Istanbul is the carpet capital of the world.
You’re from India!” exclaimed the diminutive man, as he searched my face. I knew he was trying to place me. I lifted the dainty cup of apple tea he had set before me and took a sip. I knew him but he didn’t know that. Not yet. We spent the next half hour in easy chatter about his life and his struggle to set up his business and, eventually, about our mutual weakness—carpets. Kilims. Dhurries. Rugs. Whatever you’d like to call them. It was an old conversation, one we’d shared earlier. But it’s one I never tire of.
As a child, I had listened obsessively to my mother’s stories about my great-grandfather’s love for antiques and auctions—the source for a lot of the clutter, beautiful clutter, that characterised the home I grew up in
|Every corner I turned revealed a profusion of shop windows exhibiting floor coverings that all seemed to have my name on it|
. Among these prized heirlooms was a pair of century-old Afghan carpets—antiques that have not only withstood the challenges of time but also the attentions of my rambunctious beagles. I had learned that these patterns were practically extinct; that the sedulous hands that wove them were a rarity in today’s industrial world; and that their stories had begun long before their individual journeys to our living room.
The Grand Bazaar. (Photograph by Corbis, From Outlook Traveller January Issue, 2012)
And so it began—my fascination with rugs of every design. I spent hours on the internet lusting after tapestries so magnificent and so tortuously beyond reach
|The traditions of carpet weaving across Central Asia are as interwoven with their own histories as they are with each other|
. I understood the essential difference between a carpet and a kilim (the former has a knotted pile, while the latter is a flat weave and sometimes reversible), a chemical and natural/vegetable dye (purists deem the latter superior). I realised that Oriental carpets didn’t just mean delicate Chinese representations but embodied all Asian countries. I grappled with the knotty discrepancies in the weaves, patterns, colours and fibres employed by celebrated carpet centres across the globe: Kashmir offers elaborate, predominantly floral patterns in pure silk or wool (or a blend of both); the legendary Persian carpets, also silk or wool, merge several motifs (from geometric and animal to paisley and even religious monuments) to form a singular design; the widespread Afghan or Baluchi rugs can be identified mostly by their distinct use of octagonal motifs on wool in varying shades of red and brown; the European traditions are gradually fading; and the Turkish creations… Ah, what creations—objects of such excruciating beauty, they can change your world.
As they have mine. My first bona fide travel assignment, by surreal chance, landed me in Turkey. I had done my research and I had my bases covered—Grand Bazaar for rugs (I was resolved on acquiring one), ceramics and every possible Turkish souvenir; the Spice Market for spices and dry goods. Yet, walking the streets of Istanbul, I didn’t know where to begin. Every corner I turned revealed new surprises and, above all, a profusion of shop windows exhibiting floor coverings that all seemed to have my name on it. I was desperately running out of time, and decided to take my chances. I ducked into a tiny store where a tiny, silver-haired man, soft-spoken and courteous, welcomed me with the customary cup of apple tea. As I looked around the shop, crammed to the rafters, my head was whirling faster than the kaleidoscopic colours and patterns that enveloped me. Sensing my turmoil (carpet or kilim?), his face crinkled into a perceptive smile. “Ah, lady, I know what you’d like,” he said, as he pulled out a few rolls, secreted in a dark corner. Within minutes, his practised hands unfurled one that eventually came to be mine: carpet bordered by kilim, an intricate display of burnt orange, dun, black and white.
Souvenir shopping in Istanbul
That was three years ago. I left Turkey with a suitcase full of happy indulgences and endearing memories, tempered by but one disconcerting thought—I’d had my chance, and I hadn’t even scratched the surface. But I suppose if you persevere, dreams can come true—a dream job like mine, for one. Where, sometimes, you get paid to live your dream. My assignment this time: scouring Istanbul for the finest carpets and kilims. And yes, while you’ll say that you’ve already heard everything you need to about this destination, I’ll say that sometimes a dream trip is not about the exotic, the far-flung or the unknown. Sometimes, it’s about rediscovering the familiar.
In Turkey, the earliest extant carpets allegedly date back to the thirteenth-century Seljuk era, a period in which this industry flourished. The rugged Anatolian region of Turkey, specifically Usak, Konya, Kayseri and Sivas, were (and remain) the major production and export hubs. While several fifteenth- and sixteenth-century paintings depict these masterpieces as too valuable to be placed anywhere other than on walls, in places of prayer and beneath royalty, their origins in fact are more unassuming—the hearths and homes of the land’s nomadic tribes.
The exquisite details of a rug on display. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook Traveller January Issue, 2012)
Although Turkish weaves enjoy their own distinct identity, shaped primarily by their home provinces (for instance, Usak carpets employ a watery palette of colours; the tribal pieces of Eastern Anatolia play with stronger colours), it’s a tricky task to distinguish them from their other Asian peers. The various traditions of carpet weaving all over Central Asia (Turkey included) are as intricately interwoven with their own rich histories and customs as they are with each other. Cultural borrowings across this region are fairly common and not every yarn in Turkey, especially Istanbul, is homespun. Carpets and kilims, prayer mats and runners, cushion covers and wall hangings, crisscross their way from Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries to the swanky boutiques of Istanbul—truly the carpet centre of the universe.
