Inns and Bazaars of Istanbul

Inns and bazaars are perhaps the buildings that resist change most in Istanbul. While this city is transforming in a fast pace, these structures remain the same.


Istanbul is as much the city of action and abundance as it is the city of history and culture. At every step you take, you listen to a different rhythm of life. It is colorful, crowded, chaotic...

You understand this better if you are wandering around Eminönü, Mahmutpaşa and Beyazıt. This region preserves its bonds with history thanks to the old inns that are intertwined with life. It also has an important role in the development of Istanbul as a result of its commercial mobility.

This region, which is the center of inns and bazaars due to its proximity to the Golden Horn port, is like an open market that has met all kinds of requirement of people for hundreds of years and turned out to be the cradle of commercial relations. Although the form of commerce has changed recently and gigantic malls have been built throughout the city, these old inns are still standing as the witnesses of time and commerce.

We took the opportunity offered by the tour called “Inns and Bazaars of Istanbul” organized by Fest Travel a few months ago, and got on a journey with the guidance of art historian Deniz Esemenli. We met in front of Mısır Çarşısı (the Egyptian Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar) and our guide started talking.

There is a small mosque in front of the Spice Bazaar: Ahi Çelebi Mosque. What Evliya Çelebi tells about this mosque, which was built in the 16th century, is quite interesting. The famous traveler sees himself as an itinerant in his dream. In his dream, while he is praying in this mosque, angels appear first and then the Prophet. The Prophet asks if he has any wish. Evliya Çelebi tries to say ‘sefaat’ (intercession), but he gets so excited that he says ‘seyahat’ (travel). The Prophet tells him that he is going to be an itinerant and thus Evliya Çelebi finds himself on the road.

Our first stop is the Spice Bazaar


Istanbul’s bazaars are known to be places where guilds and tradesmen selling the same kind of goods generally gather. The Spice Bazaar was a place where spice and cotton sellers gathered. Once you step inside the bazaar, the smell of spice welcomes you. We can say that this bazaar is ‘a passage that carries the smells of the East to the West’.

Being the second biggest covered market of Istanbul, the Spice Bazaar was built in 1663-64, actually as a part of the complex of buildings adjacent to the New Mosque in Eminönü. In its first years, it was called “Valide Çarşısı” (the Mother’s Bazaar) and “Yeni Çarşı” (the New Bazaar), but from mid-18th century onwards, it began to be known as the Egyptian Bazaar, for the goods sold in the shops of the bazaar were coming from Egypt.

The Egyptian Bazaar, or the Spice Bazaar, was at first given solely to spice sellers, cotton sellers and quilt makers, but beginning in 1970’s, spice sellers were replaced by jewelry shops, butchers, dried fruit shops, dry goods stores and shoemakers. Today it is still famous for its spice sellers and the favorite place of Istanbulites and foreign visitors who are interested in herbs.

After the Spice Bazaar, we move forward to Tahtakale Hammam (the Turkish Bath of Tahtakale) opposite the Rüstem Pasha Mosque on Uzunçarşı Street. This building, which was a Turkish bath before, now serves as a bazaar. Built in the period of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, it is known to be one of the oldest Ottoman buildings. Its original architectural structure was very well preserved until the beginning of the 20th century, and then it was turned into a warehouse. Don’t say ‘Can a bath become a bazaar?’ because it is purely a bazaar now after all the restorations it went through.

We leave Tahtakale Hammam behind and walk towards Balkapanı (the Honey Scales). The region is quite crowded, daily rush is going on. We walk as a group trying not to lose each other or to overlook anything around.


The inn, which was built in a place close to where the sea customs existed in the Ottoman era, was a commercial center where –as the name suggests- honey coming from the customs was stowed and dispatched to the public. We should note that the word ‘kapan’ means ‘scales’.

Balkapanı seems like a classical caravanserai with a large yard. Although our guide talked about its rooms with arcs and corridors, we could only see its yard, because most of the rooms are used as depots. Let us note here that there are two more ‘kapans’ in Istanbul: one is Unkapanı (the Flour Scales), which we know as a district, and the other one is Yağkapanı (the Oil Scales), which is the Galata-Karaköy region today.

We get out of Balkapanı and head for the lively Mahmutpaşa slope. A rushing crowd flows through the street. Some look at the wedding dresses, some at the dowry stuff. Sellers invite them by telling that the best products are in their stores. After Kürkçü Han, which is the only remaining building among the inn-caravanserais of the Fatih era, we stop by the Big New Inn and the Small New Inn between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. 

