Sociological analysis of ancient markets: On the example of Tabriz Grand bazaar

Gayane Harutyunyan

Phenomena of markets exist from the very beginning of human kind development, though from that time till now not only the perception of markets but also markets themselves have cardinally changed. According to K. Polany in all epochs forerunning this one markets were only auxiliary tools for economic life [Polany 1944, 69]. In this case markets were accepted as regulators of only economic relations.  During long time period markets in different societies obtain various forms, structures and function, due to they begin to play different roles for those societies. Nowadays markets are no more perceived as secondarily tools for economic life but accepted as strong mechanisms for generating and reproduction of social relations. In some societies markets started to proceed not only economic but also political, cultural and religious relations. This kind of transformation happened first of all because of cultural background of the society where the markets were situated and temporal objective and subjective needs of people.

Though even in old centuries there were markets which were not only regulators of the economic life but also the main mechanisms of organizing and controlling social life of the community due to which was led to bigger prosperity. In this case ancient markets represent «old» forms of society’s life regulation. From that point of the view it is rather interesting and actual to observe old markets as forms of social life management because it will make possible to understand how economic and social life were realized and tight together by means of markets.

 This paper is dedicated to the study of ancient markets from the point of economic, social and symbolic significance for that community. The research will be set on the sample of Tabriz Grand bazaar. The Grand Bazaar of Tabriz is a historical complex situated in Iran’s northwestern province. The Bazaar, which is located in the center of Tabriz city, is one of the oldest bazaars of the Middle East and the largest covered bazaar in the world. It is considered as a World Heritage by UNESCO due to not being just market place for Iranians but for exhibition of an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, and association with events, living traditions, with ideas, and beliefs [UNESCO Word Heritage Site].

Taking into consideration all these ideas and limits of knowledge on this topic we try to answer following question «what kind of role played Tabriz bazaar for its community from the point of political, cultural and religious significance? »

In our research we are going to use some elements of exchange theory, which will make possible to realize our aim.  Paper discusses relevance of Tabriz bazaar from the point of its community emphasizing its role in the economic, political, religious and cultural exchange on the sample of Tabriz Grand bazaar. At the end as a result of research we expect to reveal rather social and symbolic meaning of the bazaar for that community than economic significance.

 Tomas Hobbs’s question, which was put on 17th century, how society is possible is actual even now. Till now all existing sociological theories tried to give an answer. These theories were developing societies’ emerging reasons, describing levels of society evolution, supposing internal structure of society, modeling ideal image of society. But eventually each theory has a function of explaining reasons of existing social order, and describing those primary mechanisms which regulate certain sphere of social relations [Тернер 1985, 27]. That is to describe what makes just behavior into systematized social relations, in other words what makes people into society. One of possible answers to this question gives exchange theory. It says that social relations are based on the principle of exchange where society is accepted as a number of social networks among which happens different types of exchange. So, in terms of Hobbs society is possible because of exchange relations among members of societies, social groups and institutions. By saying exchange we here and after mean not only economic, but also symbolic and emotional exchange [Тернер 1985, 89].

In ancient societies because of weak distribution of labor and small number of social institutions, main structure which was responsible for exchange relations was market.  Market is defined as a structure, which organizes or coordinates activities not through governmental planning but through the mutual interactions of buyers and sellers [Viskavatof 2004, 55]. Market was the only place where people of different social status, different occupation and with different goods could meet each other and realize their exchange. So the basic forms of exchange and its main part happened exactly in the market. Though markets are considered economic phenomena but they are common in other spheres of politics, religion, culture and etc [Baecker 332, 2006].  That is why market exchange supposed different types of exchanges. In this paper we are going to reveal significance of market from the point of its community emphasizing its role in the economic, political, religious and cultural exchange.

