There are a number of components that play a role in a city becoming a commercial center. The most important of these components are population and commercial locations. The efforts to increase the population and policies that encouraged trade should be perceived as processes that directly affected one another in the reconstruction of Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest. After the conquest, the population increased periodically, being from between 30,000 and 40,000 at the time of the conquest, reaching almost half a million at the turn of the sixteenth century;1 this increase in population was an important factor in Istanbul becoming one of world’s most important trade centers. The question as to which components of the increasing population would be transformed into commercial vibrancy is directly related to the commercial locations and their characteristics.

1- The parade of people of the covered bazaar in the festivities of 1582 (İntizami)

The most effective component in Istanbul functioning an international commercial center was the establishment of the commercial infrastructure2 and the bedesten; this latter institution can be seen as being the heart of the infrastructure and the traditions that lay at the very heart. The Turkish word bedesten is derived from the Arabic word bezzazistan, which we can associate with a place where cloth is sold; in particular this was not only a center for the material guilds (those who sold bez/cloth) in the Ottoman period, but can also be defined as being a commercial center in which many goods like jewels, weapons and cloth were sold.3 The bedesten, which first came apparent in the Seljuk period, but which became prominent in the Ottoman era as a commercial structure,4 took shape in a system of waqf-imaret (soup kitchen). According to this system, commercial spaces would be established in a secure and busy space near a mosque. The bedestens that formed the Grand Bazaar of the capital city of the Ottoman State were in the vicinity of a mosque and were positioned in a higher location unlike the Byzantine period.

In the general meaning, the çarşı (shopping areas), in particular the bedestens, appear as areas that reduced the distance between people; these were the sole areas to increase commerce to the utmost extent, bringing together the vitality of the city in an economic sense. In this sense, the bedestens, which were an area that provided economic and social interaction, harbored characteristics of the city center while being brought together with a mosque or masjid.5 The shaping of the bedestens of Istanbul as an institution that gave direction to the commercial life of the city led to these structures being remembered with many features; these features also played an important role. It is possible to say that the first bedestens for the Ottomans (Cevahir, Sandal and Galata) not only had a symbolic value from the time they were established, but were of a distinctive nature, functioning as part of the waqf administration, as well as occupying an position as the most important stage for economic life.

Due to the important characteristics of the bedestens, these were the most important commercial structures to help transform the Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar) into its modern form. These three bedestens underwent a variety of functional and structural changes before taking on the form in which they exist today; today they continue to form a center for commercial activities. The first was the Cevahir Bedesten, known as Eski-İç Bedesten (Old-Inner). If we use the phrase coined by İnalcık, the Cevahir Bedesten, built on the decree of Sultan Mehmed II (bedestens could only be established with the edict of a sultan or vizier), was built in 1461 in order to support the economy of the city and to reorganize the economic façade of Istanbul, which had been damaged during the conquest.6 The Cevahir Bedesten, consisting of ​​1,336 square meters and centrally located in the Istanbul Kapalıçarşı, was position close to the Sahaflar Çarşı (secondhand book seller’s market), to the west of the market.7 This first Istanbul bedesten, which can be evaluated as a symbol of settlement from both a politic and an economic aspect in the fifteenth century, was organized to carry out four basic economic functions. The Cevahir Bedesten was a market that served both as a depot and a retail sales institution; it also helped in the preparation of caravans. The bedesten included storage areas, retail sales, a logistic base for preparing caravans; moreover, it served as a logistic base for international commercial transactions, as an administrative center in which the administrators of the trade guilds were located and finally as a bank in which merchants kept their goods and documents.8 The Cevahir Bedesten was formed of not only shops, but also rented cupboards and safes in which gold, silver, money and other valuable documents were kept. In addition to these safes there were commodity stores, an indication of the economic functions of the bedesten.9 It is known that in the early period there were 124 permanent shops in the Eski Bedesten, with 72 other shops. In 1520, the number of shops inside the bedesten was 126, with as many as 782 outside, thus indicating that the commercial efficacy of the bedesten had increased. The increase in commercial volume at this level led to an increase in demands for shops; this increasing demand led to a rise in the leases (hava parası) for the shops. Until 1520, when the Sandal Bedesten was established, this demand and rise in rents continued.10