Big and Small New Inns

This inn, laying widely between Sandalyeciler Street and Çarkçılar Street on Çakmakçılar Slope, is the largest caravanserai-inn structure of Istanbul after Valide Inn. It is known that Mustafa III had the inn built in the 18th century by the head architecture of that time, Tahir Agha. The fact that there are three floors in this building, which has traces of baroque art, is what makes it different from other similar structures.

While this inn was a place where weaving looms used to operate, it now lost this feature. There are many shops now in the Big New Inn. These shops are mostly silver shops, towel sellers and kerchief sellers.

The Little Inn, which was made of brick and hewn stone, does not have an open yard like the other inns. The most interesting feature of this inn is the mosque at the upper floor that can be reached by the stairs.

Valide Inn

We continue with Valide Inn, which is also known in history as ‘the Inn of Kösem Sultan’. Separated into two parts as ‘the big’ and ‘the little’, Valide Inn is in between Çakmakçılar Slope and Fırıncılar Slope. It has a low entrance compared to other inns and historical chimneys on its roof.

In the 16th century, Kösem Sultan, the mother of Murat IV and Sultan Ibrahim, and the grandmother of Mehmed IV, is one of the most powerful and richest women of the Ottoman history, who held the position of ‘regency’ (the position to rule the country when there is no ruler or the ruler is too young) in the first years of the sultanates of her elder son and her grandson.

According to a legend, the secret treasure of Kösem Sultan is hidden somewhere in this inn. In accordance with the historical sources, there are 366 cell rooms in the inn, it is still unknown how many rooms are being used today.

After listening to the historical facts and the legend about Valide Inn, our way leads us to Çuhacı Inn (the Felt Seller’s Inn). This inn was built in the 18th century by the order of Damat Ibrahim Pasha. The architect of the building, which reflects influences of the Baroque period, is not known. Broadcloth was an important material of the time, and it was used to make winter clothes for the Ottoman army. Broadcloth theft could even lead to capital punishment. 

Sahaflar Çarşısı

Sahaflar Çarşısı (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Bazaar) is the oldest book bazaar of Istanbul, which could survive since the Ottoman era. It is located between the Fesçiler Gate of the Grand Bazaar and Beyazıt Mosque.

While initially there were hand-written, lithographic and old-language books having historical value in the bazaar, today mostly books for tourists and university students are sold. But you can still come across old or antiquarian books in some shops.

In the glassed-in parts situated at the entrance on the Beyazıt Mosque side of the bazaar, lithographic materials from old printing houses are displayed. There is also a bust of Ibrahim Müteferrika (the first Turkish typographer) at the middle of the bazaar.

Nuruosmaniye Külliyesi 

Along with the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, which attracts attention with the baroque influence on its architecture, the kulliye*, situated at the entrance of the Grand Bazaar, is a symbol of a new era in the culture of the Ottoman Empire. The construction of the mosque started at the time of Mahmut I, but could be finished at the time of Osman III. The architect of the mosque was Greek Simeon Kalfa. Some baroque features of the mosque are very different from the examples in Europe let alone Istanbul. If it weren’t for the lighting elements peculiar to mosques and the shrine, you could think that you entered a different building.

The mosque has a not-quadrilateral inner yard with 14 domes, which is quite interesting compared to Ottoman mosques. What is more interesting is that the gate of the yard is opening to a precipice! Remembering that the mosque yards are places used frequently by the public and so comfortably entered, this yard is understood to have been shaped evidently upon the aesthetic concerns of the architect. The Sultan’s place with a platform that helped the Sultan enter the mosque on horseback also adds an interesting feature to the structure. 


We get out of the mosque and enter the library in the garden. Nuruosmaniye Library is also one of the unique examples of baroque design in Turkey. In this library which can be regarded as a reflection of Mahmut I’s love for the books, there are numerous hand-written books and maps. The columns within the library were brought from Bergama Temples.

This library is open to public every day except on Sundays and Mondays.

Leaving the crowded streets behind, we put an end to our tour in front of the Beyazıt Mosque. These inns and bazaars that could neither become modernized nor fully preserve their old characteristics leave the feeling of action and abundance provided by that action.

What do you think ?