Crossroads Tour: The Carpet Salesman – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.

Istanbul is the largest and most developed city in Turkey, hosting a population of somewhere around twenty million (as of 2011). It is, I believe, the only city in the world that straddles two continents – Europe and Asia.

Istanbul has an ancient history. During the early Christian era it was known as Constantinople. It was the capitol city of Byzantium, the center of the medieval world dating back to 330 AD, and crossroads for East-West trade for centuries. In 1453 it became the capitol of the Ottoman Empire when Sultan Mehmet conquered the city from Christian rule in 1453. In spite of that conquest, religious tolerance allowed mosques, churches and synagogues to stand side-by-side.

For the next 450 years, Istanbul would reign as the jewel of the East and would see a Golden Era ushered in by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and his chief architect, Mimar Sinan.

The view from my window on my first morning. The yellow building is the police station.

I’m in Istanbul for less than 2 hours when I am sucked into the carpet shop across the street from the hotel. I had read about the process of rug buying and was planning to buy a small kilim. Their hawker on the street says this is a good place to start, they can show me how carpets are woven and how to buy a good carpet. So we enter the shop. I am handed tea at the door and am escorted upstairs to the showroom. I look around and brace myself for the process that is about to begin. Little did I realize how ill-equipped I actually was…

I ask for a specific rug style from a specific region, in a specific size. “I just want to show you larger carpets” says Mustafa, the owner, “so you can be better educated.”  More tea arrives. I hand Mustafa my business card and he tells me I should sell kilims in Seattle with my hats as no one else is doing that. I laugh it off and tell him I’m only in the market for one carpet this trip. The process begins.

One carpet after another, about thirty in various conditions, sizes, styles and colors. are laid out on the floor, one atop the other. I point to six that I am interested in and they are set aside. Mustafa has his assistant lay “his favorite rug” on a black velvet board. The thing is in shreds. Lunch is ordered despite my objections. We look at the Anatolian kilims I have selected, and Mustafa asks why I’m not interested in the one on the black velvet board. I tell him I am not willing to buy his favorite rug : ) 

I narrow my choices to three rugs, all of very similar ‘tree of life’ pattern, and ask him to tell me more about them as I gingerly bite into a kebab roll that has arrived on a silver platter. Of the three rugs, the one that has my greatest attention is a beautiful prayer rug, 90 years old, with five borders and a tree of life pattern, similar in color and style to the one shown here. The wools are dyed with saffron, cochineal and indigo. I am surprised to find that kilims (at least these) are woven almost like lace rather than being knotted. It’s time to start negotiating the price…

I must admit that my taste in Anatolian kilims is exquisite. The cost on this one is US$48,000…

I put my sandwich down, which Mustafa correctly interprets as an end to this conversation. He asks if I am interested in one of the other two carpets. “I’ve been in the city for less than two hours and need to think it over.”  He tries to convince me to purchase but becomes frustrated when those attempts fail. After several painful minutes I stand up. We shake hands, and I exit the building, chagrined from the experience.

I shake the bruises from my ego, find a cash machine, and head towards the Grand Bazaar.

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