The History of Oriental Carpets and the Turks
To protect themselves from their brutal winter environment, ancient Anatolians wove thick pile rugs using one of their most abundant resources: lamb’s wool. In the ensuing millennia, this art of making carpets by hand was developed and spread by nomadic Turks, eventually influencing nearly all of human culture and society.
Some of the earliest hand-knotted pile rugs have been found in parts of Asia, with the oldest known example discovered in a Pazyryk burial mound in Siberia, preserved in ice. Woven in a dense pile using symmetrical Turkish double knots, this richly-colored Pazyryk carpet is estimated to be over six thousand years old and is attributed to the handiwork of Asian Khuns.
The Handmade Turkish Carpet Technique
Essentially, threads on a loom are hand-knotted and tightened.
Strands of wool or silk are tied onto vertically-running threads (called a warp), cut, and then compressed by their horizontal counterparts (called a weft). The tighter the knots, the finer and stronger the carpet.
There are two traditional knots: the symmetrical Gördes knot, which ties around two
warps and makes for a stronger, more durable carpet; and the asymmetrical Sine knot,
which ties around a single warp and allows for greater freedom in pattern-making.
The Definition of Kilim
Kilim, a word of Turkic origin, is often used as a catch-all for any flat-woven, non-piled rug. But technically speaking, the term refers only to rugs of broad Anatolian origin made in the traditional style: hand-woven on a loom with wool and cotton. Reversible, durable, and eminently versatile, kilims are prized for their gorgeous arrays of brilliant colors and patterns.
Unlike hand-knotted pile rugs, kilims are woven on a loom using warps (typically made of wool) and wefts (either wool or cotton). The threads are completely interwoven, resulting in kilims that are both durable and reversible.
Known by a variety of names in Turkey - such as cicim, sumak, zili, sili, or palaz - these bold, colorful rugs can be used as floor coverings, wall decorations, and even for upholstering pillows and seating.
The Value of Turkish Kilims and Rugs
Spanning from the Seljuk period through the Ottoman Empire, Anatolian rugs are today recognized for their indelible influence on global society and culture.
The rugs - many of which were ornately decorated with copies of contemporary paintings - first began to be exported to Europe in the mid-fifteenth century, and their popularity grew steadily throughout the Renaissance and well into subsequent years. Aristocrats and religious leaders cherished the rugs as status symbols, sometimes using them instead as decorative tapestries.
Today, from esoteric museum exhibitions to comfortable residential dwellings, handmade Turkish rugs are still celebrated around the world for their distinctive fusion of bold graphic designs, historical motifs and narratives, and superior quality and craftsmanship.
The Language of Motifs
Anatolian kilims and rugs are prized not only for their rich, bold colors (derived from natural dyes made from leaves, flowers, vegetables, and roots), but also for the specific, graphic motifs they so effectively enhance.
From the beginning, Anatolian rugs were seen as much more than solely utilitarian domestic objects; they were intended to educate and inspire as well. Idiosyncratic religious and historical motifs were incorporated into each carpet, telling the stories of their makers, their homes, and even something of their hopes, fears, beliefs and dreams.
While the specific meaning of some motifs varies from region to region, they touch on many universal themes: religion, power, nobility, nature, and others explored below.
The Major Motifs Used In Anatolian Carpet & Kilims
Amulet/Evil Eye (Muska ve Nazarlık): The eye - oftentimes materializing as a physical amulet to be worn or hung inside the home - protects against malevolent or envious glares. In its most abstract form, the eye may appear as a simple triangle.
Bird (Kuş): Generally, birds connote happiness, joy, love, power, and strength, and can also portend a long life or the delivery of a divine message. Specific breeds, aside from serving as the imperial symbols of various Anatolian states, have more specific meanings: owls and ravens warn of bad luck, while doves, pigeons, and nightingales signify good. Eagles (kartal) represent governmental might, general power, and religious tradition. A phoenix, when fighting a dragon, signals the coming of spring and its fertile rains.
Burdock (Pıtrak): Like the eye, the burdock - a plant that produces burrs which stick to clothes, hair and fur - is a deterrent against evil glares. Additionally, the term “like a burdock” can refer to something with a high yield and is therefore associated with abundance.
Chest (Sandık): Chests symbolize both a young girl’s trousseau and its myriad associated hopes and expectations concerning love and security in life.
Cross and Hook (Çengel ve Haç): Various crosses and hooks protect against general danger.
