What a Bazaar !

Wazar in old Persian means "the street". And in Iran, when people take to the streets, it's to revolt. For over three months now, the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement has been gathering momentum, and could well end up bringing down the mullahs' regime.


For the central government is now losing an indispensable source of support — the bazaars. These markets, traditionally loyal to the Shiite regime, went on strike in Tehran from November 15 to 17, 2022. Much more than a place for the exchange of goods and services, the bazaar is a total place — home to housing, schools, and religious institutions and, above all, social movements. Between traditionalism and modernity, you can discover a whole microcosm. Let's take our turn to explore the alleys of these typical Eastern markets and dive into the bazaars.

A place for spatial and economic planning

Whether you're visiting Iran, Turkey, Morocco or even Northern Macedonia, strolling through the bazaar districts will always give you the impression of being in a time bubble wherein the past can be visited. Professor Mohammad Hossein Zia Tavana of Shahid Beheshti University believes that Iranian bazaars date back to pre-Islamic times. The 4,000-year-old cities of Our and Susa are full of scrolls mentioning these places. So, what is the secret behind such enduring popularity ? If the institution of the bazaar has managed to survive, it's above all thanks to its function as a decision-making space. Whether political, economic, cultural or town-planning, these decisions have always tended towards one and the same goal — to adapt the market to change.

Spices at the Druze market in Merkaza, Israel

The spatial organization of this maze is proof of this. Although a bazaar is a little bit of everything - jewelry, clothes, furniture, spices - the internal layout of its quarters is perfectly structured. For example, artistic products likely to displease tourists are generally located at the extremities of the bazaar, while gold and gem merchants are more often found near the mosques, in the center of the bazaar.

The economic weight of the bazaar, particularly in terms of exports, has always been significant. In the 19th century, the Tabriz bazaar accounted for 25% of Iran's commercial transactions. At 75 hectares, it can be considered the world's largest shopping mall, ahead of the 66-hectare South China Mall. However, the bazaar model is not comparable to that of the European or American mall.

The "Crossroads" of civilizations

The bazaar is a lively place. People talk, negotiate - prices are never fixed in advance - meet new people... In this effervescence, people marginalized by their status or origin mingle with others. This is first and foremost the case for the rural masses. Withdrawn into isolated villages, this segment of the population has little contact with the rest of society.

The Tehran bazaar itself has a multi-ethnic dimension, due to its predominantly Azeri and Turkish-speaking traders and the origins of the items sold. The flagship Persian carpet, known for its warm colors and asymmetrical knots, was produced mainly by the Jewish communities of Isfahan and Shiraz, according to Benjamin de Tudèle, a 12th-century Spanish traveler. Even today, several synagogues can be found in the Udalan district of Tehran's bazaar.

Find the bazaar in your plate!


The originality of the bazaar also lies in the absence of any advertising system — the prosperity of bazaar shops is therefore based almost exclusively on the maintenance of a good reputation. Such is the case for Tehran's oldest teahouse in the heart of the Grand Bazaar. Presented by locals as the temple of tea, this small 1.5-square-meter stall welcomes over 200 people a day, according to estimates by its manager, Casant Mabhoutian.

Nowadays, restaurateurs are seizing on this tradition of word-of-mouth to make mouths water for customers in search of the exotic. In Tel Aviv, a gourmet restaurant called Ola Ola has strayed into the middle of the Shuk* Hacarmel (*the Arab souk is the equivalent of the Iranian bazaar). In Lebanon, the Souk El Akel event in Beirut brings together over 25 culinary stands to celebrate oriental and international food. Finally, there's the restaurant hidden behind the stalls at Israel's Merkaza market. Just like the souk, the bazaar in French means disorder, agitation... This common expression is much more profound than you might think. In Iran, the bazaar is above all the focus of social revolt and political demands. Historian Stéphane Dudoignon recalls that, with every political overthrow, Tehran's great bazaar has been the starting point for uprisings. Since the Qadjar era, the bazaar's predominant position has made it the primary force of opposition to the political elite. The constitutional revolution of 1905 effectively began in the bazaar. The governor of Teheran had three sugar merchants shot for refusing to reduce their prices. The entire market then revolted, joined by mullahs and students. The protesters demanded a "house of justice", which they obtained along with the resignation of the government. When Shah Reza Pahlavi later sought to control this institution, the bazaar sparked new strikes and paralyzed the Iranian economy, providing support for the Shiite clergy that would propel Khomenei to power in 1979. In the current context of Iranian society in turmoil, it is perhaps from the bazaar that the greatest Iranian political upheaval of the 21st century will come.

Sources :

https://www.ledauphine.com/societe/2021/09/22/iran-la-plus-vieille-maison-de-the-de-teheran-fait-1-5m https://www.tresorsdumonde.fr/bazar-de-tabriz/
https://www.persee.fr/doc/cemot_0764-9878_1987_num_4_1_878 https://www.lenouveleconomiste.fr/a-quand-leffondrement-du-regime-iranien-95752/ https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapis_persan https://www.cairn.info/revue-marche-et-organisations-2022-2-page-212.htm
https://www.merkaza.com https://www.rfi.fr/fr/moyen-orient/20221115-grèves-manifestations-en-iran-le-mouvement-rend-hommage-à-la- contestation-de-2019
https://libshop.fr/souk-el-akel/ https://fr.ncr-iran.org/communiques-cnri/iran-protestations/70e-jour-de-soulevement-en-iran-greve-des-bazars- manifestations-nocturnes-et-enterrement-de-martyrs/ https://legrandcontinent.eu/fr/evenements/va-t-il-y-avoir-une-revolution-en-iran/ (conférence avec Stéphane Dudoignon, Novembre 2022)
Mohammad-Reza Djalili, Thierry Kellner, Histoire de l’Iran contemporain, La Découverte