Photo by Dustin Aksland
Photo by Dustin Aksland
Threads of beauty, history, and memory make a Turkish carpet much more than a souvenir.
This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home page—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast! And, though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
“OK, Eleanor,” I say, fighting back a sneeze from the spice stalls and the other smells of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, surrounded by men smoking, arranging themselves like birds on a wire while their wives gawk at wedding dresses that seem to have been made of marshmallows.
“OK, Eleanor. This is for you. For you, I’m going to bargain. I’m going to haggle. I’m going to buy. I owe you this one.”
I’m on a mission.
When I was a kid, my mom’s sister, Eleanor, would appear on our doorstep as unexpectedly as a lawn flamingo coming out of a magician’s hat. She’d confetti the air with coins from extinct countries, arm us with Gurkha knives and lion spears. She’d tell us about riding elephants in India, about watching women in bowler hats chase wild llamas in the Bolivian mountains. From the 1960s into the 1980s, Eleanor traveled the world alone, armed only with a courage that took me years to truly appreciate and a bra stuffed full of local currency, leaving in her wake stall dealers and vendors laughing about the stuff the short fat American bought.
By the time her final days rolled around, she shared her apartment with every incredibly tacky thing offered in every market across five continents: bowls that leaked, candlesticks that fell over, ponchos full of moth holes that actually improved the fabric pattern, salad tongs that should have stayed trees, and pipes and hookahs and all the equipment necessary for a dozen vices she didn’t have.
The family fights began before the funeral was even over. “You take it.” “I’m not gonna take it, you take it.”
I took nothing. In our last conversation, she asked what I wanted. “You gave me the idea that the world is a playground,” I said. “I don’t need things.”
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But lately, I’ve been wondering. Did I underestimate her taste the same way I did her courage? Was the Turkish carpet—made, as best I could tell, of wool dyed in Pepto-Bismol—that she’d unroll to bring us the world perhaps not really just a place to sit? Maybe it was a door I didn’t look at long enough. Because after 25 years of serious travel, after I’ve seen maybe double the number of countries Eleanor went to, pretty much all the souvenirs I’ve ever bought would fit in a shoebox.
Yet, even if I don’t have anything I chose myself, I do still have those little memory bombs of Eleanor—long-ago days, sprawled on the Magic Pepto Carpet while she’d show me a postage stamp of exotic animals, a coin with the image of a king who had already been erased from the books. Eleanor’s rule number one: There’s always time to sit and tell stories.
Now, for my own memory of Eleanor, I’m going to buy a carpet of my own—to prove that souvenirs don’t have to be tacky. To leave behind something that the family will fight over with avarice. And maybe I’ll find that one thing that will frame my memories of my travel, the still spot in the world where it all began with my favorite aunt.
I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. So let this story start.
“One hundred sixty-four tribes were subjected to the Ottomans,” Hakan says, “and each area had its own designs.” He spins out silk-on-silk carpets—“up to 4,000 knots per square inch.” Then wool on cotton—“perhaps 500 knots per inch.” Each knot slowly builds toward meaning. An oil lamp in the design rep- resents celestial light; woven pomegranates signify abundance in their scatter of seeds; a careful arabesque of knots bounces the evil eye back to the sender. Colors were made from the landscape of home itself: blue from cobalt, tan from crushed walnut shells, golden yellow from saffron, a single gram of it enough to tint 100 kilograms of wool. “Move to the east,” Hakan says, “the colors get darker. Move to the coast, you can see lighter colors.”
Could my shopping trip be this easy? We spend a happy hour sipping tea, and after looking at perhaps a hundred carpets or more, I have the choice down to two. One has a bright red center panel; inside are geometric designs like diamonds at play inside a field of flowers. The other one is even more abstract, a tree of life or a game of Hangman that went bad.
Yeah, these could be my magic carpets, like Eleanor’s Pepto number.
Years ago, I worked for an art dealer. I also spent decades selling rare books, books as art. Maybe that’s why I don’t buy, because I learned to sell, to let things pass through my life. But I have also taught customers that the way to shop for art comes down to just one simple rule: If you fall in love, you buy, and you never regret it. But if you hesitate, it probably wasn’t love at all.
