Friday, December 10, 1993

How to Buy a Carpet

Written in 1993 for Forbes-FYI magazine

Let other men waste their time on local tradesmen. Whenever I find myself in need of a rug I go directly to Istanbul—common ground of East and West, and still the biggest bazaar on earth—where, dusty with the trodden gold of its former incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople, I thread the devious lanes, jostling bridges, floating domes, and hypodermic minarets of this chaotic, immortal, schizophrenic city, one foot in Asia, one in Europe, twenty-six centuries old. Into its own covered and arched and mushroom-domed bazaar. I wind my way, through the glittering labyrinth of silks, goldsmiths, jewel merchants, marionettists, sandal-dealers, copper-and-brassmen, via honeycombed paths of haggling over half a million Oriental carpets until, mystery of mysteries, I come to the shop of a man I trust, Hasan Semerci, for I have a strict personal rule: given the choice, I buy my rugs from a Turkish gentleman who did his higher studies in English literature at Edinburgh University.

The problem is not my concentration, the problem is not that dancing-girl, the problem is that it is sometimes difficult to think of only one thing for very long in such a place. Say I am happily installed at the Pera Palace, like so many before me—Mata Hari, Garbo, the Shah, Agatha Christie (the hotel was built in 1892 to serve passengers on the Orient Express) or that German spy named Cicero who served as the British ambassador’s valet and had nothing, nothing at all, to do with the bomb that blew away the lobby. You see? I have forgotten my rugs, distracted by the view.

Perhaps the greatest man-made view in the world, even through the grimy window of a taksi maneuvering the thronged Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, its waters sprinkled with fishing dories. A city in three parts: the belle-époque heights of Pera behind, and ancient imperial Stamboul ahead, with its hodgepodge skyline of jam-jar mosques, its cafes of brooding men, its infinite markets. Both are in Thrace, also called Europe, but across the mile-wide watery Bosphorus, the strait which splits every local soul, lies Asia. Soon one wonders if two continents are enough for this place.

It contains enough history to give anywhere else indigestion. No other city dominated the Western world and mind for as long; no other city has such marvelous commotion. It began as Byzantium, for a thousand years, and as the Roman Empire’s focus shifted east, the city grew. In 330 A.D., after the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he made Byzantium the Empire’s capital and renamed it. Constantinople’s language was Greek, its law still Roman, and its culture the Orthodox Church, and from it the Byzantine Empire flowered. Rival Christians of the Fourth Crusade swept in from Venice in 1204, and did all they could to destroy or steal nine centuries of civilization in the name of their Catholic god.

The Byzantines hung on in disarray until the city fell to Moslem Turks in 1453, conquering for Allah, and thus Constantinople’s second empire, the Ottoman, was born. It lasted through palace intrigues and sultans by turns enlightened or decadent until the early years of this century, when the brilliant soldier Atatürk resurrected Turkey (1923) from the Ottoman ashes. He Westernized the written language, secularized most aspects of daily life—off with the fez and the veil—and moved the capital to Ankara. Atatürk died in 1938, but in many ways it might as well have been last week.

Nothing clears the mind of noble thoughts like commerce, so I went to buy a carpet in the Grand or Covered Bazaar, called by my former colleague Mark Twain “a monstrous hive of little shops... full of life and stir and business, dirt, beggars. . ” These days the bazaar’s 5,000 shops make it the largest covered market in the world; I always head straight for a select, enclosed souk-within-the-souk, known as the Old Bazaar since it dates back to Byzantine rather than merely Ottoman times. Within ten meters a few of its hundred-odd shops offered old diving helmets and Rolleicord cameras, tribal jewelry, a porcelain set showing Atatürk, hubble-bubbles and oil lamps, engraved cigarette holders, 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, antique toy soldiers, Ottoman tobacco boxes, Meerschaum pipes, Greek ikons, Tsarist snuff boxes, silver pocket-watches from conductors on the Orient Express, and miniatures of Islamic demons and lovers painted on three-hundred-year-old pages of the Koran to convince the gullible tourist that the paintings are equally aged.

