Before I even arrived in Turkey, I was hearing tales that this country is a veritable shopping mecca. I imagined that the daunting shopping opportunities in Turkey – Istanbul in particular – might be for several reasons.
First there is its vantage point as the crossroads of two continents, Asia and Europe. Secondly, there is the legacy of the old Silk Road trade route and lastly its geographical supremacy from a nautical perspective bordering the Mediterranean, Black and Aegean Seas.
From the viewpoint of a vistor to the country, perhaps nothing has greater iconic cultural status in Turkey than the Turkish rug. Even though I had images of flying carpets and Arabian nights in my limited sense of Turkish culture and history, I planned at most to buy some small trinkets for co-workers along with a box of Turkish delight that would conjure up images from C.S. Lewis’ story The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I certainly did not plan to come home with a rug.
“Where are you from? How long are you visiting here? Would you like me to help show you the Hagia Sophia? Did you know this building dates from…? Would you like to come see my family’s store and have some tea? Would you come put an American quarter on my map that shows where different visitors are from?”
A somewhat seasoned traveller’s perspective held me in good stead while encountering the wandering merchants while seeing the sights of Turkey. During my first two days spent in Istanbul, I quickly acquired my own firsthand lore about rug merchants in particular which was supplemented by advice from other friends sharing our retreat with spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy and his students from many different countries. Two words sum up the advice – buyer beware!
My rule of thumb as an American quickly became that if someone approached you and spoke good English then you knew they were going to invite you to their carpet store if you engaged them in conversation regardless of the initial pretext for chatting. In fact, my experience was that most people did not speak English in Turkey with German being the much more common nationality for tourists. People trying to sell rugs, however, spoke good English.
We even had the experience of trying to find the Grand Bazaar on foot after leaving the Topkapi Palace and no less than a half-dozen people were telling us (in English) to go in the exact wrong direction to a section of Istanbul where we later discerned these rug merchants were concentrated. We ignored their advice and persevered in the correct direction until we arrived at the Grand Bazaar – yes shopping mecca would not be an understatement for a place that includes thousands of shops and hundreds of streets all interconnected in the heart of Istanbul. Tired after an already long day of touring, we barely did it justice.
Instead, shopping for souvenirs waited until our more leisurely and longer sojourn in Antalya, a seaside town on the Mediterranean – called both the Turkish Riviera and the Turquoise Coast. We soon determined that bargaining is de rigeur and that the people who sit on the front stoop of the stores must be ruthlessly, if politely, ignored or you will be pulled into situations you would rather avoid. While I may be painting a rather dour picture, I can try to balance what I say by praising the many beautiful items in the stores – shawls with nicer designs than I have seen in any other country and a shopkeeper who willingly and affordably custom-sewed an over-the-shoulder small pocketbook with an elephant print that was only featured in a different larger style in existing stock at the store.
And then somehow this jaded and adamently rug avoiding tourist stepped into a Turkish rug shop. How pray tell did this happen? Well one of my travelling companions was considering buying a rug for her mother’s apartment and the store that we became brave enough to walk into turned out to have articles displayed just inside the entry written about this exact rug store owner from the New Yorker magazine as well as National Geographic magazine. Like a fresh drink in the desert, the New Yorker article immediately stated that this rug merchant was impeccably honest, hated to bargain and wouldn’t even sell a rug to someone whose energy didn’t resonate with him. The German Shepherd on the doorstep mentioned in the 2000 article was in said spot here now in 2006 as well.
So we met Mehmet Saggun of the Orient Basar and learned about Turkish rugs and shared information about Sri Chinmoy’s love of tennis with this former regional tennis pro. In retrospect, our meditative approach seemed agreeable to his supposedly reserved demeanor and those of us who purchased a rug even succeeded in bargaining to a lower price – The New Yorker article to the contrary. In my case, I ended up with two small prayer rugs for the price of one that I planned to give as gifts. One had a design that reminded me of Navajo Indian/American Southwest which I knew would look perfect in my parents’ house in Arizona.
I ended up giving the other rug to my neighbor across the street who so expertly watches over my house, starts up my car, etc. during the duration of my long trips. Usually his only desired gift is a box of liquor-filled chocolates. Every other thing I have ever brought him fell flat and he declared that this type of chocolate was the only gift he would ever want. This year, the duty-free shop explained that I could not even bring such a purchase on the plane because it fell under the category of unallowed liquids in carry-on baggage! Arriving home without a box of chocolates, I gingerly listened to my intuition which said to just bring over the rug and ask him if he and his wife honestly liked it. They loved it – as did my parents as well.
I guess it is "not for nothing" that some items garner iconic status. These hand-knotted all-wool rugs were truly beautiful and are perhaps the best-received gifts I have ever offered upon return from my sojourns around the world. For this reason, I am especially grateful to have discovered this merchant dubbed “The Rug Missionary” by Michael Specter in his New Yorker article.
And I close with confession that I also bought a small rug to keep for myself which beautifully adorns the floor of my meditation/shrine room. It is Kurdish and contains a glorious combination of colours – pink, orange, green, red – colours like no other rug in the store that I saw that day.
When you see it you know it. The rug which carries you on a flying journey rich with beauty and satisfaction. A Turkish rug can carry magical beauty. Search carefully and remember that sometimes icons receive their monikers for real reasons and you will treasure them deeply once you wipe away the tarnish of cliché and truism misleading you on their surface.