As a result of increased commercial activity and the resulting needs, in 1520 Suleyman I, the Magnificent had the Sandal Bedesten, or the Yeni Bedesten (new bedesten) constructed to the east of the Cevahir Bedesten in order to sell valuable woven products.11 The word Sandal here refers to a type of Indian cloth. The Sandal Bedesteni covered an area of ​​approximately 1,280 square meters; there were no divisions between the stalls or shops here. This fact indicates that this bedesten did not function as a depot for valuable goods. As we learn from Du Loir’s travelogue, not only were material and woven goods sold in the Sandal Bedesteni; also valuable bowls, swords, rugs and harnesses for horse carriages could be purchased here.12 In addition to the variety of goods that were sold here, the construction of a sales area with a protected structure provided security for the merchants, and resulted in commercial activities increasing in this region of Istanbul.

2- Money changers (İntizami)

The third and final bedesten to be built in Ottoman-era Istanbul was located in Galata, which is outside the Historical Peninsula. This structure, known as the Galata Bedesten, was built on the order of Sultan Mehmed II in the second half of the fifteenth century. Because the Galata district was positioned as an international commercial center, the goods that came to the city were stored in and sold from this bedesten. In comparison to the other bedestens in Istanbul, this structure covered a smaller area; however, it was more effective in enlivening commercial life, as it consisted of two floors and had shops that were opened outwards.13

Architecturally the characteristics of the bedestens reflect and support their commercial functions. To ensure longevity the bedestens were a solid stone structure with high walls, few windows and solid iron-clad doors. As with mosques, the bedestens were structures with a large number of domes, and were generally square or rectangular in shape. The Cevahir Bedesten had 15 domes, the Sandal Bedesten had 20, and Galata Bedesten had 9 domes. Both the Cevahir and Sandal Bedesten had four separate entrances. When the shops outside the bedesten, built on the streets that opened from the different entrance points, came together, the Kapalıçarşı as we know it today was formed; this market place developed around the two bedestens. The high walls and domed structures of Istanbul’s first bedestens created a citadel-like atmosphere for the Kapalıçarşı, making it one of the remarkable structures that still stands today.14

3- Grand Bazaar (Allom)

The Istanbul Kapalıçarşı, which formed around these two bedestens, with their economic and architectural characteristics, can actually be characterized as a bedesten market. The Grand Bazaar, or as it is more commonly known, the Istanbul Kapalıçarşı, was formed from the hans and shops that functioned in the streets around the bedestens. The fact that the Istanbul bedestens were commercial centers meant that the other commercial areas formed around them. Thus, the shops that opened on the streets found between the Cevahir and Sandal bedestens and the hans that were constructed around these bedestens not only indicate developing trade, but also depict how the Kapalıçarşı came into being. Over time, the two bedesten remained within the Kapalıçarşı and continued to carry out their functions. The bedestens were the center of the commercial heart of the city in which jewels, gold, valuable material and silk, weapons, shawls and fur, rugs and many other different goods were sold; they were the center of the city’s commercial heart and the most important economic component of the waqf-imaret system.

Due to the fact that the bedestens carried out these functions, they were the basis of the distinctive commercial characteristics and economic ranking. The construction of a bedesten in an Ottoman city was considered to be a distinguishing feature of that city. These distinguishing characteristics meant that a city with a bedesten was in a position of being an international commercial center or that it wanted to be in such a position. Due to this commercial reason, in his Seyahatnâme, Evliya Çelebi divided seventeenth-century Ottoman cities into those with and without bedesten. Istanbul, as the capital of the Ottoman State, was the city with the largest bedesten. In fact, Istanbul was the only center to have three bedesten, in the commercial sense, that is the Cevahir, Sandal and Galata.15

4- Grand Bazaar (Millingen)

The situation of these three bedestens today is a matter that deserves our attention. The Cevahir and Sandal bedestens, despite being severely damaged by a number of fires, still continue to function within the Kapalıçarşı. However his function has changed compared to the past; in the Ottoman period, the Cevahir and Sandal bedestens formed a center in which large commercial transactions were carried out, whereas today, it is a tourist attraction. While the Cevahir Bedesten now appears as a center full of shops that represent every profession, for long years the Sandal Bedesten was used by the Istanbul city council as an auction house. Now this area is full of stores that boast shop windows.16 Galata Bedesten at this time is in poor condition, and functions as an area in which ironmongers sell their wares.

