The first thing that hit me was the smell.
An earthy musk, a mixture of wool, dust and age, enveloped our little band of carpet hunters as we set foot inside a hidden warehouse on the top floor of a decaying former school. Nebil Basmaci shuffled inside, flipped on the lights and gestured toward the woven treasures he keeps stored just beyond the hubbub of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
Within minutes, Basmaci, one of Istanbul’s foremost carpet dealers, was tossing piece after piece onto the floor with a flourish, pausing for effect between each one. In a town where the art of carpet dealing these days too often means the peddling of new and ill-made pieces from Pakistan and China, Basmaci’s wares amounted to a most exceptional find — a collection consisting of mostly antique Turkish rugs and flat-woven kilims highlighted by well-aged natural dyes matched with the poetic textures of handspun wool.
Here, a glorious 19th-century camel bag woven for a ceremonial wedding. There, a 100-year-old, tightly knotted kilim woven by eastern Turkish nomads. The warehouse amounted to a private museum — albeit one where the art has price tags, most of them high enough to deter all but the serious collector.
But this is one of the wallet-saving truths of a joyous pastime practiced for centuries by travelers to this ancient city: When carpet shopping in Istanbul, you don’t have to buy. In fact, unless you’re a serious student of carpets and kilims and can distinguish between levels of quality, delete any notion of a bargain from your head. The carpet trade here is truly byzantine, a web of dealers and middlemen who will, if they can, sell you a piece that they have picked up for a song from a rural family on the Black Sea for 70 times the price.
You want a good deal? Go to the Bloomingdale’s Tent Sale or ABC Carpet in Manhattan. For the intrepid and linguistically gifted blessed with idle time, perhaps weeks combing distant villages might yield a once-in-a-lifetime find. But in Istanbul, Ankara and other Turkish cities, rest assured that no matter how hard you think you’ve haggled, by the time money has changed hands, your carpet dealer has managed an exceedingly tidy profit.
Still, for a certain kind of tourist — you know who you are, card-carrying member of Washington’s Textile Museum who gets an odd tingling sensation around a stack of dusty rugs — carpet shopping in Turkey is still about as close to heaven as you can get. Though negotiating price may be a blood sport, you can still walk away with a lovely memento of your trip for a markup that you can live with. Or, if your pockets are deep and you find the right dealer (there are perhaps only a dozen excellent ones in Istanbul, says Basmaci), you could score a family heirloom still imbued with the 200-year-old scent of the Anatolian earth.
Recently, my love affair with carpets drew me back to Istanbul for my third visit, this time with a group of friends on an early summer respite. My first foray into the dangerously pricey world of Oriental rugs dated to the mid-1990s, when, on a reporting trip in Santiago, Chile, of all places, I stumbled upon an Iranian family who had set up a new shop.
Mesmerized by the quality of the wares in the window, I entered and bought a lovely camel-hair carpet from Iran. That same day, I rushed out to a bookstore to pick up two volumes on the history of carpets. My self-taught course in Carpets 101 produced a few hard and fast rules: Natural dyes, mostly good (they soften and become more complex with age). Synthetic dyes, mostly bad (they rarely fade to beautiful shades and can produce some truly garish tones, particularly in orange and green). Also, be a stickler about construction; your carpet should lie flat on the floor, with the pattern clear on the underside of the piece. But the rest — patterns, colors, place of origin and materials — is pretty much up to taste and budget.
There’s a club of us out there, carpet freaks willing to go to any lengths to find them. Once, a fellow journalist and dear friend, on assignment on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border during the first days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, excitedly e-mailed me from her satellite phone to report a cache of particularly good pieces for sale in the middle of nowhere. Jealous, and living on the other side of the world in Buenos Aires, I nevertheless wanted to get in on the action. After a round of virtual haggling and a satellite phone bill probably as high as the asking price, she scored me three astonishing carpets, including a stunning silk piece in tones of coffee, eggshell blue and ivory. She carried them for weeks through treacherous territories along the border before finally FedExing them to me from Islamabad. I call that true carpet-lover friendship.
