April 14, 2011

Fighting Entropy to Salvage Istanbul's Historic Bazaar

When the rain began again in Istanbul this month, Osman Varli, a carpet seller in the city’s Grand Bazaar, cast an anxious glance to the vaulted ceilings outside his shop. “I’m really getting worried here,” he said, pointing to the moldy and decaying columns supporting the graceful vaults. When it rains, water streams down the pillars from the leaking roof and runs down the lane like a river through a ravine. “Those pillars won’t last much longer,” Mr. Varli said, poking at one of the columns with a disdainful finger. “Look, just scratch with your fingernail and it dissolves.”

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, built by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, is visited by about 300,000 people most days, and half a million on busy ones. Approximately 25,000 people make their living in the bazaar, which boasts 3,600 shops selling items from Armenian antiques to tourist trinkets. It has its own post office, mosque and police and fire stations under its 39,000-square-meter, or 420,000-square-foot, roof.

Yet when it comes to maintenance and repairs, there is no one in charge of this city within a city.


“Yes, it is a world-famous cultural treasure,” said Mustafa Demir, the mayor of Istanbul’s Fatih district, which encompasses the historical peninsula on which the bazaar sits, “but it is also the private property of many individuals, and there is no organizational structure for solving common problems.”

“This huge bazaar was forsaken, abandoned to its fate,” he said.

Ownership of the Grand Bazaar is divided among some 2,500 shop owners, a majority of whom have held their deeds for generations, some dating to Ottoman times.

Read more on The New York Times: Fighting Entropy to Salvage Istanbul's Historic Bazaar

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