Bazaars and Bazaar Merchants

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iranian traditional marketplaces.

The bazaar (Persian; Arabic, suq ; Turkish, çarşi ), traditional marketplace located in the old quarters in a Middle Eastern city, has long been the central marketplace and crafts center, the primary arena, together with the mosque, of extrafamilial sociability, and the embodiment of the traditional Islamic urban lifestyle. Merchants and commercial trade are esteemed in Islamic civilization. At the time of the rise of Islam, the society of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, was already a major center of local, regional, and at times international trade. The city of Mecca itself was dominated by the merchant patricians. Friday congregational prayer, one of the most important Islamic institutions articulating the religious community and the state, coincided with the day on which the business activities of the weekly bazaar heightened because the people of the town and surrounding areas gathered in the marketplace for business transactions. The prophet Muhammadwhose first wife was among the city's prosperous merchants, as were many members of his clanhimself engaged in trade on behalf of his wife. In the pre-prophetic period of his life, he was called Muhammad al-Amin (trustworthy), an epithet bestowed upon him by the bazaar merchants with whom he did business.

The Traditional Bazaar

The traditional bazaar consists of shops in vaulted streets closed by doors at each end, usually with caravanserais connected into the middle of the bazaar. In small towns, the bazaar is made up of a covered street, whereas in large cities it can take up miles of passageways. Bazaars are divided into various parts, each specializing in a single trade or craftcarpet sellers, goldsmiths, shoemakers, and so forth. The social hierarchy of the bazaar includes the big merchants (tujjar) at the top of the pyramid; the master artisans and shopkeepers, loosely organized within over a hundred guildlike associations (asnaf), at the middle level; and apprentices and footboys, as well as such marginal elements as poor peddlers, dervishes, and beggars, at the lowest levels.

In premodern times, the bazaar served the governing notables as a source of tax revenues, custom dues, road tolls, credit, and unpaid labor. In return, the government provided the bazaars with internal protection and a system of justice. Although daily concerns such as the quality of the merchandise, the fairness of prices, and the accuracy of weights were supervised by local government, the state dealt with the bazaar's merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans collectively, through the chief of merchants and the guild masters.

The Modern Bazaar

Middle Eastern bazaars underwent drastic changes during the twentieth century. Rapid population growth, mass migration of villagers to the cities, modern urban planning, the development of modern quarters at the outskirts of old quarters, and the shift of the main economic activities from old bazaar to modern districts all led to the decline of Middle Eastern bazaars. In most cases, the bazaars have been reduced from their glory days as the commercial center of the city to their present function as retail centers of crafts, domestic commodities, and (often imported) industrial products. In Cairo, the most radical changes in the fabric of the old city began in the early nineteenth century, when Muhammad Ali Europeanized the city and developed modern commercial and residential areas on the outskirts of the old quarters. The old bazaar became the quarter of the poor in the twentieth century and the Khan alKhalili, a more affluent section of the old bazaar, has remained to serve the tourist demand for Egyptian crafts. In Damascus, the western section of the grand bazaar, Suq al-Hamidiyya and its surrounding area, underwent extensive modernization during the later half of nineteenth century, and the modern quarters developed on the western outskirts of the town. Damascus still produces traditional hand-icrafts, such as high quality textiles, silk, leather goods, filigreed gold, and silver, inlaid wooden, copper, and brass articles. Although the bazaar remains as a center of exquisite craftsmanship, the center of economic activity has moved to the modern quarters of the city. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, Kapali Çarşi, once the center of economic life of the city, has in the twentieth century been adversely affected by rapid urbanization and construction of modern buildings and serves only as an important retail and crafts center.

Iranian Bazaars

The main exception is the Grand Bazaar of Tehran and the bazaars of major Iranian cities, which, in spite of Iran's rapid modernization during the latter half of the twentieth century, have shown remarkable economic resilience. Iran's bazaars have continued to serve as the financial and political power base of the Shiʿite religious establishment and a bastion of nearly all popular political protest movements in modern times, including the Tobacco Revolt (18901891), the Constitutional Revolution (19051911), the oil nationalization movement (19501953), the urban riots of 1963, and the Islamic revolution (1979). The commercial power and the political role played by the bazaar-mosque alliance remain unparalleled in the contemporary history of Middle Eastern cities. Compared to the bazaars of other major Middle Eastern cities, which experienced the consequences of modernization as early as the latter half of the nineteenth century, the bazaar of Tehran, founded in the early nineteenth century, developed as the bastion of the bazaar-mosque alliance, with a solid power base in the twentieth century.

