Turkish carpet

This article is about pile-woven Turkish carpets. For flat-woven rugs, see Kilim
Anatolian double-niche rug, Konya region, circa 1650-1750 [1] LACMA M.2004.32

Turkish carpet is a term of convenience, commonly used today to denote rugs and carpets woven by various ethnicities in the geographic region of Asia minor and the adjacent regions, which formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire. It denotes a knotted, pile-woven floor or wall covering which is produced for home use, local sale, and export. Along with flat-woven kilim, "Turkish" carpets form an essential part of the regional culture, today officially understood as Turkish, but in fact derived from the multi-ethnic, multi-religious traditions of the former Ottoman Empire and its predecessors.

Carpet weaving represents a traditional art, dating back to pre-Islamic times. During its long history, the art and craft of the woven carpet has integrated different cultural traditions. Traces of Byzantine design can be detected, Turkic peoples migrating from Central Asia, as well as Armenian people, Caucasian and Kurdic tribes either living in, or migrating to Anatolia, brought with them their traditional designs. The arrival of Islam and the development of the Islamic art also influenced Turkish carpet design. The history of its designs, motifs and ornaments thus reflects the political and ethnic history and diversity of the area of Asia minor. However, scientific attempts were unsuccessful, as yet, to attribute a particular design to a specific ethnic, regional, or even nomadic versus village tradition.[2]

When political contacts and trade became more intense between Western Europe and the Islamic world after the 12th century AD, also woven carpets became known in Europe. As direct trade was initially established between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, all kinds of carpets became known in Europe by the trade name of "Turkish" carpets, regardless of their actual provenience.[3] When Western European art historians developed a scientific interest in "oriental" carpets in the late 19th century, the richness and cultural diversity of the carpet designs was better understood.

Within the group of oriental carpets, the Turkish carpet is distinguished by particular characteristics of dyes and colours, designs, textures and techniques. Usually made of wool and cotton, Turkish carpets are tied with the "Turkish", or symmetrical knot. Examples range in size from pillow (yastik) to large, room-sized carpets. The earliest known examples for Turkish carpets date from the thirteenth century. Distinct types of carpets have been woven ever since in workshops, in more provincial weaving facilities, as well as in villages, tribal settlements, or by nomads. Carpets were simultaneously produced for these different levels of society, with varying materials like sheep wool and cotton. No silk piled carpets made in Turkey have been found that were before 1870. Not till the early 20th century were silk pile carpets knotted in Turkey using silver and gold threads with patterns based upon 16th century Imperial Safavid Iranian carpets.

Turkish carpets are regarded as objects of art in their country of origin, but also in the Western world. In Europe, Turkish carpets appear in Renaissance paintings, providing a context of prestige and dignity which is still understood today.[4] Since the late nineteenth century, Turkish and oriental carpets have been subject to art historic and scientific interest in the Western world.[3][5][6] More recently, also flat woven carpets (Kilim, Soumak, Cicim, Zili) have attracted collectors' and scientists' interest.[7] In the late twentieth century, projects started to revive the traditional art of Turkish carpet weaving by using hand-spun, naturally-dyed wool and traditional designs.[8]


The Pazyryk Carpet. Circa 400 BC. Hermitage Museum

Woven carpets were likely produced first in geographical regions where climatic conditions require protection against the weather, by nomadic peoples who lived on the floors of tents, whose belongings had to be easily transportable. The raw material to produce carpets had to be readily available during the migration. Sheep and goats provided the wool, natural dye could be derived from plants and minerals. As such, woven tissues could serve both utilitarian and decorative purposes, depending on the shape and size in which they were produced.

The beginning of carpet weaving remains unknown, as carpets are subject to use, deterioration, and destruction by insects and rodents. Controversy arose over the accuracy of the claim[9] that the oldest records of flat woven kilims come from the Çatalhöyük excavations, dated to circa 7000 BC.[10] The excavators' report[11] remained unconfirmed, as the wall paintings depicting kilim motifs were said to have disintegrated shortly after their exposure.

The oldest known hand knotted rug is the "Pazyryk carpet", dated back to the 5th century BC. It was preserved frozen in ice, and discovered in the late 1940s by the Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko and his team. The carpet was part of the grave gifts found in Scythian burial mounds of the Pazyryk area in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, near the tri-border area of modern-day Russia, Mongolia and China.[12] The provenience of the Pazyryk carpet is under debate,[13] but its fine weaving in symmetric knots and elaborate pictorial design hint at an advanced state of the art of carpet weaving at the time of its production. This carpet has 3600 symmetrical double knots per cm² (232 per inch²), in modern terminology also called "Turkish Knot".[14][15][16][17][18] The carpet is very similar to modern Turkmen carpets[19][20] and carpets of the early Seljuq period.[19] The numerical values of the carpet also show striking genealogical parallels to the Oghuz-Turkic legend, perhaps based on an older version of the Massageteans.[20] This genealogy is shown in the way the pattern is divided into 24 tribes. On the left and right there are groups of 12 tribes in each. According to Raschid ad-Din, the founder of the Oghuz tribes had six sons, with each having four sons.[20] This scheme was a result of the military administrative reform of the Xiongnu leader Modu Chanyu in 209/206-174 BC. This is mentioned in the “Shiji” (“Historical Records”) of Sima Qian. Historian Sergei Tolstov wrote that this scheme “...was preserved by the Aral foreland Huns, the Kidarites-Hephthalites, and was inherited by their descendants, the tribes of the Oghuz alliance in the 10th – 11th centuries AD and, finally, by the Turkmens of the 19th century AD – beginning of the 20th century AD.”[21]

The history of the Turkish carpet must be understood in the context of the country's political and social history. Anatolia was home to ancient civilizations, such as the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Assyrians, the Ancient Persians, the Armenians, the Ancient Greeks, and the Byzantine Empire. The city of Byzantium was founded in the seventh century BC by the Greek, and rebuilt as a Roman city in 303 AD by the Roman emperor Constantine I. Carpet weaving was probably known already in Anatolia during this time, but no carpets exist today which can be dated back to this time. In 1071 AD, the Seljuq Alp Arslan defeated the Roman Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes at Manzikert. This is regarded as the beginning of the ascendancy of the Seljuq Turks.