In the glory years of the Ottoman Empire, home began with the carpet.
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It is definitely more than my credit cards allow. But wait, that’s why I came here: to haggle. I take a deep breath, and make a counteroffer. He just shakes his head. “We could talk five more minutes or another hour, the price won’t change,” he says. But he lets me take a picture of the rug, and clearly he’s happy that he showed me something I like so much. Forget the sale. Share the beauty and give thanks for this chance to share in an art that’s fading away even as we speak.
The question becomes, if you’ve seen the absolute best, why bother with something less? That’s why I walked out of Hakan’s shop. That one’s my dad’s rule—buy well, buy once.
My dad would not last five minutes here. Buying a Turkish carpet requires the stamina of a marathon runner. A single city block can sport a dozen shops, and there’s no escape until you’ve looked at dozens of rugs, drinking at least two cups of tea while the rugs lay their beauty out like a tray of Turkish delight.
Each shop is also an exercise in keeping silent—never start bargaining until you genuinely mean it—and training the eye while narrowing the wants. After three or four shops, you can tell at a glance the quality of the carpet by how crisp the design is; after a few more shops, you know the feel of 500 knots per square inch versus 200. Most of the rugs I’m looking at are maybe 50 years old, relics of the time before everyone worried about time.
By noon, I’m comfortable with the fact that for the size rug I want—about four feet by seven—opening price will be between $1,500 and $3,000, depending on the shopkeeper’s hope of how full my wallet is. A Turkish law dictates how high an opening price is allowed compared with reality, but who knows what it is. As for me, I’ve set a limit: I can buy a rug equal to about one month’s rent. Which would make it the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought that doesn’t have an on/off switch.
“There,” says Cengiz Kellekci, pointing to a street corner. “That’s where Shams and Mevlana met.” I’d met Cengiz, a travel agent, through one of the rug sellers in Istanbul, a Konya man who’d called ahead on my behalf. But when I ask Cengiz about carpets in Konya, he looks at me like I’m joking. “No, all gone.” From what I gather, I could have landed anywhere in the country and gotten the same answer. Why doom your grandmother to carpal tunnel syndrome when you can buy a factory-made kilim, a single-knot rug, at the department store?
A younger version of me would be disappointed, or at least make a note for my future self: Do more research. But Cengiz is proof that sometimes you really do get what you need. With no grandmothers and their looms to track down, he shows me the rest of his world: museums of carpets and musical instruments, facades carved in script carrying secrets down the centuries.
And the tombs. So many tombs of so many Sufi saints.
Maybe I’ll find that one thing that will frame my memories of my travel, where it all began with my favorite aunt.
He quotes a price that is equal to six months of my rent. I’m very proud of myself for keeping a straight face. “I can only offer a price that would be an insult to you,” I say.
One month’s rent.
Bayram does not keep a straight face, but he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go, either. Assistants toss more rugs out as bait. Cast and reel, cast and reel. Bayram offers other prices. I stick to mine as we look at these products of the fine generosity of sheep and the artisan hands of ladies.
“When you walk on something beautiful, you want to feel it,” he says. “Take your shoes off.” Even that’s not enough; we end up lying down on the rug to truly experience how soft the thing is. A low-quality rug, he tells me, takes about four months to make. One of this quality takes eight.
At last, after two hours of me saying “That’s all the money I have,” Bayram laughs. “And what if I offered to sell it to you for one dollar more?”
“Then I’d say thank you, but I can’t buy your rug.”
And he laughs again, gestures to his assistant, who starts folding it in a particular origami that means SOLD.
I’ll take it home. I’ll stake it out as the center of my universe. Eventually, my nieces and nephews will have children who will puke on the rug, puppies that will chew the corners. Because you live with the rugs.
As for me, until that happens, I’ll remember Eleanor’s love of all the pieces of the world she carried home, including her own Pepto-pink rug. I’ll spin on the carpet with the angels, catch the world coming around the other way, and smile, joyful at the meeting.
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