Let’s be frank. If you are visiting Istanbul for the first time, it’s likely that you’re at least considering buying a halı (carpet). Turkish carpets are loved, coveted and ingrained in culture here and everywhere. It’s like apple pie for Americans, croissants for the French: it is and forever will be a staple and mark of the culture and the thing that is a kind of must-have or must-see for visitors. So, like the ambassadors, artists and curious travelers before us, a visit to Istanbul also tends to be a search, a sort of scavenger hunt, for that perfect Turkish carpet or kilim.
To save you the search, we’re taking you to a place where passion meets intrigue, where commerce meets elegance (if you aren’t looking for a carpet because it’s too heavy or too hard to decide, then you should at least go back with a ceramic tile, which are also sold at this not-so-hidden but easily missed Sultanahmet gem).
Tucked away on a side street a little past the Sultanahmet Camii is Nakkaş Halı. Nakkaş means miniaturist or muralist in English, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the store’s owners, Cengiz Korkmaz and Cengiz Kara, are so knowledgeable about the goods they sell that they are as detail-oriented and aesthetically aware as people in those professions. Not to mention the little details in each and every one of their products which makes them unique, and their collection of award-winning carpets, one of which was one of Oprah’s ‘Favorite Things.’
It’s hard to talk about Nakkaş Halı, because it’s so much more than just a store. When you enter you’ll see a carpet being weaved in silk right before your eyes. The day we visited, a young woman was continuing work on a piece that she had been weaving for nearly a year – the carpet was not yet half way done. You’ll see a small installation where the process, techniques, machinery and history of carpet-making are made available to you. On the upmost level, you’ll be invited to see their balcony while drinking a tea or coffee. The specialness of their view is not lost to even an untrained eye, as every direction you turn in reveals yet another pearl of old Istanbul. It has a direct view of the Blue Mosque, the Roman colosseum, and the Hippodrome.
Cengiz Korkmaz and Cengiz Kara are best friends, and have been since they met while working in the industry in the 80’s, and it shows. Visiting Nakkaş is a little bit like visiting the house of a royal relative you didn’t know you had – friendly, warm, and inviting, but filled with curiosity and wonder. Simply, this is not your everyday shopping experience.
In fact, Nakkaş was as enlightening and artistically moving as any museum in the neighborhood, while miraculously also remaining commercially viable and stocked with great goods. Where the Grand Bazaar triumphs in terms of simply being what it is, Nakkaş Halı overcomes because of its hidden secrets and charms, its incredible collection of carpets and kilims, and tiles and jewelry, which are all heightened by the staff’s obvious love for what they do… and then there’s the Byzantine cistern that acts as their basement gallery space. It’s magical, and even if you aren’t shopping, stopping by Nakkaş to visit their cistern, which dates to the 6th century, is a nice alternative to the beautiful but very busy Basilica Cistern about a 15 minute walk away. The cistern is minimally and tastefully decorated with changing exhibitions related to their carpet and tile collections.
The feeling you get from Nakkaş Halı, and the sentiment that you’ll leave with, is that this is a place where you can find the best of the best, and the best of both new and old, with no short supply of options. But you’ll never feel overwhelmed or alone in your search. As if an internet search engine is operating within the heads of everyone that works there, the staff bring out all that your eyes desire after you specify even just three elements that characterize your search for a carpet. Say that you like geometric patterns with lots of red and yellow – and as if they already knew what you would ask for, carpets are rolled out before you in a parade of horizontal splendor.
Before we left, Cengiz Kara showed us an old woven baby carriage which dates back about 200 years. As he put it back down he said that he had been raised in one just like it. These people and this place have value and consistency, show deep understanding, preservation and trustworthiness, and they live with and love what they do.
A little about carpets
The minute you see the Anatolian and Turkish carpets that have been a part of your subconscious mind for so long, something happens. At first you deny it. Perhaps your minimal nature, or your current home just don’t quite jive with the characteristically colorful, pattern-laden carpets and kilims (flat-woven rugs) from this region. Then you’re entranced and preoccupied with their history and meaning and the thought process is reversed: we begin to think about how one such carpet could blend into, or dictate, our home.
The reason that Turkish carpets are part of the collective subconscious is because they are so much more than just a product for consumption. They are art, they last, they are timeless, and they have been present in cultures around the world for hundreds of years. For the women who wove them in the past and who weave them now, who tell stories through them, and who use them in their lives, they were and are a necessity – a craft similar to stonemasonry and carpentry, for example – but arguably more intricately artistic. Yet, for Sultans and foreigners alike they also represented status, and for visitors, they were a representation of the ever-interesting ‘other,’ Orientalism, and the ‘East.’