In different culture markets have their own specific names which mainly come from the cultural background of the society. In Islamic tradition markets were usually called bazaars. It is notable that word bazaar (ربازا) comes from Old Persian and means “place of prices” [UNESCO Word Heritage Site]. Such kind of word by word translation can sound strange only till that time when you know the main feature of Persian bazaar. One of the main specific characteristics of Persian bazaar is that prices for goods are being set during haggling by both sides buyers and sellers. To haggle a price is essential part of any kind transaction performed in the bazaar.  And even nowadays it is big disgrace if a customer buys something without haggling about its price and it is regret for seller if the customer buys something without haggling. It was so common phenomenon that people were famous in bazaar due to their capability to reduce prices. That is why market in ancient Persia was called “bazaar” and till now it has kept its name and even more notion of “bazaar” and its symbolic meaning is widely spread in other Muslim societies.

Returning to the idea of exchange, we are going to discuss first of all economic exchange realized by means of market or bazaar.  First of all exchange is undivided part of any social network. In this case exchange becomes one of the main functions of social network because it preserves network from dissolving because of resources’ lack. Due to exchange relations network becomes stronger and resister against adverse conditions. Depending from what kind of resources and what quantity of resources are exchanged social network becomes stronger and more stable. From this point economic exchange provides social network, in this case inhabitants of Tabriz, mainly with material goods. In case of bazaar these goods can be divided into several parts: goods for everyday use, luxury goods, food and non alcohol beverage, clothing, spices, jewelry, gold and etc. This kind of division we can also find inside the bazaar. It consists of several sub-bazaars, such as the Amir Bazaar (for gold and jewelry), the Mozzafarieh (a carpet bazaar), a shoe bazaar, and many more for a variety of other goods. The most prosperous time of Tabriz Bazaar was in the 13th century when town became the capital city of Safavid kingdom. The city lost its status as capital in the 16th century, but its Bazaar has remained important as a commercial and economic center[UNESCO Word Heritage Site]. It is notable that Tabriz bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centers on the Silk Road. Although numerous new shops and malls have been established nowadays, the Bazaar of Tabriz remains the economic heart of the city and northwestern Iran [UNESCO Word Heritage Site]. In this case Bazzar is defined as structure of roles with its system of control, which realize first of all function of exchange. There are two main roles in network that are merchants and buyers which are realizing transactions by giving money and getting goods, or by just exchanging goods. In case of economic exchange main role of exchange plays money. Money determines process of exchange because money sets value for the goods and dictates whether it is worth buying or not.  So money becomes medium for exchange relations [Baecker 332, 2006].  In case of deception in the process of exchanging there were certain norms for the punishment. Of course there were other secondary roles too, but they didn’t play significance role. One of such roles was role of pickpocket, who was representative of non symmetric exchange; he took but did not give anything instead while in case of trade it was symmetric exchange: money instead of goods.

Second important role that performs this bazaar is its religious exchange. About participation also in religious exchange tells us first of all location of bazaar. Bazzar situated in the backyard of Jameh Mosque of Tabriz. So it is used for some of the important religious ceremonies too. The most famous one is Day of Ashura while merchants cease the trade for about 10 days and religious ceremonies are held inside the Bazaar. Like other bazaars in the Middle East, there are several mosques constructed behind the bazaar. This is very interesting and important fact because in terms of common sense religion/ mosque and economy/ bazaar are always opposed each other. Religion represents spiritual life and non material consumption, in reverse economy supposes material consumption and secular pleasures. But in the bazaar we see that two of these items meet each other. People come to the bazaar for participating in religious ceremonies, while mosque is quite in the same place. Several times a year bazaar transformates from being economical heart of city to religious one and starts to perform function of religious institutions by providing exchange of religious elements. People come to bazaar and start to pray and perform religious ceremonies. During this period bazaar performs function of cultural values and norms transmission, traditions and customs maintenance and consolidation. From the point of exchange in this case we are dealing with symbolic exchange. By saying symbolic exchange we mean exchange of any kind of information.  And of course cultural values and norms, customs and traditions can be seen as a unique way of communication, specific type of information which is required for national identity maintenance. But from the other hand religious ceremonies can be seen not only as a symbolic exchange but also as emotional one because performance of ceremonies also gives emotional satisfaction. In this case the sides of exchange were not the buyers and sellers but members of community who came to the bazaar and mosque as a representative of god’s power. So in this exchange members of community accept blessing and kindness of god’s will, and gave instead their obedience to the state and mosque order by letting all their work and coming to the bazaar on certain date and time.

