Tea-Time in the World’s Grandest Bazaar

Sean Isaacs and family at Istanbul's Grand BazaarWe are all familiar with the adage “forest for the trees”, and as avid coin collectors we are equally aware of how “the hunt” can take us in unexpected directions. In my own case, an interesting numismatic discovery occurred during a wonderful family visit to Turkey in July of 2013, thanks to the keen observations of my wife Nana. Our last three days were spent wandering the rich historical sites of Istanbul, which ultimately lead us to the legendary Grand Bazaar. Originally founded in the mid-15th century during the earliest days of Ottoman rule, today’s Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world – an endless labyrinth of more than 4,800 shops crisscrossed by 60 streets and lanes.

Organized into specific markets or guilds, we found ourselves browsing through the narrow lanes of the silver jewellery and small antiquities market. I hadn’t been especially impressed with the coins I had encountered in the Bazaar – mainly a disappointing survey of 20th century European issues with the odd Ottoman piece incorporated into a piece of jewellery.

The Silver antiquities, however, were an entirely different matter. Shop after shop, window after window of the most stunning silver snuff-boxes, goblets, trays and coffee services. Not always set on display in tidy little rows, but often simply heaped into piles to make efficient use of very tight quarters. So engrossing and magnificent were some of these shops, that I paid little attention to the continuous stream of male tea-servers who regularly made their way throughout the Bazaar, nimbly serving the merchants from their brass trays of small tulip-shaped tea-cups of clear glass.

This changed when Nana tapped me on the shoulder at one point, and asked if I noticed what one such gentlemen had piled in a corner of his tray. Pausing to see what had caught her eye, I too noticed a number of small yellow tokens on his tray. They were square and appeared to be of either plastic or perhaps Bakelite. He was gone in a flash, but not before we observed him delivering a couple glasses of tea to nearby merchants, who in turn would toss one of these tokens onto his tray in exchange for their tea.

Yellow cay token from Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

Yellow cay token from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (click to enlarge)

My curiosity was immediately peaked, and as we made our way in and out of various shops, we then noticed that each merchant would have a small bowl of tokens within easy reach, usually set on a shelf or at the back of their counters. In one shop in this particular area (we were still in the jewellery “souk” – or market) I was able to see the yellow tokens up close, and observed the word “Cay” at centre in raised letters. This made sense, being – pronounced “chai” – the Turkish word for tea (on a side-note, this initially caused me much confusion in Turkey, since regardless of whether I would request “tea” or “Chai” – with my western expectation of spiced steamed milk tea on the latter – I would still get the same small cup of strong black tea).

It also seemed to indicate a clear and measured value for each token – a cup of tea – rather than a unit of general token currency that might be pooled and spent on a variety of items. Subsequent brief conversations with a few merchants confirmed this. Once a month each shop owner would purchase a set number of tokens, and redeem them daily as they wished, serving both themselves and their customers. Each specific souk had their own tea station from where the servers would fan out with their trays, and these stations would also serve as the end repository for the redeemed tokens.

Red tea token from the Grand Bazaar

Red tea token from the Grand Bazaar

Most interestingly, each of these guilds/souks and their respective tea-stations utilized a distinctively different token. In numerous cases, this might be the same “Cay” token described above, but in differing colours. Other sections of the bazaar alternatively favoured plain round discs of slightly varying sizes and colours. Regardless of the nature of the specific token, one common denominator was the cost of each piece, and hence cup of tea – at that time set at half a Turkish Lira, or about thirty cents Canadian. Gathering these details was one thing, however, while actually obtaining some sample tokens was entirely another.

Bearing in mind I have never faced such language barriers in all my travels – even learning to say “thank you”, a six-syllable word in Turkish, was beyond my grasp in the end – I would likely have left the Grand Bazaar empty handed were it not for some friendly help.

Green tea token

Green tea token

My first two attempts to acquire samples by simply picking up a token from merchant bowls and asking if I could buy them, yielded me a cup of tea rather than the token themselves. The hunt didn’t get much easier when I was finally able to explain my desire to acquire them in bulk, and was sent directly to one of the tea-stations themselves – which kind of made sense. At this first station, after multiple attempts to explain why I would possibly want to purchase a quantity of tokens, the tea-master reluctantly pulled a large bucket from under the counter with what must have been thousands of his guild’s tokens.

Unfortunately, in this case these particular tokens were plain round red plastic discs that looked every bit like mouse-chewed bingo markers. Even in the interest of numismatic research, I couldn’t bring myself to buy them, and sheepishly declined. This was actually the high-point of trying to deal directly with the tea stations, as most were understandably busy and had no interest in accommodating my odd request.

Sean Isaacs with owners of jewellery store in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

Yunus Seyidoglu, Sean Isaacs and Abdul Basit inside Hasimi Jewellery Handicraft store

At last, however, I found the “inside man” I was looking for. Stopping into the neat Hasimi Jewellery Handicraft store, I was immediately greeted by Abdul Basit, one of the shop’s two young owners. I spotted his dish of black “Cay” tokens, explained I was a coin dealer looking to do an article on the tokens, and he got it. He was kind enough to sell me a few of their tokens, though when I mentioned I was having difficulty acquiring a larger quantity, he suggested I come back to see him in an hour. We went for a stroll through other sections of the bazaar, and I was happy to discover some Istanbul-assayed fine Silver wafers in smaller 5 and 10 gram sizes in the precious metals and jewellery souk which made nice souvenirs.

Just over an hour later, we returned to Abdul’s shop and sure enough, he had a small bag of almost 50 black tea tokens gathered together for me. He even offered to try and acquire some examples from other souks, but the genuine concern he voiced about possibly being caught doing so – which I found interesting – left me content to decline his kind offer. His English was quite good, so we chatted for a while, took some photographs, and then parted ways – but not before enjoying a glass of the strong Turkish tea that had become so central to both the initiation of a good haggling session and an afternoon of numismatic enlightenment, in the world’s grandest bazaar.

Sean Isaacs

Get your own “Cay” token

To purchase an example of our Istanbul “Cay” token, send us Two Dollars in any form (or Four Dollars for two different tokens). Find contact info on our website.

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