Shopping in Sultanahmet: Hey, lady! You need to buy a …?!

Shopping in Sultanahmet: Hey, lady! You need to buy a …?!

Thanks to government regulations and stiff fines imposed over the past few years, it is now far easier to walk and window-shop in the Sultanahmet region without the former level of continual harassment.

June 05, 2008, Thursday/ 18:41:00
The first stop for most tourists in Turkey is Sultanahmet, the heart of the Old City. Its maze of streets has seen history in the making for 2,000 years.
Its world-famous mosques and monuments entice visitors to marvel at their wonders. But gawking at the creations of Constantine and the accomplishments of the Ottomans can be overwhelming. Eyes weary of the glories of the past turn to the comfort of the more prosaic present. Most tourists decide to take some time to indulge in that favorite holiday treat -- shopping.

Sultanahmet is willing to oblige. Tourism is a serious business here, essentially supporting an entire interwoven community. When a German couple buys several boxes of lokum (Turkish Delight) or a Dutch businessman purchases a hand-knotted carpet or an Italian fashion model buys a luxurious leather jacket or a backpacking pair of Americans stops for köfte and rakı, energy is pumped into the underlying economy of the area. The salesman buys groceries for the family, the restaurant manager pays the utilities, the carpet dealer pays his rent. So life goes on.

Because of its dependence on tourism and the apparent willingness of tourists to part with their money, over the years, Sultanahmet developed a slightly unsavory reputation quite apart from its obvious delights. There developed a practice so common that it was even given a specific term in Turkish: hanutçu, "catching the customer." When I first came here as a tourist, it seemed as though behind every historic site there lurked an aggressive tout, fishing for his commission. About six years ago my husband jokingly timed the intrusions on a four-block stroll down the tramway street of Divan Yolu -- less than every two minutes -- it was a very, very, very slow walk.

Drawing on Turkey's normally well-justified reputation for hospitality and friendliness, unscrupulous touts had specialized in luring unsuspecting innocents into the shops with which they had commission agreements. Spying a suspected foreigner, they would often literally step in front of the targeted victim, perhaps grab an arm, and offer at least one of the following lines. I include some of my internal reactions and actual comments over the past eight years.

"Where are you from?" (And do you have any idea where on earth that place might be?)

"What is your name?" (Which when repeated was generally mispronounced.)

"We have a flying carpet." (Mildly funny only the first time.) "I can help you spend your money." (This was at least a bit amusing the first time if the gent said it with a smile.)

"It's almost free!" (If that one's true, I'll eat my hat.)"What do you expect before you come to Turkey?" (Huh? Expected what? I read the guidebook!)

"How many camels do you want for your beautiful daughter?" (Twelve white young ones -- I used to live in Saudi Arabia!)

"Can I ask you a question?" (I loved that one because I could say, "You just did," and have time to scoot away while the tout was rendered momentarily speechless in trying to figure out what that meant.)

"How are you liking Turkey?" (Much less now that you are bothering me.)

"Hey, lady, you need to buy a …" (Before he finished, I was down the street!)

Today's tourists don't need to worry as much about being so heavily pressured. The situation on the sidewalks has changed. Thanks to government regulations and stiff fines imposed over the past few years, it is now much more possible to stroll and window-shop without the former level of continual harassment. Once in a while a tout will still pop out from seemingly nowhere, but it is now easier to walk away. If the shopper doesn't pause to get caught in the net of words and stop to chat, the fellow is no longer legally permitted to tag along down the street. It is also illegal for the man to touch his hoped-for customer. Now the verbal annoyance is pretty much limited to the front of shops. A truly aggrieved shopper should offer to report the offender (noting the name of the aggressor and affiliated shop) to the tourism police or to any of the Zabita (police dealing with fair market practices); the latter wear blue uniforms and have a badge saying "Zabita." A fine of YTL 56 will be a major cut into the tout's daily commissions for bringing in customers. Once one would have to get up face-to-face and say, "Go away!" -- but the threat of a fine seems to be a more peaceful solution.