Dragon (Ejderha): Master of both air and water, the dragon protects sacred treasures, esoterica, and the Tree of Life (hayat ağacı). A dragon fighting a phoenix represents the coming of spring and its fertile rains.
Earrings (Küpe): A traditional and requisite gift at Anatolian weddings, earrings symbolize a young girl’s hopes concerning marriage.
Eye (Göz): See Amulet/Evil Eye
Fertility (Bereket): When used together, the elibelinde (see “Hands on Hips”) and koçboynuzu (see “Ram’s Horn”) motifs signify a man and a woman in familial partnership. When two of each are woven together in a pattern, it symbolizes fertility, and an eye in the middle protects the family from the negative energy of malevolent glares.
Fetter (Bukağı): Chains represent the continuity of the family, the devotion of its partners, and the hope of an everlasting union.
Hand, Finger and Comb (El, Parmak ve Tarak): These various motifs are related by their use of fives - five fingers, points, or lines. A hand - which can represent that of the prophet Mohammed’s sister - symbolizes productivity and good fortune. Fingers are thought to protect against the nazarlık (the proverbial Evil Eye; see “Amulet/Evil Eye”). A comb represents a desire to be wed, and furthermore, protects marriage and childbirth from the effects of the Evil Eye.
Hands on Hips (Elibelinde): A figure standing with their hands resting on their hips symbolizes femininity, motherhood and fertility.
Hair Band (Saçbağı): Similar to the comb and, to a lesser extent, the chest, hair bands represent a desire for marriage. Sometimes, the rug maker might incorporate their own hair into the weave, which expresses a desire for immortality.
Ram’s Horn (Koçboynuzu): A ram’s horn signifies productivity, heroism, power and masculinity. A weaver using this motif also projects contentment.
Running Water (Akarsu): A running water motif celebrates the essentiality of water to human life.
Scorpion (Akrep): Somewhat ironically, the image of a scorpion is meant to protect one’s home against these arachnids and their poisonous stings. (Jewelry featuring scorpions or scorpions’ tails was used for this same purpose.)
Star (Yıldız): Stars on a kilim represent productivity.
Tree of Life (Hayat Ağacı): The Tree of Life represents the hope of a life after death, or, relatedly, the quest for immortality. It is the symbol of eternity.
Wolf’s Mouth, Wolf Prints and Monster’s Feet (Kurt Agzi, Kurt Izi, and Canavar Ayagi): Since ancient times, humans believed that invoking dangerous animals - either through mimicry or the creation of similar, physical forms - would offer protection from them. To that end, these motifs were thought to ward off wolves and various monsters.
Types of Carpets and Kilims in Turkey
Anatolian rugs are named for the regions in which they were made, the techniques used in their manufacturing, and the patterns, colors and designs employed.
Anatolia - a region comprising most of modern-day Turkey and nearby Asia Minor - has an incredibly rich weaving culture, with each city, town and village producing its own unique pieces. Understanding the unique attributes of each area is the key to fully appreciating the vast world of Turkish rugs and kilims.
The Turkish (or “Gördes”) knot is used in the making of all Anatolian rugs.
Bergama: Bergama, in far western Turkey, is one of the world’s most famous and ancient rug-weaving centers. Its rugs, made from traditionally-sourced wool, feature floral and herbal motifs typically rendered in black, red, green, blue, yellow and pink.
Çanakkale: The northwestern Turkish province of Çanakkale - and specifically its smaller towns and villages, such as Ezine, Ayvacik, and Bayramic - primarily produces flat-woven woolen rugs in traditional dimensions. Many of the region’s weavers originally emigrated from Caucasus, and thus rugs from Çanakkale - which feature green, red, blue and yellow - are very similar to their Caucasian counterparts.
Döşemealtı: Knotted rugs from Döşemealtı, near Turkey’s southern coast, express the sensibilities of the nomadic Yörüks who make them. Featuring geometric patterns in blue, dark green and red, the rugs are made of wool sourced from the neighboring plateaus and colored with natural, vegetable-based dyes.
Gördes: The western town of Gördes has been a weaving center for centuries, wielding an influence so ubiquitous that one of the most basic elements of Turkish rug
construction is named for it: the symmetric and durable Gördes ( or “Turkish”) knot. Its
distinctive prayer rugs - modeled after the carpets adorning the palaces of the Ottoman Empire - are among the most highly sought by collectors, and are characterized by their lustrous wool, tight knotting and short, dense piling. Vivid reds dominate the designs, complemented by various shades of green, yellow, blue and cream.
