Untying the Knots

By Diana Saverin:

Ramazan Can’s shop in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is world-famous for its traditional Turkish rugs. (Saverin/TYG)

“Beautiful lady! Would you like a beautiful carpet? They’re traditional! Hand-made only in Turkey, only with natural dyes. Here, come into my shop!”

I kept my head down and walked briskly past a grinning salesman leaning against the door of his shop, his hand gesturing inside. When I looked back, I saw him wiping dust off the top of a five-foot pile of folded carpets, waiting for the river of tourists to start flowing through the market. Fifteen carpets hung from the shop’s walls—one deep red with a thick blue border, another circular and tan with small motifs dotting the pile—and countless others lay stacked on the floor. As soon as I continued on my way, the owner of an adjacent store addressed me. He also sold carpets.

The same interaction replayed itself as I wandered down Halıcılar Caddesi, the Carpet Avenue, in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The complex is the world’s oldest indoor market, dating back to the fifteenth century. Each street houses shops of a different trade: jewelry, clothing, shoes, lanterns, spices, instruments, soaps. Salesmen speak near-perfect English to accommodate foreigners, their primary customers.

I finally ducked into a carpet shop, Adnan & Hasan. The owner, Hasan B. Semerci, a lean man with gray hairs in his mustache, welcomed me. Over Turkish çay, I asked about authentic, naturally dyed Turkish rugs, like the ones the men on the street hailed as I passed. He smirked, shifting his weight before speaking. As he unfolded various carpets, Hasan unraveled the story of a dying art: Cheaper, foreign-made rugs have begun to overtake ones made in Turkey, and industrialization has made natural dyes obsolete; yet a group of connoisseurs, artisans, and scientists have struggled to keep the tradition alive.

Over the next two weeks, I traveled from stores to factories to weaving workshops to learn the fate of the Turkish rug. Though the dying tradition threatens many foreigners’ dreams of taking home a piece of an Ottoman palace, the change means something different to weavers. For them, it could mean the birth of a new way of life.

Hasan gestured to the shops in the market beyond his door. Each seemed to sell similar rugs. But to my surprise, he said that many weren’t made in Turkey.

“The liberal economy is choking everything,” Hasan said. “Over the past decade or so, due to low labor costs abroad, there are many Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani rugs in the market. I feel sad about that because the Turkish market has gotten so much smaller.”

The cost of labor abroad is not the only factor endangering traditional Turkish rugs. Hasan threw his hands up at the mention of machine-made rugs.

“I wouldn’t call them carpets,” he said. “You feed the design into the computer; ten minutes later, it’s done. They have already replaced the handicraft… Hand-made carpets are slowing down. People need floor coverings, and now machine-made rugs are filling that gap.”


The Turkish method of hand-weaving rugs dates back to the sixth century. Women commonly wove for two or three hours per day as a social activity and a way to pay their dowries. Although traditional rugs are deemed “timeless,” the industry has adapted to meet the needs of the lower and middle classes. Factory production makes more rugs available at low prices. A seller, Ufuk Akkus, guided me up and down the 18 floors of carpets he sells at the warehouse, Sark Halı. At just one of the store’s 718 branches, he said they could cover more than 25 soccer fields with the rugs. Such mass production has put the slow and costly handicraft in danger.

But the danger was hard to imagine. Ramazan Can owns a store, the Carpet Inn, in the Grand Bazaar with three high-ceilinged rooms where shelves of carpets cover each wall from floor to ceiling. One of his employees spread out carpets with different designs on the floor in front of our chairs.

“I sell art,” Ramazan declared, flipping through his prayer beads. “Most of the people here don’t sell carpets; they sell a dream. They tell stories.”

Abruptly, the worker unfurled a 7-by-11-foot rug with a deep red color and a series of intricate borders enclosing each other into the center of the rug. Ramazan got up from his chair, pacing towards it. I did the same, letting the silk pile shift under my fingertips. It was Hereke, or silk warp woven onto a silk weft, the pinnacle of the Turkish tradition. Ramazan muttered the price: $100,000. His store offers the second of two markets for rugs. The first market offers cheaper rugs for the masses; the second caters to the wealthy, treating carpets as art rather than floor coverings.

An exchange in Hasan’s shop soon demonstrated this dichotomy. A group of five women arrived to pick up a carpet bundled in brown paper. As they headed for the door, one whispered to me that the buyer was Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile.

Such high profile customers are not new to the market of Turkish carpets. Since the thirteenth century, Turks have exported their rugs around the world. Many European paintings depict Turkish carpets under the feet of aristocrats; Henry VIII, in particular, craved the double-knotted tradition. Today, the allure remains. At another shop in the Grand Bazaar, the owner turned the pages of his scrapbook of customers’ business cards and showed one of Baba Bush.

But many sellers in the market complained that demand for hand-woven rugs has decreased over the past decade among such connoisseurs as well, leaving Herekes on the floors of their stores instead of living rooms of the wealthy. This shift is a result, no doubt, of the suffering global economy.

