The History of Oriental Carpets and the Turks
Some of the earliest examples of hand knotted pile rugs have been found in parts of Asia where Turks lived thousands of years ago. To protect themselves from the region’s cold, the Turkish people wove thick, pile rugs using abundantly available lamb’s wool. The oldest surviving carpet in the world was discovered preserved in ice in a Siberian burial mound at Pazyryk. Woven in a dense pile using symmetrical Turkish double knots, the richly colored Pazyryk carpet is believed to be over 6,000 years old and is attributed to the handiwork of the Asian Khuns.
The technique of handmaking carpet has been taken by the people of Turkey with them wherever they have traveled, spreading the artform around the world.
The Handmade Turkish Carpet Technique
How is a hand-knotted Turkish carpet made?
Simply put, threads on a loom are knotted and tightened. Strands of wool or silk are tied on the warp (threads running vertically or the length of rug), cut, then compressed by the weft (threads running horizontally or across the width of the rug). The tighter the knot, the finer and stronger the carpet.
Two traditional knots are used. The symmetrical Gördes knot, which wraps around two warps, creates a strong, durable carpet. The asymmetric Sine knot, tied around a single warp, allows for greater freedom in creating patterns.
The Definition of Kilim
The Turkish word “kilim” is often used to describe any flat woven, pileless rug made either by hand or machine. However, it really applies only to rugs that are handmade using a traditional weaving technique.
Unlike knotted carpets, kilims are woven on a loom using vertical warps (typically wool) and horizontal wefts (wool or cotton) to weave threads together. The threads are completely interwoven, making the kilim both durable and reversible. Known in Turkey also as cicim, sumak, zili or sili, palaz, and other names, these boldly colored rugs are used as floor and wall coverings, and today are often crafted into pillow, stool, and bench covers.
The Value of Turkish Kilims and Rugs
Museums around the world exhibit Anatolian carpets from the Seljuk period to the Ottoman Empire. They are recognized and valued for their influence on art and society from Central Asia to Europe.
Carpets were exported from Turkey to Europe beginning in the mid-15 th century. Richly and precisely illustrated in paintings of the period, admiration for Oriental carpets continued to grow into the 17th century. Aristocrats and religious leaders of the Renaissance period regarded the carpets as a status symbol, and a cherished carpet might grace a table top rather than the floor.
Handmade Turkish carpets and kilims continue to be prized around the world for their radiant colors, unique motifs and patterns, and superior quality.
The Language of Motifs
Natural dyes made of leaves, flowers, vegetables, and roots yield the rich colors associated with Anatolian kilims and carpets. These sought-after rugs also share a unique language expressed through the motifs woven into each pattern.
Turkish kilims and rugs were first created not only for utilitarian purposes. Traditional Anatolian motifs serve as both communication and artform, and symbols on the earliest-known carpets show that religious beliefs and rituals played a role in their composition. The colorful pattern of every Turkish carpet and kilim is rich with meaning and history.
While the meanings of Turkish carpet motifs vary depending on region, they universally touch on religion, power, nobility, nature, and other themes described below.
The Major Motifs Used In Turkish Carpet & Kilims
Amulet and Evil Eye (Muska ve Nazarlık): It is believed that some people possess a power in their glance which causes harm, injury, misfortune and even death. Evil eye amulets protect those who carry them against the effect of the evil gaze. Muska is a written charm which is believed to have magical and religious power to protect the possessor from dangerous outside forces.
Bird (Kuş): Bird motifs in Turkish carpets have various meanings. Owls and ravens imply bad luck. Doves, pigeons and nightingales symbolize good luck. The bird is the symbol of happiness, joy and love. It stands for power and strength. It is the imperial symbol of various states founded in Anatolia. Birds also refer to divine messengers and long life. The anka bird (Phoenix) fighting with the dragon refers to spring.
Burdock (Pıtrak): Burdock is a plant with burrs which sticks to clothing and the hair of animals. It is believed to be capable of warding off the evil eye. The term “like a burdock” also means full of flowers, so this motif is used on flour bags as a symbol of abundance.
Chest (Sandık): This motif symbolizes the trousseau chest of a young girl. Since the objects in this chest are to be used in the husband’s house, the girl’s expectations and hopes are reflected in the pieces she has woven, knitted and embroidered.
Cross and Hook (Çengel ve Haç): Hooks and various cross types are used frequently in Turkish carpets to protect from danger.
Dragon (Ejderha): The dragon is a mythological winged creature with feet like a lion’s and a tail like a snake. The dragon is the master of the air and water. The flight of the dragon and the phoenix is believed to bring fertile rains of spring. The dragon, thought to be a great serpent, is the guardian of treasures and secret objects as well as the tree of life.