Hakkari: Made from a combination of madder and wool in the southeast corner of Turkey, Hakkari kilims are characterized by their peculiar motifs and color scheme (red/ burgundy, dark blue, brown, black and white).
Hereke: The world’s finest and most famous pure silk rugs are produced in the small town of Hereke, just east of Istanbul. Known as “palace carpets”, these prized rugs were originally made for Ottoman sultans and woven within their palace workshops. Floral designs - including Seljuk Stars, Seven Mountain Flowers, and tulips - are most common, rendered in dark blue, cream and cinnamon, sometimes with yellow and green accents.
Isparta: Located in southwestern Turkey’s “Region of Lakes”, the city of Isparta manufactures both its own rugs as well as the cotton-based warps and wefts used in weaving country-wide. Ispartan rugs feature traditional Turkish floral motifs and are constructed from woolen knots of both the Gördes and Sine varieties.
Karabağ: Produced in eastern Anatolia and indebted to Caucasian designs, colorful and flat-woven Karabağ kilims feature mainly floral motifs of roses, leaves and boughs.
Kars: Kars is located near the Russian border and makes rugs in the Caucasian style. Made from hand-spun mountain wool, which lends a natural brown color to their traditional, geometric designs, the rugs are naturally dyed in dark blues, reds and creams.
Kayseri: Kayseri rugs, made in central Turkey, fall into two groups: Bunyan rugs, which are made from cotton warps and wool and silk weaving threads; and Yahyali rugs, which use only wool for both. Geometric and floral motifs are rendered in madder-dyed threads of white, black, grey and purple on red and deep blue grounds.
Konya: Carpet weaving in Konya, the former capital of the Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate, dates back to the thirteenth century. Konyan rugs, including the famous prayer rugs of Ladik, are characterized by their distinctive pastel hues of red, yellow and green.
Kula: Rugs from Kula, in western Anatolia, mainly feature bold, geometric designs
woven over woolen warps and wefts. The colors, both rich and soft, are primarily earthen tones of rust, green, gold and blue interwoven with pastels.
Ladik: Ladik rugs are rich, bright and lively, representing optimism, affluence, tranquility and happiness. Many Ladik rugs are used as prayer rugs, and so feature mihrabs (the niche in a mosque’s wall towards which the congregation prays) in their designs.
Milas: Rugs made in Milas - which refers broadly to a region near Izmir in western Turkey - are hand-knotted, dyed, and made from 100% wool. Geometric designs are rendered in light browns and yellows, often with accents of brown, grey, and brick red.
Sivas: Sivas, in central Turkey, employs Persian knots and folded threads in the production of its wool rugs, resulting in a dense, thick weave for which the region is known. Iranian and Seljuk embroideries often adorn the rugs, which are primarily rendered in varying tones of red and blue. Opposite, clashing colors are avoided.
Taşpınar: A small town in the central region of Aksaray, Taşpınar is known for its thickly-piled rugs made from high-quality wool. The grounds are typically rich blues and reds with delicately-embroidered motifs rendered in lighter shades; traditionally, a blend of Persian-style floral and geometric designs adorn older Taşpınar rugs, while newer examples reveal a broader thematic spectrum. The colors are derived from natural vegetable dyes in the Caucasian method.
Uşak: The brilliant rugs from the western province of Uşak correspond with the classical period of Ottoman art and design, and were originally found in the homes of princes and rich merchants. Eventually, these rugs came to be used in Christian cathedrals and churches. They typically feature a variety of floral motifs, and can be divided into two main types: those featuring medallions, and those featuring stars.
Van: Van, in far eastern Turkey, produces identifiable kilims featuring darker colors (dark blue, red, black, brown and Van - or yellow-ish - white), shorter loop stitches, single borders, and a variety of motifs which often include stylized floral and animal figures incorporated into symmetric, geometric patterns.
Yağcıbedir: Made in the mountain villages of the Balikesir, Yağcıbedir rugs are thought to be some of the finest in Anatolia. Reds and deep blues - inspired by the Aegean Sea - dominate the designs, which include geometric forms, stylized birds and Stars of Solomon. Yağcıbedir rugs are often framed in a border of five or seven bands.
Yuntdağı: Rugs from Yuntdağı are knotted with 100% wool, and often feature motifs of mihrabs, medallions and geometric figures rendered in whites and pastel greens.