Fortunately the Old Bazaar has four well-marked doors as compass points, so I easily found old friends—I should demand baksheesh for these recommendations. For fine timepieces and exotic jewelry, try Kapris, near door #4; just outside, for embroidery and ceramics, Ziya Ayzac’s shop. Inside again, between doors #2 and #4, Murat Bilir’s shop for antique copper and brass, and for jewelry, Zeki Dilmer. These are men you can trust, who’ll probably refuse to bargain, as will my friends at the best all-round antique shop, Sofa, just outside the Grand Bazaar at 42 Nuruosmaniye Çaddesi. (In the main bazaar, when bickering over, say, a leather jacket, bargain very hard but stay friendly, and don’t be afraid to walk away.)

To find Hasan the carpet-dealer, walk into the Old Bazaar, then walk out door #3. You are now back in the main bazaar. At the first cross-lane, turn right and enter the last shop on the right before the next cross-lane. (Adnan & Hasan, 90-92 Halicilar Çarşısi, meaning Carpet-Merchants’ Market). Hasan is the tall, dark-mustached one, with a gentle face. This fits 43% of the bazaar’s 300 rug dealers, of course, but you’ll know you’re in the right place because that shop is two cozy rooms piled with carpets and kilims. (A kilim is woven, and flat; a carpet is knotted and has pile.)

While trying not to glance at a remarkable kilim on one wall, I got Hasan to tell his life story over a thimbleful of apple tea.

“My intention wasn’t to become a carpet-dealer; my interest was linguistics. When I was eighteen, in 1968, there weren’t many English speakers here. During high school vacations I started in the Old Bazaar, working for an elderly gentleman—one shop sold rugs, the other sold copper and brassware. I attended Istanbul University in English language and literature, then went to Edinburgh University on scholarship for my post-graduate studies. I came back and taught English, and one day, while visiting my old boss in the bazaar, I saw that his employees were getting paid sixteen times as much as I was as a language professor. So I began managing his shops. Then I met Adnan, whose carpet shop this was. He’s retired in London now.

“I go on a week’s buying trip about every six weeks. Despite the colorful stories rug dealers tell, we don’t go from village to village and house to house. I have local contacts in various areas who know exactly what pleases me, that I want only old carpets and kilims. For new ones I go directly to the looms. I keep about 2,000 pieces in the shop. In style, they’re floral to geometric; brand-new to old and antique, though the latter are really difficult to get. Most are forty to seventy years old—semi-antique, say. It’s a good period. They have a nice, natural ‘old’ patina, but their conditions are still good, with few repairs as opposed to heavy restoration. And they still have several decades’ life in them.”

My eyes were fixed on a tightly woven kilim hung on one wall; Hasan said it was from near Lake Van in eastern Turkey, about 5 x 8, recent, wool on cotton, an unusual floral design borrowed from the Kurdish part of Iran—as tribal rugs, most kilims have geometric designs. This one had reds, deep and pale blues, and dashes of white in elaborate flaring flowers—the effect was of hundreds of abstract peacock feathers, curving diagonally. Hasan priced the rug at $630, and promised to hold it a few days while I decided.

In Stamboul whenever I cannot make up my mind where to go I visit Aya Sofia—along with the Taj Mahal, the only building whose foundations were designed not to hold it up but to keep it from floating away. Begun by the emperor Justinian in 532, it was for almost a thousand years the largest enclosed space in the world, and for centuries the Byzantine rulers were crowned within. After the Ottoman conquest minarets were added, and it functioned as a mosque until Ataturk made it a museum in 1935. In recent years the upper gallery has been opened, with its 12th-century mosaics (including a somber, aristocratic Jesus) and at last one can get close enough to see the glowing golden Virgin and child on high, and feel suspended in the interior sky of that miraculous dome.

Within a moment’s walk, across the park where the Hippodrome was in Roman times, rises the six-minareted Blue Mosque, one of the most sumptuous in Islam, so-called for its blue tiles and stained-glass, as if the devout are praying in a huge kaleidoscope. Topkapi is also nearby, the Ottoman sultans’ palace whose museum includes an important Ming ceramics collection, harem rooms which demand much imagination, a large footprint of the prophet Mohammed, a gem-encrusted doll-house, and the famous jeweled dagger (though there’s always a bit of tittle-tattle that the real gems are in a vault).

