the most aggressive and work hard to get you into their shops where they spin endless yards of bullshit about knots, materials, dyes, stories allegedly told by the rugs, etc. One was ridiculous in trying to convince me that a rug told the story of Noah’s ark, on the slimmest of pictorial evidence in his rug. Another claimed that a rug was made by a young woman, and that she created it to convey a negative response to a marriage suitor. What, she couldn’t just say “no thanks” or “bugger off?” No she instead spent however many hours weaving a rug that she hung outside her tent, just to give some guy the kiss-off. The whole deal is to create a sense of obligation, of having accepted their hospitality by taking a glass of tea or a map so, of course, you must spend hundreds or thousands on a rug. There are hundreds of rug shops in the Bazaar.
There are also freelancers, guys walking around with armloads of perfumes or men’s socks for sale. One young fellow needs to work on his approach: “Hey, beeg boss man, you want some socks?”
Here’s a pictures of what the average shop in the Grand Bazaar offers. Starting from the bottom right are the anti-evil eye amulets in blue and white, then boxed Turkish Delight, then the hookahs, copper knick knacks and garish religious iconography. Throw in some leather goods and scarves and you’ve got the picture.
We go out of our way to avoid this kind of experience. GM started a whole car company, Saturn, on the premise of eliminating bargaining over automobiles and, had they made better cars, would have succeeded. We experience real anxiety over the idea of bargaining for goods.
There are quality goods at the bazaar, mostly textile products. I bought some of these as gifts and had a nice relaxed bargaining session which brought the cost down by half. The merchant histrionically slapped my lira down on the floor of his shop, praised Allah for sending my feet into his shop for his first sale of the day, and gave me the whole Bazaar experience. I have no idea if this was a good or bad deal but we both felt good about it.