At Least We Didn’t Bring Home a $24,000 Rug: Shopping in Istanbul

I’m not even going to pretend that I am ambivalent about shopping. I’m the furthest thing from it. I shop quite a bit. Some might even say I shop more than my fair share. Other’s might suggest that I shop enough to keep a (very) small economy going. Perhaps something along the lines of self-proclaimed micronation Seborga. (While we are on the topic, I’d like from here on out to be referred to as Her Tremendousness Poe. That really does have a nice ring to it)

So when this happened on the day my shopping-buddy for life, XFE and I tried to go to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I was extremely devastated:

 “On Saturday, Istanbul — a city of more than 12 million — was left without heating or electricity for several hours, and its subway and tram system were closed down.”

OK, yes, people were left without heating, electricity or anyway to get around, but what about the real tragedy here? Ie: I could not shop. You see, the Grand Bazaar is a COVERED market. A little warren of more than 58 covered streets and over 4,000 tiny shops tucked in next to each other. They all had one thing in common: they rely on electricity and light for perusing of goods.

Looks nice and bright, doesn’t it? This is not my picture.

We went. We wandered. Alas, we couldn’t really see anything. And, a bunch of the shops had decided to just throw in the towel and close up for the day. So, we walked down the main aisle a couple of times, peered into half-lit windows and finally just gave up the ghost.

We were with our tour guide, Levon, a decidedly non-shopper himself who has obviously been dragged to the market every day as part of his job. How do I know Levon’s a non-shopper? Well, he kept asking me what I specifically wanted to buy. He didn’t understanding that for a true shopper, the joy is in the hunt. It’s like pornography — I don’t know what I want to buy, but I’ll know it when I see it, and all of the other options available, before finally returning to the first one and buying it.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar
The only picture I got of the dark Grand Bazaar.

Seeing the disappointment and dejected body language, Levon quickly suggested that there was nothing good in the Grand Bazaar anyway and what we really wanted to do was go to one of the showrooms of one of the suppliers nearby. And he just happened to have a place in mind.

Now, while we weren’t looking for anything specific in the Grand Bazaar, the one thing we did not intend to get looped into was buying a Turkish rug. That’s a total tourist trap and a wretched cliché, we thought.

Plus, we weren’t in the market for a rug at all. It doesn’t even really fit our design aesthetic. We’re not into ornate and complicated decorative items – we’re much more into modern design, clean lines (For example: the other item we bought for the house was a Turkish tea tray, which is a very simple everyday object). So while we appreciated the time and craftsmanship that goes into creating rugs, it really wasn’t our thing.

Then we entered the large (and locked) wooden and iron doors to the Antique Carpet Kilim showroom. It was about a block off the Grand Bazaar in what’s called a bedesten. This is where out-of-town merchants used to stay when they were in town selling their goods to Grand Bazaar shops. Now they are commercial units housing showrooms around a central courtyard with workshops on two floors.

Rug shopping in Istanbul

We were introduced to a very nice man who spoke excellent English in calming and dulcet tones. Salman explained that his showroom was subsidized by the government, which allowed the company to send materials and supplies to small artisans out in local villages that make rugs, thereby continuing what is becoming a fading craftsman industry.

We started by watching a young woman on a very low stool working on a very small and fine silk piece. It looked like some sort of torture. She knotted an impossibly thin piece of string twice in quick succession on another vertically stretched piece of impossibly thin silk string, drawing the knots down and slicing them with a small, lethal looking knife in her right hand. She did this over and over again, very, very quickly. It took a level of concentration I can’t even comprehend.

Rug shopping in Istanbul

And then she knicked her finger and started bleeding. Our instructor/salesman smoothly kept on explaining the process. I nodded and said, “mmhhmm, mmhmmm, I see. Uuuuh, she just cut herself. Is she ok?” We were assured by Salman that she was fine, but she went into a back room shortly after that and WE NEVER SAW HER AGAIN.

OK, that might have been more ominous than intended. But it’s true. We did not see her for the rest of our visit. I don’t know if her shift was over, or if our breath was bad, or if it was lunchtime, or if she was just like, “I cannot work under these conditions. Peace out.”

After watching that little display, we took a seat on a large cushioned bench along the back wall. Two silent workmen came hustling out with three little tables and teeny tiny cups of sahlep for me, XFE and Levon.

Then the real show began, as the two workmen began unrolling piece after exquisite piece of rugs.

Rug shopping in Istanbul

I wish I had more pictures and details about the next 1.5 hours. But honestly, I was in too much awe to take pictures or notes.

We saw amazing old pieces of embroidery and rugs made for practical purposes like salt bags. We even saw a rug that was shaped into a baby cradle that could be held between two people and swayed back and forth. We saw dowry pieces that were meant to show off the skill of the young bride to her perspective groom and the other villagers who would stop by the house during the wedding week to snoop through the bride’s dowry chest.

We saw a $24,000 rug that took two master weavers three years to complete. It was, needless to say, a masterpiece. All told, we saw probably only about 40 or so of the more than 10,000 rugs that they had in the showroom, but every carpet that was rolled out with a majestic flap in front of us inspired oohing and ahhing as we bent over and ran our hands ran over the soft piles.

Rug shopping in Istanbul

We learned the difference between carpets and kilims (carpets are knotted, have a pile, and feature floral or geometric designs in vivid colors. Kilims are woven flat and tend toward geometric patterns.) We learned about the different types of materials carpets can be made out of: silk (the most expensive and the highest knot count), wool, cotton, and mercerized, which is what we bought. Mercerized is cotton that is preshrunk and tightly wound and is sometimes passed off as silk. We learned all about the natural dying process, including how onion skins are used to create the color orange, which just blew my mind.

Rug shopping in Istanbul

After much discussion, including reassurances that yes, we realize these are all beautiful and unique works of art that are worth a lot of money, and gentle reminders that an hour and a half ago we weren’t even thinking about purchasing a rug so we want to keep the price in the “less than a small car range,” we finally settled on our beautiful 4 x 7 rug. Which was, in fact, less than a NEW small car.

It was an amazing, one-in-a-lifetime experience and one that we would not have had if the Grand Bazaar had not been plunged in darkness. And hopefully, everyone involved in the making of our rug kept all their fingers. I would be very bummed if that were the case.


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