The Grand Bazaar as a museum

In a two-minute video late Reşad Ekrem Koçu, who is an unrivaled master of popular history in Turkey, defines the Grand Bazaar as a Turkish handicrafts museum. It has been depicted as a kind of a museum in the narratives of old travelers too.

The most important news last week was that Twitter closed more than 7,000 accounts in Turkey. The famous troll army said to have been formed to manipulate social media was scrutinized by Twitter itself for the first time. Twitter not only exposed this mechanism that was designed to steer public opinion and politics, it also took a principled stance by closing the accounts.

Twitter gave an important signal that it will not stay a space that is solely commercial, or where everyone is free to act as they want and can dominate the platform depending on their strength and wit. It has declared that it is a place where certain rules, and even perhaps moral principles and social benefits will be observed, a platform that they can intervene in and control. In this vein, Twitter dared facing disagreements with governments not only in Turkey but everywhere from the U.S. to Russia. Of course, it is debatable that benefits for a society are being entrusted to the management of a company, but that’s another matter. But, again, this is a promising development in terms of social media becoming a more humane place in the future. Social media, especially Twitter, was the “Wild West” for a long time.

Whether it’s the “Wild West” or the “American dream,” whatever you call it, we cannot give up Twitter. That’s because the platform also has wonderful surprises, ones I will be talking about shortly. I was made aware of this surprise through a WhatsApp message from my historian friend Kansu Şarman last week. Seda Özen, an architect I am an avid follower of, had shared a two-minute video of the late Reşad Ekrem Koçu on her Twitter account. Koçu is the unrivaled master of popular history. This recording was worth gold for his fans.

As far as I am aware, the only known video of Reşad Ekrem Koçu before this was one in which he can be spotted among the members of an audience at a conference. This new one belongs to the state-run television channel TRT. It was shot in 1973, two years before his death. In this video, as the editor of Istanbul Encyclopedia, he sits at his desk, behind his typewriter. Looking at his notes, explains the Covered Bazaar in Istanbul, also known as the Grand Bazaar, or Kapalıçarşı in Turkish. In a manner unique to him, Koçu makes a historic subject into a cultural narrative and defines Kapalıçarşı as a Turkish handicrafts museum.

He narrates, “In various places within Kapalıçarşı, for centuries, the most precious treasures of Turkish handicrafts have been collected. Engraving, embroidery, rugs, silverware, crystalware… If you want to find, today, in Istanbul, a çeşm-i bülbül (a nightingale’s eye, a type of blown glass vase or artwork) or a pitcher made in Istanbul with the craftsperson’s signature, you cannot find any. In this respect, Kapalıçarşı was like a museum at the same time. For many centuries, travellers, or as we call them today, “tourists,” who arrived in Istanbul would tour the Grand Bazaar both as a bazaar and as a museum.”

Truly, the Covered Bazaar, especially in the narratives of old travellers, has been depicted as a kind of a museum. The attitude of the sellers, their ways of trading and the goods they have come across, especially the handmade ones, have always attracted travelers.

In the Ottoman capital, there were many collections that represented the richness of the culture, but there were no early-era museums to showcase them. The Covered Bazaar was thus the first museum, somehow, that served this purpose. When we view it from this point of view, from that time and place, it makes even more sense.

The Kapalıçarşı today is also a type of museum, not because of its content, but due to its presence itself. It’s a museum just not due to the abundance of jewelers, leathercrafts and carpet shops and what they sell, but due to the 500-year old structure. The Grand Bazaar is a cultural asset. Today’s travelers, the tourists, want to see the Covered Bazaar and spend time in it for this reason.

People debating whether the Hagia Sophia should be a mosque or a museum is exactly like this. It’s interesting not because of what it stands for today, but because of its connections to the past. The building, which is 1,500 years old, is not even aesthetically pleasing anymore with its walls, buttresses and arches built on top of each other to keep its dome intact. But it is meaningful. It explains everything at once: the genius architects and engineers of the antique age, the glory of Byzantium, a symbols of Christianity, the biggest victory of the Ottomans, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, Architect Sinan, Muslim Istanbul and the republic, which transformed it into a symbol above religion. It is still very valuable.

It is important because of its past going beyond the Middle Ages as a venue that bridges the past and the present. Remaking the Hagia Sophia a mosque again will of course not remove it. It will not even be closed to visitors. The Zeyrek Mosque and the Sultanahmet Mosque are also places to visit for whoever wants to, for instance.

But making it a mosque again will remove its secular position above faiths and register it to Islam. There is a political difference, not a cultural one, between being a museum with a director from the Ministry of Culture and being a mosque of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). However, it is not too difficult to imagine that the Hagia Sophia, with its 1,000-year-old memory, even cares about this mortal debate or finds it interesting in the slightest.

July 13, 2021 Solace from tensions