Sunday, August 17, 2008

Arasta Bazaar: Sultanahmet’s oft-overlooked shopping are

Arasta Bazaar: 
Arasta Bazaar
Sultanahmet’s oft-overlooked shopping area

Tucked away next to the Blue Mosque in two short shop-lined pedestrian streets is the Arasta Bazaar -- Sultanahmet's own miniature version of the Grand Bazaar.

Built at the same time as the Blue Mosque, this area originally served as a marketplace, with the rents from the shops going toward the upkeep of the mosque. During Ottoman times, it was known as the Sipahiler Bazaar, and specialized in items for the cavalry. Later it fell out of use and was used as a stable for horses. Ravaged by fires, the area was left in ruins and largely ignored for many years. Revamped in 1974, it now houses 83 shops, most specializing in carpets and textiles, but with the usual touristy kitsch thrown in for good measure to hopefully tempt some of the passing tourists to wander inside for a look. As you wander the streets, take a break from window-shopping and look at the walkway itself.
Here and there, you will see bits and pieces of mosaics and tiles poking up between the stones. These are some of the remnants from the Great Palace of Byzantium built by Constantine. Thought to have at one time extended from the Hagia Sophia and Hippodrome down to the coastline, the basic design was planned by the Emperor Constantine I. The vast structure contained an assortment of state buildings, including numerous courtyards, throne rooms, audience rooms, churches, chapels, fountains, libraries, assembly halls, thermal baths and stadiums. Over the centuries, the complex fell victim to fires, earthquakes and neglect. The mosaics that remain from this mighty palace can be viewed at the Mosaic Museum, next door to the Arasta Bazaar. After winding around underground to view the impressive artwork, the exit deposits visitors once again at the heart of the bazaar.
For carpet and felt shopping, Arasta offers a much more laid-back atmosphere than many parts of the Grand Bazaar. During tourist season shopkeepers are out, as to be expected, trying to lure customers and offering endless glasses of tea, but there is not the persistent hassling found in many of the other parts of Sultanahmet. A large number of the customers who shop here are serious collectors who know what they are looking for and where to find it.
One of the best places in Arasta to find collectable textiles is Mehmet Çetinkaya's Maison du Tapis d'Orient, opened in 1986. Known worldwide as one of the major Turkish dealers in rare textiles, included in his inventory are very reasonably priced pieces, including new Uzbekistan suzanis. Cocoon is another well-known shop in the bazaar. Established in 1995 by Şeref Özen and Mustafa Demir, it has a reputation for good quality and prices. Included among their more interesting pieces are Turkmen rugs and embroideries from Central Asia.
At night, weather permitting, a free, so-called "whirling dervish show" is staged for unwary tourists by the small café at the beginning of the bazaar. But, unless you are a lover of touristy performances this is a definite must-miss. If you want to see a sema (whirling dervish) ceremony, it's better to go the Galata Mevlevi Han or Sirkeci train station and see the real thing.
For a quick snack during the day, the cafe at the end of the bazaar nearest to the Blue Mosque is a good place to stop for a rest and refreshments. From here you have a fantastic view of the Blue Mosque and can relax, take a break and people watch while drinking tea, having lunch and then smoking a nargile. For a more substantial meal, across the street from the bazaar is the Mavi Ev Hotel, which has one of the best panoramic views in the area of Sultanahmet and the Marmara Sea from its rooftop terrace restaurant. For the best cup of coffee in town with a mouth-watering pastry on the side, stop by the Java Studio, across from the Mavi Ev, for a fresh cup to perk you up after a day of sightseeing and shopping, or to brace yourself for an upcoming spending spree.
Hours: All shops open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.- 7 p.m. Some of the shops are open on Sundays.
16 August 2008, Saturday
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