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BLOG Turkish Carpets and Rugs: A Cultural Story

30 April 2016 / Culture

A Cultural Story

Any traveller visiting Turkey is bound to head home with one or more souvenirs as memories of their time spent in the country. Apart from Turkish delight and the well-known Nazar Boncuk (Evil Eye), another popular choice is a Turkish rug or carpet that is more than a souvenir because they reflect the country's rich cultural heritage.

The carpet (Kilim in Turkish) is one of the few items that adorn most Turkish homes. They hark back to the nomad tribes of when carpet making was a key essential to life, even if it was centuries ago. The earliest carpets were flat-woven and believed to have originated from Çatalhöyük in 7000BC. They made their way into Turkish society slowly thanks to the Turkish nomads that inhabited the Central Anatolian areas.

By the 12th century, they were an essential part of living, keeping villagers warm. The carpets made with silk or pure wool by the women of the villages, would reflect their lives. They weaved their expressions, community life, motifs, and colours into the rugs as if communicating with the outside world.

At some point in the 19th century, Ottoman high society was widely using traditional Turkish carpets to adorn their luxurious palaces and summer homes. As a credit to them because of their European connections, the carpets made their way into western society, and carpet making quickly moved from a village art form to a commercial enterprise, with the opening of a factory in the famed town of Hereke near the capital of Constantinople, present day Istanbul.

Naturally, when mass tourism came to Turkey, bright entrepreneurs saw another opportunity and marketplace for their carpets. It was then that the humble Turkish rug, along with Turkish delight and tea, became a recognisable element of the must-have souvenirs from the 1970s onwards. Unfortunately, though, while some Turkish carpet shops do stock the bonafide, hand-made originals, tourists could likewise easily be duped by con-men selling cheap, factory replicas from the likes of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

Motifs of Turkish Carpets & Rugs

Carpets created in Turkish regions are either made from various materials but generally silk, cotton, and wool, or a combination. Most utilise the Gördes symmetrical knot that acts to strengthen the carpet. Turkish antiquity stories suggest the oldest surviving carpets came from the Selcuks based in Sivas, Kayseri, and Konya, with floral patterns in a variety of colours.

Rugs throughout the ages have reflected many different images, including animals, flowers, running water, and motifs. Likewise, Ottoman rugs made to order match the colours and designs of the weavers, who are themselves viewed as artists.

Their weave, design, and colours can identify rugs and carpets as coming from a particular region in Turkey. For example, rugs from the Anatolian plains are typically identifiable by their agricultural reflections. Other areas to have active carpet-making centres include Kula, Isparta, Milas, and Usak.

How to Spot a Fake Turkish Carpet

To spot an entirely natural weave by hand and not a machine, buyers need to have a keen eye. Assess the knots and look for the two-knot version that has been done like this to strengthen the rug and prolong its life. While Turkish rugs can take months or even years to make depending on their size, they are crafted with the vision that they will last a lifetime. Hence, some are now considered antiquities if they are more than 100 years old.  

Another tell-tale sign is that factory made rugs are generally brighter in colour since an industrial dye has been used while original carpets are made using natural dyes often taken from plants and flowers, so the colours are of a more earthy appearance.

Lastly, to check for synthetic, cheap knockoffs ask the retailer to burn a piece of a tassle. If it burns, it is synthetic, but if it does not ignite and goes hard once cold, you have a real McCoy. Other pointers can be looking at the back of the rug and searching for foundation threads that run horizontal to the fringe. Assess the design on the front, and if you see imperfections, that is because a human probably made it.

How to Buy a Turkish Carpet

While the Turkish tourist hotspot destinations, such as the Grand Bazaar are likely to have the biggest range and choices of Turkish rugs, the price could be extraordinarily high and on occasions, some buyers have mentioned that they felt pressurized into buying because of the hard-sell attitude of the sales representatives.

Getting out of town and heading for one of the carpet weaving shops elsewhere, is ideal so that the inevitable 'tourist tax' is not applied. Ideally, purchase at a shop or craft centres backed by the Turkish Government and the National Carpet Weaving Association because you have a cast-iron guarantee the rug is traditionally hand-made.

Part of buying is the haggling. So be ready to haggle the sales clerk down on a Turkish rug and offer 50 to 60 percent less than his price. Also, factor in the exchange rate and insist on paying Turkish Lira as this will rule out any confusion. Haggling is part of the culture of Turkey, so no price is the final price!

Once you are comfortable with what is being offered, then settle on a handshake and accept the offer of a cup of cay (tea). This is the traditional end of a deal. Be sure to ask if you are having it shipped if the carpet shop will cover the costs and taxes.

Tolga Ertukel, director, and founder of Turkey Homes says: If you find yourself in Istanbul, be sure to drop into the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in the Sultanahmet district. The building houses a large collection of small and large ancient rugs of which most are in immaculate collection, and they each tell their own extraordinary story.

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