The Man Behind the Rugs: Mehmet Yalcin


There’s nothing quite like the Eastern Market and street fair on a sunny weekend day, where stalls sell anything from antique prints to RBG onesies across the street from the strips many shops and restaurants. Many of the store owners stand in front of their shops, comparing notes on their week or catching up on gossip. If you’re lucky, the owner of Silk Road and Woven History, Mehmet Yalcin, will be there, wearing his chapan, a knee-length coat from Tashkent in Uzbekistan, worn throughout Central Asia, and his Kazak eagle hunters hat from Western Mongolia, purple and fur-lined, with ear flaps.

Mehmet is a swarthy man in his late sixties, with black eyes and a gentle disposition. I got to know him when my husband and I were looking for rugs for our condo just around the corner from Woven History. First, we chatted with him about what we were looking for, then we casually looked around his shop. Then, Mehmet sat us down with Turkish coffee as we started the selection process.

What absolutely sold me on Mehmet was when I stopped in with my four-year-old grandson, Orion. Orion ran to Mehmet with his arms open. Mehmet lifted him up and placed him on a pile of rugs. Off he ran jumping over spaces between piles of rugs and plopping himself down face first once he finally got tired. Nothing could have pleased Mehmet more. Orion woke up the next morning saying, “I want to go to Mehmet’s house!”

Silk Road and Woven History
Woven History’s oriental rugs are the perfect choice for our late 19th and early 20th century homes. Their warmth, patterns and colors add richness to any room, no matter how modern. Entering Silk Road and Woven History, you’ll find yourself in another world, one you might find in Turkey or Iran or Afghanistan. Rugs of every size from small to enormous are piled high in every corner and Mehmet seems to know and love each one. He’ll happily dig through a tall pile of them to show you the one, a foot down, about which you’re curious, all the while telling you, in his soft-spoken voice, about hiking in the Himalayas or about his farm in Lovettsville, near Harper’s Ferry.

Today, Mehmet and his family live above Woven History and Silk Road on 7th Street when they’re not at their farm in Lovettsville. Woven History houses around 5,000 rugs of all the five different types—pile knotted, kilim—a flat woven carpet without the pile, cicim, which is a kilim with embroidery, sumak—a double stitched, hand embroidered carpet, and verne, also known as sileh, an embroidered weaving from Azerbajan.

Silk Road carries over 200 gift items from along the silk road, which started in Turkey then went through 18 countries ending in China. There are tiles and plates, small and large bowls in beautiful Turkish patterns with traditional pomegranate designs so typical of Turkish pottery. Hats of every size and description decorate the wall and jewelry cases display long hanging earrings with semi-precious stones. On the floor are brightly colored, intricately embroidered boots in soft suede.

A Complicated Journey
Oriental rugs have not always been a part of Mehmet’s life. He grew up in Osmaniye Province in south central Turkey, a region historically referred to as Ceilicia crossroads, a transient area connecting east and west. He did part of high school in Ankara but then was invited by a friend and Peace Corps roommate to come to the US as an exchange student. He finished high school in Olyphant, PA, and then went on to the University of Scranton where he studied international relations. He graduated from Scranton in 1975, then moved to Washington.

In 1977 Mehmet started a Masters in International Development at American University after which he accepted a position at the World Bank in international communications. During this time, he lived in an apartment on upper Massachusetts Ave. near AU and started helping a Turkish friend unload rugs he was importing. He made a deal with his friend that he could have the rugs of his choice to add to his collection in exchange for his help unloading them.

Pretty soon, colleagues from the World Bank were coming to Mehmet’s apartment to look at rugs. At this point, he accepted a position heading an import/export company that belonged to Topbas Holding. After a year at Topbas, Mehmet decided to realize a lifelong dream of traveling the world starting in Istanbul and eventually making his way through all of Europe, Scandinavia, and North Africa. When health concerns ended his travels, he came back to Washington, and in 1987, he organized the first Annual Turkish Nomadic and Folk Art Show at the Eastern Market, a sleepy place at the time.

In 1987, Mehmet also started a PhD program in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies at Harvard and would come back to DC every two or three weeks to oversee the folk art show he’d conceived. After six years at Harvard, Mehmet finished his degree and returned to Washington. He opened Woven History which specializes in traditionally woven, vegetable-dyed Middle Eastern rugs in 1995.

Mehmet began to work with a cultural survival NGO founded by Cambridge Professor Mayberry Lewis who asked Mehmet for ideas to revive the dying arts and crafts of that region while helping indigenous peoples profit from their skills. He set up his own looms and worked with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and Afghan refugees in Pakistan. “We assist them while they’re in exile and help educate their children,” Mehmet adds. “There’s still a lot of forced child labor in carpet making, and I’m trying to protect against that.”

Mehmet and his second wife, Yasemin, have three daughters whom they raised mainly at their farm in Lovettsville. Two of them just graduated from college and the youngest is in 8th grade, working remotely.  “I wish one of my daughters would take more of an interest in the shop,” Mehmet said, “but they’re off straightening out the world. Rugs are like my kids,” he added, “Each one is unique and I love them all.”

Woven History is open Wednesday-Sunday, 11-5. 315 7th St. SE, DC, 202-543-1705.