Istanbul, the Capital of Carpet Shops


I bought my first Oriental carpet five years ago at a small shop called Pasha’s Carpet Gallery off Taksim Square in Istanbul.

The name alone, emblazoned in English, should have tipped me off. But dazzled by the beauty and feel of the thick wool pile, I laid out two or three hundred dollars more than I should have and lugged my purchase, a wool Hereke of indifferent quality, home in a bulky vinyl bag.

I learned the hard way: buying carpets can be a tricky business for the uninitiated. The best merchants are hypnotic, softly running their fingernails over the back of a rug to demonstrate the tightness of the weave, and explaining in patient detail the history and design spread out in an array of colors and patterns on the floor. As attendants rhythmically flop one rug on top of another, to the soft clink of spoons swirling sugar around demitasse cups of coffee, one is lulled into the somnolence that can often end with parting from huge sums of cash.

Istanbul is one of the most delightful places to look for carpets. There are more shops crammed into the alleys and recesses of the city than anywhere else in the Orient. The range of choice, from new Turkish Herekes or Kayseris, to stacks of old Persian and Turkoman carpets carted in from Iran and the old Soviet Union, is unrivaled. And the city, perched on the Bosporus, is built around the majestic monumental edifices of the Ottoman Empire and finest hotels in the Muslim world.

The serious collector of great, and often astronomically expensive, antique carpets can find what he or she wants in the city. But the purchase of carpets as an investment, unless one has years of experience, is generally a mistake. The value of antique pieces is determined by a market where there are no firm rules. A carpet that appears threadbare and drab to the uninitiated can be worth thousands of dollars to the collector.

“Only buy a carpet because you like it and it fits in your home,” said Thomas B. Hartwell, a photographer who lives in Cairo and has been collecting carpets for 15 years.”Spend your first day or two seeing what is available. Compare prices of similar carpets in various shops. Once you know what you want, plan a day to bargain, and always leave the shop, not quite satisfied with the latest price, so you can return the next morning and try to get a better deal.”

Prices vary enormously, but bargains, especially in Turkoman and Persian carpets brought in by visitors from the former Soviet Union and Iran, abound in the recesses of the sprawling covered Grand Bazaar.

No standard measurements, exact to the last inch, exist in the case of carpets; the most common size available is the medium size, about 6 feet 9 inches by 4 feet. A good Turkoman or Persian of this size can be found now in Istanbul for $800 or $900, a few hundred dollars less than in London or New York.

There are hundreds of carpet shops, and numerous hole-in-the-wall stores that surround the mosques and palaces. The covered bazaar has dozens of tiny establishments and there are some more upscale shops on Cagaloglu Street, just outside the bazaar.

But quality and age cost money (although paying a high price is not necessarily a guarantee of a superior rug). Dirt cheap prices, however, usually indicate inferior work, spelling disaster in a few years as colors fade unevenly and the weave unravels or twists out of shape.

Turkish Hereke wool carpets, handmade with intricate floral designs, are one of the best buys in the Middle East, especially if you seek durability. Turkey has 14 basic designs, usually determined by the region where the carpet is produced. There are Canakkale-Ezine, for those who like geometric designs and bright colors. The Milas carpets, also with geometric designs, have more muted colors of pale yellow, tobacco and reddish brown.

Cotton is used in the base of most of these wool pieces, which makes the rug much more stable and reliable.

The Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture runs a wonderful store in a restored 16th-century Turkish bath. Here weavers reproduce 400 handmade copies of some of the most famous Turkish designs and, with the exception of blue and green, use natural dyes. Prices, fixed at about $125 a square meter, are very reasonable. But the quality of the weaves differs tremendously. Still, for modern copies, the airy bath, with its marble floors and domed roofs, houses one of the good deals of Istanbul.

Once you venture out of the old bath, prices are usually determined over sweetened tea or coffee. Even in the best shops, be prepared to bargain. And don’t let the effusive hospitality of the rug dealers make you feel obligated; it is all part of the game.

The Herekes, my favorite Turkish design, are available in many shops, such as those that run up and down Cagaloglu Street. And because there are a few basic patterns it is easy to compare prices by asking the cost per square centimeter.

The density of knots can be a good way to calculate price, although it alone cannot determine a carpet’s quality. The kind of wool, pattern and dyes also must be taken into account.

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