Photo: Furkan F. Demir, Pexels

China takes over: Carpet production is having an increasingly difficult time in Turkey

The Grand Bazaar is the heart of old Istanbul. With more than 3,000 shops, warehouses, stalls, workshops (many in the old Ottoman hans) as well as a restaurant, a teahouse, various snack bars and a bank, more than 20,000 people are employed here. It is one of the oldest shopping centres in the world. And the centre of Istanbul‘s once flourishing carpet trade – which is now experiencing hard times.

You enter the vaulted corridors of the labyrinthine Kapalı Çarşı – the “covered bazaar,” as it is called in Turkish. There, you step on polished stone slabs and run gauntlets through armed policemen searching bags with metal detectors.

Shops selling similar goods are gathered in one area. The streets were named after related guilds that went about their business here in Ottoman times. One of the oldest sections is for carpet. They specialise in Turkish knotwork and kilims as well as Persian, Caucasian or Afghan. You can even find – although it is not advertised – Chinese carpeting masquerading as Turkish.

There are about five or six hundred products in each one. They hang from the ceilings or lie folded in a heap. Prices range from 200 US dollars for a handmade prayer rug to 2,000 for a silk Ottoman-style wall hanging. Traders offer a glass of tea to tourists who stop in front of their shops and are attracted by what is on offer.

Each individual piece tells a story. The sellers are eager to impart the woven secrets. They are masters in the art of selling. They often have university degrees and speak several languages. They are worldly-wise in a way that appeals to the well-heeled Western tourist. What is often not mentioned is the origin of some of the old carpets and their long international detours.

At its heart lies Kalender Carpets. The business has been in the bazaar for more than 50 years. It stays in the family. Ziya Özalp, one of the employees, is related to the founder. He is an Istanbulu of Kurdish origin who has been selling carpets here professionally for more than five years. His father before him was a carpet dealer – like a brother before him. After finishing his studies, Ziya started working here.

At the beginning, it was good work. You didn’t have to work too hard, and you met people. But after the unrest following the attempted coup and the bombings, tourists gave Istanbul and the bazaar a long berth at times. So, he had enough time over tea and cigarettes to talk about the secrets of the trade.

For him, carpet traders in Turkey are a breed apart. “If you come to Istanbul or anywhere in Turkey, carpet traders will probably be the most interesting people you can meet,” he says. “Because they have to be a bit more educated to impress you.” They would need to know the art of the deal – how to haggle, when to push through a deal, when to be gentle. They should be persuasive and charming. Be good with people. This includes the ability to talk about a range of topics that are sometimes only marginally about the goods in the first place. Which is partly because potential customers need to be convinced to part with an often-large sum of money. “When you buy a carpet, it’s not just about an object. You’re buying a story,” says Ziya.

Behind every old carpet or kilim is a narrative. Most were part of the bridal offering, kept in a separate box. Their pattern tells stories about the women who made them, as well as their tribe, beliefs and region of origin. There are no human or animal forms on most Turkish knotted works, as they are forbidden in the Qur’an. Some of the runners are prayer rugs woven by nomads as a substitute for a mosque.

Those days of the art of carpet weaving in Turkey go back. Until 30-40 years ago, carpets were woven by women in Anatolian villages – especially in the areas around Konya and Kayseri. The traditions were passed down from mother to daughter. Often government banks would go to the villages, donate looms and commission carpets. This practice has been discontinued. Today, there are fewer and fewer women weaving in Anatolian villages. The number of those who want to work for a hundred dollars a month is dwindling. In today‘s Turkey, no one can live on that.

Some of the Istanbul traders go to China to buy. The Chinese take a month to make a carpet and sell them for 50 to 100 dollars. Not only are they cheaper, but they are also supposed to have a better weave. Today, 20 per cent of all goods at the carpet bazaar come from China.

“The tradition will die,” says another trader I talk to. “It has already died. It died a long time ago. The only thing the traders have is that they sell to tourists. You go into a shop, and it’s completely set up for tourists. It’s based on a lie, a big one. And anything based on a lie will lose. Many tourists come from different countries, without any knowledge, and they want to buy a Turkish carpet. They are sold something without informing themselves and researching. One day they may find out that it is not from Turkey.”

