As published in Hand/Eye Magazine on May 6 2010
Five generations of carpet salvation at the Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, is a living connection between past and present. The Turkish bazaar was a stop on the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that linked East and West and lies steps from the Bosphorus, the strait that both divides and joins Asia and Europe. In the very back of the bazaar, in the Zincirli Han (caravansary), the Sisco Osman carpet business sells beautifully restored Turkish carpets that have literally connected old and new for the five generations since 1898.
“There are 4,000 carpet shops in Istanbul and 400 in the Grand Bazaar,” Says Bilgin Aksoy, the nephew of Osman Senel, better known as business namesake Sisco Osman (pronounced “chish-ko”). “Of those 400, only a handful sell old carpets and kilims that have been restored. Everyone else sells ‘new’ carpets. They just call a factory with a model number and they make it right away. Our carpets are 100% wool. People who sell new carpets claim them to be made completely of wool, but they are more like 30-40% wool…they have to be for the machine looms to be able to work with the carpet fiber.” Bilgin is one of 4 cousins that are the 5th generation of the Sisko Osman business. Osman Senel has handed over the reins to the business but is still involved in procuring the carpets. He scours the Turkish countryside looking for older, often damaged carpets and then has them painstakingly rewoven to look like new. The carpets are typically “dowry” carpets that brides-to-be have woven for their betrothed, a woven symbol of the bride and groom’s lifelong connection.
“My uncle is somewhere in remote Turkey now, acquiring carpets,” says Bilgin. “Often the village women who weave the carpets and kilims initially don’t want to sell them. But we make a note of a good carpet and come back another time and sometimes later they are willing to sell. Often it can be many years later.”
Acquisition of the carpets is a lot of work. For every 100 villagers contacted on a 3-4 week buying trip, perhaps 5 will be willing to part with their carpet. Most of the company’s carpets are between 30-50 years old, with many being as old as 80 or 90 years old. Sometimes they will acquire a beautiful carpet that is 200 or 300 years old from the Ottoman Period; those go in their private collection that now numbers about 1,700 carpets. The Turkish government prohibits the export of carpets and kilims older than 100 years.
Once the carpets are acquired, the painstaking process of restoring them begins. It takes about a year for a Turkish village woman to weave a carpet, but to restore an older one can take twice as long. The old, slightly faded carpet fibers of the original must be matched exactly and in order to repair a 2-inch diameter hole, the warp and weft must be opened twice that amount in each direction in order to seamlessly repair the carpet. An inventory of older carpet and kilim pieces is kept exclusively for this process and twenty artisans work full time restoring the carpets. Obviously with this labor component, restoration is the most expensive part of the process but the results speak for themselves. Bilgin rolls out a recently-acquired wool carpet and then lays a similar restored one over it and the difference is stunning; a harmonious connection between old and new fibers.
Over time, the Sisko Osman principals have seen tens of thousands of carpets but some are more memorable than others. “One older woman remembers when she wove her dowry carpet many years ago,” says Bilgin. “She knew that her husband really wanted an automobile but had no chance of buying one. When she wove her dowry carpet, she wove a red car in each corner.” Bilgin then has his assistant roll out the very same carpet in the showroom -- a shiny wool-on-wool, red carpet that looks like new. “Another carpet design was the view that the bride and her groom would see from the window of their new house once they were married.” Again the assistant rolls out a carpet with the aforementioned landscape -- a village mosque, trees and mountains framed within a floral border.
With Turkish women slowly becoming more modern, dowry carpets are becoming harder to find. Bilgin acknowledges that it’s a dying art. “Yes, it may be harder to find carpets like these in the future, but we have a large inventory of carpets that we’ve acquired over the years. Enough to keep this generation busy.”
You can purchase beautifully restored Turkish carpets from the Sisco Osman company in Istanbul, Turkey. Their showroom is located in the Zincirli Han section of the Grand Bazaar.