Imagine a Sultan from your history classes, with the poufy clothes and that large headpiece, seated in a domed throne room. Amongst the huge marble pillars that hold up the chamber, just how many rugs and how many colors have you imagined rolled out along the floor and covering the walls? That elegance transcends the Ottoman Empire to daily life in Turkey, and there isn’t a single craft that Turks take more pride in than their rugs. Turkish apartments are adorned with rugs that have been passed down generations, and the quality of Turkish rugs is unmatched when it comes to the intricacy of their patterned weaves and the level of effort put into producing each one.
When I’d moved into my first apartment in Izmir, I’d needed to wait an extra day for the rugs to be properly cleaned and ready. While they weren’t the Hereke rugs that foreign leaders are given when they first visit Turkey, it’d still been worth the wait as I’d watched my landlord decorate the bare apartment with rugs of every shape and color. Over a year later, I’ve gotten lucky enough to tour one of the government subsidized rug Corps in Cappadocia, and to even buy one of my own! Well, my family had bought it, but a major and awkward part of the sales pitch had been that it would eventually become mine… morbid implications intended.
The Turkish rug industry is still very much a cottage industry in that rugs of all kinds are made in villages at the homes of families dedicated to the craft. These rugs make their way to major cities to be sold by either middle man, or what’s called a Corp (we’ll get to that later). Those middle men are the carpet sellers on the streets of downtown Istanbul who will try lead you to one of their shops. They line the corridors of the Grand Bazaar, approach you outside of whichever monument you’re near, and heckle you as you pass by their small shops in the tourist area of Sultanahmet. You can count on at least several approaching you every day, and don’t be surprised if they’re pushy as hell.
When a carpet seller approaches you as you’re sightseeing, it’s all so obvious from the get-go that they’re only out to make a sale. They’ll try to break down your defensiveness with small talk or compliments, and some will even offer to give you a free tour of whichever museum or mosque you’re nearby. Expect them to chide you if you’re not being open enough to a casual conversation, because damn are they persistent. They’ll say or offer just about anything to eventually get you into one of their shops. Carpet sellers are essentially the used car salesmen of the rug industry, and with that comes lemons and suckers. It’s not that their rugs aren’t necessarily good, it’s just that that who knows what you’re actually buying, or how much it had originally been purchased for. It’s for this reason that carpet sellers are listed among the common tourist scams of Turkey.
This is where the aforementioned Corps come in. Corps are the rug wholesaler institutions which the Turkish government have subsidized in an effort to curb the migration of village people to major cities in Turkey. This migration is fueled by the desire for better jobs and the comforts of city life, but more often than not results in poverty and struggle for the villagers that move. As the refugee crisis continues to worsen and further stretch the Turkish welfare networks thin, Ankara has begun to take a financial interest in the rug industry. Weaving co-ops have been established in villages with modern looms and equipment, and master weavers have been employed to provide vocational training and ensure quality. Wages are subsidized and materials are provided for the production of these rugs. The Corps are the outlets at which these village rugs get sold, and overall this social welfare program has created artisan opportunities for village people that allow them a chance at prosperity without ever having to move. And for the savvy buyer, they offer trustworthy and quality rugs at an equitable price. It’s the crop sharing of textiles, sans carpet-baggers (heh).
Silk, wool, or cotton, it’s the material as well as the level of stitching that affect a rug’s price. One that could cover your living room floor might be a fraction of the price of one that could only barely cover your laptop, and it all comes down to the intricacy of the patterns and how many knots are in each square inch. They’re graded from level 1 to level 10, and a level 10 the size of your table could take several years to complete by a master weaver. A level 4 is your standard village quality, while anything finer than a level 7 must have been knitted by hand. You very much get what you pay for, and if you’re looking for the perfect souvenir from Turkey, then a rug will be well worth your money and carry-on room. Just remember to haggle no matter where you’re shopping! And be patient, if one of your parents is purchasing it…