For worshiping at the temple of carpets, few places are better than Istanbul. A transcontinental city cut by the warm blue of the Bosphorus and peppered with the telltale minarets of some of the world’s most stunning mosques, Istanbul can feel at times like a living museum, an intoxicating reality for those who prefer to spend their money on old curios instead of iPads.
But it would be wrong to suggest that this is a city stuck in the past. Istanbul revels in a vibrant economy and an increasingly eclectic modern art scene. If you’re more Warhol than wool, stride through the Dogancay Museum in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood, taking in the works of Burhan Dogancay, renowned for his depictions of urban walls. Some of the fashionable new art galleries nearby are harboring promising talents such as Yalcin Bilgin, a 30-year old Turk recently commissioned to paint a ceiling at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
But I was here on the trail of something old and woolly. And Basmaci, a carpet legend introduced to me by a local contact, became an impromptu guide. Walking down the narrow, crowded passages of the Grand Bazaar — founded shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — he pointed out the distressing quality of some of the carpets filling shop windows.
“That’s fine for the tourists,” he said, pointing to an imitation Turkish carpet that he guessed had been made in Pakistan. “But my fear is that they won’t tell them where it’s from, and some family will go back to the U.S. or Britain thinking they just bought themselves a genuine Turkish carpet.”
Admittedly, he said, finding a genuine Turkish carpet is getting harder and harder. The tradition of carpet weaving has deteriorated sharply with the country’s modernization, and the production is now a fraction of what it once was.
But glimpses of past grandeur can be found. On a visit to the nearby Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, we entered what is among the most important rooms in the carpet world today — a chamber holding four massive Turkish carpets dating to the 1300s, their Chinese fret patterns giving away the ancient Turkish links to the Far East. By the 16th century, Turkey, like Iran, had entered a golden age of carpet weaving, with the palaces of the sultans adorned with priceless silk pieces woven in Hereke, just east of Istanbul and once among the most important cities in the global carpet trade.
Though perhaps not fit for a sultan, top-notch work — both old and new — can still be found for sale in Istanbul if you find the right spot. At Cinar, a shop just outside the Grand Bazaar, expect to find one of the city’s largest collections of modern silk carpets. A lot of these pieces — ultra-shiny and loud — look a little too Dubai. But the shop also produces a number of lovely replicas of old carpets. All who enter here be warned: One piece about the size of a tea towel was going for roughly $3,500.
A legend in the Grand Bazaar is Sisko Osman — or Fat Osman — who counts Hillary Clinton among his clients. Though his shop is said to house exceptional pieces, what we saw were just better than average and not truly spectacular. Yet if you’re buying — as opposed to looking, as I was on this trip — his shop is a must-visit. The prices quoted for an 80-year-old camel-colored kilim and a semi-antique carpet with a charming Western-inspired design seemed fair enough (assuming that you go through the typical bargaining down of at least 40 percent), and the rugs of better quality than at most carpet shops.
Don’t tell him I told you, but make Erol Kazanci’s shop, Gallery Sirvan, in the Grand Bazaar, the last stop on your list, because once you visit, you’ll be spoiled for everything else that you see. Truth is, few but collectors with pockets far deeper than those of a humble journalist could afford what you see. So if you can, just muster up the courage to go in and pretend you belong, because the show in store is not to be missed.
As you sip a glass cup of Turkish tea, his assistants will twirl out a stock of pieces that will make you gasp in delight. Kazanci himself unfurled a room-sized 18th-century Mihrab carpet of such grace and subtlety that my friends and I sat speechless for a full two minutes. When we asked about the price, he coyly replied, “This one is not for sale.”
He later produced a flawless 120-year-old kilim in royal blue and camel in impeccable condition that had me reviewing my bank account balance in my head for a minute. I ventured to ask the price. Before he answered — “I’ll let it go for $7,000” — he whispered a few words in Turkish to a colleague. I later found out that he had proudly boasted, “I picked this one up from a family by the Black Sea last year for about $100.”
Could I blame him? No. The piece was authentic, and he is, after all, a carpet salesman. But this is why, rather than carpet buying, I’ve come to prize carpet browsing just as much — one of the few tourist pleasures here or anywhere that still comes for free.
Faiola is The Washington Post’s London bureau chief.