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Turkish Carpet Shopping: Insider’s Tips for the Discerning Traveler

July 6, 2006

By Christopher Deliso

“My friend, my friend, please come into my carpet shop…”

Such classic lines are among the first that visitors to Istanbul get when visiting the historic neighborhoods of Turkey’s cultural capital. Typically, the introduction will come from a sharp-dressed, slick-haired and suave young gentleman and inevitably there is a cup of Turkish tea or six involved. Yet though the acquisition of the fabled Turkish carpet is high on the list of many visitors to Istanbul, it is all too easy to be led astray, and be sold on an inferior item.

With the help of some expert input from Turks with long involvement in the business, the aspiring carpetbagger can be sure of success when it comes time to buy. The following list of what to look for and what to look out for will get you on the right track. We then mention some special shops for avid rug-hunters to visit, while explicating the differences that make different carpet styles unique. But first, some words of wisdom…

What To Do (and Not Do) When Searching for a Rug

Travelers to Istanbul will be rewarded by looking for established stores with a long tradition in the business. It might take a little more time and asking around, but working with such businesses always pays off in the end. Unlike the many fly-by-night operations out there, they are both very knowledgeable about their carpets, and keen on preserving their good reputation as well.

Many of these tradition-based enterprises are also, naturally, shops with repeat customers and outside recognition; customer loyalty and the stamp of approval from international media that cover the industry are good reassurances that the carpets are quality.

Another key point is to insist on Turkish products only. In the last few years, the market has been flooded with mass-produced carpets from Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is a simple story of supply and demand; even in remote eastern Turkey, the chances of finding the odd masterpiece in grandma’s attic are rare nowadays. Carpets have become such a big business that prices have gone up in light of the dearth of new discoveries. For 20 years, the salesman have been up and down Anatolia a million times, seeking out the best material- and the undiscovered pieces are few and far between.

Because of the paucity of antique Turkish carpets, the market has opened to subterfuge. Unscrupulous dealers try to pass off the Afghani or Pakistani carpets as the real thing. Don’t be fooled- ask for certification first.

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Classic Turkish carpets include the Oushak variety seen here (photo courtesy Meha Rugs)

At the same time, wary shoppers should also determine the dealer’s return policy and get shipping guarantees, if the rug in question is too big to be carried home with you. Most shops concerned with keeping their good reputations are not about to take your money and not send the carpet; however, as it has been known for items to end up “lost in the mail,’ an up-front guarantee can help.

Finally, it is a good idea to spend a little time before setting out to read up on the industry. Know the market- and what you want to get. Before you buy, compare carpets in different shops. This ensures you will get the best one. And remember, a rug might be beautiful, but if it doesn’t match your room decor or measurements, it’s not the right one.

The carpet gurus of Istanbul advise shoppers against going to “factory tours,” or stores that stress their “discounted” rates; these are usually gimmicky and offer substandard products. And despite the apparent charm of some of the Turkish touts you will meet in front of the Blue Mosque or Saint Sofia, don’t get drawn in to their carpeted lairs. Avoid these “middlemen”- go directly to the most respected shops.

Finally, travelers should know that in most cases, it is okay to bargain! This time-honored practice is great fun and, provided it’s done with moderation, tact and cleverness, helps one get the best value for money- and makes for memorable interaction with the locals, too.

Where to Shop?

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar has terrific ambience and choice — some 4,000 or so shops — offering a mind-boggling range of goods. For most visitors, making at least one foray into its cavernous confines is a key part of the Istanbul experience. Pillowcases, coffee pots, carpets and ceramics are only a very few of the many iconic Turkish items available here.

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An Ethnicon contemporary kilim adds flair to both modern and traditional interiors (photo courtesy of Ethnicon)

The Grand Bazaar hosts several superior carpet dealers. Two places that stand out are Meha (Kapalicarsi Takkeciler Sokak No 58-60) and the adjacent Ethnicon. The former offers fine silk carpets and replicas of Ottoman Oushak designs that can now only be found in museums and palaces. The latter offers unique “fusion” rugs and wall hangings, which combine intriguing modern designs with pieces from antique wool kilims- perfect for urban contemporary interiors where a classical oriental carpet might not quite fit in.

Prices are given per square meter; be prepared to pay $220/m2 for new concept patchworks, and $140/m2 for woven kilims. Since whole-piece antique carpets are becoming increasingly difficult to find, Ethnicon, whose innovative products have been featured in scores of international magazines, uses partially preserved rugs, portions of nomad tent coverings and other antique weaves, thus pleasing modern ethno tastes while preserving a link with the past.

For example, the colorful strands of fabric hanging from some kilims represent the secret desires of some unknown soul: in the traditions of rural Turkey, from where the fabrics originally came, teenaged girls would fasten these strands onto trees and then silently make their deepest wish. Says Ethnicon representative Ismail Aksahin, “all of our kilims thus have something original and unknown about them, a long history of desires and secrets.” Since every Ethnicon kilim has such a magical story behind it, buying one allows the visitor to take home not just a rug- but a little piece of Turkey too.

Carpet versus Kilim: What’s the Difference?

Laymen speak of the famed “Oriental rug” with reverence, but without understanding the difference between the various kinds of carpets. The term, for most, conjures up exotic images of what is known as a pile carpet (in contrast to the flat-woven kilim). The distinction is in the weaving method; whereas the latter is crafted by interweaving different colored warps and wefts, the former is created by knotting short colored strands of wool onto the warps, which are then pulled and held tight into place by pressing the wefts against each other.

Historically, the Turkish style of weaving also differs from the Persian in that it uses symmetrical knotting, whereas the latter does not.

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The Silk Hereke carpet is an outstanding work of craftsmanship unique to Turkey (photo courtesy of Meha Rugs)

A particularly famous kind of Turkish carpet is that named after the city of Usak, which from the 16th century on became the center of rug-making in Turkey, producing lavish carpets for mosques and palaces.

While the antique Oushak carpets are now mostly found in museums and special collections, Meha Rug produces perfect replicas, using natural colors, genuine wool, and always wool on wool (unlike cheap synthetic copies, made with chemical colors and wool-on-cotton combination).

Turkey also boasts the finest hand-woven silk carpets in the world. They come from the town of Hereke, located near Istanbul, which has a 115-year tradition. Set up originally to satisfy the aesthetic desires of Ottoman sultans and visiting heads of state, the Hereke carpet works are still producing exquisite silk-on-silk carpets feature an astounding number of knots per square

EthniconWishStrands.jpgAge-old wishes are marked by these colorful knots in a classic Ethnicon kilim (photo: Christopher Deliso)

meter (1 million- 1.2 million) and utilize traditional ornate floral designs set in elegant deep blues, creams, crimsons and yellows. Meha Rugs offers many beautiful examples of silk Hereke rugs.

And then there are the kilims- a more affordable and modern option for the urban-based traveler.

Although they have a more rustic, durable feel, kilims too have become collector’s items in recent years. They often feature vibrant and geometrical tribal designs; the motifs originated in the deepest symbolic myths of ancient Anatolian culture. Ethnicon’s pure wool kilims use recycled pieces from old or damaged kilims (once used for nomad tent curtains, sacks, trunk covers and rugs), recombining them in new ways to match modern interiors, while still retaining the authenticity of the original.

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