A Letter from Anatolia|
Silk Road: A Journal of West Asian Studies, Volume 1, Number 5, June 1998
Dear Silk Road,
Having just completed my 67th trip along the Silk Road (it was Turkey), it seems apropos to share some of my
impressions of the changes in Turkey since I started making regular business trips there in 1979.
My First and non-business vist to Turkey was in the Summer of 1963. A conversation I had back then with an old
Armenian man has stayed with me all these years. I had asked him how this "modern" Istanbul was different from
the Istanbul he remembered from the days of the late Ottoman Empire. "At the turn of the century," he answered,
"one could walk down any street in Istanbul and hear at least a hundred languages spoke. Today one hears only
one language - Turkish."
On that same trip, I had asked a Greek lady (who worked in a bank and spoke very good English) why the Turks were so
hospitable to me. "In Islam," she answered, "to make a long journey is looke at as a pilgrimage. And fellow Muslims
are obliged to help and succor pilgrims. You, being a traveler and a guest in our country, are being offered the
status of a pilgrim as a courtesy. This is true even of non-Muslms like myself who live here and have absorbed the
These two impressions - 35 years young - have helped shape my view and understanding of Turkey in particular and
Islamic culture in general. But it is one thing to be a guest/traveler passing through a country, and quite another
to be doing business there, especially a non-Western business like the traditional carpet and kilim business. In this
latter occupation, one mostly deals with non-Westernized and non-English speaking Turks and Kurds, usually in the small
villages and towns of Anatolia, although sometimes in larger cities like Aydin, Kayseri or Erzurum.
To do business successfully, one must have a few things on ones' side: a reputation that precedes one is most helpful. A
successful carpet merchant not only knows his old carpets but, in addition, has an understanding of how business works
in this part of the world. Generosity helps, as well as a good feeling for business. Also, a sense of humor can't hurt.
My real learning of how the old carpet business works is due to a relationship of more than 20 years with a dealer
from Konya in central Turkey. When I first went to Konya to look for old carpets, this gentleman and myself
became friends. Along with many personal stories and observations, we shared our frustrations: His was that the big collectors
didn't come to Konya; mine was that I was an outsider looking in and wanted to be an insider. It was a match made
in heaven. I offered to bring collectors to Konya, and he offered to show me how the real carpet business worked.
Twenty years later we are still good friends. In fact I just visited him, his Azerbaijani wife, and my two god-children this
What I learned has put me in good stead in the Turkish carpet world. Thus, I learned not only from where carpets
really come, but also through whose hands they are apt to pass and what the sequence of transit is. My friend was a very
active acquirer of old pieces, and he was ready to drive 1,500 kilometers (900 m) at the drop of a hat to "get there
first." When I was in Turkey, I accompanied him and thus was able not only to observe but, most importantly, to be seen. For over
10 years he drove me around Anatolia - Balikesir to Kars - looking for rare and collectible textiles.
He suggested that I should portray myself as an eccentric but polite American, who loved Turkey and was a very
big dealer in antique textiles. I still have that reputation in Anatolia. Just a few years ago, a major Turkish newspaper,
Hurriyet, ran an article and picture of me:
"American millionare visits Turkey each month to buy millions of dollars of carpets."
Initially, I thought that down-dressing and acting poor would give me good prices. What I didn't understand
at the time was that price is less important in some instances than being shown the piece itself. Once I learned that,
with thanks to my Tukish brother, I started to dress up and act more prosperous. I was amazed at what would appear
before me, not that I was visibly rich enough to afford it.
One's reputation in the old carpet business also can be based on from whom one purchases, as much as what one purchases. To
know and be known by certain dealers - who are not a part of the mainstream selling to foreigners - and to have seen
their offerings places one in a very closed group of select specialists.
Moreover, you are congizant of two of the three big secrets in the old rug business: From where (or from who) a carpet came,
and for what is is being offered (cost). The third big secret is who you sold it to. Interestingly enough, what you
sold it for is not always a secret but sometimes is used to trump up ones' presence, and thus attract certain sellers.