Seljuq carpets: Travelers' reports and the Konya fragments

In the early fourteenth century, Marco Polo wrote in the account of his travels:

...et ibi fiunt soriani et tapeti pulchriores de mundo et pulchrioris coloris.
"...and here they make the most beautiful silks and carpets in the world, and with the most beautiful colours."[22]

Coming from Persia, Polo travelled from Sivas to Kayseri. Abu'l-Fida, citing Ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi refers to carpet export from Anatolian cities in the lte 13th century: "That's where Turkoman carpets are made, which are exported to all other countries". He and the Moroccan merchant Ibn Battuta mention Aksaray as a major rug weaving center in the early-to-mid-14th century.

The earliest existing woven Turkish carpets were found in Konya, Beyşehir and Fostat, and were dated to the 13th century. These carpets from the Anatolian Seljuq Period (1243–1302) are regarded as the first group of Turkish carpets. Eight fragments were found in 1905 by F.R. Martin[23] in the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya, four in the Eşrefoğlu Mosque in Beyşehir in Konya province by R.M. Riefstahl in 1925.[24] More fragments were found in Fostat, today a suburb of the city of Cairo.[25]

By their original size (Riefstahl reports a carpet up to 6 m long), the Konya carpets must have been produced in town manufactories, as looms of this size cannot be set up in a nomadic or village home. Where exactly these carpets were woven is unknown. The field patterns of the Konya carpets are mostly geometric, and small in relation to the carpet size. Similar patterns are arranged in diagonal rows: Hexagons with plain, or hooked outlines; squares filled with stars, with interposed kufic-like ornaments; hexagons in diamonds composed of rhomboids filled with stylized flowers and leaves. Their main borders often contain kufic ornaments. The corners are not "resolved", which means that the border design is cut off, and does not continue around the corners. The colours (blue, red, green, to a lesser extent also white, brown, yellow) are subdued, frequently two shades of the same colour are opposed to each other. Nearly all carpet fragments show different patterns and ornaments.

The Beyşehir carpets are closely related to the Konya carpets in design and colour.[3] In contrast to the "animal carpets" of the following period, depictings of animals are rarely seen in the Seljuq carpet fragments. Rows of horned quadrupeds placed opposite to each other, or birds beside a tree can be recognized on some fragments.

The style of the Seljuq carpets finds parallels amongst the architectural decoration of contemporaneous mosques such as those at Divriği, Sivas, and Erzurum, and may be related to Byzantine art.[26] The carpets are today at the Mevlana Museum in Konya, and at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul.

Turkoman carpets of the Anatolian Beyliks

Early in the thirteenth century, the territory of Anatolia was invaded by Mongols. The weakening of Seljuq rule allowed Turkmen tribes known as the Oghuz Turks to organize themselves into independent sovereignties, the Beyliks. These were later integrated into the Ottoman Empire by the sultans Bayezid I (1389-1402), Murad II (1421-1481), Mehmed the Conqueror (1451-1481), and Selim I (1512-1520).

Literary sources like the Book of Dede Korkut confirm that the Turkoman tribes produced carpets in Anatolia. What types of carpets were woven by the Turkoman Beyliks remains unknown, since we are unable to identify them. One of the Turkoman tribes of the Beylik group, the Tekke settled in South-western Anatolia in the eleventh century, and moved back to the Caspian sea later. The Tekke tribes of Turkmenistan, living around Merv and the Amu Darya during the 19th century and earlier, wove a distinct type of carpet characterized by stylized floral motifs called guls in repeating rows.

Ottoman carpets

Around 1300 AD, a group of Turkoman tribes under Suleiman and Ertugrul moved westward. They became known as the Original Ottomans. Under Osman I, they founded the Ottoman Empire in northwestern Anatolia; in 1326, the Ottomans conquered Bursa, which became the first capital of the Ottoman state. By the late 15th century, the Ottoman state had become a major power. In 1517, the Egyptian Sultanate of the Mamluks was overthrown in the Ottoman–Mamluk war.

Suleiman the Magnificent, the tenth Sultan (1520-1566), invaded Persia and forced the Persian Shah Tahmasp (1524–1576) to move his capital from Tabriz to Qazvin, until the Peace of Amasya was agreed upon in 1555.

As the political and economical influence grew of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul became a meeting point of diplomats, merchants and artists. During Suleiman I.'s reign, artists and artisans of different specialities worked together in court manufactures (Ehl-i Hiref). Calligraphy and miniature painting were performed in the scriptories, or nakkaşhane, and infliuenced carpet weaving. Besides Istanbul, Bursa, Iznik, Kütahya and Ushak were homes to manufactories of different specializations. Bursa became known for its silk cloths and brocades, Iznik and Kütahya were famous for ceramics and tiles, Uşak, Gördes, and Ladik for their carpets. The Ushak region, one of the centers of osmanic "court" production, produced some of the finest carpets of the sixteenth century. Holbein and Lotto carpets were woven here.

15th century "animal" carpets

Left image: Phoenix and Dragon carpet, 164 x 91 cm, Anatolia, circa 1500, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Right image: Animal carpet, around 1500, found in Marby Church, Jämtland, Sweden. Wool, 160 cm x 112 cm, Swedish History Museum, Stockholm

Very few carpets still exist today which represent the transition between the late Seljuq and early Ottoman period. A traditional Chinese motif, the fight between phoenix and dragon, is seen in an Anatolian carpet at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the "Dragon and Phoenix" carpet was woven in the mid 15th century, during the early Ottoman Empire. It is knotted with symmetric knots. The Chinese motif was probably introduced into Islamic art by the Mongols during the thirteenth century.[28] Another carpet showing two medallions with two birds besides a tree was found in the Swedish church of Marby. More fragments were found in Fostat, today a suburb of the city of Cairo.[25] A carpet with serial bird-and-tree medallions is shown in Sano di Pietro's painting "Marriage of the Virgin" (1448–52).