Actually, the use of Turkish carpets within Western painting was characteristic during the Renaissance, as humanism crept into the educated elite’s mentality, and the more traveled you were, the more knowledgeable – and usually the more wealthy – and the more likely to want a Turkish carpet that your commissioned painter could depict laying on a table or a wall behind you in your portrait (very rarely would the carpets be put on the floor). Because of this, several Turkish styles are named after the painters that once depicted them, (like Holbein, Memling, and Lotto to name a few), an unreasonable and unfair association, as then the actual provenance is lost to a Europeanized pseudonym. Of course, it wasn’t just painters; it was also historians and explorers like Marco Polo, who, in writing, was the first European to describe an Anatolian carpet. Nonetheless, Turkish carpets have, without doubt, found a home in countries near and far for centuries. And they have become synonymous with wisdom, being well-travelled, and in turn, with being cultured.
In the same way that European painters were telling a story, or referencing something by including Turkish carpets in their paintings, so were the women artisans who created them. The motifs that the artists were known for, for example, were also the qualifiers by which the actual origin of a carpet could be placed. These were not just carpets, these were meaningful stories, fertility wishes, marriage blessings, and really had any number of special meanings.
So, what characterizes one locale of production from another is style and form, sometimes the use of color or the type of weaving, and sometimes the size. Long before European visitors found beauty in these works of weaving, tribal and nomadic peoples had been making them for centuries. With no real commercial value, as they were purely used for life, whether as wall drapings for tents, as insulation against clay walls, as something to sleep on, or as curtains or doorway covers, and sometimes as prayer rugs, all depending on their size, it is therefore hard to trace the exact timeline of when and where kilims were first produced. The only thing we can say for certain is that they were produced by nomadic and tribal peoples in this region.
Cengiz Korkmaz and Cengiz Kara said, “Anatolian tribal pieces” are their favorites, “Because even though they look simple, they are actually very complex. To both of us, they are more than rugs. Through their colors and designs, they express the lives of the people who make and use them.”
The colors of Anatolian carpets are vibrant and alive, typically dyed naturally with vegetables, leaves, tree bark, and any number of found organic items. Our favorite kind of carpet we saw at Nakkaş is of the Anatolian breed, but specific to Balıkesir. These carpets characteristically have a large plain ground (usually in red), and have uncomplicated and minimal designs that usually have symbols like an umbilical cord for fertility and symbols for a happy marriage, or good feast...the list goes on.
The simplicity of Balıkesir kilims uncomplicates them and allows the viewer to see, perhaps more so than in the elaborately patterned carpets from places like Bergama, Aydın, or Konya, the meanings in the small details, and the thoughtfulness in making them. You imagine a woman weaving a carpet for her daughter, inhopes that she too will have a daughter. You see that tradition and you feel it, too, and you want to adopt it for your own and bring the energy that it stirs in you, with you.
If the relative simplicity of the Balıkesir kilims still does not satiate your minimal self, then you are not totally out of luck when it comes to owning a Turkish carpet. Overdyed rugs have emerged as a lasting trend in recent years, and Nakkaş Halı, too began producing overdyed rugs, both old and new. These types of rugs offer a chance to own an antique or vintage handcrafted classic, but with a distinctly modern look.
It’s no surprise that this technique was developed in Istanbul – it’s a markedly Turkish trait to repurpose and reimagine rather than throw out. Also known as ‘distressed’ rugs, to create the look, the aging process is accelerated using a number of methods. Some rugs are first sheared to even the pile, then sun-bleached and treated with chemicals to remove the color, leaving behind just the trace of the original pattern. They are then ready to be overdyed in a multitude of tones which can recolor the whole rug or be targeted at lighter background shades. The results are unique works of contemporary art, the colors ranging from ghostly pale to deeply saturated hues, and their ‘distressed’ look enables them to settle into their new homes as if they’ve always been there. Nakkaş Halı also produces beautiful patchwork overdyed rugs, which take pieces of vintage carpets that have been compromised, dyed together, and then woven into one rug.
Whether it is a geometric or an arabesque motif-filled carpet, a custom-sized original silk carpet, or a small throw rug from the 18th century, Nakkaş Halı has you covered, or better yet, has your floor covered.
Nakilbent Sokak No.13, Sultanahmet; T: (0212) 516 52 22. www.nakkasrug.com