Eagle (Kartal): Eagle figures symbolizing such elements as power, might, amulets, government heraldry and charm originating from old religious traditions can be found as totems in carpet weaving.
Earrings (Küpe): Earrings are indispensable as a wedding present in Anatolia. A girl using this motif is trying to inform her family that she wants to get married.
Eye (Göz): It is believed that some people possess a power in their glance which causes harm, injury, misfortune and even death. Eye motifs were produced because of the belief that the human eye is the best protection against evil gazes. A triangle is the simplest example of the eye motif.
Fertility (Bereket): Hands on hips ('elibelinde') and ram's horn ('koçboynuzu') motifs used together denote a man and a woman. The fertility pattern is composed of two 'elibelinde' motifs indicating the female and two 'koçboynuzu' motifs indicating the male. The eye motif in the middle of composition is used to protect the family against the evil eye.
Fetter (Bukağı): The chain symbolizes the continuity of the family union, the devotion of the lovers and the hope that they should always stay together.
Hand, Finger and Comb (El, Parmak ve Tarak): Hand, finger and comb motifs including five points and five lines represent the belief that fingers are protection from the evil eye. Hand motifs combining productivity and good fortune are also a holy motive symbolizing the hand of the prophet Mohammed’s sister. The comb motif is used to express the desire to get married, and to protect birth and marriage against the evil eye.
Hands on hips (Elibelinde): Hands on hips motif is the symbol of femininity, motherhood and fertility.
Hair Band (Saçbağı): Hair band motif indicates the desire to get married. If the woman uses some of her hair in weaving, she is trying to express her desire for immortality.
Ram’s Horn (Koçboynuzu): Ram’s horn represents productivity, heroism, power and masculinity in Turkish carpets. The weaver who uses this motif is believed to be happy.
Running Water (Akarsu): It emphasizes the importance of water in human life.
Scorpion (Akrep): People used to carry jewelry in the form of a scorpion or decorated with the tail of a scorpion to protect themselves against this animal and its venom. The scorpion motif is used for the same purpose.
Star (Yıldız): The star motif in Turkish carpets expresses productivity.
Tree of Life (Hayat Ağacı): The life tree represents the search for immortality and the hope of life after death. It is the symbol of eternity.
Wolf’s Mouth, Wolf’s Track and Monster’s Feet (Kurt Agzi, Kurt Izi, and Canavar Ayagi): These motifs are used as protection against wolves and monsters. Since ancient times, men have believed they could control and protect themselves from dangerous animals by imitating them or creating a similar form.
Types of Carpets and Kilims in Turkey
Turkish carpets get their names from the regions where they were produced, the techniques used in their manufacture, their patterns, colors and design.
Anatolia has a very rich weaving culture. Anatolia is a synonym for that part of Turkey in Asia traditionally called Asia Minor. Every city, town and village is a weaving center. An understanding of Turkish carpets and flat woven coverings can only be gained through a detailed research of those centers. The Turkish or Gördes Knot is used in all carpets described as Anatolian.
Bergama is one of the most famous ancient carpet weaving centers. Black, red, green, blue, yellow and pink are dominant colors in Bergama carpets. The material used is wool, the yarns obtained and made through traditional ways. The motifs of Bergama carpets have mostly plantlike, herbal characteristics.
Çanakkale: Carpet making has a long history in small towns and villages throughout Çanakkale, Ezine, Ayvacık and Bayramiç. Flat weaving is common. The main material is wool, and all the carpets are produced in traditional dimensions. Green, red, blue and yellow are the main colors. Due to migrations from Caucasus, the carpets of the Çanakkale region are greatly similar to Caucasus carpets.
Döşemealtı: These carpets are knotted with naturally dyed 100% plateau wool yarn by Döşemealtı nomads (Yörüks) living on the plateaus around Antalya. They produce the handmade carpets using the pure wool and vegetal dyes they make themselves. The design reflects the nomadic taste, expressed in geometric patterns and a color harmony of blue, dark green and red.
Gördes is a town in Western Turkey, a center of weaving since at least the eighteenth century. Gördes prayer rugs are among the most sought of all oriental carpets and are distinctive in design. The prayer rugs of Gördes are noted not only for giving their name to the Turkish knot but also for being the group of rugs most influenced by the Ottoman palace carpets. These rugs can be distinguished by: a high quality of weaving using shiny wool in tight knots; a short pile; the high arch of the prayer niche, finely stepped with undulating contours. The most frequently used colors are vivid red with various shades of green, yellow, blue and cream.