The "Dragon and Phoenix" and the "Marby" rugs were the only existing examples of Anatolian animal carpets known until 1988. Since then, seven more carpets of this type have been found. They survived in Tibetan monasteries and were removed by monks fleeing to Nepal during the Chinese cultural revolution. One of these carpets was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art[29] which parallels a painting by the Sienese artist Gregorio di Cecco: "The Marriage of the Virgin", 1423.[30] It shows large confronted animals, each with a smaller animal inside.

More animal carpets were depicted in Italian paintings of the 14th and 15th century, and thus represent the earliest Oriental carpets shown in Renaissance paintings. Although only few examples for early Anatolian carpets have survived, European paintings inform the knowledge about late Seljuk and early Ottoman carpets. By the end of the 15th century, geometrical ornaments became more frequent.

Holbein and Lotto carpets

Based on the distribution and size of their geometric medallions, a distinction is made between "large" and "small" Holbein carpets. The small Holbein type is characterized by small octagons, frequently including a star, which are distributed over the field in a regular pattern, surrounded by arabesques. The large Holbein type show two or three large medallions, often including eight-pointed stars. Their field is often covered in minute floral ornaments. The MAK in Vienna, the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art keep particularly beautiful Ushak carpets.

Lotto carpets show a yellow grid of geometric arabesques, with interchanging cruciform, octagonal, or diamond shaped elements. The oldest examples have "kufic" borders. The field is always red, and is covered with bright yellow leaves on an underlying rapport of octagonal or rhombiform elements. Carpets of various sizes up to 6 meters square are known. Ellis distinguishes three principle design groups for Lotto carpets: the Anatolian-style, kilim-style, and ornamental style.[31]

Holbein and Lotto carpets have little in common with decorations and ornaments seen on Ottoman art objects other than carpets.[32] Briggs demonstrated similarities between both types of carpets, and Timurid carpets depicted in miniature paintings. The Holbein and Lotto carpets may represent a design tradition dating back to the Timurid period.[33]

Ushak carpets

Left image: Medallion Ushak carpet
Right image: Selendi white ground "bird" carpet

Star Ushak carpets were woven in large formats. They are characterized by large dark blue star shaped primary medallions in infinite repeat on a red ground field containing a secondary floral scroll. The design was likely influenced by northwest Persian book design, or by Persian carpet medallions.[34] As compared to the medallion Ushak carpets, the concept of the infinite repeat in star Ushak carpets is more accentuated and in keeping with the early Turkish design tradition.[35] Because of their strong allusion to the infinite repeat, the star Ushak design can be used on carpets of various size and in many varying dimensions.

Medallion Ushak carpets usually have a red or blue field decorated with a floral trellis or leaf tendrils, ovoid primary medallions alternating with smaller eight-lobed stars, or lobed medallions, intertwined with floral tracery. Their border frequently contains palmettes on a floral and leaf scroll, and pseudo-kufic characters.[36]

Medallion Ushak carpets with their curvilinear patterns significantly depart from the designs of earlier Turkish carpets. Their emergence in the sixteenth century hints at a potential impact of Persian designs. Since the Ottoman Turks occupied the former Persian capital of Tabriz in the first half of the sixteenth century, they would have knowledge of, and access to Persian medallion carpets. Several examples are known to have been in Turkey at an early date, such as the carpet that Erdmann found in the Topkapı Palace.[37] The Ushak carpet medallion, however, conceived as part of an endless repeat, represents a specific Turkish idea, and is different from the Persian understanding of a self-contained central medallion.[38]

Star and medallion Ushaks represent an important innovation, as in them, floral ornaments appear in Turkish carpets for the first time. The replacement of floral and foliate ornaments by geometrical designs, and the substitution of the infinite repeat by large, centered compositions of ornaments, was termed by Kurt Erdmann the "pattern revolution".[39]

Another small group of Ushak carpets is called Double-niche Ushaks. In their design, the corner medallions have been moved closely together, so that they form a niche on both ends of the carpet. This has been understood as a prayer rug design, because a pendant resembling a mosque lamp is suspended from one of the niches. The resulting design scheme resembles the classical Persian medallion design. Counterintuitive to the prayer rug design, some of the double niche Ushaks have central medallions as well. Double niche Ushaks thus may provide an example for the integration of Persian patterns into an older Anatolian design tradition.[3][40]

"White ground" Selendi carpets

Examples are also known of carpets woven in the Ushak area, where the floral ornaments of the field were replaced with other ornaments like the Cintamani motif, made of three coloured orbs arranged in triangles, often with two cloud bands positioned under each triangle. This motiv usually appears on a white ground. Together with the Bird and a very small group of so-called Scorpion carpets, they form a group of carpets known as "white ground carpets". Bird carpets have an allover geometrical design of repeating quatrefoils enclosing a rosette. Although geometric in design, the pattern bears similarities to birds. More recently, the carpets of the white ground group have been attributed to the nearby town of Selendi, based on a Turkish inventory of 1640 which mentions a "white carpet with leopard design".[41]

Ottoman Cairene Carpets

After the 1517 Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt, two different cultures merged, as is seen on Mamluk carpets woven after this date. The earlier tradition of the Mamluk carpet used "S" (clockwise) spun and "Z" (anti-clockwise)-plied wool, and a limited palette of colours and shades. After the conquest, the Cairene weavers adopted an Ottoman Turkish design.[42] The production of these carpets continued in Egypt, and probably also in Anatolia, into the early 17th century.[43]

"Transylvanian" carpets of the 16th-18th century

Transylvanian carpet, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Main article: Transylvanian rugs
Left image: Pieter de Hooch: Portrait of a family making music, 1663, Cleveland Museum of Art
Right image: "Transylvanian" type prayer rug, 17th century, National Museum, Warsaw

Transylvania, in present-day Romania was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1526-1699. It was an important center for the carpet trade with Europe. Carpets were also valued in Transylvania, and Turkish carpets were used as decorative wall furnishings in Christian Protestant churches. Amongst others, the Brașov Black Church still shelters a variety of Anatolian carpets, called by convenience "Transylvanian carpets".[44] By their preservation in Christian churches, unusual as the setting may be, the carpets were protected from wear and the changes of history, and often remained in excellent condition. Amongst these carpets are well-preserved Holbein, Lotto, and Bird Ushak carpets.[45]

