The markets of the East

Legacy of the past, mysteriously mirroring spice-scented authenticity and the play of light, the markets of the East are another world...

The markets of the East are a little like the Hotel California: you can enter, but you can never leave. Once you're in, the outside world vanishes. For you have entered a time warp in which past and present intermingle indistinguishably. The markets of the East are as rich as life itself.  Recalling to mind now Syria, now Iran, but most of all Anatolia, the markets of the East are warehouses of sound and color.

A virtual portrait museum
Bearing the weight of the centuries on its shoulders, the Historic Urfa Bazaar is one of the Middle East's most important covered markets with close to 50 streets, numerous hans, courtyards with coffeehouses and 3,000 employees. Located on Haşimiye Square, which comes to life before sunrise, it offers visitors who penetrate its narrow corridors an opportunity to stroll through a broad historical spectrum from the Middle Ages right up to our day. The market's stone corridors are a virtual portrait museum, and a person cannot help but be amazed at the seething crowd of Arabs, Persians, Azeri Turks and Syriac Christians inside its gates.

Furs, felt and red pepper paste...
A maze of exactly eight intersecting covered markets, the Historic Urfa Bazaar consists of an ancient core 'bedesten', as well as markets specializing in furs, felt, leather goods, harnesses and henna and even cooking cauldrons and Urfa's fiery red pepper paste. The market offers a dizzying variety of products ranging from Syrian fabrics and keffiyehs, scarves, kilims, carpets, saddlebags and felt to gold jewelry, copperware, tobacco and spices. You can even have folk costumes tailor-made at the shops in the Hacı Kamil, Mençek, Topçu and Barutçu Hans. There are many pigeon fanciers among the city's population, and birds are bought and sold at a number of shops in the market. The most important of the Ottoman hans still standing in the city is the Gümrük Han. Built for Behram Pasha in 1562 during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, its upper story is lined with tailoring shops; it is also a place where you can find fabrics, pocket watches, hand-worked silver, Islamic prayer beads and aromatic teas from the Far East.  A historic coffeehouse in the courtyard of this han, which used to sell the local 'şıra' or unfermented grape juice, offers photographers a bonanza when villagers arrayed in colorful shalvar and keffiyehs play checkers and dominoes here.

The colors of Anatolia
Ancient city of Mesopotamian and Anatolian cultures, Mardin throughout its history has been a stop for merchants coming from Syria, Iran, Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. In its hans, where stone workmanship reached its zenith, and its markets caught in the play of light, crafts such as pottery, filigree, copper, jewelry-making, leather tanning and weaving have survived since ancient times. The market district, which spreads over a large area south of the main road through the Mardin city center, still exhibits signs of the city's once thriving commercial vitality. And the Jewelers' Bazaar, like the city's other markets, has reaped its share of the border trade. Found here are not only lovely velvets each one more exquisite than the last, but fabrics of every variety, both embroidered and plain, shawls and headscarves from Dubai, Pakistani batiks, and red and black Syrian keffiyehs.

Home of filigree
The city's main drag today has become a market in its own right where modern and traditional shops stand side by side. Following the dull thud of the hammers' rhythmic beat, you will suddenly find yourself around the next corner at the Coppersmiths' Market. Here, side by side with the coppersmiths are the tinsmiths, working up a sweat as they inhale the same grey air day in and day out. Handmade copper items are still in high demand in the area. And the 'gümgüm' or smallest of the copper coffeepots used for boiling up and serving the bitter 'mırra' coffee unique to southeastern Anatolia is one of the Mardin Bazaar's special handcrafted products. Another copper item peculiar to the local markets are the soap dishes known as 'kıldan'. The trunks of the tall, slender poplar trees that line the streets of the Carpenters' Market are still used to make cabinets and staircases. Hidden away among the carpentry workshops, the artisan's coffeehouse is almost always pleasantly dim inside. Thanks to the skill of the local masters, the art of filigree, made by pounding gold or silver into fine wire and then weaving it into aesthetically pleasing shapes, is also famous in this region. Besides jewelry such as necklaces, earrings and bracelets, and accessories like candleholders and tea sets offer further examples of this elegant craft.

Horn of plenty
One of the most important stops on the historic Silk Road and a confluence of cultures, Diyarbakır is famous for its hans, most of which still function as bazaars today. Lying secluded in the labyrinthine streets of the Old Market, which encircles Anatolia's oldest mosque, the Ulu or Great Mosque, like a ribbon of lace, the newest of these hans dates back to the 16th century. Like the Deliller Han, the Çifte Han and the Yeni or New Han, the Hasan Pasha Han is an Ottoman structure where the traditional handicrafts are still practiced. Built in 1573 of alternating rows of Diyarbakır's famous red and black cut stone, this han used to be a center for jewelry shops where precious stones from all over the Middle East were processed.  The churning crowds that throng the bazaar's narrow streets are looking for bright red sequined fabrics from Iran and Syria, marble-printed scarves, felt saddlebags, carpets, kilims and boots. As one of the city's most established crafts, jewelry has roots going far back into the past. Gold, which until recently was hand-worked by Armenian and Syriac Christian masters, is being preserved today in the Jewelers' Market, aka the Diyarbakır Bedesten. The fame of the delicate 'hasır' bracelets made here has long since spread around the world. These bracelets, which are made by first pounding 22 carat gold to a pulp and then weaving it like thread, are the product of a 300-year-old craft unique to Diyarbakır.

Rainbow-striped fabrics
Bidding farewell to the bazaars of Diyarbakır we continue along the trail of the mysterious markets of the East, this time to Gaziantep. With its hans bearing traces of a six-thousand-year past and its bazaars that blend the modern with the traditional, Gaziantep is a true shoppers' paradise. Mother-of-pearl work, which developed through the master-apprentice relationship during the Republican period, is still done in close to fifty workshops in the city today. And if you want to pick up some items made of hand-worked copper, such as trays, Turkish coffeepots, tea kettles or plain copper pots and pans, just head for the historic Coppersmiths' Market. The Elmalı Carşısı is your best bet for the heel-less leather shoes known as 'yemeni' and the rainbow-striped Antep fabrics known as 'kutnu' that were worn by the Ottoman sultans, as well as baklava, pistachio marzipan, walnut rolls, bitter 'menengiç' coffee, Turkish delight, spices and dried vegetables. In short, whichever market you step into in eastern Anatolia, you will notice that while the sights, sounds and smells may vary, time remains unchanged. Labyrinthine at first glance, inside the markets of the East, you will experience them like a fairytale, their historic spaces, their voices and faces, all worth visiting over and over again.