Despite this, most customers in Istanbul, even those who can’t afford it, demand the more traditional and expensive means of production—vegetable dyes and village women with quick fingers. The three questions customers ask repeatedly in each shop are: “Was it naturally dyed?”, “Was it hand-made?”, and “Was it made in Turkey?” This formula for authenticity reveals a nostalgic demand for a relic of the past, and to meet it, salesmen claim the industry has remained immune to the forces of time and progress.

Some have attempted to salvage one aspect of authenticity—natural dyes. For centuries, dyes from plants such as daisies and madder were used to produce the brilliant colors in ancient rugs. But the advent of chemical dyes around 1850 offered a simpler and easier process that replaced the old method. Weavers stopped teaching the natural dye method to their children, and it eventually was forgotten.

In the 1970s, Dr. Harald Bohmer, a German chemist living in Istanbul, discovered a passion for collecting rugs. He noticed that carpets made before 1850 contained rich colors that would not pale, while newer ones faded after several years. To find out why, he took threads of different colors from the older carpets, distilled them to separate the dye from the fabric, and traced the source of the colors. He soon put together “recipes” of flowers, plants, and bugs that created variations of red, yellow, and blue. He created the Natural Dye Research and Development Project, or DOBAG. Through the DOBAG project, Bohmer aimed to re-teach ancient methods to weavers through cooperatives in Turkish villages.

Since, some have tried this method. Musa Kazim Basaran, the best maker of kilims, or flat, woven carpets, in the world according to the Muscat Festival in Oman, has made countless mixes from his home in Istanbul. I visited Musa to get his opinion. In his back patio, Musa picked plants of a red dye and stirred crushed bits of their roots with water.

“Only five or six people use natural dyes in Turkey,” he said, using a long stick to stir what looked like thick, brown mud in a bucket. “It’s just not efficient or effective. Chemical dyeing is easier, shorter. See, I have to dye it, then dry it, then dye it again, then dry it again. It prolongs the process. Chemical dyeing is one process; it takes half an hour, and it’s done. But a few years later, it fades. It lasts ten years, maximum.”

Musa poured the thick mixture in a large tin box of steaming water. His mention that only five or six people mix natural dyes in Turkey was startling. This number may be off—the closest thing to accountability in the Grand Bazaar is word of mouth—but it reveals the contrast between reality and its presentation in the market. Every shop I visited claimed to sell only carpets with natural dyes. Everyone except Hasan, that is.

“Whoever tells you [they’re using natural dyes,] that’s another nonsense,” Hasan said. “It’s a problematic and difficult process to make vegetable dyes… maybe 90 percent of my stock is manmade dyes, not natural, which applies to all production in Turkey. Whoever tells you that his rugs are vegetable dyes, he either doesn’t know what he is doing, or he’s lying to you, which is worse.”

While dyes are only one ingredient of a carpet, the changes in their use reflect how the recipe of “traditional” Turkish carpets is transitioning on a broader level. DOBAG’s attempt to resurrect the ancient way is struggling to have staying power as Turkey changes.

“If not dead, it’s dying,” Hasan remarked about the project.

Its death, though, is a marker of its own success. Because it has succeeded as an economic project, the weavers are now able to design their own destiny by buying livestock or moving to cities—in other words, choose occupations other than weaving. Even a project aimed at institutionalizing “authenticity” is subject to the changes putting it in danger across the country.

Far from Istanbul and the Grand Bazaar, Nuri Aslan, the production manager at Woven Legends in Malatya, led me to his factory. Three rugs lay baking in the morning sun outside. Inside, he stood in an open room while men around us kneeled on the floor, scraping the pile of large carpets with metal combs. Here, they repair the rugs woven in villages before exporting them to the United States and Europe.

“We have roughly 500 weavers right now,” Nuri explained. “But it was more in the past. Just last year we had 2,000… Less and less people are interested in learning the craft.” I nodded, noticing the worry in his face. For him, this widespread disinterest threatens business.

Weavers at work at Woven Legend’s factory in Malatya. Most store owners claim that the carpets they sell are both hand-woven and hand-dyed. (Saverin/TYG)

Traveling two hours through farmland to the southeastern city of Adiyaman, I met Sonmez, a bearded man with crinkled eyes who managed weaving workshops nearby. He planned to take me to the people I had heard so much about: the weavers.

As I sat crammed next to my translator Onder Sali in the truck, Sonmez pointed to the hills rising and swelling on the horizon. “There,” he said, tracing them with his finger, “we used to have hundreds of weavers. Now those are all closed.”

Then we veered off the paved roads onto the space between the houses in the first village. I hesitate to call that rocky land “road.” Onder looked around and asked, “Can’t you smell that, the smell of naturality?” We laughed as we swung helplessly into each other until Sonmez parked outside a cube of concrete—the first weaving workshop.