The carpets termed "Transsylvanian carpets" by convenience today are of Ottoman origin, and were woven in Anatolia.[45][46] Usually their format is small, with borders of oblong, angular cartouches whose centers are filled with stylized, counterchanging vegetal motifs, sometimes interspersed with shorter stellated rosettes or cartouches. Their field often has a prayer niche design, with two pairs of vases with flowering branches symmetrically arranged towards the horizontal axis. In other examples, the field decor is condensed into medallions of concentric lozenges and rows of flowers. The spandrels of the prayer niche contain stiff arabesques or geometrical rosettes and leaves. The ground colour is yellow, red, or dark blue. The Transylvanian church records, as well as Netherlandish paintings from the seventeenth century which depict in detail carpets with this design, allow for precise dating.[47][48]

By the time "Transylvanian" carpets appear in Western paintings for the first time, royal and aristocratic subjects had mostly progressed to sit for portraits which depict Persian carpets.[49] Less wealthy sitters are still shown with the Turkish types: The 1620 Portrait of Abraham Grapheus by Cornelis de Vos, and Thomas de Keyser's "Portrait of an unknown man" (1626) and "Portrait of Constantijn Huyghens and his clerk" (1627) are amongst the earliest paintings depicting the "Transylvanian" types of Ottoman Turkish manufactory carpets. Transylvanian vigesimal accounts, customs bills, and other archived documents provide evidence that these carpets were exported to Europe in large quantities. Probably the increase in production reflects the increasing demand by an upper middle class who now could afford to buy these carpets.[50] Pieter de Hoochs 1663 painting "Portrait of a family making music" depicts an Ottoman prayer rug of the "Transylvanian" type.[50]

Anatolian carpets of the "Transylvanian" type were also kept in other European churches in Hungary, Poland, Italy and Germany, whence they were sold, and reached European and American museums and private collections. Aside from the Transylvanian churches, the Brukenthal National Museum in Sibiu, Romania,[51] the Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Skokloster Castle near Stockholm in Sweden keep important collections of "Transylvanian" carpets.

Carpets are rarely found in Anatolia itself from the transitional period between the classical Ottoman era and the nineteenth century. The reason for this remains unclear. Carpets which can be reliably dated to the eighteenth century are of a small format. At the same time, western European residences were more sparely equipped with Oriental carpets. It seems likely that carpets were not exported in large scale during this time.[52]

19th century: "Mecidi" style, and the Hereke court manufacture

Dolmabahçe Palace, Pink Hall, with typical "mecidi"-style carpet

By the end of the eighteenth century, the "turkish baroque" or "mecidi" style developed out of French baroque designs. Carpets were woven after the patterns of French Savonnerie and Aubusson tapestry. Sultan Abdülmecid I (1839–1861) built the Dolmabahçe Palace, modelled after the Palace of Versailles.

A weaving workshop was established in 1843 in Hereke, a coastal town 60 kilometers from Istanbul on the bay of Izmit.[53] It also supplied the royal palaces with silk brocades and other textiles. The Hereke Imperial Factory initially included looms producing cotton fabric. Silk brocades and velvets for drapes and upholstery were manufactured at a workshop known as the "kamhane". In 1850 the cotton looms were moved to a factory in Bakirköy, west of Istanbul, and jacquard looms were installed in Hereke. Although in the early years the factory produced exclusively for the Ottoman palaces, as production increased the woven products were available in the Kapalıçarşı or Grand Bazaar, in the second half of the 19th century. In 1878 a fire in the factory caused extensive damage, and it was not reopened until 1882. Carpet production began in Hereke in 1891 and expert carpet weavers were brought in from the carpet weaving centers of Sivas, Manisa and Ladik. The carpets were all hand woven, and in the early years they were either made for the Ottoman palaces or as gifts for visiting statesmen. Later, they were also woven for export.

Hereke carpets are known primarily for their fine weave. Silk thread or fine wool yarn and occasionally gold, silver and cotton thread are used in their production. Wool carpets produced for the palace had 60–65 knots per square centimeter, while silk carpets had 80–100 knots.

The oldest Hereke carpets, now exhibited in Topkapı and other palaces in Istanbul, contain a wide variety of colours and designs. The typical "palace carpet" features intricate floral designs, including the tulip, daisy, carnation, crocus, rose, lilac, and hyacinth. It often has quarter medallions in the corners. The medallion designs of earlier Ushak carpets was widely used at the Hereke factory. These medallions are curved on the horizontal axis and taper to points on the vertical axis. Hereke prayer rugs feature patterns of geometric motifs, tendrils and lamps as background designs within the representation of a mihrab (prayer niche). Once referring solely to carpets woven at Hereke, the term "Hereke carpet" now refers to any high quality carpet woven using similar techniques. Hereke carpets remain among the finest and most valuable examples of woven carpets in the world.[54]

Modern history: Decline and revival

Left image: Pile rug, circa 1875; Southwestern Anatolia, with bright but harmonic natural dyes
Right image: Tribal Kurdish Cuval, ca. 1880 in traditional design, with harsh synthetic colours.

