10-year revamp for Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
OVER 500 years old, and having survived fire and earthquakes, it welcomes up to 400,000 people a day and takes pride in being the world's most visited destination - more popular than the Eiffel Tower.
So it is hardly surprising that Istanbul's venerable Grand Bazaar, built in the mid-15th century, has suffered wear and tear over the years.
The labyrinthine bazaar is now about to undergo a much-needed renovation that will last a decade and cost tens of millions of dollars.
But the revamp is not without controversy, especially among traditionalists who fear the spirit of the historic market will be lost.
"It's the most visited destination in the world so it's very important for us," said Mustafa Demir, the mayor of the Fatih district of Istanbul where the bazaar is located. "It's a very long project which is going to need a decade," he said.
The cost is estimated at US$33.5 million (S$47 million), which will be largely financed by the Turkish authorities.
The Grand Bazaar ranked as the top destination in the world with more than 90 million visitors in 2014, according to a Travel + Leisure listing.
Construction of the bazaar began around 1455 under the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, who had seized the city - then known as Constantinople - from the Byzantines in 1453. By the 17th century, it had taken on its current form, which now has thousands of shops and dozens of streets.
It has become one of Istanbul's most iconic sites, outstripping even the Hagia Sophia in terms of visitor numbers, and featured in a memorable sequence in 2011 James Bond film Skyfall.
Visitors flock there to pick up souvenirs or a carpet. Locals also come in droves to get more prosaic goods like clothes, furniture or shoes.
With the building's foundations showing their age, the priority is to give the bazaar back its structural stability, the restoration's architects say.
"The Grand Bazaar is built on a hill whose soil is permeated by water," said Okan Erhan Olfaz, the engineer in charge of the works. "The soil cannot sustain the building which is slipping down the slope."
Trenches will be dug in the alleyways of the market. Engineers will build concrete tunnels through them to allow water, rain and discharge to pass and also carry the electrical wiring which still hangs above from the bazaar's walls.
The owners of the more than 3,000 shops in the bazaar agreed to contribute to the renovation.
"It's too cold here in the winter and, in summer, it's too hot. And as soon as it rains, there are leaks," said a vendor, Kenan, who sells leather.
But there are dissenting voices from small-scale traders who fear their rents could skyrocket. "That depends on our landlords but we are expecting an unpleasant surprise," said Mahmut, a clothes seller.
"If that is the case, we will be obliged to leave."