The historical diversity of shopkeepers in the Istanbul bedestens has significantly decreased today. It is known that the tradesmen who operated from the Cevahir and Sandal bedestens included Jewish, Rum (Ottoman Greek), Armenian and European merchants.17 There is significantly less diversity in the Kapalıçarşı today. However, despite this deficiency, there is still a large number of handicrafts being made and sold in the bedestens that make up the Kapalıçarşı. The Kapalıçarşı, made up of the old Istanbul bedestens, includes about 500 money-changers, and approximately 3,000 shops belonging to tradesmen; the area in which these shops are located are visited between 300,000 and 500,000 people every day. The annual turnover produced by these shops can be calculated at 2 billion tl, with about 80 % of this amount coming from foreign tourists.

In order to understand the historical development of commerce in Istanbul, one must trace the historical path of the city. The bedestens, the current situation about which we have tried to present above, are extremely important for understanding the changes and transformations that commercial life in Istanbul has undergone. Istanbul, as a city that forces one to examine history, in and of itself necessitates that this historical process be traced.18 Istanbul’s bedestens can be understood to be an important part of this necessity.


1 Halil İnalcık, Devlet-i Aliyye Osmanlı İmparatorluğu Üzerine Araştırmalar, Istanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2009, vol. 1, pp. 124-125.

2 Mustafa Cezar, Typical Commercial Buildings of the Ottoman Classical Period and the Ottoman Construction System, Istanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Cultural Publications, 1983, p. 21.

3 Semavi Eyice, “Bedesten”, DİA, vol. 5, pp. 302-303.

4 Eyice, “Bedesten”, vol. 5, 304.

5 Yunus Koç, “Osmanlı’da Kent İskanı ve Demografisi”, Türkiye Araştırmaları Literatür Dergisi, 2005, vol. 3, no. 6, pp. 167-169; Özer Ergenç, “Osmanlı Şehirlerinde Esnaf Örgütlerinin Fiziki Yapıya Etkisi”, Birinci Uluslararası Türkiye’nin Sosyal ve Ekonomik Tarihi Kongresi, ed. Osman Okyar and Halil İnalcık, Ankara: Meteksan Limited, 1980, p. 106.

6 Halil İnalcık, “İstanbul’un İncisi: Bedesten”, İktisat ve Din, ed. Mustafa Özel, Istanbul: İz Yayıncılık, 1997, pp. 120-121.

7 Önder Küçükerman and Kenan Mortan, Kapalıçarşı, Ankara: Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı Kütüphaneler ve Yayımlar Genel Müdürlüğü, 2007, p. 95.

8 İnalcık, “İstanbul’un İncisi: Bedesten”, pp. 121-122; Eyice, “Bedesten”, vol. 5, 303-304.

9 Osman Nuri Ergin, “Bedestan”, İA, vol 2, 440.

10 İnalcık, “İstanbul’un İncisi: Bedesten”, pp. 125-126.

11 There is some disagreement about the date when the bedesten was established, but several historians think that the date 1520 is accurate.

12 Eyice, “Bedesten”, vol. 5, 307.

13 Eyice, “Bedesten”, vol. 5, 306.

14 İnalcık, “İstanbul’un İncisi: Bedesten”, pp. 122-123; E. Hakkı Ayverdi, İ. Aydın Yüksel, İlk 250 Senenin Osmanlı Mimarisi, Istanbul: İstanbul Fethi Derneği, 1976, pp. 133-134; Eyice, “Bedesten”, vol. 5, 304; Küçükerman and Mortan, Kapalıçarşı, p. 130.

15 Halil İnalcık, Osmanlı İmparatorluğu: Klasik Çağ (1300-1600), Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2006, p. 149.

16 Semavi Eyice, “Büyük Çarşı”, DİA, vol. 4, 512.

17 İnalcık, “İstanbul’un İncisi: Bedesten”, pp. 127-128.

18 Beşir Ayvazoğlu, Dersaadet’in Kalbi Beyazıt, Istanbul: Heyamola Yayınları, 2009, p. 20.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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