I never pass up, however, the Underground Cistern, just across the street from Aya Sofia and also built by Justinian. The banal entry and stairway down give no clue to the vastness that awaits: a subterranean palace of 336 marble columns, each thirty feet high, with detailed Corinthian capitals, supporting an arched ceiling in twelve rows as well as the road and modern city above. Fourteen centuries ago it was built as the grandest of countless underground reservoirs, filled via aqueducts from forests twelve miles away, and used through Ottoman times. At the rear, in liquid light, two massive carved Medusas regard their reflections in the shallows.

Back in the Covered Bazaar the next day I asked Hasan what advice he gives innocents to the art of carpet-buying in Istanbul.

“First, I tell people not to be concerned if a carpet is vegetable dyes or artificial. Because no matter what a dealer tells you, 80% of our rugs’ dyes are man-made, and have been since the 1850s—so who are you going to kid? I’ve found that if you tell people this from the start they trust you. Yes, vegetable dyes are better, but there are other qualities to consider. One can get misled here as well. For example, herekes are the ‘finest’ carpets in terms of knots per inch—but this doesn’t mean ‘best’. There’s always the question of condition—if a carpet gets treated as a doormat it gets worn out. I often show people a ‘fake antique’ carpet, treated with acid to make it look a century old; then I show them the same carpet straight off the loom, and they can’t believe it. The trick here is to look into the carpet’s pile to make sure the color is monochrome down to the knot. With old and antique rugs a similar fading occurs, but it’s not so dramatic.”

“What are the mistakes people make?” I asked. “How can they avoid getting ripped off?”

“It helps if they do some reading before coming to Istanbul, to avoid losing time. Then they’re aware what questions to ask—where a carpet or kilim is from, how old, material, dyes, whether the design is traditional or made up, condition. Sometimes a rug is unique, and you can’t find another like it. A semi-antique kilim is like a faulty stamp. A new one might be better woven, with all vegetable dyes—which are being brought back—but the older ones have a style that comes not only from a sense of their rarity but of ‘being meant.’ But say people are interested in a new hereke. After three shops, they’ll get an idea of the proper price, depending on whether it’s wool on cotton, or silk on silk, which is expensive. People simply mustn’t be afraid to compare.”

My problem, of course, was that my kilim looked incomparable, no matter what others Hasan and his partner Erol showed me.

The Spice Market (Misr Çarşısi) just down a straggling, steep congested hillside of shops, is simple relative to the Covered Bazaar. Built for Egyptian spice merchants in 1660 to raise money for the huge mosque beside it, the high-vaulted stone hall still holds bulging sacks of rich condiments, perfuming the air with the flavors of India, China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Arabia alongside cures for rheumatism, hemorrhoids, baldness, poverty, infidelity. In the good old days you could purchase opium and hashish as easily as tortoise eggs and dragon’s blood. Today the bazaar has become more comprehensive, with butchers’ and tailors’ shops among the spices, and on one flank outside is a fruit, vegetable, and fish market, on the other a shady park and the Flower and Bird Market. My favorite character there is an eyepatched old man in a sportsman’s cap and black raincoat, standing by a large set of scales. His assistant is a white rabbit who wrinkles his nose and plucks a minutely folded fortune from a rack. My paper future read:

The owner of the intention, you will be in the clarity and comfort. Your desire becomes real in the near future. You will be successful and finish in the work that you are trying to do.

My task, though, was to decide about that rare kilim. Pass me both odalisques, I hate to decide. I decided to have lunch above the Spice Market, at Pandeli’s. This blue-tiled establishment, run for decades by a Greek father and son, long ago stopped having to open for anything other than lunch, and though it has gotten by on its reputation for years, it is still a bit of semi-antique (as opposed to old or ancient) Istanbul that survives mostly intact, with hearty soups and superb stuffed vine-leaves, called dolma.

A couple of years ago the proddings of scholarship sent me investigating if one might still find first-rate belly-dancers here, and fond memories (Youth! Zeynep! Istanbul! The moon!) led me back across the Golden Horn to Pera and down its main avenue, Istiklal Çaddesi, modelled on the Champs Elysees of a bygone age— past 18th- and 19th-century embassies, art deco theaters that are now moldering cinemas, into the magnificent rococo Flower Passage (Çiçek Pasajı) which despite the city’s efforts to clean it up, is dusty and shadow-lovely once again. From it you enter the long, cool, canopied elbow of the Balık Çarşısi, the city’s best fish and produce market (with by far the best prices for Russian and Iranian caviar). Underground, oddly, are two floors of secondhand book-shops, full of what diplomats in many languages left behind.