One of the main characteristics of oriental bazzar was its informative function. In ancient times people met each other in bazaar for sharing information. As bazaar was the main place where the majority of community members gathered it was the main place where news and announcements from the head of community were announced. Bazaar was a perfect place where news was spread, which became gossips and raised resentment evolving into mass revolts. And again physical place of bazaar serves for non material and intentional symbolic exchange.

Tabriz Bazaar has always been an important political place, and one can point out its importance in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in the last century and Islamic Revolution in the contemporary time. In times of Iranian Constitutional revolution the first protesters were merchants who denied paying high taxes for Shah, because high taxes were assigned for discharge of Persia’s loan from Russian, which Shah took for making his European tour. Merchants of bazzar became first protesters and threaten to close the bazaar if compromise with authorities weren’t reached. Any way closing of the bazaar happened twice, which was a big trouble for Persia, as the bazaar was economic heart of northwestern Iran and closing of the bazaar meant stopping all economic transactions not only in that part of the country, but also loss of income for whole country. Merchants who came from faraway countries had very big inconvenience and because of impossibility to sell their commodities wouldn’t return to Persia again. Merchants also were discontent because of westernization policy led by Shah. Bazaars (shop owners/merchants) were the ones being penalized because of the westernization and their shops were being demolished to make way for schools, streets, hospitals and other institutions. Because of this merchants become one of the leading groups that provided their full support to the religious opposition to the Shah [Keddi 2003, 226]. Closing the bazaar was one of the main factors which set mass revolts and civil war for Iranian Constitutional Revolution.

In the period of Islamic revolution main protesters also were merchants who started their protests in the bazaar. In 1970s because of the oil boom increased an inflation and wasted and an “accelerating gap” between the rich and poor, the city and the country. All Iranians were required to join and pay dues to a new political party, the Rastakhz party — all other parties being banned. That party’s attempt to fight inflation with populist “anti-profiteering” campaigns — fining and jailing merchants for high prices — angered and politicized merchants [Graham 1980, 96]. Another important thing that bazaar is situated next to Constitutional House of Tabriz. In 1970s Constitutional House was used as a gathering place of the leaders, activists and sympathizers of the movement. It was even constructed by the order of one merchant who later became the main financer of the revolution [Constitutional House of Iran].

All these facts witnesses that Bazaar as a structure and one of its main roles- merchants, had big influence on political situation in the country. Merchants as structural roles dealt not only with economic relations, distribution of material goods but also with political ones, realization of political order. They used their economic power and exchanged it with certain, profitable political order in the state. Fighting against high taxes and westernization by spending their economic capital led to such situation where they got politically favorable conditions for their further economic transactions inside and outside the country. Achievement of Islamic revolution kept not only economic status of merchants in society but also gave them  political significance.

So, this paper was devoted to the sociological study of ancient market on the sample of Tabriz bazaar. The main idea of the paper was that bazaar/ market is one of the important structures of society which realizes function of exchange not only economic but also symbolic and emotional ones. Bazaar was represented as a structure of different roles which are involved in different types of exchange which supposes reproduction of economical, political, religious, and cultural relations in the society. This makes bazaar a unique structure which by self-reproducing also reproduces dozens of other relations, due to reglamentation of community life happens by means of creating, reproducing and transmitting old ways of transactions to the next generation. By reproducing not only economic relation and reglamentating them bazaar performs also function of socialization, therefore also systematizes certain parts of social life of community.


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