The Dirty Dozen: The 13 most significant marketplaces in history

As a Black Friday frenzy sweeps away the food coma that you’ve put yourself into after gorging on far too many Thanksgiving treats, From The Kitchen Cabinet takes a look back at history’s most significant and amazing markets and shopping centers. As spectacular as the Forum Shops at Caesars in Vegas are they just are not that “historical” so they do not make the cut. For this list, we are looking at marketplace firsts and centers of cultural and historical significance. So, while you stand in line for whatever holiday gifts your friends and family just have to have, enjoy this look at places you may have shopped in during the near and distant past.

#13 West Edmonton Mall, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Starting off our list is a place that redefined the mall.  Though not the first mall with an amusement park–that distinction belongs to the Old Chicago Mall (but it failed after only five years of existence)–the West Edmonton Mall set the tone for all mega malls to come.


Built in 1981, the West Edmonton Mall is the largest in North America and second largest in all the Americas. Inside, you can lose yourself in its over 800 shops and possibly your car in the 20,000+ car parking garage. But what lands the West Edmonton Mall on our list are the side attractions including Galaxyland with its seven thrill rides, World Water park, and the Sea Life Caverns. If your feet get tired you can always take a break in the adjacent Fantasyland hotel or on one of the many themed “boulevards” like Bourbon Street replete with restaurants and bars. With all there is to do and see is it any wonder that the mall counts 32.2 million visitors per year and 200,000 shoppers a day?

#12 Bazaar of Isfahan, Iran

Known as one of the most significant trade centers in Iran, the Bazaar of Isfahan has stood since the early 1600’s.


Set near the midpoint between the powerful Islamic cities of Damascus and Aleppo in the west and Samarkand (#3 on our list) and Bokhara in the east, Isfahan and its bazaar (a permanently enclosed marketplace) made it a key place for the diffusion of ideas and goods throughout the Muslim world. The Bazaar of Isfahan is widely regarded as the best-preserved example of a bazaar complex in the Muslim world today. The bazaar, and the city that grew around its trade, was so vital that two dynasties, the Seljuk (1037-1157) and the Safavid (1502-1736), established their capitals here. The bazaar itself is just over a mile long of vaulted ceilings sheltering hundreds of merchants.

#11 Southdale Mall, Edina, Minnesota

Where would mall rats be without the Southdale Mall? Probably lounging around their houses bored out of their minds.

Southdale Center Daytons, Edina, MN 1956

Designed by Austrian immigrant Victor Gruen in 1956, the Southdale mall is the oldest fully enclosed, climate-controlled mall in America. Gruen’s dream was a modern take on the old-style arcades of his beloved Vienna. In his view, the random storefronts in downtown Minneapolis were inefficient and American’s had become too car-centric. What he proposed was a building that would serve as a communial gathering place where people could talk, shop, and leisurely spend a few hours sipping coffee or tea. Ultimately, his plan for the Southdale Mall complex included a lake, schools, apartments, medical buildings and parks. Only the mall was constructed, but it did change the way American’s shopped. Now, instead of going to small stores downtown, people could sit in a food court and watch preteens prance about with no real place to go.

#10 The Great Gostiny Dvor, St. Petersburg, Russia

Where do you go in Russia if you want to buy and sell goods? Inside, of course.


Gostiny Dvor is Russian for “Guest’s Court” (poorly translated) and was a place where merchants from smaller communities in Russia could come, set up a shop, and sell their goods at specified times. Every major Russian city had a Gostiny Dvor but The Great Gostiny Dvor in St. Petersburg is significant not only because the city’s oldest shopping center, but also because it is one of the first shopping arcades in the world.These arcades were semi-open air and based on the older bazaars of the Islamic world. Original construction on The Great Gostiny Dvor began in 1757 and it has seen continual remodeling through the 20th Century so that by the start of the 20th Century there were close to 200 shops.

#9 County Club Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri

When the human race is long gone, and future alien archaeologists come to interpret our culture they will find cockroaches and strip malls. What that will tell them is uncertain, but with the plethora of strip malls, one thing is certain: We loved to shop.


The first strip mall was the Country Club Plaza. Meaning, the Plaza was the first shopping center designed to accommodate people arriving by car. Originally known as “Nichols’ Folly” because the developer, J.C. Nichols, chose a plot of land that would have easy access to a major parkway, but at the time there was nothing but a day school and pig farms in the area. But he had a vision and when the Plaza opened in 1923 it was an immediate success.

