How to Haggle Like a Pro in Istanbul

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Unearthing your very own magic carpet deals in the bazaars of Istanbul

For more than 3,000 years, splendid floor coverings made by hand in Turkey have been dazzling visitors - and Shannon E. from Flagstaff, Arizona, was no exception. Returning from a shore excursion to the resort town of Kusadasi, she cornered me on the upper deck of our delightful Orient Lines cruise, thrilled with her prize catch: a 4-by-6-foot rug with a classic "Tree of Life" pattern for only US $400. I raked my fingers over the pile: it was brittle, garishly colored, clearly poor quality. It might have sold at her local Karpet Korner for $89. As our ship sailed away from any hope of clobbering the sleaze who sold it to her, I didn't have the heart to tell Shannon she'd been had. If, like Shannon, you travel to exotic Anatolia with dreams of bringing home an exquisite memento to grace your floor, this need not happen to you. Most Turkish rug dealers are reasonably honest, and armed with the pointers below, you can acquire a unique work of art that will enhance your home, impress your friends - and even let you walk all over it. Will you save money by going to the source? The answer is usually a resounding "yes," often as much as 50 percent or more for a comparable piece in a U.S. shop (though this savings by itself wouldn't justify the cost of the trip, unless you're buying several rugs). Cutting out the middlemen, however, isn't the only source of savings: the exchange rate has plummeted in the last year ($1 now buys some 40 percent more Turkish lira than in 1999), and exaggerated fears of the now dissipating Kurdish terrorism still keep some tourists away. The result: prices are remarkably low on everything, from food to lodging to the vast array of arts and crafts for which this land is famous. True, to compensate for the devaluation of the currency, rugs are usually priced in U.S. dollars - but even so, deals abound.

Three basic pointers

The first step (unless you're a serious connoisseur of Oriental floor coverings) is to hire a professional shopping guide who knows his rugs. The cost - about $50 for a half day - is well worth it, because you'll reduce the risk of buying a turkey, as it were, and still save big-time. The key is to retain a guide you feel can be trusted, from a reputable, certified association (see box); never go into a shop with someone who approaches you on the street, as they generally get a 30 percent commission that comes right out of your pocket.

Second, brush up on your bargaining skills. Haggling - no matter how crass it may seem - is the only way to get a fair shake. Keep in mind, too, that the asking price often has less to do with the actual product than with how rich you look. If you can't pass for a refugee from Kosovo, at least don't wear jewels or fancy loafers on your shopping day.

Third, do your homework before you go. Are there quality carpet stores near your home? Go in and ask questions; feel the different materials and grades of craftsmanship. "Educate your eye and your hand," says buyer Katie McGrail of New York City's Central Carpet, one of the East Coast's top dealers, because "your eyes and your hands will tell you" if a particular piece is right for you. If it feels coarse or brittle, don't buy - it's probably inferior or even synthetic. If the colors are too bright, suspect chemical dyes (not necessarily a bad thing, but vegetal dyes will mellow over time, giving your rug that prized "aged" look). Natural dyes, in fact, are one of several factors that make a rug valuable - the others being the purity and quality of the materials (wool, cotton, or silk), number and type of knots, design, and region of origin. If you want official reassurance of quality, look for the Turkish government's DOBAG seal, which certifies the craftsmanship; such a carpet, however, will cost about 20 percent more than others of similar quality.

Talking Turkey about carpets

The classic Oriental consists of a wool pile knotted by hand onto a woof and warp of wool or cotton. A wool base, having a thicker fiber, makes for a rougher design, so wool-on-wool pieces tend to be rustic, with geometric tribal or nomadic patterns; they're generally less expensive than wool-on-cotton, running about $300-$400 for a 4'-by-6'. A cotton base, which allows more knots per square inch and thus more subtlety in the pattern (often floral or abstract), is more labor-intensive and expensive; a 7'-by-10' wool-on-cotton can start as low as $600 and go all the way up to $5,000 and beyond. You'll also see spectacular pieces in silk, but these are insanely expensive ($2,000-$3,000 a square meter - roughly ten square feet). The very best buys here are kilims, which are woven and flat rather than knotted and piled. Yes, they're rustic, but most are bold, beautiful, and unbeatably priced: as low as $80 for a 5'-by-7', up to $200 or so for larger sizes and $500 and up for antiques. Also, lighter weight and smaller sizes mean you can carry, rather than ship, a kilim home, additionally saving you as much as $100.

As for knots, don't sweat the per-centimeter count too much, unless you're a serious collector; even a low-count rug will likely outlive you. More importantly, look at the back: if the weaving is even and you see the design clearly, it's a good piece. Make sure, too, that it will lie perfectly flat on the floor. Finally, you can visit Web sites such as carpets-and-rugs.com, rugreview.com, or rugimports.com to refine your sense of the going rates back home and make you a much better haggler.