The modern history of carpets and rugs began in the nineteenth century when increasing demand for handmade carpets arose on the international market. However, the traditional, hand-woven, naturally dyed Turkish carpet is a very labour-intense product, as each step in its manufacture requires considerable time, from the preparation, spinning, dyeing of the wool to setting up the loom, knotting each knot by hand, and finishing the carpet before it goes to market. In an attempt to save on resources and cost, and maximise on profit in a competitive market environment, synthetic dyes, non-traditional weaving tools like the power loom, and standardized designs were introduced. This led to a rapid breakdown of the tradition, resulting in the degeneration of an art which had been cultivated for centuries. The process was recognized by art historians as early as in 1902.[55] It is hitherto unknown when exactly this process of degeneration started, but it is observed mainly since the large-scale introduction of synthetic colours took place.[56]

In the late twentieth century, the loss of cultural heritage was recognized, and efforts started to revive the tradition. Initiatives were started aiming at re-establishing the ancient tradition of carpet weaving from handspun, naturally dyed wool.[57] The return to traditional dyeing and weaving by the producers, and the renewed customer interest in these carpets was termed by Eilland as the "Carpet Renaissance".[58] Thus, Turkish rugs remain distinguishable from carpets woven in other regions. Aside from the classic double knot, their colour scheme and design features make a carpet recognizable as Turkish. From the faded palette and elegance of an Uşak carpet, to the bold colorful design motifs of an Eastern Anatolian nomadic piece, Turkish carpets have maintained and revived their distinct identities reflecting an equally strong, diverse and colourful nation.

Carpet weaving: Materials, technique, processes

Turkish rug weaver in Konya

In traditional households, women and girls take up carpet and kilim weaving as a hobby as well as a means of earning money. Women learn their weaving skills at an early age, taking months or even years to complete the pile rugs and flat woven kilims that were created for their use in daily life. As is true in most weaving cultures, traditionally it is women and girls who are both artisan and weaver.[59][60]


Only natural fibers are used in handmade rugs. The most common materials used for the pile are wool, silk and cotton. Sometimes, goat and camel hair are also used by nomadic and village weavers. Traditionally, spinning is done by hand. Several strands of yarn are then plied together so that the resulting yarn is strong enough to be used for weaving.

Sheep wool is the most frequently used pile material in a Turkish rug because it is soft, durable, easy to work with and not too expensive. It is less susceptible to dirt than cotton, does not react electrostatically, and insulates against both heat and cold. This combination of characteristics is not found in other natural fibers. Wool comes from the coats of sheep. Natural wool comes in colors of white, brown, fawn, yellow and gray, which are sometimes used directly without going through a dyeing process. Sheep wool also takes dyes well. Traditionally, wool used for Turkish carpets is spun by hand. Before the yarn can be used for weaving, several strands have to be twisted together for additional strength.

Cotton is used primarily in the foundation, the warps and wefts of rugs. Cotton is stronger than wool, and, when used for the foundation, makes a carpet lie flat on the ground, as it is not as easily distorted as woolen strings. Some weavers such as Turkomans also use cotton for weaving small white details into the rug in order to create contrast.

Wool on wool (wool pile on wool warp and weft): This is the most traditional type of Anatolian rug. Wool on wool carpet weaving dates back further and utilizes more traditional design motifs than its counterparts. Because wool cannot be spun extra finely, the knot count is often not as high as seen in a "wool on cotton" or "silk on silk" rug. Wool on wool carpets are more frequently attributed to tribal or nomadic production.

Wool on cotton (wool pile on cotton warp and weft): This particular combination facilitates a more intricate design pattern than a "wool on wool carpet", as cotton can be finely spun which allows for a higher knot count. A "wool on cotton" rug is often indicative of a town weaver. Due to their higher pile density, wool on cotton carpets are heavier than wool on wool rugs.

Silk on silk (silk pile on silk warp and weft): This is the most intricate type of carpet, featuring a very fine weave. Knot counts on some superior quality "silk on silk" rugs can be as high as 28×28 knots/cm2. Knot counts for silk carpets intended for floor coverings should be no greater than 100 knots per square cm, or 10×10 knots/cm2. Carpets woven with a knot count greater than 10×10 knots/cm2 are intended to be used as a wall or pillow tapestry, because their fabric is less resistant to mechanical stress. These very fine, intricately woven rugs and carpets are usually no larger than 3×3 m.

Dyes and dyeing

Naturally dyed wool in a Turkish carpet manufacture

Traditional dyes used for Turkish carpets are obtained from plants, insects and minerals. In 1856, the English chemist William Henry Perkin invented the first aniline dye, mauveine. A variety of other synthetic dyes were invented thereafter. Cheap, readily prepared and easy to use as they were compared to natural dyes, their use is documented in Ushak carpets already by the mid 1860s. The tradition of natural dyeing was recently revived, based on chemical analyses of natural dyes from antique wool samples, and experimental re-creation of dyeing recipes and processes, in the early 1980s.[61][62]

According to these analyses, natural dyes used in Turkish carpets include:

The dyeing process involves the preparation of the yarn in order to make it susceptible for the proper dyes by immersion in a mordant, immersing the yarn in the dyeing solution, and leaving it to dry exposed to air and sunlight. Some colours, especially dark brown, require iron mordants, which can damage or fade the fabric. This often results in faster pile wear in areas dyed in dark brown colours, and may create a relief effect in antique Turkish carpets.

With modern synthetic dyes, nearly every colour and shade can be obtained so that it is nearly impossible to identify, in a finished carpet, whether natural or artificial dyes were used. Modern carpets can be woven with carefully selected synthetic colours, and provide artistic and utilitarian value.[63]

The Turkish carpet is distinct from carpets of other provenience in that it makes more pronounced use of primary colours. Western Anatolian carpets prefer red and blue colours, whereas Central Anatolian use more red and yellow, with sharp contrasts set in white.[64]

Weaving and finishing

Turkish (roller beam) loom and weavers (1908).
Turkish (symmetric) knot
Persian (asymmetric) knot, open to the right
Kilim end and fringes

A variety of tools are needed in the construction of a handmade rug. A loom, a horizontal or upright framework, is needed to mount the vertical warps into which the pile nodes are knotted, and one or more shoots of horizontal wefts are woven ("shot") in after each row of knots in order to further stabilize the fabric. Wefts can be either undyed or dyed, mostly in red and blue.

The pile knots are usually knotted by hand. Most rugs from Anatolia utilize the symmetrical Turkish double knot. Each knot is made on two warps. With this form of knotting, each end of the pile thread is twisted around two warp threads at regular intervals, so that both ends of the knot come up between two strands on one side of the carpet. The thread is then pulled downwards and cut with a knife.