#8 Agora of Athens, Greece

No one goes to the mall looking for a lecture, but for the people of Greece that’s exactly what the market was for.


Literally meaning “gathering place”, the Agora was both a market where merchants and consumers could trade for a wide variety of goods and a platform for political discourse, military mustering, and philosophical debate. Agora’s were a part of every major Greek city. Since the 6th Century BCE, the Agora of Athens was the heart of the city and where the ideas of democracy were born. It isn’t difficult to imagine people bartering for cloth and olives and meats while Socrates questioned the market goers on the meaning of life. The psychological term “agoraphobia” derives its meaning from the large, wide-open gathering place of the agora.

#7 Trajan’s Market, Rome, Italy

Shops and market stalls encircling the Forum was not a new concept in the Roman empire by Emperor Trajan’s time. Both Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar had modified the earlier Forum (Foro di Cesare and Foro di Augusto) with shops, but Emperor Trajan went a step above. Literally.


Constructed from 107-110 CE by Trajan’s chief architect Apollodorus of Damascus, Trajan’s Market–a part of an entire new section of the Forum complex called Trajan’s Forum–is widely regarded as the first shopping mall in the world. By Trajan’s time, the Forum was hemmed in by hills, and expansion to the east was blocked by a pesky building called the Colosseum. So, Apollodorus built into and onto the hillside by flattening and terracing the land. The result was a market that stood, in some places, six stories tall. The upper floors contained apartments and warehouses and were probably used as the administrative offices for the market. It was on the lower floors where the average Roman could enter a “tabernae” and purchase wine, olive oil, fruits, vegetables and other household needs. In total, there were over 150 tabernea along the lower sections and in the interior vault covered halls.

#6 Staraya Ladoga, Russia

Vikings. The name conjures up images of bearded Norsemen wearing horned helms and wielding broad axes ready to plunder the next village. But merchants?


Established in 753 CE by Swedish Vikings,–called the Varangians, and eventually the Rus–Staraya Ladoga was one of the most significant trading and market centers in Eastern Europe for nearly five hundred years. The village linked Scandinavia with Constantinople and Baghdad along the Varangian trade route to the Greeks and the Volga route respectively. The market and outpost were so significant that the Varangian leader Rurik established his capital in Ladoga in 862. Rurik and his successors eventually established the Kievian Rus empire, a dynasty that would eventually come to rule the Grand Duchy of Moscow and Tsardom of Russia. Because of this, Ladoga is often called the first capital of Russia.

#5 Rialto Market, Venice, Italy

One of the first images that comes to mind when the city of Venice is mentioned are the canals. And it is on the Grand Canal that we find the #5 entry on our list.

Rialto Bridge with the Fondaco dei Tedeschi on the left

Rialto Bridge with the Fondaco dei Tedeschi on the left

First settled in the 9th Century, the Rialto rises as market center in 1097 when all of Venice’s merchants move there. Soon, grand fondaco’s are constructed along the Grand Canal. One of the best examples of which is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (c. 1228) which operated as a warehouse, market, and restricted living quarters for the German merchants in Venice. Venetians went to the Rialto to buy everything from household goods and groceries (the slaughterhouses were also located in the Rialto) to luxuries imported from across the world. And where there are merchants and wealth there’s money to be found. The first modern banking practices owe their start to the Rialto in Venice. But, where there are merchants and wealth there are also foreign traders and ships. This allowed the Rialto to become one of the gateways for the Black Death’s entrance into Europe in 1347.

#4 Thirteen Factories, Canton, China

Factories and China are synonymous with cheap goods shipped around the world. However, these factories weren’t factories at all. In fact, they served the opposite purpose; they did not make goods, but rather served as a trading house for them.


