Shopping for rugs in Syria and Turkey

Cultural Insights — By on May 1, 2008 at 7:30 am

Andrew Lee Butters is a correspondent for Time magazine and he just wrote a fun little piece about the process of shopping for oriental rugs in the bazaars of the Middle East. In it, he provides tips for maintaining your sanity through the interminable and inevitable bargaining sessions with local merchants.

My collection began with a small prayer rug purchased from a souk in the old city of Damascus…The Syrian capital has always been a particularly good place to shop for rugs, ever since Silk Road travelers from the great weaving cultures of Central Asia passed through this final arc of the fertile crescent on their way to the Holy lands…

Even in Syria, however, rug buying can be intimidating for the beginner. Innumerable variations of region, style and quality make establishing the value of any particular rug daunting. And then there’s the relentless bazaar bargaining that can turn any transaction a microcosmic “clash of cultures” …

First lesson: The seller is going to win, because he invented the game…no matter how hard I’ve worked at trying to distinguish between an Iranian Kurdish sumac and an Azeri kilim, there’s little chance that I’m going to outfox a merchant with years of experience and generations of rug traders in his blood. One way or another, I’m going to have to pay the pink-face tax. So play your own game: If the rug works for you, it’s a good rug…

Another rule of thumb: Life is unfair, and everything comes a lot easier when you don’t really need it. I did my best-ever bit of bargaining killing time on a layover in Istanbul, last January. A rug trader lured me into his shop and showed me a beautiful Anatolian kilim. “I’m on my way to Iraq, I don’t want to buy a rug,” I kept telling the guy, as the price kept plummeting.

He concludes by offering a bit of perspective…

The wars and upheavals of the 20th century have largely destroyed the nomadic herding cultures that created these wonderful rugs. And although the Antiques Roadshow hasn’t shown up in Damascus yet, the heavy hand of globalization has almost finished scouring the souks of Syria for all that is old and good, and shipped it off for sale in antiseptic showrooms in London, New York, and Dubai. The rugs offered to you in the souks of the Middle East are almost certainly the best you will ever see, artifacts from a time when humans made things of meaning and value.

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