Editor’s note: It’s Thanksgiving, when one gives thanks naturally and thinks of, among other things… turkey. Please indulge us a little here as we take you to the other Turkey (actually it’s Türkiye) for an insider’s look into how to buy a Turkish rug without losing your shirt.
For many people, the country of Turkey calls up myriad images that conjure the senses: Whirling Dervishes, Turkish tea in tulip glasses, luxuriously thick Turkish coffee, vivid ceramics, the muezzin’s melancholic and enchanting call to prayer, traditional hammam bath houses, spices and of course their famously vibrant carpets and prayer rugs. Our search for the perfect rug will focus on the Grand Bazaar of the ancient city of Constantinople, now known of course as Istanbul. With more than 13 million residents, Turkey’s largest city is famous for sitting astride two continents—Europe and Asia. The city and surrounding suburbs account for only three percent of Turkey’s landmass, with the rest of the country occupying the Asian side.
This placement brings Istanbul a confluence of cultural influences unlike anywhere else in the world. The country is about 97 percent Muslim, but walking through the streets of Istanbul, the country’s religious and social moderation is apparent—some women choose to wear the head scarf and others do not. It is not uncommon to see young girls in the upscale Nisantasi neighborhood in New Town wearing short skirts and high heels while heading out for a night of partying, with the call to prayer beckoning from speakers on a nearby mosque. Many Istanbullus commute across the Bosphorus Strait, the river separating the two continents, twice daily for work, usually in the direction of heading from the Asian side to the European side. (On day three of our trip, we followed the local pattern, having drinks at a friend’s Yali on the European side at dusk, then taking a water taxi to dinner on the Asian side before traveling back by boat to Europe for after dinner drinks). Istanbul is decidedly a hotspot, and so there’s no end to advice one can find that points to local restaurants, hotels, and the many notable historic sights: Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, the Galata Tower, Taksim Square, Sultanamet Square, and countless others.
What’s just as valuable and difficult to find however, is reliable information on how to acquire that most sought-after icon of Turkey, the traditional woven rug. Certainly it’s no great feat to find your way to markets such as the Grand Bazaar, but what’s next: how to haggle for goods Turkish style, might take a little more cultural dexterity. If you have haggled with the best of them, and wandered the crowded souks in Morocco and local village haats in India, the danger comes from thinking you know what you’re doing, and becoming so hardened to the experience you miss the novelty and the opportunity to connect with the Turks, who are extremely friendly and inviting hosts.
To help you, we created a go-to guide that will help shorten the time you would normally spend searching for that perfect rug. We favor local, family-run businesses, and while places such as the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar are in no way off the beaten path, there is a way to navigate these sprawling marketplaces to find quality merchants with excellent goods at the best prices without wasting your time or getting snared by less credible sellers. We relied upon the direction of local Istanbullus and friends to find the merchants most likely to bring you the experience you’re really after. Happy shopping!
Buying a Rug in Old Town Istanbul
The largest covered market in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar, in Old Town, opened for business in the mid 15th Century. There are 4,000 stalls covering 58 streets—and that’s just the part that is covered. The streets surrounding the Bazaar offer goods as well, and restaurants and souvenir shops for blocks on end. From the home of Mehmet Efendi’s famous Turkish coffee (you’ve seen the cans) to countless carpet, scarf, and jewelry dealers, the Grand Bazaar is a site to behold and engage. The best way to orient yourself is to pick up a map of the Bazaar (available just about anywhere) and wander the streets making no commitment to buy until you’ve seen it all.
A good walk-through as if visiting a museum is the best way to stay focused and to enjoy taking it all in without pressure. Walk in the middle of the pedestrian streets, out of arm’s reach of the merchants. Just smile and say merhaba (hello in Turkish) to the merchants as you pass. There are districts within the Bazaar for just about every item you could imagine (the jewelry district is not to miss), and for those that escape your imagination, there are multitudes of stalls offering random trinkets, from practical items like socks and shoes to puzzlingly popular amusements like Spirograph sets, which are wildly popular in Istanbul, perhaps for creating geographical designs that are not entirely different from certain patterns in Islamic art. We met a well-known and respected third-generation carpet man, who came highly recommended by locals. (A word to the wise, if you plan to meet friends in the gigantic and bustling Bazaar, or to meet up if you’re lost, decide on the “fountain.” Don’t worry, everyone will find it.)
Our friends guided us to Murat Öztürk, the owner of Öztürk Rug House, one of the best rug shops in all of Istanbul. Murat is a third generation rug dealer, having grown up in the business with his father and his grandfather, who opened the shop in the early 1900s in the same Grand Bazaar location. In the better rug shops buying a rug takes time. One could buy a car in the United States faster than one could buy a rug in Turkey, and this is a good thing. Murat spoke with us for about 30 minutes, and gave us a delicious concoction of a refreshing apple tea, before he spoke the words “carpet” or “rug.” We talked about family, Istanbul, and food. And speaking of food, he eventually asked his two shop attendants to bring lunch so we could eat while looking at carpets.