Ultimately, though, for most folks it comes down to design and color, and this is where the fun begins. The different patterns all have a story and a meaning, and are usually named after the village or region of origin. There are no fewer than 1,076 recognized regions in Turkey with several local patterns each, resulting in variations to suit just about every taste and decor. Some (but by no means all) of the less expensive rugs come from places like Doseme Alti, Yagcibedir, Kars, and Milas; all are fair- to medium-quality village rugs, selling for approximately $160 to $214 a square meter in American shops; in Istanbul you'll find them for far less.

Pounding the pavement

The picturesque Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is famous - but therefore also quite touristy, so most of the best carpet deals will be found elsewhere. Your shopping guide will have his or her choice rug emporia (just make sure to emphasize what your budget is), but here are four good, reputable Istanbul merchants where, with a good eye and a bit of persistence, you can walk out with a future family heirloom and a happy wallet.

Mavro's Carpet and Kilims (Tavukhane Sok. 23, Sultanahmet, 90-212/517-7358)

Right off the Hippodrome in the heart of the historic Sultanahmet district, this medium-size dealer offers some of the best prices in town. Mr. Bulent Ozyirmidokuz, the charming young owner, offers a fine selection of contemporary and antique knotted rugs (starting at $400 for a gorgeous 7'x10' wool-on-wool from Antalya) as well as kilims (starting around $150; keep in mind that here and below, I cite the asking price; a good bargainer should be able to knock off 20 to 30 percent). He also has some interesting possibilities for the more financially challenged who want a unique souvenir, such as cushions ($5-$12) and slippers ($20-$40) made from old kilims.

Galeri Estetik (Divanyolu Caddesi Isik Sok. 10, Sultanahmet, 90-212/518-4970)

A one-stop shopper's paradise, this six-story gallery sells just about every Turkish craft, from ceramics to copper pots to (naturally) rugs and kilims. Manager Nihat Yilmaz maintains a delightfully low-pressure atmosphere, too, which makes browsing a rare treat. Kilims measuring 3' x 6' start around $120, going up to $650 for a 7'x10', while wool-on-cotton or wool-on-wool rugs start around $200 for a 3'x5'. Even if you don't buy, check out the seventh-floor terrace for extraordinary views over the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia.

Sinbad Oriental Carpets and Kilims (Sandal Bedesten Old Bazaar or 224 Terziler Sok., Kapalicarsisi, 90-212/527-1624)

No trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, the sixteenth-century "shopping mall" with some 5,000 shops strung along endless "streets" covered with vaulted ceilings. Closed on Sunday, it's usually not the best place for bargains, but this 28-year-old shop stands out both for quality of selection and fairness of price. Ekrem Canbeyli, whose British schooling shows in his laid-back approach, offers kilims starting at about $100 for a 4'x6' wool-on-cotton priced from $500. I recently fell in love with a marvelous piece from the town of Van, near Mount Ararat, depicting the animals from Noah's ark. Considering a size of 5'x8', the asking price of $1,300 was a bit steep for me - but then it was wool and silk on cotton.

Bergama Gallery (Arasta Carsisi 167, Sultanahmet, 90-212/517-6807)

For the savvy, the Grand Bazaar is great for sightseeing, but when it's time to whip out the plastic, they head for the seventeenth-century Arasta Bazaar, a smaller outdoor version where prices are lower thanks to government-subsidized rents and lower tourist turnout-surprising, considering that it's literally around the corner from the Blue Mosque. There's no dearth of carpet vendors, and the small two-story shop at number 167 is among the very best, offering a somewhat limited selection but superior bargains. Mehmet Oguzhan, a wiry, nervous Kurd, has been a rug man for more than 20 years, and his passion and knowledge show. Four-by-six wool-on-wools start around $250, wool-on-cottons around $500, and 3'x5' kilims around $100. Mehmet claims he doesn't like to bargain, discounting only about ten percent, but Yavuz, my very Westernized guide, later confides that Mehmet is a haggle-hound and can be tough.

It was at Bergama, in fact, that my own skills were recently and quickly put to the test as his acici (shop assistant) unrolled a stunning 7'x10' from the well-regarded Kayseri region. Mehmet started at $1,100 - considerably more than I could afford. After many offers and counter-offers, we settled on $800. Did I land a winner? I didn't know for sure until I came home, where I found a similar-quality rug from Kayseri at New York City's huge ABC Carpet & Home showroom - for $1,800. And as for my own rug, all the salesmen I showed it to said they'd never seen anything like it.

Bingo.

More info

To hire a reputable guide, contact the Chamber of Istanbul Tourguides (011-90-212/240-2523, turizm.net); one I can recommend personally is Mr. Yavuz Ozdeniz (011-90-216/332-6726). Also, the Turkish Tourist Office in New York City (212/687-2194 or 877/FOR-TURKEY, tourismturkey.org) publishes a guide that includes shopping information. Kilims, such as the three woven rugs pictured here, are rustic, but most are bold and beautiful and unbeatably priced. Nick Wheeler (2); Sheila McKinnon/Dave G. Houser//The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Robert Frerck/Stone//Young workers at the Anatolia Carpet Manufacturing Company in Cappadocia. Jeff Greenberg/Photo Researchers, Inc.

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