South of Istanbul on the Asian side, on the rocky shore of the Sea of Marmara and surrounded by small, sleepy fishing villages, lies the small town of Hereke. It is home to one of the last great bastions of Turkish carpet making. Founded in 1843, four generations of carpet weavers have woven their wares here using traditional Ottoman patterns. They benefit from the natural water that flows down from the mountains and into the sea, which the weavers use to wash the carpets. One of the current owners was born in the building, which 19 years ago belonged to the government before it was privatised.

Twenty years ago, there were between 60-70,000 weavers working in Hereke. Today there are 5-6,000 people working for one company here. They weave for customers from the USA to Japan as well as the domestic market. The tradition is passed down from mother to daughter. Besides traditional Ottoman designs, the company also caters to the modern tastes of the nouveau riche.

As we sip Turkish coffee in the showroom, we are surrounded by photos of famous figures who have received rugs from Hereke. These include Pope Benedict XVI, Chancellor Merkel and Bill Clinton. On walls, framed letters of thanks from Buckingham Palace and elsewhere. We watch two women weaving a silk carpet of high quality at a loom, but oriented towards the questionable, typical taste of the nouveau riche.

The half-finished product depicts a garish scene by a modern pool with scantily clad women, peacocks and potted palms. In its finished state, it is to hang on the wall of an Istanbul fast-food manager. Such a carpet takes a year and a half to complete. Each of the women receives 400 dollars a month for their work. The final price will be around 40,000 dollars and should bring a profit of 2-5,000 dollars to the manufacturing company.

Now, Hereke is struggling to keep up with competition from China, explains spokesperson Nurhan Ör. In order to be able to use the name Hereke legally, they have even founded a town of the same name where they have carpets knotted. “The problem is the new generation,” Ör exclaims. “There is no new generation for the products. We hope to be able to produce for another ten, fifteen years. In twenty years, we won‘t be able to find new weavers. Either that or we pay a thousand dollars a month.”

The market for old Turkish carpets has fallen on hard times. Back in Istanbul, Ali Kemal takes me to his warehouse in the bazaar district. He throws down one antique kilim after another until there are goods worth several million dollars on the floor. All carpets that he could not sell. “The new generation has a different taste. They have a different interior,” Kemal says. “The business is becoming less and less profitable. The big dealers are doing something besides carpets. These are just the image.”

Before I leave for Germany, Kemal suggests, it is a well-known fact, he says, that the best old carpets are no longer to be found in Turkey, but in the households of wealthy Germans. They had travelled to Anatolia in the 1970s, where they had bought high-quality goods locally. I should return home to Germany and keep my eyes open for carpets as well as kilims and call Kemal if I see anything interesting.

Back in Berlin, I found some dealers to talk to about their business. I met Dr. Razi Hejazin, owner of Art Teppich Kelim, in the well-to-do Wilmersdorf district. Dr Hejazian came to Berlin in 1986 to study dentistry at the Free University here. Eventually he became more interested in art and ethnography. In 1994, he opened his first gallery, where he showed carpets or kilims that he had bought during research trips to the Middle East and Central Asia. He is also one of 14 sworn experts in Germany. People often contact him about the value of goods that have passed to them.

Now, the generation of German collectors who travelled to Anatolia to buy carpets and kilims in the 1970s and 1980s as part of the “kilim wave” is dying, says Dr Hejazian. She left them to her heirs, many of whom contacted the expert. Some descendants have advertised their wares on eBay and have been approached by Turkish traders. “If you go to auction houses in Germany, you will only find Turkish traders who want to buy up carpets here and sell them in Turkey,” says Dr Hejazian. “I dare say that almost every antique kilim sold in Istanbul comes from Germany. Every week I have two or three dealers from Turkey. They are hungry for Turkish kilims.”

The phone rings. The caller is a woman who has inherited several rugs and kilims and is requesting his services. Shortly before, she had advertised her heirlooms on eBay. Immediately, these dealers would have pounced on her like hawks. They wanted to make a bargain and told the woman that the kilims had no real value. But if they had no real value, why the immediate interest?

It is indeed the case that you can buy pieces here for a pittance and sell them expensively in Istanbul, says Dr Hejazian. “An American goes to Istanbul and thinks there must be antique carpets there. And there are. But he has no idea that they were bought there in the sixties or seventies, brought to Germany, repaired and sold again to a Turkish dealer in Germany. That’s the cycle at the moment.”

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