Functionally, three major types of bazaars developed in modern Iran; (1) the unique bazaar of Tehran, functioning as a strategic center for local, national, and international trade; (2) the provincial bazaars, engaged in wholesale and retail trade for the central city and its hinterland; and (3) the local bazaars of small towns and large villages, in which retailers and peasant peddlers serve primarily the town and surrounding rural areas. The more significant provincial bazaars also played an important role in foreign trade. The bazaars of Isfahan, Kashan, Kerman, Kermanshah, Mashhad, Shiraz, Tabriz, and Yazd were in this category until the mid-twentieth century. The bazaar of Tehran, however, monopolized most of the foreign trade during the latter half of the twentieth century and became the main center of import, export, collection, and distribution of agricultural cash crops, modern manufactured consumer items, and Iran's most important handicraft product, Persian carpets.

The socioeconomic and morphological changes in urban Iran since the 1960s have reduced the traditional function of the bazaar as the sole urban marketplace, supplementing it with many new shopping centers in various parts of the city rather than replacing the bazaar's shops. In Tehran, for example, the bazaar underwent a rapid expansion as its surrounding residential areas were increasingly used for commercial and small-scale manufacturing establishments. The southern sections of the bazaar became a shopping area for the lower middle classes, the urban poor, and rural families, whereas its northern sections catered primarily to middle-class clients. As a result, in most cases, the shops' business price increased several times during the late 1970s, reaching as high as several hundred thousand dollars in the case of well-located shops.

Modernization and urban development created a socioeconomic and cultural duality in large urban areas of Iran, particularly in Tehran. This duality consists, on the one hand, of the religiously conservative merchants, master artisans, and shopkeepers who practice traditional urban lifestyles, living mainly around the bazaar and the old quarters of the town, and on the other, the elites and the new middle classes living in the more modern city quarters. The traditional bazaar lifestyle, shared with the ulama, includes such elements as sitting, eating, and sleeping on rugs or kilims, participating in prayer congregations in mosques, taking part in or organizing Shiʿite rituals of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, and insisting on the veiling of women.

The main form of collective action of the bazaaris, from the Tobacco Revolt to the Iranian Revolution, was initially reactive, like bread riots, tax rebellions, and peasants' uprisings throughout historyresponses caused by people being deprived of a privilege or by the imposition of oppressive measures. The novel feature of the Tobacco Revolt and the Constitutional Revolution was that they evolved from recurrent local riots to national movements. The national dimension was achieved by the increasing connection and cooperation among the bazaars of major cities in the latter half of nineteenth century. The coalition of the intelligentsia and the bazaar-mosque alliance burgeoned during the Constitutional Revolution and reemerged in the oil nationalization movement and the Iranian Revolution.

The bazaar's relationships with the state under the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (r. 19411979), were fraught with tensions and conflicts. Bazaaris made considerable material gains during the 1960s and 1970s, and the threats they faced were, more often than not, in the form of state intervention in commercial activities and the regime's repressive policies rather than the expansion of the new shopping areas. The government's arbitrary and discriminatory implementation of commercial regulations, its tax laws, and a campaign against price gouging were the major sources of the bazaaris' hostility toward the state. Another aggravating factor was the shah's and the elite's thinly disguised contempt for the "fanatic bazaaris [who] were highly resistant to change" (Pahlavi, p. 156). Bazaaris, along with the ulama and the young intelligentsia, constituted the major faction in the revolutionary coalition of 1977 through 1979. In the absence of labor unions, political parties, professional societies, and neighborhood associations, the bazaar-mosque alliance as well as schools and universities have proved to be the main vehicle for social protest.

The post-revolutionary period of the 1980s witnessed a bitter struggle between the rising young, radical, leftist elements within the new Islamic regime, on the one hand, and the merchants' and artisans' guilds and their old allies the conservative ulama on the other over such critical policies as nationalization of foreign trade, anti-price gouging measures, and state control over guild councils. By the early 1990s, with the normalization of the revolutionary situation, the government adopted a moderate approach to bazaar merchants and artisans.

see also constitutional revolution; iranian revolution (1979); mecca; mossadegh, mohammad; pahlavi, mohammad reza; shiʿism; tobacco revolt; ulama.


Ashraf, Ahmad. "Bazaar-Mosque Alliance: The Social Basis of Revolts and Revolutions." Politics, Culture, and Society 1 (1988): 538567.

Bonine, Michael. "Shops and Shopkeepers: Dynamics of an Iranian Provincial Bazaar." In Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change, edited by Michael E. Bonine and Nikki R. Keddie. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Pahlavi, Muhammad Reza. Answer to History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

Thaiss, Gustav. "The Bazaar as a Case Study of Religion and Social Change." In Iran Faces the Seventies, edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater. New York: Praeger, 1971.

Weiss, Walter M. The Bazaar: Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World. New York; London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Ahmad Ashraf