After a row of knots has been inserted, one or two, sometimes more, rows of wefts are woven in, and the fabric is compacted by beating with a heavy comb. Once the carpet is finished, it is cut from the loom. The sides or selvages are usually overcast in wool. The selvages consist of up to ten warp threads. Especially village and nomadic rugs have flat-woven kilim ends, sometimes including pile-woven tribal signs or village crests. The pile of the carpet is shorn with special knives in order to obtain an equal surface. In some carpets, a relief effect is obtained by clipping the pile unevenly. Finally, the carpet is washed before it is used, or goes to the market.

The upright pile of Turkish rugs usually falls in one direction, as knots are always pulled down before the string of pile yarn is cut off and work resumes on the next knot, piling row after row of knots on top of each other. When touching a carpet, this creates a feeling similar to stroking an animal's fur. This can be used to determine where the weaver has started knotting the pile. The pile in Turkish carpets is usually between 2 and 4 mm thick. Coarse nomadic rugs like the Yürük rugs, can be as thick as 12 mm. A special bedding carpet called yatak may reach a pile thickness of 20 to 25 mm.

Origins and traditions of Turkish carpet design

Turkish carpet design integrates different strands of traditions. Specific elements of the Turkish carpet design are closely related to the history of Turkic peoples and their interaction with surrounding cultures, in their central Asian origin as well as during their migration, and in Anatolia itself. The most important cultural influences came from the Chinese culture, and from Islam. Carpets from the Bergama and Konya areas are considered as most closely related to earlier Turkish carpets, and their significance in the history of the art is now better understood.[65]

Central Asian traditions

The early history of the Turkic peoples in Central Asia is closely related to China. Contacts between Turks and China are documented since the early Han dynasty.

In his essay on "Centralized Designs", Thompson[66] relates the central medallion pattern, frequently found in Turkic carpets to the "lotus pedestal" and "cloud collar (yun chien)" motifs, used in the art of Buddhist Asia, which he dated back to Yuan dynasty China. Recently, Brüggemann further elaborated on the relationship between Chinese and Turkic motifs which he dates back to the Han dynasty.[67] The early Turkish "Phoenix and Dragon carpet" depicts a traditional motif of Chinese mythology.[68]

Romano-Hellenistic traditions

There are documentary records of carpets being used by the ancient Greeks. Homer writes in Ilias XVII,350 that the body of Patroklos is covered with a "splendid carpet". In Odyssey Book VII and X "carpets" are mentioned. Pliny the Elder wrote (nat. VIII, 48) that carpets ("polymita") were invented in Alexandria. It is unknown whether these were flatweaves or pile weaves, as no detailed technical information is provided in the texts.

Athenaeus of Naucratis describes luxurious carpets in his Deipnosophists, written about 230 AD.

"And under these there were strewed purple carpets of the finest wool, with the carpet pattern on both sides. And there were handsomely embroidered rugs very beautifully elaborated on them." (Book V, p. 314)

"[...] to lie on a couch with silver feet, with a smooth Sardian carpet spread under it of the most expensive description." (Book VI, p. 401)[69]

A carpet "with the pattern on both sides" could either be a flat-woven, or pile-woven carpet. Whether "purple" refers to the colour of the fabric or to the dyestuff (either Tyrian purple or madder red could have been used) remains unknown. The town of Sardis lies in Western Anatolia, thus, this may be the earliest reference to carpet production in the region of Asia minor.

Anatolia was ruled by the Roman Empire since 133 BCE. The East Roman (Byzantine) and Sasanian Empires have coexisted for more than 400 years. Artistically, both empires have developed similar styles and decorative vocabulary, as exemplified by mosaics and architecture of Roman Antioch.[70] A Turkish carpet pattern depicted on Jan van Eyck's "Paele Madonna" painting was traced back to late Roman origins and related to early Islamic floor mosaics found in the Umayyad palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar.[71] The architectural elements seen in the Khirbat al-Mafjar complex are considered exemplary for the continuation of pre-Islamic, Roman designs in early Islamic art.[72]

Islamic traditions

When Turkic migrants moved from Central Asia to Anatolia, they were migrating mainly through lands which had already adopted Islam. Depicting animals or humans is prohibited in the Islamic tradition, which does not distinguish between religious and profane life. Since the codification of the Quran by Uthman Ibn Affan in 651 AD/19 AH and the Umayyad Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan reforms, Islamic art has focused on writing and ornament. Borders in Turkish carpets frequently contain ornaments which were derived from Islamic calligraphy. Usually, these "kufic" borders consist of lam-alif- or alif-lam sequences in an interwoven pattern.

The main fields of Turkish carpets are frequently filled with redundant, interwoven patterns in "infinite repeat". Thus, the carpet represents a part of an infinite pattern, which is imagined as continuing beyond the carpet borders and into the infinite.[73] Anatolian carpets of the "Lotto" or Holbein carpet type provide examples for "infinite repeat" field patterns.

A specific Islamic pattern is the mihrab pattern which defines the Prayer rug. A prayer rug is characterized by a niche at one end, representing the mihrab in every mosque, a directional point to direct the worshipper towards Mecca. The mihrab pattern in Turkish carpets is often modified and may consist of a single, double, or vertically or horizontally multiplied niche. Thus the niche pattern can range from a concrete, architectural to a more ornamental understanding of the design. Prayer rugs are often woven "upside down", as becomes apparent when the direction of the pile is felt by touching the carpet. This has both technical (the weaver can focus on the more complicated niche design first), and practical reasons (the pile inclines in the direction of the worshipper's prostration).

Other cultural influences on Turkish carpet design

Turkish Kilim, geometric pattern

Large, geometric shapes are considered to be of Caucasian or Turkoman origin. The Caucasian tradition may have been integrated either by migrating Turkish tribes, or by contact with Turkoman people already living in Anatolia.[74]

A central medallion consisting of large, concentrically reduced rhomboid patterns with latch-hook ornaments is associated with the Yörük nomads of Anatolia. The name Yürük is usually given to Turkic nomads whose way of life has changed least from its central Asian origin.[75]

In Anatolia, several ethnic minorities have maintained their separateness during the time of Turkish rule, e.g., the Greek, Armenian, and Kurdish minorities. Whilst Greeks and Armenians were involved in carpet weaving and trading in the past, no design motifs have been clearly associated with their distinct, Christian culture. Kurdish rugs are distinct from the Turkish carpet, and are discussed together with Persian carpets.[75]

Social context: Court and town, village and nomadic production

Cultural interactions in traditional carpet production

Carpets were simultaneously produced by and for the four different social levels of court, town, rural village, and tribe.[40] Elements of town design were often reproduced in rural production, and integrated by the village weavers into their own artistic tradition by a process called stylization.

