Caravansarai: More Than Carpet Shopping in Turkey
Every traveler aches to possess the same freedom: to experience the unknown and to thrive in it— if not survive through it! Spiritual wanderers like Siddhartha seeking enlightenment and legendary heroes like the Roman poet Vergil’s fated hero Aeneas embarking on a tortuous journey to found Rome, and the “real guys” the ones who didn’t know the earth was round and floated out to sea—They were like our modern-day astronauts. I envy the sense of adventure that Marco Polo (b.1254-d.1324) and Ibn Battuta (b. 1304 – d.1368/69) must have felt, navigating deserts and oceans on end, resting in caravansarais along the Silk Road. The world is smaller than it was during their time, and while the sites we visit like the forum in Rome don’t resemble the citadels of activity they once were, what survives possesses an inherent beauty that continues to captivate. One of the active cross-roads of the Silk Road lies between Cappadocia and Konya, the location of my first visit to central Turkey!
At the time I accompanied a colleague researching for her thesis on the Sufi philosopher and poet Mevlana, also known as Rumi, and the whirling dervishes. My mental prep for the trip involved reading a luscious page-turner. My name is Red by the contemporary Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is a murder mystery about Ottoman court painters during the sixteenth century. Beyond my coursework in Islamic art, I didn’t prepare much because my colleague planned each day. My favorite visits included the Ataturk Musezi (the house museum of the father of modern-day Turkey) and Les Arts Turcs, an arts organization in Istanbul, where we met the artist standing with my friend in the photo below.
One day we bathed in a gorgeous and famous Ottoman hamam. A bit awkwardly, I received a bikini wax in a quasi-public space from a woman with the curves of an ancient fertility statuette. She wore nothing but a bikini bottom. Not my usual routine but pleasant enough! Afterward she lathered some soap while I lay on a giant marble slab and stared up at the starlike lights on the ceiling. Rinsed off with water poured from a metal jug, I dried and ran scented oils through my hair. My friend and I donned robes and sat for tea in a beautiful wood-paneled area. Had we wanted a massage or mani-pedi, we could have spent a lot more time there! Later we soaked up hamam-fashion at the museum, where accoutrement for the ritual tradition of bathing in Turkey is on view.
A typical experience for two female travel companions walking down the streets in Konya involves young men approaching them on every street, eager to give unofficial tours around the city. Initially put off by this form of public harassment, my girlfriend and I resolved to turn a seemingly inconvenient and otherwise uncomfortable predicament into our advantage.
Firstly, two foreign women wandering alone in a conservative country sometimes warrants a voluntary male to escort them. While many young people wear more European clothes in Istanbul, in Konya (an old Seljuq capital) they are especially proud of their religion and rules for traditional apparel and appropriate behavior are followed. Secondly, most suit-wearing guys we met were working as carpet sellers who hoped we would follow them to patronize their shops. It was an educational experience for me particularly because of my background in textile studies, and I love carpets!
Thirdly, we spent a longer period in Konya than most visitors, and had planned our visit during the off-season, which allowed our relationships with locals to blossom into friendships that would last beyond the trip. When it came to trusting perfect strangers, we learned how to screen our new friends quickly, and ensure that each other felt comfortable with them through initial conversations. We avoided guys who were pushy, stared a lot, those who invaded our personal space or had questionable motives. We learned to provide our phone numbers rarely, if at all. Sounds silly but it’s important to be able to read people to make decent friends abroad quickly! And exit strategies were necessary in case new friends became disagreeable company. One of the absolute nicest perks about making local friends is getting to visit the most interesting parts of a city. One evening in Konya, we enjoyed a spectacular view atop a hill scaled in our new friend’s car. We ate etliekmek, or Turkish pizza in a restaurant and watched women expertly roll the dough on squat stools just outside.
Speaking of company, what a blessing to have an experienced traveling companion to help maintain my sanity when plans go off course. For example, the feeling of being lost or misguided is unpleasant, but happens frequently while traveling. Just when I need someone to go with the flow and choose to smile instead of frown, they rise to the occasion. Unplanned expenses, like a flight reschedule(!), can be particularly upsetting. On my most recent trip to Istanbul I traveled with an Iranian friend, and this is exactly what happened. Somehow he kept a cool head about everything. In fact, he managed to make me feel happy that I had six more hours to enjoy Turkey because I missed my flight. By saying things like ”Now we get to visit that restaurant we liked again and try another dish!” or “Don’t worry, I don’t mind the wait,” he made me feel better. I’ll admit that understanding the language would have helped. It’s laughable now how impossibly difficult it was for me to communicate in Turkish to make the simplest inquiry. I relied on many kind Turkish people who gave me directions with their hands or assisted me in restaurants to order when English translations or pictures weren’t on the menu, and all I could do in response was smile and say, “Teshakor!” (= Thank you!)
