Urfa’s Ottoman-era bazaar includes eight covered passages and offers one of the largest and best-preserved markets in Turkey. In Ottoman cities, the market or carsi (CHAR-shuh) was the beating heart of urban life, concentrated not only on the flow of goods, but also gossip and information. The marketplace linked local traders to neighboring cities and long-distance routes, and urban craftsmen to the surrounding villages that supplied their materials. While residential quarters clustered along religious lines, markets were organized according to craft types, with streets bearing the name of the trades practiced there.
The market in Urfa is not primarily touristic, meaning visitors are free to browse without the constant hassling of aggressive shopkeepers. Unlike tourist markets that quote exorbitant initial prices, the opening gambit in Urfa is generally fair with some built-in flexibility for a bit of good-natured bargaining. Many goods are of the pragmatic variety, however, a few traditional skilled crafts remain.
One example of enduring craftsmanship can be found at the Coppersmith’s Market. The market’s vaulted ceilings reverberate the tapping sounds of chisel on copper, as old men and their teenage apprentices craft intricate, hand-engraved trays and bowls. The coppersmith market consists of two parallel streets, each of which is covered by 15 vaulted arches. An inscription on the keystone of the northern façade of the market dates its construction to 1887 and reads “Whatever God Wills.”
The Spice Market offers customers Urfa’s best-known commodity: hot peppers. This city takes its hot peppers (locally called isot) extremely seriously. Local legends recount that during the brief French occupation of Urfa, the local people took to arms only when their pepper fields, not homes or shops, came under threat by the invaders. The peppers are eaten raw or roasted, made into pastes, or dried into flakes. These dried pepper flakes, which range in color from bright red to blackish purple, are the key ingredients in the city’s beloved specialty dish, cig kofte (a dish made of raw lamb, bulgur and hot pepper).
Kazzaz Carsi (Bedesten) was built in 1562 as the inn’s bedesten, a strong, stone-covered structure at the nucleus of any Ottoman market, built to house the most valuable goods and the shops of leading merchants. This one consists of a four-domed cradle vault, with four doors in each cardinal direction and today sells fabrics and scarves—hence its other name, “Kazzaz.” Kazzazlik, the art of processing silk into thread by hand, was a specialty of Urfa, and was still practiced a generation ago by a handful of locals. Today, the art is nearly extinct and almost all of the fabric sold here is mass-produced. These factory-made scarves are the “authentic” ones worn by locals, and you’ll notice the ubiquitous purple headscarves of Urfa prominently displayed. These unisex purple scarves are, simply put, a style. They do not bear a specific meaning or represent a certain group, although they are more commonly worn by villagers than by residents of the city center.
The Carpet Market is the third in the group of buildings and was originally intended as a stable. The market consists of a long north-south corridor, covered with cradle vaults and illuminated by natural light that streams in through side windows. Merchants sell carpets, kilims (taspestry-woven rugs), furs and felts. This is the only market in Anatolia that still opens each morning with the traditional Akhi (Market) Prayer.
Gumruk Hani (meaning “customs inn”) was once the central caravanserai at the heart of Urfa’s market, a place for long-distance merchants to congregate, trade goods and information, and recover from their journeys. Gumruk Hani was built in 1563, shortly after the Ottomans drove the Mongols from Urfa. Ottoman sultans commonly built covered markets in their newly conquered cities in order to attract merchants and craftsmen. Gumruk Hani was no doubt conceived in this way, part of a 3-building cluster that formed the nucleus of the bazaar. Gumruk Hani’s picturesque, black-and-white hewn stone received an admiring mention in the accounts of the Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi in the 17th century.
Today, the inn has lost none of its charm. In its spacious, shaded courtyard, old men drink mirra (bitter coffee) and play backgammon. The underground springs that feed Balikligol flow through channels carved into the inn’s stone floor, and offer young boys a place to cool off on especially hot summer days. The building’s second story features porticoed rooms used as tailor workshops, and an entrance pavilion is still used as an Islamic place of worship.