Such hospitality is not unusual. Murat typically works with one or two customers at a time in the privacy of his small shop, whose walls are lined from floor to ceiling in rugs of all kinds. The better ones, and those for sale, are stacked neatly in the corners, and even more are stored upstairs in a room into which his attendants disappear and then reappear from with armfuls of new rugs for the viewing. Intimidated by the service and attention, our friends assured us that Murat would do the same for anyone seriously interested in looking. Even without a purchase, Murat will welcome you back warmly when you are ready to make an offer, or to look again.
Finding the right rug, Murat says, takes time—sometimes years, although he insists that once you know what you want, he can find it because he knows what’s out there. Many of his clients email him photos of rugs, or of elements of rugs with the question, “Can you locate something like this for me?” Murat travels his network throughout the world to find the right rugs, although he limits his specialization to antiques that are Turkish, Tribal, Kilims, and Persians, from smaller prayer rugs and decorative pieces, to full-size carpets that will fill every inch of your harem. Smoked salmon arrived, along with salad, white cheese, olives, fresh bread, and tomatoes and more tea. We ate as we watched Murat’s men unfurl rug after rug, putting the ones we wished to look at again on a separate pile for later viewing (and possible purchase). This process took about two hours, and the food was delicious—a nice break from the heat of the day, and the busy market from which we had escaped into Murat’s air-conditioned private sales studio.
How To Tell A Real Turkish Rug From A Fake
Murat, like many quality rug dealers, deals only in antiques—more than 75 or so years old, and not machine-dyed. He taught us that one can usually tell a quality rug very simply by turning over the corner and looking at the back. Are the rows of knots tight? Next, you can run your thumb along the front of the rug to the base, where the pile meets the rug’s backing. If the color is consistent when you pull back the pile, and it doesn’t end with an abrupt dye line, then it is likely organic dyed-in-the-wool and not synthetic dye from a machine process—common with contemporary, machine-made rugs.
Show Me The Money: Pricing A Turkish Rug
Murat’s lessons (and his amusing stories) could fill a book. He’s a bit of a psychologist, too. He knows when to step back and give the customer space. Murat sells to top buyers around the world, including the president of Columbia University, and rug aficionados from Dubai to Dusseldorf, but this should not dissuade anyone from visiting his shop. He carries a vast selection at all price ranges, provided they are quality, and antique. When bargaining time comes he will write a price for each rug you are interested in on a piece of paper. One consideration is shipping. Murat will ship your rug back to the States, or wherever you call home. This is one bargaining chip. If the rug is reasonably expensive, you might ask him to cover shipping costs. Also, cash makes for a more expedient and satisfying deal.
A word to the wise: money never comes up until one is ready to say “yes” to a rug. In fact, it is not uncommon to look at dozens of rugs without ever discussing price, only to return the next day or later (or never) to make the purchase and haggle. A seller might inquire about one’s range, meaning, if you are looking for an antique rug under $2,000 (and there are plenty of quality rugs at this price), you would benefit from saying that. Otherwise, you will be shown many rugs that you will love, but cannot even begin to afford.
Let’s Make A Deal: Bargaining For A Turkish Rug
Whether rugs, scarves, tea, or trinkets, whatever you do, do not make an offer at a certain price and then walk away once the seller accepts that price. If you offer, and the merchant counter offers, make a decision or say nothing and keep thinking and negotiating. When you state a price and the merchant agrees, be prepared to buy at that price. To do otherwise is bad form. Also, do not get to the bargaining stage of any transaction unless you are serious about buying that day. This is a waste of everyone’s time. Having cash on hand at all times is another valuable tip, as cash sales are always best.
Why visit Murat? The Bazaar is filled with many savvy merchants who will talk you into buying a product you don’t know anything about or even want. It is common for merchants to send assistants out onto the streets to search for you, and to bring you back to their shops using a variety of tactics (“You are from California? Oh, my cousin lived in California for years. Let me take you to his shop!”) And a personal favorite, spoken to my husband: “But I love you! Please come look at my rugs!”). Murat has history at the market, and sells to reputable clients. He’s extremely knowledgeable, and prepared to educate you not as a one-time rug buyer, but as a client for life. And since we already pulled out the turkey trope, we’ll just say it: he would never, as it were, pull the rug out from under you…
Visit Murat, and Öztürk Rug House, at the Grand Bazaar: Takkeciler Sok. No: 78-80, Kapalicarsi, Istanbul. 90 212 528 25 69. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, web: www.ozturkcollection.com