The Carpet Merchant, Jean-Léon Gérôme
The occupants of the cavernous room, with walls of hewn stone punctuated by arabesque carved doorways and filled with a soft light from above, are rapt with attention. Three men in flowing robes and large turbans watch while a barefoot carpet seller with a long beard works his best sales techniques on a fourth potential buyer, while the second, white-bearded carpet seller gauges the reaction of the group. The two sellers – one perhaps Persian, the other Afghan - gesture as they point out the unique qualities of a vast Heriz carpet, hanging from a balcony above the room and enormous in scale, even in the huge space. Other Persian and Turkish carpets are strewn around the floor behind the men in rejected heaps. Around the periphery of the room, several young men and boys watch and await instructions from the carpet sellers; the most attentive assistant is an African, perhaps a slave. A woman veiled in blue brazenly peeks from the corner doorway, ready to completely cover her face if the buyers, one of whom is a European wearing a dashing red coat, happen to glance her way. The question “Will the visitors buy?” tangibly pervades the scene.
It’s possible that French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme accurately captured what a carpet shop was like more than 100 years ago, when he painted this Orientalist scene, The Carpet Merchant,while visiting the rug market in Cairo. The nostalgic setting this 1887 painting portrays, a mysterious market place full of colorful carpets from all along the Silk Road, with Egyptians, Turks, Persians and Europeans vying to purchase the best pieces, is still much what visitors to Turkey expect to find today.Though there are a few places in Turkey that replicate this exotic environment, buying carpets to resell these days is not that experience, though this painting appears on countless carpet shop walls, even ours. Perhaps because we trade in weavings from the past, we’d like to recall those days, however romantically portrayed, in which such magnificent, authentic carpets were highly sought after by every visitor to our region.
Carpet district, Nurosmaniye near the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
I’d never seen The Carpet Merchant before I moved to Turkey, though the idea of wading through deep piles of those vibrant rugs in alabaster rooms greatly appealed to my sensuous nature. At least I didn’t have to be that woman peering from the doorway, excluded from participating in the business proceedings. Or so I thought when Abit and I first started buying for our shop in the Western Turkish town of Selcuk in 1999. No novice to textile commerce worldwide, I was not surprised to find myself once again in a business completely dominated by men. Those in power in the carpet trade here, at least the traders with whom Abit, my husband, had developed the essential relationships, were very traditional, very powerful men with origins in Van, a region in Eastern Turkey, on the Iranian border.
These men were not the chic, European-educated business owners I worked with when I first visited Istanbul in the early 1990’s. Dealing with those men – whose offices and factories were almost completely run by extremely bright and well organized Turkish women – gave me a favorable impression of Turkey as a modern place to work. But I’d also shopped the Grand Bazaar and surrounding lanes on my own during my early trips enough to have discerned that carpet dealers were not cut from the same progressive cloth.During our first season of purchasing in the Turkish carpet trade, I immediately realized that the exotic stroll through an ancient marketplace my romantic mind’s eye pictured had little basis in reality.
Visits to the wholesalers we used when we first started our business were in the old quarters of Nuruosmaniye within the walls of Istanbul’s old city near the Grand Bazaar (with one palatial entrance to this enormous complex pictured above), or along the cramped narrow lanes of Kemeralti in Izmir. These districts have a certain seedy charm, with their greyed, unpainted wood exteriors concealing vast warehouses of colorful carpets within. And like the painting, the men we visited were eager to fill our shop with their wares, spending hours unfolding kilims and unrolling carpets to convince us that they had the finest rugs on offer. But other than our dealings also being among people from several ethnic groups – Kurds, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and me, the solo ethnic European - the resemblance to the painting ended there.Upon a first visit to a wholesaler, I might be completely ignored after the initial greeting, and sometimes even then. Just like my clothing industry visits to China and other countries in the Far East, I could not possibly be the person in charge of finances, so was of no importance, until the surprised men discovered otherwise. We drank endless glasses of tea while the men chain smoked cigarettes. Obviously, business dealings required constant supplies of nicotine, no matter what harm all that smoke may do to the fibers.
Abit (center in the photo above) and I would select the pieces we wanted. The men were clearly intrigued and sometimes quite mystified that Abit would consult me at all about what I liked. Though he had explained my textile background and ability to know quality when I saw it, the men were not at all convinced that I, a foreign woman, had any idea what I was doing. As the meetings went on though, sometimes for hours late into the night or even several meetings over days, the men grudgingly began to understand that I knew what I was doing. Not that this was stated, and in those early days my Turkish was not sufficient to know what they were saying. And the men were also speaking Kurdish in their negotiations, since that was most often the mother tongue to everyone in the room but me. Nonetheless, I understood the looks of admiration I eventually got from some of the dealers, and Abit was told more than once how lucky he was. I was sure however they were convinced Abit had caught a wealthy American fish and they were eager to reel in as much of our cash as they could.
In the early years of our business, the semi-annual visit to the wholesalers was still a treasure hunt, with dealers emptying never-ending black bags crammed with perfect suzanis, or leading us through rooms stacked to the high ceilings with old rugs from all over the Near East. Today, buying merchandise from these same dealers would be like going to Pasadena’s Sunday Rose Bowl flea market on a mission to find the genuine vintage handmade textile buried under heaps of machine-made odds and ends. In the decade since we started our business, wholesalers have become merchants of newly woven goods. In traditional Turkish patterns, yes, though they are imported from countries such as Pakistan, Nepal or China.
Interior, Grand Bazaar
Working with only a few main wholesalers, each specializing in different regions, therefore differing types of textiles, was logical for 1999. In the barter system used here, the more we bought, in “American cash dollars”, the phrase always used, the better the wholesale prices got. Ten years ago, that meant that we could buy a wonderful assortment of vintage rugs – those kilims and carpets woven decades before as dowry pieces with no concern for what a Westerner would buy, with nothing newly made, and all of it woven in Turkey or Central Asia – for amounts of money that seemed very reasonable to me. Now, in 2009, it would be impossible to buy the same goods for three times the price, if you could find them here at all.
Our former shop in Selcuk, with most of the carpets and kilims kept insidethese days to protect them from the hot summer sun.The minaret behind to the left is the oldest in town, from the 14th Century Seljuk Empire.One stork is just visible on top – Selcuk’s high places hostenormous nests where the storks live from May to October.
Thankfully, we bought so much when prices were good that we have some of those original purchases in stock. Selcuk does not often get buyers who are looking for collectors’ pieces; frustrating for income but fine in the long run since these vintage rugs do not lose, but increase, in value if they are well taken care of. Investing in dowry kilims and carpets in the late 1990’s turned out to be a wise decision, since they are truly a vanishing market in Turkey. These days, we buy very few pieces, and only from trusted older men who scour the villages looking for rugs no one wants any longer. Like all things vintage, once these weavings are sold, we will be looking for a new business.
Next post: Though a brotherhood of wholesalers and sellers control the carpet trade in Turkey, it is a sisterhood of weavers that is very much affected by this weaving art in transition.