Shopping advice:

After successfully avoiding the lures cast out by hopeful merchants, you shoppers might want to first negotiate the "streets" of the Grand Bazaar. Here are more than 4,000 shops with rows of glittering gold, stunning silver, highly decorated ceramics, racks of butter-soft leather jackets and almost everything else you can imagine. Be sure to carry a notebook in which to record the look, price and location of any items your heart desires. Don't feel embarrassed about asking for a business card and making notes on it. Then return to Sultanahmet armed with your purchase plans and an estimate of prices.

With list in hand, stroll through the quieter Arasta Bazaar just down the steps to the left of Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque) to do a bit of comparison-shopping. But don't stop your shopping there! Walk up and down some of the nearby streets. While you stroll you may also discover a few nice eateries where you can relax and perhaps get more advice about local stores which offer the goods you have in mind. Java Studio, across from Mavi Ev Hotel, has great coffee, tea, milkshakes and second-hand English-language books.

Sometimes making the choice of which of the multitude of shops to enter or what questions to ask can be rather daunting. For more timid shoppers, tourists and expats alike, who want to avoid the confusion of the bargaining process mentioned in an earlier article by Kristina Kamp, there are alternatives. Rather than taking up with someone met casually on the street, you might prefer hiring a personal shopper. Reliable assistance can be found on Internet sites such as IstanbulPersonalShopper.com. A personal shopper can guide you through the mazes of the Grand Bazaar or lead you elsewhere as you like.

If you know and trust someone who calls the Old City home, that person can give you guidance, too. The following are some of my personal recommendations from nine years of experience as first a tourist and more recently a resident: All offer honesty, low-key sales pitches and quality products and speak quite understandable English. You might get even a better deal if you say you came to them because you read this article!

For carpets and kilims: (DO shop around before making a purchase!)

1. Noah's Ark (Ticarathane Sk. No. 11. Tel.: [212] 511 8050). A family-run business, it's around the corner just off Divan Yolu (the tramway street) before you get to the Hippodrome. Ask for Mosaic Restaurant -- Noah's Ark is across the street. The brothers call their offerings "music for the eyes."

2. E & S Textile Arts and Rugs (Hüdavendigar Cad. No. 10/2 . Tel.: [212] 527 4007). This well-designed store is on the tramway a short walk down the hill from Sultanahmet, around the curve from the Gülhane tram stop and just before the BİM grocery store. It is a little out of the way but offers both knowledgeable charming young carpet salesmen and a growing variety of smaller textiles such as bedspreads, pillowcases and tablecloths.

3. The latter goods and some nifty souvenir-types can also be found at Fatih Gallery. (Küçük Aya Sofya Cadessi, No. 39B. Tel.: [212] 517 3451). Only a block and a half toward the sea from the bottom of the Arasta Bazaar, a fancy tea set or hanging glass lamp here is about half the price found elsewhere. Well worth the extra two minute walk.

4. Çorlulu Alipaşa Medresesi, (Yeniçeriler Cad. No. 36/5, Beyazıt. Tel.: [212] 513 1510). Again this place is a bit out of the way unless you are already up at the Grand Bazaar. If you don't feel much like walking, take the tram to the Beyazıt stop (Beyazıt/Kapalıçarşı), get off the tram and walk toward Sultanahmet. The medrese is on the left hand side, through a large stone archway. Owner Abdullah is married to an American and has some very high-end carpets.

For jewelry:

1. Dying for diamonds and gold? Go to Vieri, a relatively new shop whose manager, Antonio, is eager to please. (Mimar Mehmet Ağa Cad. No. 29/A. Tel.: [212] 459 6758). Walk down the stairs from the Blue Mosque, through the tea garden and across the street.

2. Seeking simple silver? Silverado, presided over by Vakkus Aslan, is a very narrow shop chock-full with delightful goods at great prices. (Divan Yolu Cad. 34/A. Tel.: [212] 511 3625). Easy to find, it's to the left of the Sultanahmet tram stop.

Last but not least:

For truly excellent prices on handcrafted wearable textiles, try Lodos Fashion Line, (Küçük Aya Sofya Caddesi, No. 7. Tel.: [212] 527 8456). Specialties there are individually designed boots, hats and purses made from felt, silk and kilim. A friend of a friend reported getting a lovely caftan from shop-owner Isabelle for only YTL 50, an item often sold at "best sale" price of at least YTL 80.

That's just the beginning. Ready, set, GO! Start shopping!