Court manufacture

Representative "court" rugs were woven by special workshops, often founded and protegéed by the sovereign, with the intention to represent power and status. As such, representative carpets have developed a specific design tradition influenced by the courts of the surrounding empires.[76] Rugs were produced in the court manufactures as special commissions or gifts. Their elaborate design required a division of work between an artist who created a design plan (termed "cartoon") on paper, and a weaver who was given the plan for execution on the loom. Thus, artist and weaver were separated.[3][40]

Town and village production

Carpets were woven in town manufactures by organized manufactories. Usually, town manufactures have a larger range of patterns and ornaments and more artistically developed designs which can be executed by the weavers, the palette of colours is rich, and the weaving technique may be finer due to their access to high-quality wool, and the employment of specialized weavers. Larger formats can be produced on the larger, stationary looms. Carpets are woven from cartoons, using material provided by the manufacturer. The town manufactories may accept commissions even from foreign countries, and produce carpets for export.[40]

Carpets produced in villages are often produced in individual homes, but at least partly commissioned and supervised by guilds or manufacturers. Home production may not require full-time labour, but could be performed when time allows, besides other household tasks. Village carpets as essential household items were part of a tradition that was at times influenced, but essentially distinct from the invented designs of the workshop production. Frequently, mosques had acquired rural carpets as charitable gifts, which provided material for studies.[77] Rural carpets rarely include cotton for warps and wefts, and almost never silk, as these materials had to be purchased on the market by the individual weaver.

Patterns and ornaments from court manufactory rugs were reproduced by smaller (town or village) workshops. This process is well documented for Ottoman prayer rugs.[78] As prototypical court designs were passed on to smaller workshops, and from one generation to the next, the design underwent a process termed stylization, comprizing series of small, incremental changes either in the overall design, or in details of smaller patterns and ornaments, over time. As a result, the prototype may be modified to an extent as to be barely recognizable. Initially misunderstood as the "degeneration" of a design, the process of stylization is now regarded as a genuine creative process within a distinct design tradition.[78]

Stylization in Turkish prayer rug design

Nomadic and tribal production

With the end of the traditional nomadic lifestyle in Anatolia, and the consequent loss of specific traditions, it has become difficult to identify a genuine "nomadic rug". Social or ethnic groups known for their nomadic lifestyle like the Yürük or Kurds in contemporary Turkey have in large parts acquired sedentary lifestyles. Aspects of the tradition, like the use of specific materials, dyes, weaving or finishing techniques or designs may have been preserved, which can be identified as specifically nomadic or tribal.

Criteria for nomadic production include:[79]

Within the genre of carpet weaving, the most authentic village and nomadic products were those woven to serve the needs of the community, which were not intended for export or trade other than local. This includes specialized bags and bolster covers (yastik) in Anatolia, which show designs adapted from the earliest weaving traditions.[80]


Regions of Turkey

Anatolia can be divided into three major areas of rug production, centered around local towns and marketplaces, which often lend their names to the rugs produced in the surrounding area. Western, Central, and Eastern Anatolia have distinct weaving traditions. However, commercially produced carpets are often woven irrespective of local design traditions. Preferential use of different materials and dyes, as well as characteristic designs, sometimes allow for a more specific assignment of a carpet to one of the three regions, or to a more specific weaving place.

Regional technical characteristics

Western Anatolia Central Anatolia Eastern Anatolia[81]
Warps wool, white wool, mostly white, sometimes brown wool and goat hair, white and brown
Wefts wool, dyed red, sometimes brown and white wool, brown, white, dyed red or yellow wool, mostly brown, sometimes dyed blue
Number of wefts 2-4 or more 2-4 or more 2-4 or more
Warp depression none sometimes none
Selvages wefts doubled back, mostly red, sometimes more colours wefts doubled back, red, yellow, more colours wefts doubled back, polychrome, "zipper"-like selvage technique
Ends kilim, red, or polychrome stripes kilim, red, yellow, polychrome kilim, brown, red, blue, striped
Colours cochineal red, blue, white accents no cochineal red, yellow cochineal red

Western Anatolia

As a group, western Anatolian rugs often show a bright brick red and lighter reddish colours. White accents are prominent, and green and yellow are more frequently seen than in rugs from other regions of Anatolia. The wefts are often dyed red. The selvages are reinforced over 3-4 warp cords. The ends of the rug are often protected by flat weave kilims containing a small ornament woven in pile.

Central Anatolia

Further information: Konya carpets

Central Anatolia is one of the main areas of carpet production in Turkey. Regional weaving centers with distinct designs and traditions are:

The town of Konya is the old capital of the Seljuq Empire. The Mevlana Museum in Konya has a large collection of Anatolian rugs, including some of the carpet fragments found in the Alaeddin and Eşrefoğlu Mosque. Carpets from the Konya manufacture often show an elaborate prayer rug design, with a monochrome bright madder red field. Carpets from Konya-Derbent often have two floral medallions woven into the field below the mihrab. The Konya-Selçuk carpet tradition makes use of a lean octagonal medallion in the middle of the field, with three opposed geometrical forms crowned by tulips. Also typical is a broad ornamental main border with detailed, filigree patterns flanked by two secondary borders with meandering vines and flowers. Rugs from Keçimuslu are often sold as Konya rugs, and show a similar bright madder red field, but with prominent green colours in the main border.[83][87]

