The 1,000-year-old Turkish rug industry is hanging by a thread – but these weavers are keeping it alive

  • Weavers in Turkey are trying to keep the 1,000-year-old tradition of hand-weaving rugs alive.
  • The industry has been hit hard by a dwindling economy and the pandemic.
  • Handwoven Turkish rugs can cost thousands of dollars, and a single rug can take over a year to make.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

It can take nearly a year to hand-weave a traditional Turkish carpet, which can often cost thousands of dollars.

But now, because of Turkey’s stalling economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, an industry that relies heavily on tourist dollars is shrinking.

And those in the business fear that a 1,000-year-old tradition is now hanging by a thread.

Traditional Turkish carpets are typically woven by women. The carpets are usually made with wool or silk, and they typically display traditional motifs, animals, and plants.

At the Women’s Cultural Center in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, master weavers can take up to six months to complete only three square feet of a carpet, about the size of a hand towel. 

“We weave our carpets with enthusiasm and affection from the beginning to the end,” Raziye Başeğmez, a master trainer at the center, told Insider. “When it’s done, we become the happiest person in the world, because this happiness is truly priceless.”

The finished silk carpets at the women’s center cost as much as $US4,000 ($5,253). It’s a luxury for many locals who have been grappling with a recession for the last five years.

Many carpet businesses in Istanbul have folded. It’s especially noticeable in the city’s Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world.

“There were a lot of carpet shops here. Now there are only four I think on the whole street,” carpet store owner Hasan Basri Semerci told Insider.

Semerci has been at the bazaar for 43 years and has seen the decline in customers firsthand since the pandemic began.

“They are not basic necessities,” he said. “You need to buy bread, but you can postpone buying carpets and rugs.”

“So people’s priorities turned into other things.”

Turkey’s tourist base has also changed. Semerci said Western tourists are more inclined to purchase Turkish rugs, while Eastern tourists are more inclined to buy them from China or India.

But the number of foreigners who visited Turkey last year declined by more than 60%.

“In the past, we couldn’t walk the streets because of the crowd,” Semerci said. “The number of people walking in the bazaar has decreased considerably.”

While tourists are no longer flocking to Turkey, manufacturers are sending more and more carpets abroad. Revenue from handwoven rug exports has increased from over $US600 ($788) million to almost $US2 ($3) billion in the last decade.