Buying a carpet in Esfahan, Iran, Gulf Life
I had accidentally bought a carpet. I’m not quite sure at what point the transition took place, from stumbling into the covered warren of archways, cobbled lanes and tobacco-brick walls of Esfahan’s Bazar-e Bozorg to placing my credit card on the cedar wood counter, but I was now the proud – and slightly confused – owner of a US$400 plum red and cornflower blue Baluchistan weave.
“You wanna buy carpet? I give you good price”, hissed a flirtatious voice moments earlier. It was part informal invitation, yet part obligatory summons. Whispered to me through a blind archway, as though it was an offer for something more seditious, I was introduced to Mr Saber Fouladgar, Esfahani carpet seller extraordinaire. Lured by the promise of silks good enough for Scheherazade, just as Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta on the trail of foreign riches might have been in times gone by, I was completely seduced by his ripping yarns from under the bazaar’s cloaked honeycombed ceiling. I found it impossible to resist the generous offer of sweet sugary Iranian tea.
Entering Mr Saber’s Magic of Persia carpet shop, I was overwhelmed by the richness of carpets on display. There were racks and racks of red and russet carpets from Hamadan, olive and emerald flowered Azari rugs, geometric Kordish weaves, Kermani arabesque prayer mats and nomadic Bakhtaran kilims. The walls and floors were draped with delicate colours, pastels and Esfahani silks. The smell, for the lack of a better word, was “carpety”. It was like breathing in a dusty bookshelf.
If Aladdin or Ali Baba were to wander into Esfahan’s labyrinthine central bazaar today, like me, they’d no longer be content with fanciful thoughts of buying a flying carpet. Even considering its magical properties and charmed ability to levitate on cue – at least according to the anthropomorphism of Mark Twain, Walt Disney and J.K. Rowling – the choice of rugs and mats on offer would have the poor fellows breaking out in hives. The art of buying a Persian carpet was more complicated than I had ever imagined.
Riddled with as many Mongol sword holes and British colonial bullets as needle stitch marks, the Persian carpet industry has long been the best known Iranian cultural export. Flourishing in the 16th Century, because of patronisation by the influential Shahs, the humble carpet has developed in style to embrace geometric designs, floral motifs and Quranic and Kufic inscriptions – a blend of both Persian and Arabic cultural histories. Somewhat appropriately, Esfahani designs are also the most highly sought after: in the best examples, soft lamb’s wool is tightly woven around a silk warp to produce a medallion motif of ivory vines and indigo palms. Arguably the world’s most famous silk rug is the Ardabil carpet, which was woven with 30 million knots. Bought by a British carpet broker, it now hangs in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, a symbol of the UK’s former colonial power.
Home to the production of a third of the world’s fine carpets and floorings, Iranian carpets still remain a display of wealth and power and are an integral part of everyday life. Day to day operations are entangled in the daily politics of the bazaar. In Tehran, Shiraz and Esfahan, for instance, the influential Bazaaris (shopkeepers and carpet sellers) are said to hold the strings to the country’s economic purse. “Our carpets are like status symbols and for us Iranians it’s usual to invest 1000’s of dollars in a rug or prayer mat,” said Adi, a student carpet seller from The Silk Road emporium. We had bonded by chance over tea and qalyan (hookah) at the famous Qeysarieh Tea Shop the previous night. He warned me that the carpet sellers and rug merchants of Esfahan had a reputation as the hardest hagglers in the whole of Central Asia. From behind broken tooth grins, I imagined traders soaking customers in sweet tea and unravelling tales about nomadic weavers and silk barons before the inevitable hard sell. Before Adi took his leave, he somewhat inevitably invited me for tea at his own carpet shop.
The next day had dawned, doused by a desert sunrise the colour of sultanas and strained tea leaves, and before falling into Mr Saber’s deceptive snare, I had been on a crash course with Persian history. Entering into carpet contracts couldn’t have been further from my mind. The needle-like minarets of Esfahan’s great mosques stood tall before me. I had turned into the colossal Naqsh-E Jahan Square, unfurled like the world’s largest geometric floor mat, and was blinded by the gigantic turquoise dome of the Imam Mosque flashing in the morning sun. Translated from Farsi as ‘pattern of the world’, the square would be a frenzied masterpiece of engineering and architecture in any age; but as it was a Friday, with locals attending to prayers, it was uncannily quiet.
Built at the centre of Esfahan’s once imperial capital, the Naqsh-e Jahan Square has been designed to be looked upon, a concrete expression of the emperor’s power. Flanking its arched arcades in near perfect symmetry are the six-storey Ali Qapu Palace, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque and the white marble Imam Mosque, with its colossal entrance portal. All are bathed in turquoise-tiled mosaic designs, owing much to the vision of Shah Abbas the Great and his love of Safavid-era design. The reasons for French poet Renier to once describe it as ‘half of the world’ are well founded. Each one dwarfed me.
But that was when my life and luggage had been much humbler. I had then wandered into the covered arterial alleyways and darkened arches that framed the square and I now had a 6ft x 4ft carpet to transport home. Around me the bazaar buzzed like an energetic bee hive. As one of the few Western tourists visiting the souk, I looked conspicuous enough; the thought of lugging my new purchase and travel partner back to my hotel room in 35 degree heat was hardly appealing; I imagined being locked up and lashed by the authorities. “Don’t worry,” reassured Ali, Saber’s father, with a twinkle in his eye. “Saber will take carpet to hotel this afternoon. This is no problem for Esfahani man. Like the Scottish man, we are most generous! You shall see!” I retreated to my room on Chahar Bagh Abbasi Street and waited. Like stitches in time, the clock hours wound past hour after hour.
The phone rang at 12am. Amid half-dreams of carpets and cottons, I stretched out for the receiver; Mr Saber was waiting for me at reception. “Mr Mike! You bring me good luck!” huffed a breathless Saber in the foyer. He beamed a smile brighter than the Imam Mosque itself. Despite the starless night outside I could see the perspiration on his brow. “Sorry for being late with your carpet! I so busy! Today for sure I sell five more carpets to other customers. You are a good luck! I now go to celebrate with my family!” Heaving the carpet onto the floor, he beamed with unadulterated pleasure. “This carpet will now bring you luck. Oh yes, I am sure! You made the good choice!”
That was three months ago and – to date – my carpet hasn’t brought me any such good fortune; for a start, it refused to fit in my apartment upon my return home. My Mum, the eager beneficiary, seems pleased though – it looks great on her living room floor. Maybe that’s providence enough.