Konya-Ladik rugs often show prayer rug designs. Their fields are mostly in bright madder red, with stepped mihrab designs. Opposite, and sometimes above, the prayer niche are smaller gables. The gables are often arranged in groups of three, each gable decorated with a stylized, geomeric tulip ornament. The tulips are frequently shown upside down at the lower end of the prayer niche. The spandrels are often in golden yellow, and show water ewer ornaments. The "Ladik sinekli" design is also specific for Ladik. On a white or cream white field, a multitude of small black ornaments is arranged, which resemble flies (Turk.: "sinek"). Innice rugs resemble Ladik rugs in their use of tulip ornaments, the bold red field complemented by the bright green foundation of the spandrels. Obruk rugs show the typical Konya design and colours, but their ornaments are more bold and stylized, resembling the Yürük traditions of the weavers from this village. Obruk rugs are sometimes also sold in Kayseri.[83][87]

Kayseri rugs are distinguished by their fine weaving which characterizes the manufactory production, which is prevalent in this area. The rugs are produced mainly for export, and imitate designs from other regions. Wool, silk, and artificial silk are used. The top products of the Kayseri manufactures come very close to those from Hereke and Kum-Kapı. Ürgüp, Avanos and İncesu are Cappadocian towns.[83][87]

Carpets from Avanos, often in prayer rug design, are distinguished by their dense weaving. Typically, an elaborate pendant representing either a Mosque lamp or a triangular protective amulet ("mosca") hanging from the prayer niche adorns the field. The prayer niches are often stepped, or drawn in at its sides in the classical "head-and-shoulders" shape. The field is often in bright red, and surrounded by golden yellow spandrels and borders. The fine weaving allows for elaborate ornamental patterns, which make the Avanos carpet easy to identify amongst other rugs.[82][83][87]

Ürgüp carpets are distinguished by their colours. Brown-gold is dominant, bright orange and yellow are often seen. A medallion within a medallion frequently is set into the field, which is of a typical "Ürgüp red" colour, adorned with floral motifs. Palmettes fill the corner medallions and the main borders. The outermost secondary border often has reciprocal crenellations.[82][83][87]

Rugs from Kırşehir, Mucur and Ortaköy are closely related, and not easily distinguished from each other. Prayer and medallion designs are woven, as well as garden ("mazarlik", or "graveyard") designs. Pale turquois blue, pale green and rose colours are prevalent. Rugs from Ortaköy show a hexagonal central ornament, often including a cruciform pattern. The borders show stylized carnations arranged in a row of square compartments. Mucur carpets often show a stepped "prayer niche within a prayer niche" design, with contrasting bright madder red and light indigo colours separated by yellow outlines. The borders are composed of rows of squares filled with geometric diamond or rhomboid patterns. Mucur and Kırşehir are also known for their multiple-niche prayer rugs, or "saph".[82][83][87]

Niğde is the market place for the surrounding area, and many rugs woven in the surrounding villages are sold under the trade name of Niğde. If a prayer rug design is used, the niche and spandrels are typically tall and narrow. Likewise, the central field is not substantially larger than the main border. Typical for Taşpınar are elongated, almost ogival central medallions, the dominant colours are warm red, blue, and light green. Fertek rugs are distinguished by their simple, floral ornaments. The main field is often not separated from the main border, as usual, by a smaller secondary border. The outermost secondary border often has reciprocal crenellation patterns. The colour composition often contains soft reds, dark olive greens, and blue. Maden rugs used coccineal red for their main fields, which are narrow and slim, as typical for Niğde rugs. The foundation of their main border is often dyed in corrosive brown, which caused deterioration of the carpet pile in these areas, and produces a relief effect. Yahali is a regional center and market place for its surroundings. Carpets from this region often have a hexagonal central medallion, with double-hooked ornaments in the fields and carnations in the main border.[82][83][87]

Carpets from Karapinar and Karaman geographically belong to the Konya area, but their design is more similar to the rugs woven in the Niğde area. The design of some Karapinar rugs shows similarities, but is not related, to Turkmen door rugs ("ensi"), as three columns crowned by double hooks ("kotchak") frequently form the prayer niche. Opposed "double hook" ornaments fill the columns both in Karapinar and Karaman rugs. Another type of design often seen in Karapinar runners is composed of geometric hexagonal primary motifs arranged on top of each other, in subdued red, yellow, green, and white.[82][83][87]

State-owned manufactories, some of them organized as weaving schools, produce rugs in Sivas. The design imitates carpets from other regions, especially Persian designs. Traditional Sivas carpets were distinguished by their dense and short, velvet-like pile in elaborate designs which are characteristic for a "town manufactory". The main border is typically composed of rows of three carnations, held together by a stem. Zara, 70 km east of Sivas, has an Armenian colony which produces rugs in a characteristic design composed of row after row of vertical stripes extending over the entire field. Each stripe is filled with elaborate floral arabesques. The pile is clipped very short so that the detailed patterns can be clearly seen.[82][83][87]

Eastern Anatolia

We are currently unable to recognize specific local designs in east Anatolian carpets. Until the Armenian Genocide in 1915, East Anatolia had a large Armenian population, and sometimes carpets are identified as of Armenian production by their inscriptions. Information is also lacking with regard to the Kurdish and Turkish carpet production. Research in the 1980s has come to the conclusion that the tradition of weaving has almost vanished, and more specific information may be lost.[79]

Other East Anatolian rugs are usually not attributed to a specific location, but are classified according to their tribal provenience. As the Kurdishand Yürük tribes were living as nomads for most of their history, they tended to weave traditional tribal, rather than any local, design. If a rug with an overall Yürük design can be attributed to a specific region (as Yürüks also live in other regions of Anatolia), the name "Yürük" sometimes precedes the regional name. The region around the towns of Diyarbakır, Hakkâri, and the Van province has a large Kurdish population. The towns of Hakkâri and Erzurum were market places for Kurdish kilims, rugs and smaller weavings like cradles, bags (heybe) and tent decorations.[83]

Thematic Galleries

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Carpets of Turkey.

Patterns of Central Asian origin: cloud band, lotus seat, cloud collar

Patterns of Islamic origin: Calligraphic borders, infinite repeat field, prayer niche design

See also

Types of Turkish carpet


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