Workers in white coveralls and face masks swept Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar with disinfectant on Sunday to prepare the iconic bazaar for customers as it opened its doors for the first time in two months.
The bazaar – home to almost 3,000 shops employing more than 30,000 people – was closed on March 23 as part of measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed over 4,300 people in Turkey.
Officials say it has been the longest closure in the bazaar's more than 550-year history, except for forced shutdowns following fires and earthquakes.
The market is usually visited by 150,000 people every day – and by 42 million last year – while traders shout out deals in dozens of languages to lure tourists into their stores.
The bazaar has been disinfected every Wednesday during the shutdown, while janitors have cleaned every morning.
Fatih Kurtulmuş, chairman of the bazaar’s board of directors, said shoppers will have their temperatures checked for fevers upon entry, and the number of people allowed in at one time will be restricted.
Kurtulmuş added that while not much activity is expected in the first weeks, "I believe tourists will fly to Istanbul by the end of June because they cannot do without ... the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque."
The bazaar is located on Istanbul's historic Eminönü peninsula, home to the Sultanahmet Mosque, also called the Blue Mosque, and the ancient church-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sophia.
Workers disinfected the neighboring Spice Bazaar in Eminönü, the Grand Bazaar's little sister, as well, and it was also allowed to open for business today.
The Grand Bazaar was built in 1455, two years after the Ottomans seized Istanbul – then known as Constantinople – from the Byzantines.
The market thrived, expanding rapidly with the rising Ottoman Empire and by the 17th century, it had taken on its current shape, giving the bazaar its Turkish name: Kapalıçarşı (covered market).
"Our Grand Bazaar – the heart of the economy, culture, history and tourism – has never been shut down except for natural disasters," Kurtulmuş said.
"We had to take a pause because COVID-19 has shaken the world and because we had to prioritize safety and health before the economy," he said.
After Turkey announced its first confirmed case in mid-March, health scans were carried out on the market's traders.
Seven were confirmed to have the coronavirus, Kurtulmuş said, adding that they could have been infected by the many tourists in the packed confines of the market.
While the bazaar reopened under strict rules laid out by the Health Ministry, traders are worried that the bazaar is unlikely to see many tourists for some time, though Turkey also removed all intercity travel restrictions starting today.
"Tourism is the backbone of the Grand Bazaar's economy. We will see when the tourists will come," said Ayhan Oğuz, a jeweler in the bazaar's main alley.
"2020 seems to be a year of economic losses for us. If business returns to normal, tourism opens and flights resume by September, I believe we will also return to normal," he said.
Namık, another jeweler, had a gloomier outlook: "We are at a low ebb. How will we pay the rent?"
"My shop remains open, but there are no customers. There's no business," he added.
Kurtulmuş pointed to all the history that the market has survived already.
"I have confidence the Grand Bazaar will go full steam ahead and compensate for the economic loss by the end of the year," he said.
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