""The world is not round. It is rectangular! There is Pakistan on one end. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on the other end. Iran over there. The world has four corners."
The world is a carpet."
I have just finished reading this wonderful, interesting, sad, and hopeful book by Anna Badkhen (Riverhead Books, 2013) and I cannot stop thinking about the tiny village (if you can even call it that) in Afghanistan where Badkhen spent time over the course of one year. Badkhen is a war correspondent and an author, and she writes about people in extremis, so naturally not all the stories she shares are happy ones; but they are very much worth reading and can even be described, occasionally, as uplifting (her other books include Afghanistan by Donkey, Waiting for the Taliban, and Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories, which I've also read and which is beautifully written and heartbreaking.)
There are moments of beauty and of humor in The World is a Carpet, but I hope I will not appear shallow if I admit that I was equally as interested in the trail Badkhen traces of a handwoven carpet as in the people who lived in the Afghan village (again, so tiny that Google maps can't find it). One of the women in the village, Thawra, is an accomplished weaver, and once she finishes a carpet (which typically takes at least seven months) her husband Amanullah will roll it up and put in his donkey saddlebag. His father will take it on a footpath across the desert to Dawlatabad. A middleman will then sell it to a dealer from Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in Northern Afghanistan. Then, the carpet might be put in a taxicab, then in a truck, over the border to Pakistan to the rug markets of Peshawar and Islamabad. Or, it might go to Istanbul, "one of the largest carpet bazaars in the world," or, it might go to Kabul, on to Dubai, and then to a dealer in the U.S., "the single largest purchaser of carpets on the world market" at the time she was writing. "A wealthy patron will pay between five and twenty thousand dollars for it. Wherever her carpet ends up, for her work Thawra will be paid less than a dollar a day."
Like many other handcrafted items, and even quality olive oil and wine, it's hard to appreciate the price unless you understand the work that went into making them.
According to Badkhen, there are two factors that determine the beauty of a carpet, and it's not the design, which, after all, is subjective -- what appeals to one person may not to another. The first is the density of the knots, and the density that makes for a beautiful carpet is approximately 240 knots per square inch. This benchmark is at least as old as the oldest known carpet in the world, the Pazyryk Carpet, which was discovered by Sergei Rudenko in the 1940s inside an Iron Age burial of Scythian nomads, where it was encased in the Siberian permafrost for the Pazyryk Valley. The rug is two meters long and almost two meters wide, and scientists have carbon-dated it to between 500 and 400 B.C.
The second criterion is the number of mistakes detected in the carpet. "A devout Muslim will tie a few errant knots on purpose, for a flawless design would challenge the perfection of God." But most often the mistakes are accidental.
I don't own many carpets, but I learned most of what I know about their quality -- and that of other weavings like camel bags, hanging cradles, salt bags, and kilims -- in Istanbul, from tribal art merchant Omer Eymen (readers of my Istanbul book know the story of how my husband and I met Omer, so I won't recount it again here). But Omer informed me recently that his shop has a new address (formerly he was in the Arasta Bazaar), and it's now located at Küçuk Ayasofya Cami Sokak No. 7, Sultanahmet - Fatih, www.eymen.com.tr (which is still very near the Arasta Bazaar).
I recommend Omer's shop to visitors all the time -- not just because he is my friend but because he is passionate about the items he sells, which are unique, and his prices are fair and represent good value -- and if you or someone you know is headed for Istanbul I encourage a visit to his emporium. You will receive a very warm and genuine welcome and Omer will be happy to explain the features and characteristics of his woven wares. As I noted in my book, Omer was recommended in an article entitled "Istanbul: The Kilim Connection" that appeared in the December 2002 issue of Travel + Leisure (the article was written by Carol Southern, who was Martha Stewart's original editor). AND, other good news for travelers to Istanbul is that Omer is now also an innkeeper! Visit www.antikkonak.com to learn more about this lovely, tastefully decorated apartment which is also in the Sultanahmet neighborhood and rents for approximately $150 per night. I couldn't resist sharing a few photos from the website below:
While I just learned about the apartment last month and therefore haven't stayed here yet, I am confident in recommending it and I believe it is a lodging worthy of your consideration. For myself, I have already decided that when I next go to Istanbul with my husband and daughter we are definitely staying here at the Antik Konak.
In the opening pages of Anne Badkhen's book, she shares three quotations about carpets, and I in turn share one of them here:
"Unroll your carpets, and I shall see what is written in your heart."