“Two kilos five liraaa! Two kilos five liraaa!” bellowed a young and exuberant vendor of tomatoes to the ongoing stream of frugal-minded shoppers making their way through the snaking Tarlabaşı Sunday Market.
Hundreds of sellers of fresh produce, dairy, seafood, kitchenware, clothing, smuggled tobacco, jewelry, fresh baked goods and numerous other items set up side by side in the central Istanbul quarter of Tarlabaşı every Sunday, weaving an extended path down a backstreet that incorporates both unbridled chaos and strict organization. It is just one of hundreds of similar weekly semt pazarları, the beloved Istanbul neighborhood bazaars that have some of the cheapest prices on the widest variety of goods the city has to offer, while at the same time serving as a critical element in maintaining the vitality of Istanbul neighborhood life.
The repetitive, mesmerizing calls of other enterprising hawkers blend into a chorus punctuated by some men who spontaneously break into full-blown song, constituting the audial element of a true sensory spectacle. Accompanying the crooning vendors is a rainbow spectrum of colorful, meticulously arranged fruits and vegetables, and pungent sheep’s cheese sold in so many different varieties of texture and flavor that it leads one to believe that the Turkish equivalent of feta may be as complex as wine. We pass stands of fresh parsley and arugula, baskets of Giresun’s finest hazelnuts and Gaziantep’s prized pistachios, and black turnips boasting a color so deep, rich and evocative that it recalls only the hue of freshly-tilled soil, the ground from whence it came.
Mustafa Biçer, hailing from central Anatolia’s Nevşehir, has been in the bazaar game for twenty years, running a stand that serves as a virtual journey through Turkey’s agricultural hotspots. His stand in Tarlabaşı features Tokat’s famous grape leaves, walnuts from Adapazarı, hazelnuts from their stronghold of Ordu, and chestnuts of various sizes from the province of Balıkesir. Biçer works at different city bazaars four days a week, not a bad schedule given the five- or six-day workweeks common in Istanbul. But his average day at work is a grueling 16 hours from start to finish
“At 4 a.m. I’m at the wholesale market in Bayrampaşa. We set up the stand at 7 a.m. and break down in the evening at 7:30 or 8,” Biçer said, as he scrambled to take orders from a steady stream of customers, many of whom are regulars who seek out his grape leaves and chestnuts, the latter of which he roasts on a small portable burner for shoppers to sample.
Biçer, the owner of a million-dollar smile who generously treats us to tea and his tasty chestnuts and walnuts during our chat, can be found in the same spot every week, a designated space drawn out by the municipality, to which Biçer pays rent. This is the rigid organization on display amid the chaos of the crowds, sounds and smells: Biçer and his neighboring vendors show up and leave at the same time, in the same exact place, Sunday after Sunday.
“The bazaar is an act of extraordinary co-creation as the sellers collectively construct and deconstruct it within a day.”
To the casual observer these weekly pazars may look haphazard, but the set-up and breakdown of these ephemeral markets requires a startling level of precision and coordination. “These structures are so refined in their simplicity given that they also correspond to four seasons of weather and narrow or expansive spaces, as well as an act of extraordinary co-creation as the sellers collectively construct and deconstruct the market within a day,” said Alexis Şanal, an architect and long-time researcher of the city’s neighborhood bazaars.
Nowadays Istanbul shoppers can choose from a wide range of options including multinational corporate grocers like Migros and Carrefour, a number of Turkish discount chain markets like A101 and Şok, and the classic bakkal, the corner stores that dot practically every street in the city. The bazaars, however, remain supreme for many due to the unique relations and exchanges they offer.
“You run into your neighbors, catch up on the local gossip and goings-on and bump into people. Most importantly, shoppers have a strong relationship with their sellers and this fulfills many public life functions: care about their safety, accountability for quality and the joy of sharing a simple conversation,” said Şanal, whose research can be found on a website called Pazar Making.
We’ve watched in dismay as the city pursues aggressive, limitless development that has resulted in the destruction of neighborhoods, the extinction of trades passed down from generation to generation and the closure of restaurants and shops that had achieved institutional status only to unceremoniously fall victim to the banal clutches of rising property values and greedy landlords. Fortunately, the bazaars serve to preserve neighborly ties in a city that desperately clings to them amid the new walls and boundaries that only seek to divide and alienate.
“As a city designer you can see how the longevity of Istanbul and Anatolian city-making with its rich multiculturalism has perfected some aspects of public life and social connectivity to one’s neighborhood and its city center; the bazaar is one of these instances,” Şanal said.
At times we’ve left these markets with shopping bags about to burst at the seams, other times we go simply for the inimitable atmosphere and its requisite sensory stimulants. We leave empty-handed but invigorated by the energy.
As for veteran vendor Mustafa Biçer, he says he is happy in his line of work and plans on shuffling from market to market until he retires.
“Due to our age, no one would hire us for a different job at this point,” he said with a grin.
Until he grows weary of the bustling trade, which requires constant commuting to far-flung points throughout the city and the arduous labor of setting up and dismantling a stand full of goods, he can be found on Sundays in Tarlabaşı in the space which has been allotted to him, offering his quality regional specialties and beaming with his signature smile.
Short videos about Istanbul’s neighborhood bazaars commissioned by Alexis Şanal’s architecture firm, SANALarc.
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