Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar now showcasing silence and despair

The endless cacophony of sound usually emanating from Istanbul’s famed 17th century Spice Bazaar has been replaced with virtual silence for months.

Shut down on March 23 due to the coronavirus pandemic, this historic bazaar - one of the crown jewels of Turkey’s largest city since 1666 - has been effectively abandoned.

The owners of the 90 shops that comprise the colourful covered market are getting impatient as they wait on a lifeline to revive their former glory days.

Shopkeepers say that the government has not done enough to help the bazaar, a tourist favourite for its unique spices, dried fruits, nuts, silk scarves and ornaments.

The Spice Bazaar was reopened for business at the beginning of June, but the restrictions on tourism throughout the world due to the pandemic has left it without customers. It now operates according to strict health ministry instructions which limit the number of shoppers inside and requires the use of protective masks at all times.

As with most economies around the world, the coronavirus has had a significant impact on Turkey’s economy.

The tourism industry, which generates approximately $30 billion in sales and foreign currency revenue for the country, is being hit hard. Turkey’s tourism revenue dropped by an annual 11 percent to $4.1 billion in the first quarter of this year.

In an optimistic scenario, it could still rebound should the virus continue to remain under control during the all-important summer season.

But the effects of the pandemic have become clear despite Turkey's efforts to win confidence of potential tourists with hygiene measures and virus-free certificates. The low levels tourists in June raised the spectre of a sharp economic slowdown and a slump in much-needed revenue from tourism. Visitors from Europe and Russia are still advised to avoid Turkey by their governments.

Sevim Saatçi, member of the bazaar’s administrative committee, told Ahval that nowadays only half of the stores are open for business.

“There are a total of 90 stores and sometimes 40, sometimes 50 are open,’’ Saatçi says. “In fact, the open stores are using the closed stores’ shutters as shelves.’’

Almost all of the shopkeepers Ahval talked to complained of high rent and bills.

“For the past four months, we have been consuming our savings. Our turnover is so low that we even consider whether it is worthwhile to open our doors,’’ one merchant said

On June 1, Turkey entered what it called a “normalisation phase” as coronavirus cases in the country had been consistently falling. But a hike in infections soon thereafter has led to international concern.

“With no work, no customers and no tourists, we don’t know how much longer we can survive,’’ the merchant said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.