Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Carpet-shopping in Istanbul is a voyage of discovery

You are invited in for tea and given a lesson in rugs, but never forget the dealers are there to make a sale
By HARMONIE TOROS for Associated Press
ISTANBUL -- Sip your tea and listen.

"You are looking at a handmade, natural-dyed kilim from eastern Anatolia," says Suleyman Ozcan, letting the thin, flat-woven rug slowly unroll to the floor to reveal a design of intense burgundy, indigo and dark green. "But most of all, you are looking at the work and dreams of a young girl."

The girl wove two eagle heads -- the balance between power and fertility, man and woman. She wove an hourglass -- the symbol of eternal love.
And that's just one dream, one rug.

In the vaulted lanes of Istanbul's centuries-old Grand Bazaar, listening to carpet tales will take you from Bulgaria to China, from the 15th century to today. Carpet-shopping, a key part of most tourists' visits to Istanbul, becomes a voyage of discovery.

"There are so many human stories that are part of the ritual of buying a carpet -- our stories, the stories of the dealers, the stories of the makers," says tourist Gary Dunning, the manager of the Big Apple Circus in New York. Sitting amid piles of carpets, kilims, sumaks and cicims, he has just bought three hand-woven kilims.

The ritual begins with the most unpleasant part: the hassling salesmen calling to tourists in an attempt to entice them into one of Istanbul's hundreds of carpet
shops inside or around the bazaar.

"It's scary. You feel you are in a game where you are going to be the loser," says Jacqueline Billiard, a tourist from Rouen, France.

Standing on the doorstep of a stall looking skeptically at a merchant who is showing her some newly made floral rugs, she adds: "You feel that if you accept that cup of tea, you then have to buy something."

Alice Kornhauser, an Internet consultant from New York visiting the bazaar, says most tourists are anxious about being cajoled in to check out a shop because they don't realize what awaits inside.

"You are invited in, as if someone is inviting you into their living room to see their holiday pictures," she says. "It becomes very intimate."

First comes the tea -- a strong Turkish blend served in a small glass, or apple tea, a sweet powdered mix invented for tourists.

With the drink comes a lesson in rugs: the difference between a carpet, knotted wool or silk rug with pile, and a kilim, a flat weave without pile. There are also bright-coloured sumaks -- embroidered rugs, often in silk with representations of animals -- and cicims (pronounced ji-jims), flat-woven kilims embroidered with small symbols.
Then there's the question of quality: Is the wool hand-spun or machine spun, the carpet hand-knotted or machine-made? Are the dyes chemical or natural -- extracted, for example, from eggplants? In rugs at least 100 years old, there can be dyes from ladybugs, which give an intense blood-red nearly impossible to find in commercial chemical-dyed rugs.

"We try to educate people, inform them," says Feti Tekes, joint owner of two stores in the bazaar.

Of course, dealers are mainly there to sell, and they admit that most foreigners who enter their dusty shops are more interested in buying a carpet the right colour and size for their living room, at a price that fits their budget, than they are in getting an education.

But it's while sifting through the hundreds of types, qualities and styles that the stories emerge.

Designs can tell stories. The tree of life -- an often long, thin trunk with short symmetrical branches -- is thought by some to be a shamanic or totemic design, while others say it symbolizes the link between the paradise above and the world down below.

Rugs also tell the tale of the weaver, often a woman. Mothers looking for wives for their sons in rural Turkey always ask to see the handicraft of potential brides. Good weaving means a woman is meticulous and would probably make a good wife.

There is also the history of a region or a people. Kilims made by Kurds are often "double-winged," with two symmetrical halves sewn together, because the Kurds are nomads and large looms are too heavy to carry. Because they are hand-woven, the two halves are never identical.

Dunning remembers buying a carpet and in the excitement forgetting to ask where it was made. "If I knew what village or what family made it, it would be so much more meaningful," he says.

As the value of the rugs increase, the stories that accompany each piece become more and more important.

"You have to be prepared to answer any questions that the customer might have," says Erol Kazanci, who mainly sells to collectors and international dealers.
Kazanci pulls out a Moghan carpet from Azerbaijan dating from the 1870s, its pile so soft it feels like fur. Not only can he tell you everything you would ever want to know about the carpet itself, he can also recount the migration of the family that owned it -- a family from Azerbaijan that moved to the Turkish city of Trabzon on the Black Sea in 1891.

He says he had been after the piece for years and finally persuaded the family to sell it to him for $9,000 (amounts in U.S. dollars) last March.
At Kazanci's level, the customers, many of them collectors, usually know as much as the sellers.

Franco Ragazzi, an engineer who represents the Italian truck company Iveco in Turkey, has spent just about every Saturday morning in the bazaar over the past 13 years sifting through piles of carpets.

One of his first days in the bazaar, Ragazzi says a piece he was interested in jumped from $4,000 to $9,000 as dealers learned of his interest and traded it among themselves.

Since then, he has made an art of carpet buying, first building a collection, then selling it and starting again.
"You forget the outside world, the worries, and relax and accept a tea. Then, the real adventure begins."
Shopping for carpets:

Rug types

Carpets: Knotted wool or silk rugs with pile. Design can be geometric, floral or nomadic. Prayer carpets have mihrab, a prayer arch, on one end only.
Kilims: Flat woven rugs with no pile. More nomadic in design, often bearing tribal symbols. Also used as spreads to eat on (sofra) or sacks to carry goods (cuval).
Sumaks: Embroidered, flat weaves, mainly made of silk but also wool and cotton. Elaborate designs, many bearing animals; often very vivid colours.
Cicims: Kilims with small symbols embroidered on them.


Weaving: Sharp contrast between handmade and machine-made. Latter often made of synthetic thread, with rough designs and poor colour combinations.
Thread: Synthetic considered poorest quality. Wool best when hand-spun rather than machine-spun. Increasingly difficult to find 100 per cent pure silk rugs.
Dying: Natural dyes from vegetables or animals considered better quality. Chemical dyes in use since late 19th century and few new carpets made with natural dyes. Natural dyes fade over time. Chemical dyes can run.


New: Usually produced in past 20 years. Most of poor quality, using synthetic materials and dyes. New rugs of hand-spun wool or natural dyes tend to be pricey, particularly in Turkey where price of labour is rising.

Semi-old: 50-100 years old. Colours often a mix of chemical and natural dyes; wool usually hand-spun. Silk rugs usually have chemical dyes. Most bargains are found in semi-old carpets that dealers pick up cheaply in rural villages.
Old: More than 100 years old. Some chemical colours found, but most materials of high quality and hand-spun.

Buying tips

Looking: Take time to see numerous pieces, preferably in different shops. Ask questions. Never feel forced to buy.

Bargaining: Always bargain; prices can drop dramatically. Many buyers consider bargaining half the fun.

Shipping: Most shops ship carpets for extra fee anywhere in world.

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