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March 2007
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Smart Carpet Shopping in Istanbul
Text by Donovan Webster    Photo by Palani Mohan
Photo: Turkish carpets on display
A salesman at the Kemal Erol shop in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar presents a carpet.

Don't get taken for a ride when you buy that Turkish rug.

Before your trip to Istanbul, browse the book Oriental Carpets: From the Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia by Jon Thompson. It'll lay the groundwork for a successful carpet shopping experience. 

Some shops in Istanbul specialize in new or old carpets, while others sell both. Older carpets are usually handmade and thus more expensive. A few of the better shops are Kemal Erol (in the Grand Bazaar), Capadocias (No. 2 Hudavendigar Caddesi), and Noah's Ark (No. 11, Divanyolu Caddesi Ticarenthane Sokak). All three have owners who will educate you in the world of carpets without a hard sell. 

The price of old carpets is based on their age, material, and visual appeal. Also important is condition, which depends on the productivity of the tribe who made it. A word of caution: If you find a pristine antique carpet—with no wear, tear, or repair—it might actually be a new carpet artificially "distressed" to look old.

When it comes to haggling over price, know your budget, and make your opening offer 50 to 60 percent below that. Be prepared to say a firm "forget it," and walk out. Then, on another day, circle back to make another pass. The fun of carpet buying is the process. 

Here's how a typical visit to an Istanbul carpet showroom might go:

10:14 a.m.: Engage a salesman in conversation in front of his shop. Avoid being led to a shop by a tout, whose commission may add as much as 25 percent to the cost of the carpet. 

10:15: Accept the invitation to sit down and enjoy a Turkish coffee or tea.

10:19: Rug movers bring carpets to show you, often tossing them in piles on the floor. Tell the salesman which colors and patterns you like. Also discuss your home and living patterns. Inquire about his life, too. Maintain a conversation, and the rug movers will react to accommodate what you reveal about yourself.

10:55: By now, you've seen much of the shop's wares, gotten to know the sales people, and perhaps, a carpet or two has called your name. Have the movers remove the carpets you don't like, leaving behind those you do.

Turn the selected carpet over, and claw a bit at the warp and weft to see if the weave is tight. The tighter the weave—and the smaller and tighter together the knots—the more durable and higher quality the carpet. By examining the back, you can usually see if the carpet has been repaired. Turn the carpet back over. Get down on your knees and spread the nap with your fingers to see if the base of the pile is the same color as the top: In an old carpet with natural dyes, there should be non-uniform fading. Finally, if you're really serious about the carpet, tug off a strand or two of the pile and burn it. The smell will tell you if it's wool, silk, cotton, or nylon. 

11:20: By now, the salesman will start negotiating. Expect the carpet to be valued somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of his opening bid. If you're in a mood to buy, begin to haggle. If not, tell him you "don't want to talk money yet" and will be back later. Then thank him for his time.

11:21: If you decline to negotiate, the salesman may lower his price in a reflexive effort to get you to stay. Stay or go, more tea or not, just remember, the point of all this is to enjoy the process.

11:23: If you decide to buy, pay by credit card. Most reputable shops will take Visa, American Express, and MasterCard. Make sure the salesman has your correct home address. Depending on shipping—which can run to several hundred dollars for three-day service or much less for actual transport by ship—your new carpet will find your home before the dust of Istanbul is off your boots. And forever after that, the carpet will be there to remind you of your trip.

Carpet or not, the whole point of shopping carpets in Istanbul is simply to enjoy yourself.


Donovan Webster goes to Istanbul searching for the perfect rug in "Magic Carpet Ride" in the March 2007 issue of National Geographic Traveler.


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