ISTANBUL: To call the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul “mazelike’ is an understatement. “Overwhelming” better suits the covered market, which dates to the 15th century and comprises six distinct sections of winding passageways and broad, bustling corridors. It is full to the brim with more than 4,000 shops selling everything from souvenir shot glasses to high-end leather goods. Among all that, textiles are one of the Grand Bazaar’s greatest distinctions, especially carpets.
The market offers rugs from all over Turkey. Hanging from rafters and stacked to the ceiling, the carpets’ bright colors and geometric patterns add to the bazaar’s cultural allure.
Even for those who do manage to navigate the market without becoming helplessly lost or overwhelmed, the act of singling out something to purchase in the treasure trove of goods and then successfully doing so is a feat unto itself.
With shopkeepers at every turn loudly plying their often-overpriced wares and offering “special deals” for every reason imaginable, finding something meaningful to take home can be a challenge despite the abundance of pretty objects.
“The key to dealing with the Grand Bazaar is to go with a sense of humor and a lot of patience,” Kathy Hamilton, a personal shopper specializing in the Grand Bazaar, tells The Daily Star.
Through her Istanbul Personal Shopper tour company, Hamilton leads private shopping trips to the Grand Bazaar for $250 and takes the challenge out of shopping by helping her clients find one-of-a-kind pieces and then bargaining for them.
She recommends giving in to the dance when shopping for a carpet in the Grand Bazaar.
Of the ubiquitous (and strong) cups of Turkish tea that are offered to interested customers at every shop, she says to “accept if you want, but you are under no obligation to buy. ... By the time you are around the corner, they will be on the lookout for another potential client.”
A textile enthusiast herself, Hamilton says it helps to come prepared: Have an idea of the desired size, colors and price and do a bit of reading on the various types of Turkish carpets.
Ahemt Sengor, the fourth-generation proprietor of a carpet shop that has been doing business on the Grand Bazaar’s traditional carpet street since 1918, agrees. He says that while some people come with interior designers to help them make purchases, the customers who walk away truly satisfied are those who choose with “their own eyes and hands.”
Sengor’s family store, Sengor Hali, sells carpets from all over Turkey, with a focus on older antique rugs.
A life spent around the rugs has given Sengor an almost sixth sense when it comes to identifying them. He shared a few basic tips with The Daily Star, saying the trick to gauging a carpet’s age was in the feel as much as the look: Older rugs feel drier, with their colors set.
Some of the rugs in the Grand Bazaar are machine-made and imported from Iran, Afghanistan or even China, but a handmade Turkish carpet will feature distinctive colors and patterns unique to the area it came from.
Sengor adds that increased mobility in the country – with the women who traditionally weave the rugs sometimes moving away from where they were raised – has lead to strange design combinations over time.
“This allows us to imagine some kind of story to go along with the carpet,” he says.
The carpets can be made from wool woven onto a wool backing, wool woven onto a cotton backing, or – the most luxurious – silk woven onto silk.
Hamilton adds that, whether a flat-woven kilim or a thicker carpet with the distinctive Turkish double knot (as opposed to the Iranian single knot), a handmade rug should have some imperfections.
“Some machine-made carpets will have intentional imperfections woven into them to make them look handmade. So, if flaws are consistent and evenly spaced, it is most likely machine-made,” she warns.
Though she says prices vary “based on age, quality, materials, region, dyes,” kilims are generally less expensive because they are less labor-intensive to create.
Hamilton says that when preparing to bargain for a rug, do not do as many guide books recommend and offer half the quoted price: “Actually, this is very insulting to most of the merchants and it will piss them off, which guarantees you will not walk out with the best price.”
Instead, she says, buyers should make an offer slightly less than their ideal price so that they have room for the give-and-take that is key to getting a good deal.
Other tips Hamilton gives include offering to pay with cash and inquiring about door-to-door shipping. If customers carry the rug home with them themselves, this should drop the price by about $75, she says, though she notes that it varies from shop to shop.
Most of all, she says, smile and be assertive, especially with a big purchase like a carpet, which can run anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.
“My advice to clients who are carpet shopping is to only buy a piece if it feels right in their gut. You know when you find the carpet you love. ... A carpet is a personal purchase and should ‘speak’ to the person buying it.”
And if you aren’t ready to splash out on a carpet, there’s always a carpetbag. Made from antique Turkish rugs often sourced from merchants in the bazaar, these bags are a less expensive way to take home a piece of Turkish carpet tradition, and they come in all shapes and sizes to suit all wallets.
To find out more about Kathy Hamilton’s, shopping tours, visit her website: istanbulpersonalshopper.com.Sengor Hali is located in the Grand Bazaar at Takkeciler Sokak No.65-75-83, and can be reached on +90-212-527-21-92. For more information on Turkish carpetbags, call Harun Bags on +90-212-519-20-38 or visit it in the bazaar at Perdahcilar Sokak No. 50.