Buying a Carpet in Istanbul

It’s not often rainy and cold in Istanbul, but my friends and I were lucky enough to see the city in these exceptional conditions in October of last year. The old part of the city, Sultanahmet, where visitors go to see the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace, was filled with umbrellas, and the atmosphere was dark and wet. With our friends, we first approached the Blue Mosque, but in its outer courtyard we found dense crowds and long lines shuffling under their umbrellas toward entrances we couldn’t see. It was daunting. We decided to walk down to the Hagia Sophia, where, because the cathedral is now a museum, the entrance was relatively clearly marked, and the lines were shorter.

Later we returned to the Blue Mosque. The weather had improved, and the crowds had diminished, but we were still baffled. Where were we to go in? Long lines seemed to lead to different entrances. Which were for believers and which for tourists? Did one pay? What about shoes? What about head-covering?

As we drifted confused toward what seemed to be the main entrance, a young man of about 30 asked if he could help us. His English was very good, and his manner was likable. His name was Hakan. He said he was not a guide, but he could show us how to get into the mosque without standing in the long lines. He repeated that he was not a guide and was not expecting to be paid; he just liked to help tourists find their way, and also to practice his English. He said that if we would like to repay the favor, perhaps we would accompany him later to visit his family’s shop in the streets just outside Sultanahmet, a few blocks away.

We happily accepted his offer, and Hakan did his part for us very satisfactorily, getting us past the lines, showing us where to leave our shoes, even finding a wheelchair for Mary, who can’t go in stocking feet, and making sure the ladies kept their shawls over their heads. The interior of the Blue Mosque was impressive and beautiful.

After we left the mosque, Hakan led us to his family’s shop, which was, as advertised, only a few blocks away. Hakan’s family, it turned out, was his uncle Erdogan, a dealer in Turkish carpets, and his little shop, far from selling shawls and copper coffee pots and “I Heart Istanbul” t-shirts, was full of carpets of all sizes and colors.

Erdogan, who asked us to call him Edward, dismissed Hakan, who cheerfully said good-bye and went outside to lounge with other young men who were chatting and smoking outside the shop, his part evidently done. We had been delivered, in good condition, to Erdogan.

Erdogan/Edward was a man of about 55, distinguished-looking, with grey hair, off-white shirt, silver tie, and light charcoal suit. His English was fluent, with a Turkish accent. He was very much at our service and eager to introduce American visitors to the world of Turkish carpets. He invited us—we were two couples—to join him in his second-floor showroom for chai.

The room was large, and its center was bare wooden floor. At one side were couches with a coffee table, at which an employee served us glasses of chai. Against the other three walls, hundreds of carpets were leaning, all rolled and standing on end, to a thickness from the wall of several feet. Rolled with bottom out, leaning against one another in great numbers, the carpets were not beautiful or colorful; but their number was impressive.

Edward said he wanted to show us three basic types of carpet construction, wool-on-wool, wool-on-cotton, and silk-on-cotton. First, he said, wool-on-wool. At that, a classic big Turk, who looked like a gruff ruffian, came into the room from a door in a far corner and started rapidly unrolling carpets and flinging them out on the floor. He selected them from around the walls of the room. Very soon many carpets were almost covered up by others, in a colorful heap. As the big Turk spread them, Edward told us about the characteristics and origins of wool-on-wool carpets—which, of course, we forgot immediately. The carpets were of many sizes and all beautiful. Some were of rich, deep colors, some were light-colored and elegant.

Then wool-on-cotton carpets. Again the big Turk unrolled and flung carpets at a great rate, until the wool-on-wool carpets were almost covered and the pile was thick in the middle. Edward told us about wool-on-cotton carpets and where they were made. He told us about the patterns, each characteristic of one region or another, and about the meanings of the wool colors.

On to silk-on-cotton. Here the big Turk began spinning the carpets as he flung them onto the pile. As the carpets revolved as they fell, the silk flashed in the light. The effect was striking. Edward knew it. He said the big Turk was an expert carpet-flinger, and at that the big Turk suddenly smiled and became friendly—or, anyway, not threatening. Edward showed us that the silk-on-silk carpets were generally thinner than the wool carpets, but he said silk is very tough and wears even better than wool.

At this point, Edward asked us to tell him which of the carpets we liked best. We said that, as beautiful as they were, we were less interested in the silk ones. The silk carpets vanished, the big Turk sweeping them up, rolling them, and putting them away, as if it were nothing. Well, did we prefer the wool-on-wool or the wool-on-cotton carpets? Wool-on-wool, we said. In a trice, the wool-on-cotton carpets were gone, and we were back to the first wool-on-wool heap, now revealed once again.

Let’s put away the ones that don’t appeal to you, said Edward. Not that one, we said, and it vanished, or that one, or that one, the pile diminishing until we were down to two beautiful carpets. I said that we had not come to Istanbul with the intention to buy a carpet, and we really didn’t have much of an idea of their cost, but what would the prices of these two carpets be? Edward told us. We were a bit taken aback. I said that the smaller one was really too small for the place we had in mind in our house. The bigger one was a good size, but we just couldn’t justify spending that much. Could he help with that? Edward said yes, he wanted to sell us a carpet and it looked like this would be his only sale today, so $2800, packaged, shipped, fees and taxes paid, at our door. I said that we liked the carpet, and we were very grateful to him for his hospitality, time, and education about carpets. But, I repeated, we had not come to Turkey with the intention of buying a carpet, and the cost was not in our budget. I said we could not possibly spend more than $2000 on a carpet.

Edward extended his hand and said “Sold.”

Postscript: Edward helped me quickly resolve an approval problem raised by our credit card company, and the charge was made without delay. Then he had me sign my name on a tag sewn to the fringe of the carpet. He then tore the tag in half and gave me the loose half, so that by aligning my half with the one still attached to the carpet I could be certain that it was the same carpet, when I received it at home. He gave us documents of authenticity and then, on the outside of the documents envelope, he wrote out the meanings of the colors in the carpet. He said that the big Turk had a Ph.D. in carpet folding, packaging, and shipping, and that the carpet would be held for us in Portland pending our return. As it turned out, the carpet was delivered to our neighbor, and awaited us on our return home, in perfect condition, of course.