For centuries European and American governments clamored to get into trade agreements with China. However, the Chinese rulers saw European (and eventually American goods) as inferior to the goods made in China and refused to trade. Chinese leaders also feared foreign influences on Chinese society and politics so they closed ports and heavily restricted maritime activities. That all changed with the Qing (pronounced ching) Dynasty in 1684 when the Kangxi Emperor opened four cities, including Canton (Guangzhou), to foreigners. Forced to live outside the city walls and along the river, the factors, or foreign traders, built warehouses, apartments, and offices called factories, or “barbarian houses” by the Chinese. By 1748, there were eight factories but they would quickly number thirteen as more countries tried to get into the Chinese market. For the British, tea was the number one good that they desired and they tried to trade every British good imaginable for it, but the Chinese held firm that foreign goods were inferior. Eventually, the British discovered one thing the Chinese could not live without… or would become hopelessly addicted to: Opium. Through the British factory, opium flooded the Chinese market and eventually lead to the First Opium War. How many other shopping centers can claim that they started a war?

#3 Samarkand, Uzebekistan

The Silk Road is one of the most famous and significant trade routes in history, and checking in at #3 on this countdown is a market that sits at the center of the entire network.


When we mention things that are older than dirt, Samarkand is one of those. Probably settled in the 700s BCE by Iranian merchants, Samarkand has been the capital of numerous empires, conquered by the Greeks, Turks, Mongols, and Chinese, and despite it all remained one of the greatest markets in history. The market at Samarkand owes this success to the Sogdian people who were known for their trading savvy and willingness to allow anyone to settle in Samarkand so long as they were willing to obey the laws of trade. As to the Silk Road, it is really a misnomer; it was not called the Silk Road until 1859 when a German scholar applied the name to the numerous routes that criss-crossed Asia. To the merchants who traveled the road it was called the “road to _____” or the “road to the next city.” For nearly every merchant that next city was Samarkand. In Samarkand you could buy a vast variety of goods from silk to paper, books on language to slaves, spices, dyes, and precious metals and gems. Across the routes, the Sogdian language became the common trade language used showing how dominant the Samarkand market was over the entire network.

#2 Timbuktu, Mali

BFE and Timbuktu are euphemisms for the most remote places on earth… or the answer to the question, “Where are we parked?” during Christmas.


For over 400 years, Timbuktu was a destination rather than a place no one wanted to be found. Permanently settled in the early 12th Century, Timbuktu would become one of the greatest centers of knowledge and commerce in the world. Because of its location on the Niger River where it begins to flow north into the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, the city became known as the place were camel met canoe. In other words, where the huge Arab camel trains that crossed the vast desert met the boats laden with gold, salt and slaves from the interior of Africa. Timbuktu served as the linking market between the tribes and empires of Africa and the major cities of the Arab world. Muslim scholars established 180 Quranic schools and even a university leading to the trade in books and knowledge in the city. So significant were books to the economy that they were not only written there, but a sophisticated book copying industry flourished translating and copies books. Imagine a Barnes and Noble with the authors on site along with the printing house.

Honorable Mentions

Burlington Arcade, London, England

Northgate Mall, Seattle, Washington

Khan el Khalili, Cairo, Egypt

#1 Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

We end this list with one of the biggest and oldest covered markets in the world.


Tucked into the walls of Istanbul’s city center is the Grand Bazaar whose construction began in 1455 by the new Ottoman ruler Sultan Mehmet II. The original building was designed to house the textile market. The building was completed in 1460 and was surrounded bakeries, a slave market, and the second-hand markets. In 1545, Mehmet–no longer the Sultan–constructed another building and moved his textile market into this new nearby building. The original building became a market for luxury goods pouring into the empire from across the globe. Slowly, smaller shops began to fill in the streets between Mehmet’s two buildings and a centralized marketplace was born. Just as the Ottoman empire grew, so did the Grand Bazaar and it quickly became the center of all trade in the Mediterranean. By the 17th Century, the Grand Bazaar began to take its current form and could count over 3,000 shops. The first vaults to cover the markets between the two buildings constructed by Mehmet were erected in 1696. By 1890, there were over 4,000 shops within the bazaar. Today, there are over 26,000 people working within the bazaar making it essentially a city within the city of Istanbul.


Do you agree with our list? What market or shopping place did we miss? Leave your comments or suggestions below, and don’t forget to click on the follow button to get more Dirty Dozen and other historical musings From The Kitchen Cabinet.



3 thoughts on “The Dirty Dozen: The 13 most significant marketplaces in history

    • Thank you. I’m glad you liked the list. There are so many other great markets that didn’t make the cut… I might just have to put together a second one in the future to them in.

  1. Pingback: myvirtualsilkroadtrip

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