Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Turkish Rug

The Turkish Rug, 2011

In 1996 my wife and I went on a cruise that included a stop in Turkey. I’d really looked forward to this stop because of the opportunity to visit Ephesus, once one of the greatest cities of the Roman Empire.

Ephesus is a cool stop for history nuts because the excavation of the city has only barely scratched the surface. What’s been revealed is exciting. What’s yet to be found could be even more so.

You can get a feel for the history in Ephesus in the way you can only feel in, say, Pompeii. Very little of Ephesus is off limits. You walk among the ruins of great buildings. Part of the majestic façade of the Library of Celsus stands tall among the ruins. The marble seats of the ancient public outhouses are worn smooth from thousands of years’ worth of fannies. Slabs of stone and marble litter the landscape*. You can walk the lanes where Mark Antony was hailed as a god and where, Plutarch tells us, “the women of the town met him dressed as bacchantes, the men as fauns and satyrs.” The immense amphitheater where the apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesians is a short walk away.

The port for Ephesus is at the nearby town of Kusadasi. Kusadasi probably has many redeeming features. But for the cruise traveler, it looks like any tourist trap. After the formal tour of the ruins, most tour operators will make sure you visit one or another of the rug merchants. You can see these set-ups coming from a mile away. But there you are, captive on a bus or camel, so you endure them.

In our case, the merchant ran a pretty classy affair. They welcomed our group, beckoned us to sit around the edge of the room on piles of folded carpets and gave us tea and a presentation about the weaving of Turkish carpets. I wish I could remember more about the presentation. What I do remember is that the tea was very sweet and that when they unrolled a sample carpet onto the floor a bunch of cockroaches ran out from it.

Later my wife and I walked among the shops near the pier. If you want to imagine what this is like, imagine the scene where Indiana Jones tries to escape the Nazis in a North African souk. It’s noisy. It’s mobbed with people. Hawkers are selling everything from brass lamps to tube socks. (Yes. Tube socks.)

We should have known better. We’d already paid a kid a few bucks to let my wife sit on the back of a somnabulant camel. We should have gone straight back to the ship. But instead we decided to buy a rug.

We went into what looked like a reputable rug place. The shopkeeper spoke English and had a photo and magazine story about his “other” shop in Carmel, California. We saw a lot of rugs we liked. But we couldn’t find anything in a color my wife had seen and admired at another shop.

The shopkeeper grabs our hands and led us on a fast walk down alleys and up and down stairs and along dark halls until we arrived at another dealer’s showroom. Old men sat around a large dim upstairs room smoking..well, I don’t know what they smoked. But we found a rug we liked among their piles. We retraced our steps back to the original shop. After a little obligatory bargaining, we purchased the rug. I filled out customs forms and shipping labels. We took a picture of the carpet and returned to the ship. No tube socks for us. We’d bought a real Turkish rug!

We didn’t expect our rug to arrive in America quickly. The rug guy said it would likely be 6-8 weeks. No problem.

Only after six or eight weeks there was no sign of the carpet, nor was there any sign after ten or twelve weeks. I attempted to contact the shop by phone. No luck. I asked a Turkish friend if he had family in the area who could make inquiries. They did and confirmed that the business was reputable, but they were unable to make contact with anyone there, either. I called the shop in Carmel and just got an answering machine.

I finally called American Express to explain the situation. They put me in touch with their Istanbul office. They’d had no complaints about the merchant, but promised to see what they could find out.

A few weeks later, I got a phone call from a freight forwarding company in New York. They had a package addressed simply to “Chris Bonney, Virginia.”

Later that week a big truck pulled up outside the house and unloaded the rug. Thankfully, there were no cockroaches and the rug was indeed the one we’d bought in Kusadasi. Rolled up tightly in the middle of the rug was the paperwork for our purchase, including the fully addressed shipping label I’d filled out back in Turkey.

The rug has been in our living room ever since. Every now and then the sun shines in from the one of the front windows and illuminates a different small section of the rug, revealing patterns we never noticed before.

* I wrote about the “rock man” of Ephesus here.


  1. What a great story!! I'm smiling ear to ear. Tube socks, eh? Looks like a beautiful rug--worth the wait!

  2. That's a lovely story you've spun. We were warned ahead of time not to end the tour of Tunisia in the rug shop, but a headstrong young man (my own son, aged 14) landed us in the place we'd been warned against. We stayed, but left rugless. I've often wondered if I should have indulged in a carpet. Glad your purchase turned out the way it did.

  3. I think you did purchased a real magic carpet. That rug seems so precious that it illuminates when the sun shines. I wonder how you guys do the cleaning and maintenance? Coz it does sure have to have an extra ordinary maintenance like my woven carpet here in Indianapolis, Indiana.