Bazaar intrigue in a Middle Eastern market

BAZAAR BARGAINS: It would take a strong-minded person to leave Istanbul's Grand Bazaar without a rug rolled under their arm.
BAZAAR BARGAINS: It would take a strong-minded person to leave Istanbul's Grand Bazaar without a rug rolled under their arm.

'Just looking? No problem! No charge for looking, my friend. Come in please. Where you from? Would you like some tea?"

I step cautiously into carpet-shop dimness. A low brass table, tottering with tiny gold-rimmed glasses of apple tea, appears as if conjured by a genie. The carpet-seller's teeth and bristling moustache hover.

"It's not about dollars my friend! It's about carpets, I think you can't resist!"

Rugs sail across the room, spun from the top of a teetering red pile.

I cough as sheep-smelling dust flies. A thousand years of carpet-weaving culture spread at my feet, the dreams and sighs of generations in knotted wool.

Politely I mention the limits of my budget. "You're pressing a dagger to my heart! This is best-quality carpet from Anatolia. It takes a year to make, my friend. It should be in a museum, but can be on your floor!"

Reproachfully, the vendor flings a woven cicim at my feet, patterned with elegant Ottoman tulip motifs coloured with saffron and indigo.

"Think about it, yes? Come back later! But now is better, happy hour for this morning only!"

It would take a strong-minded person to leave Istanbul's Grand Bazaar without a rug rolled under their arm. I first visited as a university student and bought two small kilims, all I could then afford. But I bought myself an experience too: days of apple tea, hilarious patter and ululating Turkish pop music.

In the corridors beyond carpet-shop interiors, cheeky shoeshine boys pointed out the scuffs on my shoes and black-swathed grannies elbowed me aside.

From that time onwards, I've been entranced by bazaars.

The Grand Bazaar is the sultan of all Islamic markets. Founded by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, it has 60-odd streets and 2,500 shops, several mosques and dozens of coffee houses, all under domed ceilings. Away from carpet-crammed tourist areas, you can find old books, candelabra, jars of Iranian caviar, kitchen sinks and bridesmaids' dresses weighed down with ruffles and ribbons.

Passageways smells of aniseed and dried mango, roasting lamb and hot bread.

In a world increasingly taken over by soulless shopping malls bloated with the same-same fashion brands, bazaars retain character and colour.

They echo with conversation, the bleating of goats, the clang of copper from artists' studios.

Drowsiness and dullness eventually conquer me in museums. Bazaars are vibrantly alive, and coffee and honey-soaked pastries pep me up when energy flags. I can learn what local people eat, how they decorate their homes, what they want to wear, the lands they trade with.

I can go on a spree, and slip Iranian nutcrackers and Turkish meerschaums into my suitcase.

Another excellent bazaar is the 14th-century Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, a warren of covered streets where salesmen lurk in the gloom, hawking wares in a dozen languages. Tourists hunt down papyrus poems, models of Tutankhamun's gold mask and tribal daggers.

Locals come for antiques and copperware, plastic washing tubs, salted fish and dried hibiscus flowers. Innumerable little eateries dish up hearty helpings of kushari, a rice and lentil dish soaked in rich tomato sauce, or roast pigeon stuffed with rice and spices.

I lurk on street corners slurping sugarcane juice for hours, just watching the world go by.

My favourite bazaar of all is in the old town of Aleppo in Syria, and I often wonder what has happened to it. Parts of it were burned down during fighting in 2012. The covered bazaar dates from the 13th century but traders from Russia, Turkey, Arabia and Armenia have traded in Aleppo since biblical times and I hope they'll one day be back.

When I visited, it truly seemed to inhabit a time warp. Donkeys delivered sacks of spices with a clatter of cloven hoofs on flagstones. Backgammon pieces clicked and storytellers murmured from soot-blackened coffee houses.

Dismembered goats swung on hooks, honeycombs dripped and cinnamon tumbled across trestle tables. Ladies swathed head to toe in black moved like Daleks through the gloom, hypnotising me with their kohl-rimmed eyes.

In the meantime, my top bazaars are Iranian, partly because they're devoid of souvenir kitsch and tourist touts. In Esfahan's glorious Bazar-e Bozorg, dusty carpet shops compete with made-in-China clothes stalls, jewellery winks under bright lights and eggplants gleam in tumbled piles.