Wandering into a dim room with fluorescent lighting, we saw four weavers working on benches under brilliantly colored loops of yarn dangling from loom tops. The weavers’ fingers moved so fast I could not see what they were doing in between the taut strings, each like a harpist playing on silent strings. Each month, these weavers make 450 Turkish Lira, the equivalent of $300. More and more, their trainer told me, young people are choosing to go to high school instead of working here. Those who do weave sit in that same room from 5:50 in the morning until 8:00 at night, they explained. The older ones have developed problems with their eyesight, and their rounded backs stay rounded, even when they are not leaning over the looms. They nodded in unison when I asked if their backs hurt.

“We get breaks, though,” one of them, Zeynep, chimed in before we left, looking up from her loom.

We let them return to work and piled quietly back into the truck. “Were you affected by that?” Onder finally asked from next to me. “Me, I was affected. Those carpets are walked on every day in five-star hotels by rich men who don’t even think of these girls, of every stitch.”

I nodded, looking out the window at fields of red tulips passing by. The concern I had felt at the imminent decline of the traditional carpet industry had grown more complex. Could carpets only be produced at the expense of these young women, working through the winter for wages barely sufficient to support any family?

The next village had a workshop with 11 women—girls rather. One was thirteen years old and had come to weave with her older sister after school. She did not want to be a weaver, she assured me. She wanted to be a doctor.

I wished her good luck and sat down on the bench at the next loom next to Zehra Gurbuz, who was 27 years old and had been weaving for the past 12 years.

“In the past there were more weavers than now,” she said, hitting the knots she had just tied down. “It was so crowded, but now they’ve moved to the city center because there aren’t enough working facilities in the village, so now they work in the factory.”

Leaning against one of the looms, Sonmez joined in: “Before, in these villages, girls were getting married at early ages. But now that they’re earning their living at factories, there’s no pressure to marry at an early age.”

The same stories rang off the looms at the next workshop. Young women between the ages of 15 and 20 giggled from their benches, their fingers moving quickly as they talked of their neighbors who had moved to the “city centers.”

Yildiz has been working as a weaver for seven years. “I would prefer to work there, in a factory,” she said. “It’s a more secure job. Many of my neighbors have gone.”

The shift away from production of tradition in Turkish rugs seemed clear at each stage of the process: the bazaar, production site, and weaving workshop. The sentiment was different in the villages, though. No longer were men lamenting the lost carpet. Instead, women who had been weaving since their early teens spoke about friends having the opportunity to do other, better work.

As I left my last stop, Yildiz pointed to a radio in the corner. All of the weavers started shouting and pleading, pointing at it with her. The radio had broken because the dust was so thick in the air when they worked, and they wanted me to ask Sonmez for a new one.

The decline of weavers has taken place in a larger context of change throughout southeastern Turkey. The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) has created thorough programming on irrigation and development in the region, centered even further south than the villages in a city near the Syrian border, Sanliurfa.

Mehmet Baysal Emin, director of geotechnic planning and underground irrigation of GAP, walked through his office in Sanliurfa, pointing to various maps of Turkey covering his walls.

“Small factories have opened,” he said, waving his hand in a circle around the southeast. “Previously in the community, we were only doing farming—we learned it from our ancestors. With the help of the GAP project, though, we are getting more educated and doing more industrial jobs.”

I asked if there was any downside to the change. “Of course there are a shortage of people doing old, traditional jobs,” Mehmet said. “There are many changes. I don’t see any disadvantage. Economically, this is better.”


The combination of industrialization with a change of education policy in Turkey from a required five years of primary school to eight years has contributed to the decline of weaving. The change is particularly clear among the typical weaving demographic—young girls: the government finds and punishes parents whose daughters do not enroll.

Tales of irrigation projects, broken radios, and hunched backs made traditional Turkish carpets seem like one casualty of a larger societal improvement.  Back in Istanbul, I met with Guliz Ger, a professor of marketing at Ankara’s Bilkent University who researches carpets and globalization. I asked her: If the decline in traditional carpet making means the country and its citizens are doing better, why should we care?

She took her sunglasses off and looked at me. “We are losing a part of our culture,” she said urgently. “Whatever McDonald’s or apple pie or baseball is to American culture, carpets are to Turkey… Now how would you feel if baseball were in decline?”

With this threat in mind, I wandered back into the Grand Bazaar’s labyrinth of cobbled streets during my last days in Istanbul, nodding at the sellers I had spoken with as they gesticulated to passing customers and tipping my chin up to gaze at the items filling each narrow path. The carpets among them were still striking—each contained thousands of tiny knots that dissolved into velvety colors undulating with the moving light. The beauty remained real to the senses, but the abundance of these carpets seemed like an uncertain reality. The intricate designs constructed an illusion—their age and tradition masking Turkey’s unfolding story of modernization.

Diana Saverin ’13 is an English major in Berkeley College. Contact her at diana.saverin@yale.edu.

Research for this article was supported by a Berkeley Richter Fellowship.