I had an early dinner in a favorite restaurant, the Haçi Baba, off Taksim Square, with (of course) several entrances. The easiest to find is a narrow doorway across the street from the old French Consulate and a few steps down Istiklal Çaddesi. In winter it doesn’t seem so remarkable, but during the city’s six months of fine weather you can eat on a calm terrace above a garden, a minute from the enormous square’s roar, and feel yourself an Istanbuli.

I still couldn’t make up my mind about that kilim. I thought: Since a man thinks better in the bath, won’t he think better about rugs in a Turkish bath? Just off Istiklal, not far from the Italian (then the Venetian) embassy where Casanova spent the summer of 1744 without a single conquest, I turned up a lane to the Galatasaray Hamami, built in 1481, just prior to the golden age of both Ottoman architecture and the Turkish bath. In those days a man entering the women’s hamam (or vice-versa) was killed; a law of separation is still followed. The public bath as a tradition here dates back to Byzantine times, though Ottoman ones were usually part of a mosque.

The idea is to go in for a few hours, bathe, soap, sweat, get massaged, sweat some more, get your skin rubbed off, soap, sweat, etc. By comparison a sauna seems terribly claustrophobic. You sit or lie in huge, marble-columned and domed halls, ethereally lit; every now and then a gentleman in a spotless towel drenches you in return for a tip at the end of the experience. Assuming you can get over the novelty, it’s easy to see how the hamam became a cure for ills physical and spiritual. Afterward you relax by a fountain, sip coffee like quicksand, and feel you’ve achieved a great deal.

My great deal involved Hasan, and my kilim in a tight bundle.

With familiar pleasures it is good to save the best for last, so on my last afternoon I headed to Eminonu, near the Spice Market, and boarded a ferryboat to Asia, mere minutes and fifty cents away. The feribot was a spacious white double-decker with a busy snack bar and white-jacketed waiters making the rounds with tea. There is always something festive about these ferryboats, which carry thousands of commuters every day, keeping the city’s soul afloat.

We passed Sirkeçi Station, where the Orient Express would arrive from Paris and ongoing passengers would cross the street to board a vessel like my own; the porters must’ve made out like bandits. We passed the austere walls of Topkapi—grey, many-spired, with dozens of baby domes and towers, surveying all—and Seraglio Point, where unfortunate harem-girls were drowned in weighted sacks like cats. The fantastic domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia loomed above trees and ancient walls.

In minutes we had crossed the Bosphorus towards the Sea of Marmara, with enormous freighters like ghosts at anchor. Now we were passing Haydarpasa on the other side, with a Victorian train station in brown stone right by the water—from here the Orient Express sent branch lines to Cairo, Baghdad, Tehran, and points east. It was presumably the only train route in the world where to continue you had to change continents by twenty-minute ferryboat.

At Kadikoy we all piled out onto the dock. I found a coffee shop and settled down to watch the fishing-boats and Russian oil tankers plying the Bosphorus. Thirty years ago my father, a journalist, had swum across as a gag—his sense of achievement dimmed by meeting an elderly gent who swam from Europe to Asia every day because lunch was cheaper on this side. I’d been trying to recall a song he heard a Hungarian pianist perform here during the war, in the Park Hotel—now demolished, then a hangout for spies, refugees, informers, black marketeers, military men and ambassadors of all loyalties. Written by an OSS agent, it ran:

I’m involved in a dangerous game,
Every other day I change my name,
The face is different but the body’s the same --
Boo-boo, baby! I’m a spy!


It is easier to imagine yourself a spy than a sultan, easier to imagine yourself a carpet-dealer than a fortune-teller, easy anyway to imagine yourself another life in Istanbul. If aliens ever arrive from outer space looking for a world capital, they should start here. One coffee and one dancing-girl, please, medium-sweet.


[To wash a kilim: ten minutes with Woolite in the bathtub, then spin cycle in the washing machine. Dry it on the floor for a day.]

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