What makes these objects so impossibly gorgeous? Is it the motifs, predominantly drawn from daily tribal life—animals, birds, hunting scenes—interlaced with symmetrical, and classically symbolic, patterns and borders? Is it the colours—robust tones of red, tan, ginger, mustard, khaki entwined with bold blue, black and white? Is it the yarn—wool, silk, cotton or even a mix, possibly of all three? Is it the variety of techniques—the sturdy Turkish double knot where the yarn encircles two warp threads to form a cushiony pile; the finer, single Persian knot; the flat weaves where the weft and the warp are tightly interlocked to form a level, ‘dhurrie-like’ surface; the diversity within these techniques—soumak (a non-reversible kilim, easily identified by the long, loose woollen threads at the back), nakhunak (pile, flat weave and even embroidery all combined within one rug), suzani (kilim with embroidery, often silk, in relief; silk on silk can cost a small fortune), shiraz (typically large pile rugs with coarse knotting) and many, many more? Is it the equally staggering variety of designs that are born from regional and cultural variations or sometimes even from the inevitable imperfections of a handmade creation? It is, of course, all of this.
The Blue Mosque, lit up at night
So, unless you’re an old hand at this game, you’ll need to know where to look in Istanbul, no matter how much time you may have on your hands. Here’s a primer.
If you’re new to the game, this should be your first stop. Unlike almost every retailer in Istanbul who will practically bully you into having a look inside their shop, and possibly even making a purchase, Troy’s owner, Mustafa Cesur, lets his goods do all the convincing. He’s also gracious, knowledgeable and truly helpful. Antique or new? Natural or chemical dye? You can count on him for genuineness. After all, “I take my reputation very seriously, lady,” he says, as he points with pride to the multiple recommendations he’s received from various well-known travel guides (a fact I was entirely oblivious of when I first chanced upon his shop three years ago). He’s piled up quite a collection since he branched out independently seven years ago, with carpets and kilims of all shapes and sizes from Turkmenistan, the Caucasus, Central Anatolia and Iran. It’s easy to find Troy: just head to the quaint, open-air Arasta Bazaar (behind the Blue Mosque) and, despite its modest size and unpretentious shopfront, you won’t miss it. Plus, it’s an easy place to bargain. From $50; +90-212-4580892, troyrugstore.com
Kybele Hotel in Sultanahmet; and a carpet shop in the Grand Bazaar
Any serious collector will know this cavernous, multistoried treasure house, occupying a prominent space on the lattice of streets leading up to Topkapi Palace. The fruit of three generations of expertise since 1949, Eginci is among the few places in Istanbul that patronise only Turkish weaves, sourced from all over the country. Its collection is staggering: pure silk, wool, wool on cotton, tribal, antique, commercial, new, available in every conceivable design and style—to explore its multiple rooms fully, you’ll need a full day. At least. Aficionados will be interested mainly in the inner chambers, which divulge rare and invaluable antiques, including old silk kilims and tapestries, too fragile to belong anywhere but on walls. But if you’re a beginner, or someone who simply wants to have a look around, don’t feel intimidated—the owners oblige every person equally who walks through their doors. $300-1,50,000; 6383516
A street outside the Topkapi Palace, a popular place for carpet boutiques
Another boutique in Arasta Bazaar that definitely merits a visit. First, the owners are not pushy in the least, which is a happy surprise. Second, they speak fluent English—another bonus in Turkey. Third, they’ve been in the business for thirty-five years and know what they’re talking about. The main draw, however, are the designs: Kurdish and Caucasian carpets and kilims in rich, vibrant colours that will certainly tempt you into dropping some serious cash. $100-40,000; 5164534, galeri-cengiz.com
The Grand Bazaar should be at the top of your list when it comes to rugs, but the question is: where do you begin? The vast, labyrinthine shopping complex with its mind-boggling assortment of merchandise befuddles even the expert bargain hunter. Just ask for Hakan Evin’s carpets; there’s no one in this bazaar who doesn’t know the shop. It’s played host to American presidents and notable leaders from around the world, such as Hillary Clinton. You’ll find carpets and kilims from the world’s most renowned carpet-making regions: Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, even China and India. The quality is good, the service even better. From $200; 5191542, imperiootomano.com
Daily life in Istanbul
If you’re in the Grand Bazaar and looking specifically for classic Turkish weaves and designs, head to this place. One of the oldest and most trusted dealers in this bazaar, Sengor offers a great selection of hand-woven carpets in traditional patterns, mostly from Anatolia. From $100; 5272197
5K Rug Store
The highlight of this posh boutique, located next to the Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet Square, is the excellent selection of runners. They’re from Kurdistan (a region that includes parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) as are the carpets and kilims, in smart, contemporary designs and striking colour combinations. They claim to sell both new and antique rugs, although it’s hard to gauge the authenticity here. But if that’s not a real concern, the designs are worth it. From $150; 6381709, 5Krugstore.com
A handwoven rug
If it’s good enough for the President of Turkey, it’s good enough for the rest of us, I suppose. Not only is quality paramount in this swish store in the Ritz-Carlton, but its massive selection of carpets and kilims includes unusual, antique designs from Tabriz (Iran), Konya and Kerman. There’s also a good selection of contemporary and decorative pieces, in funky, bold patterns and colours. You can be assured of authenticity here. Prices on request, 2525095, loomart.com
Mevlana Rug House
Wandering about outside Topkapi Palace, in Sultanahmet, it’s hard not to be drawn to this sprawling store. While its window display beckons with beautiful ceramics, tiles and jewellery, it’s the carpet selection hidden within that is worth checking out. The range is vast, the designs lovely (mostly Central Asian), including everything from traditional to contemporary but you might be put off by the pushy attitude. From $200; 5171260, mevlanarugstore.com