Magic Carpet Ride

On the hunt for the perfect rug in Istanbul

By / December 2011

In front of the scuffed brown leather loveseat in the DC apartment I share with my husband and son, there is a naked piece of floor. Planks of wood without a rug to keep them warm, to shield them from scratches or to protect them from dropped drinks. It’s also a place of hard falls and tears for my one year old, who is learning to take new, clumsy steps.

I’ve searched the maze-like corridors of Ikea. The bright blues and blah beiges did nothing for me. I’ve scoured Craig’s List in the hopes of finding a second-hand gem, but the bright blues and blah beiges were even worse “gently used.” Oriental rugs, on the other hand, were out of our budget by about a thousand dollars. So, what’s a girl to do? Go to Istanbul, of course.

In Turkey, a country that straddles East and West, carpets are a way of life and have been since the 13th century. In the villages of Anatolia, women still make them by hand, spinning wool, dying yarn, and knotting strands. The great majority of Turkey’s rugs are sold from Istanbul, where my husband and I were spending a week in July.

Before leaving, a friend back home suggested looking for a rug at a bazaar below the Blue Mosque. I thought I’d also run by the Grand Bazaar. But to be honest, I was anxious about how all of this would go down. Rugs are notoriously marked up and tourists are notoriously naïve, not to mention the fact that I’m awful at haggling.

But upon our arrival, our friend Ryan–an American expat now living in Istanbul–eased my anxiety when he said, “Don’t worry, I know a carpet guy.” And that’s how we came to find ourselves (Ryan, Drew, and myself) riding the tramway across the Bosporus on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in hopes of finding a lasting antidote to our blank spot of floor. And at this point in the narrative, it would be a sin of omission not to mention that Drew is less-than-excited about buying a carpet.

He’s of the husbandly ilk that seeks to save for the future, for our son and the siblings that could come later. He’s weighing the carpet against a down payment on a house, college funds, and savings accounts. But I’m thinking, “Experience, man! How often do you travel to Turkey? How cool would it be to have a Turkish carpet in front of our couch?”

We walk down a crowded alley, between two café-restaurants, up one flight of stairs and then another, until we arrive at a nondescript door. After a couple of quick knocks, a kind-looking man wearing glasses and a plaid blue shirt answers. “Ryan, my good friend,” Mustafa Yigit says. Almost simultaneously, he ushers the other visitors out of the shop. Apparently, Ryan is a VIP.

Mustafa shows us into a small room that is stacked on every side, in every crevice, with carpets. Carpets drape the yellow walls, but not a small window spilling light onto the carpet-covered floor. Mustafa motions us over to a bench cloaked in, you guessed it, carpets. It’s almost as if Mustafa is a playhouse usher showing us to our seats before them big performance. “Take good care of them,” Ryan tells Mustafa and bids us farewell.

After gathering what size (4 feet by 6 feet) carpet we’re looking for, Mustafa begins pulling rugs from stacks and unfolding them on the floor. “I like that one,” I say, spotting a blue and red one that looks about the right size.

Mustafa takes this opportunity to explain how the process is going to work. He says there is no rush. He will select a number of rugs and lay them in a stack on the floor. Only after he begins putting them back one by one should we feel any pressure to make our choices. From there, he says, we can talk price, history, material and more.

It becomes clear, right from the start, that we are going to be here for a while. Mustafa Yigit is a conversationalist, not to mention a trove of knowledge when it comes to carpets. As he moves about the room grabbing carpets, we find out that a particular shade of yellow wool is dyed with saffron and crushed daisies. We learn that like a good wine, older carpets are worth more than new. We also learn that the rise in the value of authentic Turkish carpets is a direct result of modernization in Turkey.

As rural women become more educated, the less content they are to knot rugs for a living. “Better get one while we can,” I think. “Think of the women we’d be supporting. And who knows how long this rug-making business is going to last in Turkey?”

Sitting there on the bench, watching Mustafa work, the carpets begin to come alive. I imagine the process from start to finish, the shepherds leading sheep over hillsides, kerchiefed women spinning wool, their skilled hands knotting delicate strands. There are blue carpets and red ones, carpets with intricate details, others with bold designs. There are woolen ones and silken ones. Then, suddenly, I see the one.

It’s mostly green, but there’s coral too, and cream, red, and light blue. There is a long fringe at each end, and in the center there is a gorgeous tree framed by several braided arabesques. Six nightingales perch on the flowered branches. The rug is an absolute work of art.

“Oh, I love this one,” I can’t help but exclaim, but I’m also a bit worried since the rug’s great beauty likely means that it’s way out-of-budget. “This one’s from Cappadocia region, a tree-of-life design,” Mustafa says. “It’s an image of significance in many religions. The design dates back to the 17th century.”

“And how much is it?” I ask. Mustafa, sticking to the program, sloughs off the question. “There is no rush,” he repeats. He’ll talk prices at the end.

Once all the applicable 4×6 rugs have been laid out, Mustafa commences putting them away. He reminds us to call out the ones we like so that he can set them aside. Drew and I whisper our preferences to each other. We end up with six maybes. Mustafa spreads them on the floor.

Mustafa, who makes regular trips into the Anatolian heartland to buy these rugs, tells us the stories of each. He promises us that the prices he quotes are reasonable. The prices at the Grand Bazaar, he says, are much higher. And you have no way of knowing whether you’re buying a Chinese knock-off. “But I see it’s lunchtime,” Mustafa says. ” Do you mind if I order food for us?”

Lunch ordered, we get back to the big decision. I feign interest in the other five we’ve picked out, but my heart is still set on the tree of life. Chewing on my fingernail out of anxiety, I ask for the price again. My heart sinks. The carpet is the second most expensive of our selections, a good $300 more than the one Drew seems to have his eye on. But to my surprise, my husband, upon hearing the number, doesn’t shake his head or even roll his eyes.

“All right,” he says, turning to me. “We can get that one, but it’s your anniversary-birthday and Christmas presents all rolled into one.” Mustafa says we’ve made a good choice. And soon after, lunch comes. For the next half-hour we chat with our host over fresh salad and kebab-like dish of lamb and vegetables. We are surprised to hear that Mustafa has traveled to America, the southern states in particular. Hearing that Drew is from Tennessee, he retreats into a closet and comes back with an orange-and-white penant from the University of Tennessee.

We chat about Mustafa’s family and ours, how he got into the business (his grandfather, then his father), and how his method of showing rugs doubles as exercise. When we finish up, he folds our rug into a tight cube and secures it with rope, making it compact enough to fit into our luggage. He throws in a knotted purse and coin bag for free. Before leaving, he treats us to hot orange tea in the characteristic Turkish hourglass cups.

Four hours after first stepping into Mustafa’s store, we leave with full stomachs, full arms, and the promise of a dinner invitation at his home if we’re ever in town again. I know that we have found the perfect ornament for the floor in front of the couch in our Capitol Hill apartment, but more than that, I know we have a güzel (beautiful) Turkish memory to match the beauty beneath our feet.


Emily Halonen is a writer and editor at U.S. News & World Report.