While bargaining in Istanbul’s grand bazaar for a small, sand-colored kilim I was met with an argument from an elderly carpet dealer who told me he had to fly to Philadelphia for his leg surgery, lamenting the lower standard of local care and the cost of the trip. Didn’t I think the carpet was worth what he asked?! Fearful of offending him or even of appearing ungrateful for healthcare in the U.S., I settled on a higher price. In retrospect, I would have not been pressured in the least. I learned a lot since that first trip, including the fact that some carpets for the souvenir market in Turkey are actually made more cheaply in China, and it is sometimes impossible to identify something special from a fake, whether a carpet is made of silk or a silk-like fiber, for example in the pile carpet above.
At this point I’ve also learned to be less alarmed (or charmed!) by the things people say in the market, and especially regarding purchases. This is essential for travelers who like to shop but don’t want to get ripped off or make a mistake. Carpet dealers in Turkey make it nearly impossible for you to “just look,” and they’re very skilled! I’ve learned a little mantra for myself in situations when I feel stressed which is “Let. It. Go.” If I like the carpet and the price, that’s great. If I can get it home, that’s great too. If not, there will be plenty more in the next shop- no matter what the dealers say!
On one of these visits to a vacant carpet museum in Konya, the veritable age of the fabric on display struck me as so beautiful that I had to ask myself why. Someone had gingerly sewn every ragged and scraggly bit to a blank canvas in order to display the original geometric and floral pattern, still recognizable beneath the dust of time. Debates persist over the significance of the dense vegetal and geometric patterns that prevail throughout the history of art of Islamic lands. In addition to symbolism and images of figures or characters from epic poems and stories, what attracts me to Islamic art isn’t always the context or narrative expressed so much as the color, repetition, geometry and floral patterning.
I think the mind enjoys designs on an old carpet like pieces of a puzzle, in unexpected color combinations, lines and shapes, the result of someone else’s decisions centuries prior. It’s easy to imagine a pattern continuing beyond edges and through interruptions (like moth holes and the erosion of wool dyed with a certain element.) The design transcends its placement on a torn piece of fabric and from the context of the hands of the person who created it to something infinite, continuous and ever-present. It possesses aspects of its intended attractiveness in addition to the mystery of age.
I let my mind wander to the time of the Silk Road, and the experience of artisans and merchants from diverse walks of life settling in caravansarais. About a days journey each apart, they constituted a vast network stretching across Europe and Asia. Plain and square architectural structures, caravansarais have large courtyards surrounded by a perimeter space for cargo, animals, booths and lodgings above. Massive and heavily decorated portals accommodated camels laden with goods. There’s hardly a modern equivalent as symbolic of an age of travel as the caravansarai and none that functions in the same way. I wonder if somehow sharing the space for a brief period (of about three days at a time) encouraged the travelers within to learn to trust strangers more quickly or at least learn to enjoy one another’s company more. And I wonder what it would be like if the travelers that I imagine inhabiting the caravansarai were women instead of men, which seems more likely. Recently while working at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I struck up a conversation with a young couple visiting from Turkey. When the man learned about my interest in Rumi, he asked if I’d ever read “The 40 Rules of Love” by contemporary Turkish writer Elif Shafak. Since my first visits to Turkey, I’ve learned a bit more about the award-winning female novelist whose fascinating TED talk on storytelling called “The Politics of Fiction” can be found at this link. Beautiful and eloquent, Shafak shares her international upbringing, female mentorship, the challenge of writing fiction as a Turkish woman including a trial she faced because of something a character in her book uttered, and the threat of identity politics that multicultural writers experience. She uses the image of the circle, and movement of the whirling dervish, to express her views on how people must open their hearts and minds beyond what they know to live more fully and healthily in society and in the world. She strives for her work to be both “local and universal.”
Shafak is speaking like a traveler, open to new experiences while both invigorated and challenged by the necessary risks involved including learning to trust others and oneself. For me travel is also about the chance to truly rest and be in a new place. As for how I might have fared along the Silk Road in its hay-day, I wouldn’t have enjoyed moving farther and farther away from what I love and know best including my family, friends and culture. Maybe the ideal time to be a traveler is now, while it is possible to hold onto the best of both worlds no matter where I am.
As a final thought on making friends in Turkey, below is a Sufi poem quoted by the celebrated female writer Elif Shafak at the close of her TED talk: