Flying Carpets from Turkey

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 Nah, you say. Carpets don’t really fly! But they do! Visit any carpet seller and you will see. Visiting a carpet seller in Turkey is a cultural experience. Just walking along the street you are accosted by friendly sellers inviting you in for tea or asking where you are from. If you answer rudely, their feelings are hurt (they say).

For example, in Istanbul, there are carpet sellers everywhere, but especially in SultanAhmet. One place to find this cultural experience is the Arasta Bazaar, beside the Blue Mosque. At one time this is where the stables were, but in the past 15 years or so the arched entryways have been converted to shops and museums. The carpet sellers hang out in front of their shops, playing backgammon and chatting until they can lure a potential customer in with offers of tea.

If you decide to go in, you are seated on a bench, offered apple tea (probably no apples have ever gone near it!) or regular tea in small glasses. There is a bit of preliminary chatting about where you are from, etc., and then the seller gets down to business. He will ask what size of carpet you are looking for and then have his assistant start unrolling them.

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Most shops have carpets from all over Turkey and beyond—Iran, Turkmenistan, the Caucasus. Each area has its own characteristic style of carpets, usually made by young women. Traditionally a young woman would make a carpet in order to impress upon her future mother-in-law that she is able to do this. The designs might incorporate such symbols as the tree of life, the ram’s horns for fertility, or the nazar for protection against the evil eye. Many of the “real” carpets are made from handspun wool gathered from the sheep that the tribe wanders with throughout the summer. Then during the winter, when the families are settled in town, the women weave. The wool may be spun by the women or by an older man. It is then dyed with natural dyes, such as walnut shells or various herbs. It might take as long as six months to make a large carpet.

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i bought my very first carpet from Ismail in Cappadocia

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carpet shop in Bergama. yes, i bought a small carpet here. Generally carpets are cheaper outside Istanbul

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carpets fading in the sun in Bergama

Nowadays, however, there are many short cuts to making carpets. For example, a high quality carpet might be made of only the wool from the neck of the sheep, which is both soft and durable. Often less care is taken for carpets for the market. Some carpets are made of wool on cotton, which is durable, but less so than wool on wool. These days the fringes might be braided, as the sellers realize that in modern homes the loose fringes get sucked up into the vacuum cleaner. It is easy to see if a carpet is lower quality. First, although there are natural variations in hand dyed wool (for example, a “baraj”, like the French word for dam, “barrage”, shows where the new dye batch starts), artificial variations are made in lower quality carpets. These can be seen in a striated effect. Also, if the wool is not high quality, it will not feel soft and if a lighter is held to it, it will burn the wool (ask the carpet seller to do this!). Often carpets are laid out in the sun to develop an “antique” look. This summer in Bergama (once known as Pergamon), the city park was covered in carpets that were left there for up to two months. You can tell the carpets have been artificially faded if you look at the bottom of the tufts. If it is a darker colour, then it has not faded naturally. For some reason, carpet sellers think that muted colours are better, hence the fading. Some colours are a clue to chemical dying—bright pink or orange, for example.

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this carpet sell in Kas had set up beside an ancient Lycian tomb. He later moved to the U.S.

Back to the carpet shop: the seller brings out many many carpets for you to look at. They are unrolled and thrown on the floor. You are invited to walk around them and on them and to feel them. It is true that a larger quantity of knots shows a better carpet depending on the thickness of the wool strands. Once you have looked at all the carpets you can handle, the seller asks you to decide. He and his assistant hold each one up and they make two or three piles—yes, no, and maybe. How do you decide? Colour is one (will it fit with your furniture?), size (will it fit into your room?), design (do you like the symbols?), and of course price.

The price will be the last point of discussion. Once you have chosen the “yes” pile, the assistant will lay out the carpets you might want, and then the seller will get out his calculator. The price will depend on the size (per meter square) and the quality. NEVER pay the first price! This is when you get into the game of bargaining. Some people are very uncomfortable with this, but if you have ever bought a house or a car, you know that you can do it. A carpet is usually a big investment, so you need to try to reduce the price. The rule of thumb is to offer half of what is asked, though sometimes that is insulting. Generally you will end up paying about 2/3 of the original asking price. It is very important that the bargaining be done in a congenial atmosphere, as getting on one’s high horse does not lead to a good deal and will offend the seller. Yes, they do tend to prey on innocent tourists, but they also want to make a deal. These days especially, since Turkey is in an economic slump and people inaccurately think that it is a cousin to Afghanistan, the sellers are hungry and you should be able to get a good deal. Once you have bought one (or more!) the carpets fold up into an amazingly small package or the seller will also arrange to send your carpets for you, usually by Fed Ex. They are always honest about having them delivered at your convenience (for example when you expect to arrive home).

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So what about the flying carpets? Well, they fly two ways. Once of course is that they are sent by plane. However, in the carpet shop, the seller will pick up the carpet and twirl it in the air so you can see how it picks up the light changes. Can you hitch a ride to Shangri La? Probably not, but you will enjoy the “jewels on the floor” when you get them home and you will be transported to fond memories of your trip to Turkey.

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