Old men sit at desks with Bakelite phones, crunching nuts as they do business. Craftsmen offer gold-toothed smiles as I squeeze into their shops to admire their brass work, miniature paintings or twisted candlesticks, a traditional wedding present in Iran.

In the mornings, I'm here for breakfast: hot flatbread flipped from wobbling piles, soft cheese, honey ladled into ceramic pots.

I haunt bazaars for many reasons. They're nearly always architectural wonders, shabbily splendid, beautiful and worn.

The shadowy Bazar-e Bozorg is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, where covered passageways meet at dome-topped crossroads illuminated with filtered sunlight. Some sections date back a millennium.

Esfahan is renowned for its mosques, which make me feel I've plundered into paradise. But the bazaar reminds me that Islam's rich heritage extends to seemingly mundane, secular buildings too.

A bazaar is an Ali Baba stereotype and, when I come across a blue-tiled dome, a splashing fountain, a tea house where oil lamps swing from rafters, is utterly magical.

Further south in Iran, Shiraz's bazaar is almost the match of Esfahan's. It was built under Karim Khan, an 18th-century ruler who made Shiraz the capital of Persia. I come here four days running, and each time get lost in its maze. Chinese merchants peddle air-conditioning units and bicycles, Iran's semi-nomadic tribes trade brightly coloured clothes and wool.

I lounge on teahouse verandas like a pasha, serenaded by caged songbirds. Vakil Mosque, covered in pink tiles depicting stylised roses and tulips, is the bazaar's lovely oasis of calm. Pigeons roost, swirling skywards with a clatter of wings as the call to prayer sounds.

Such places make a mockery of some bazaars, such as the much-touted gold souk of Dubai, a hideous prank dreamed up by tourism planners. Only Dubai's petite spice souk has some semblance of character. No surprise its stalls are run mostly by chatty Shirazis, who dream of saving enough to flee this soulless metropolis and return to their cultured city of poetry and gardens. Bazaars aren't just shops. They have a multitude of purposes.

They're spaces to meet and conduct business, have a meal, slump over a hubble-bubble, giggle and gossip. Unlike grand monuments, I feel they anchor me to a city and its inhabitants.

I can't resist their people-watching potential. Bazaars are about wrinkled smiles, kids playing hopscotch, the tap-tap of a craftsman beating bronze, even the occasional evil-eye flutter of hands that wards off bad luck from foreigners. Bazaars are a whirligig of humanity, nowhere more so than in India.

Old Delhi's bazaars stretch my Islamic-infused definition of a true bazaar, but they're fabulous stickybeaking opportunities. Shoppers in pink saris, pavement astrologers, temple priests with foreheads smeared yellow, turbaned Sikhs and skinny sadhus ebb and flow.

One evening in the Chor Bazaar a wedding procession passes. The groom rides a caparisonned white horse, trailed by a band in yellow uniforms. Trumpets wail and drums bang. Behind, a flock of parakeet-gaudy women dances.

The parade is illuminated by spotlights carried on the heads of four men, one of whom wheels a spluttering old diesel generator in a barrow. In Indian bazaars, I constantly find myself marvelling at the ways in which people earn a living.

There are an estimated 10,000 stalls in the Chor Bazaar or Thieves' Market near the Red Fort. According to Delhi wisdom, this is where locals come to recover the bric-a-brac recently burgled from their houses. Certainly you can buy chandeliers, wooden toys, quilts and mobile phones, though most tourists come for silver jewellery and Rajasthani puppets.

Some travellers moan about the hard sell in such markets. But for every salesman, there's another willing to let you taste his pistachios or show you photos of his kids. Besides, I find most hustlers have flair and charm. They may be the only locals I speak to, so I might as well enjoy the ritualised persuasion. In Delhi, I'm seduced by another seller unrolling dusty Kashmiris .

"Let me tell you, this is made to a design centuries old. All hand-worked, all natural dyes. This isn't just a rug my friend, this is the work of a young woman who has let her imagination fly away! It is very fine, I think this woman will make a good wife!" The salesman chortles. "But it isn't a wife you want to buy, only a carpet!"

We sip on our rosewater lassi, ordered in from next door. I haggle until my vocal chords and resistance give out. Then I roll up my rug and carry it away, its passion and colour transposed to my home from a distant bazaar.

Sydney-based Brian Johnston has been a travel writer 20 years, is the author of three travel books, and blogs as The Thoughtful Travel Writer.