Hakkari kilims, which have peculiar designs and motifs, are produced of madder and wool. Hakkari kilims include thirty main motifs. Herki, Sumarkı, Samarı, Halitbey, Gulhazar, Gulsarya, Gulgever and Sine are the most commonly used designs. Five main colors are used in Hakkari kilims: red or burgundy, dark blue, brown, black and white.
Hereke: The most famous and finest pure silk carpets in the world are produced in the small town of Hereke, east of Istanbul. Hereke carpets are recognized in carpet literature and have an extraordinary place among world carpets. Known as "Palace carpets," they were woven in workshops within the Royal Palace or belonging to the court during the Ottoman period and were made for the Sultans and their close circles. The dominant colors in Hereke carpets are dark blue, cream and cinnamon; yellow and green are occasionally used. Floral designs are common, and each design has its own name such as: Seljuk Star, Seven Mountain Flowers, Ploneise, 101 Flowers, and Tulip.
Isparta: The city of Isparta is located in southwest Turkey in an area called the "Region of Lakes." Today Isparta is considered one of the major rug producing centers of the country. Threads used for weft and warp are also manufactured in this city. The warp and weft on Isparta rugs are made of cotton, knots are wool, and both Gördes and Shena knots are used. Turkish motifs and floral designs are used in Isparta carpets.
Karabağ kilims: These colorful flatweave rugs, generally produced in the Eastern Anatolia Region, feature roses, leaves and boughs of nature – a reflection of the spirit of eastern people. These kilims with big flowers are influenced by Karabag kilims of Caucasus.
Kars: Located near the Russian border of Turkey, Kars produces carpets designed in the Caucasian style. Natural dyed wool is used with the dominant colors navy blue, red and cream. Handspun mountain wool is used in the hand weaving. The traditional patterns are large geometrical designs. The brown on Kars carpets is the natural color of the sheep fleece.
Kayseri: The carpets woven in Kayseri and its surroundings make up the major part of Turkish carpet art. Kayseri carpets fall in two groups: Bunyan carpets and Yahyali carpets. The wrap of Bunyan carpets is cotton and the weaving thread is wool and floss silk. The most important feature that differentiates Yahyali carpets from Bunyan carpets is that both the wrap and weaving thread are wool. Commonly used colors are white, black, grey and purple. The grounds are usually red, blue and deep blue. They use geometric and flower motifs and all the threads are colored in madder.
Konya: The tradition of carpet weaving in Konya, former capital of the Seljuks, goes back to the 13th century. Konya is a producer of carpets of pure wool including the famous Ladik carpets. The dominance of pastel colors in Konya carpets is noticeable. Red, yellow and green are frequently used.
Kula: The village carpets of Kula in Western Anatolia are woven on a woolen warp and weft, and mostly have strong geometric designs. The colors are rich but soft with earth tones of rust, green, gold, and blue commonly blended with dominant pastel shades.
Ladik: Ladik carpets feature a richness of form and design, and a bright, lively harmony of color representing repose, affluence and happiness. The richness of color demonstrates their optimism. Ladik carpets generally have a mihrab on them, showing a love of worship and pious belief.
Milas is the center of a weaving area in Western Turkey near Izmir. It gives its name to all the carpets produced in the region. Milas carpets are knotted with natural dyes with 100% wool. These carpets are frequently woven in different shades of brown, gray, brick red, and a dominance of light brown and yellow. Geometric designs are prominent in the pattern.
Sivas: These carpets are made in and around the city of Sivas in central Turkey. The most important features of Sivas carpets are their wool, dense weaving and thick appearance. The thread is folded and thick. The carpets are mostly woven with the Persian knot. The Iran and Seljuk embroideries can be seen in Sivas carpets. They do not use opposite colors. There are at least twelve colors and most are dark blue, red and its tones.
Taşpınar is a small town in the carpet weaving area of Aksaray. Taspinar pure wool carpets are a thick pile, knotted in high quality wool. They have a predominantly blue and red field brightened by delicate motifs in lighter shades. The yarn is colored with natural vegetable dyes by the Caucasian methods. The Persian influence can be seen in old Taspinar carpets, in which plant figures and geometric designs are used simultaneously. New Taspinars are made in the same rich colors, but the designs are becoming more varied.
Uşak: These carpets were originally a sort of status symbol found only in homes of princes and rich merchants, and later used in Christian cathedrals and churches in the west. Usak carpets mark the commencement of the rise of a new and brilliant period in Turkish carpet weaving corresponding to the classical period in Ottoman architecture and other art. They feature a diversity of floral motifs and compositions. Usak carpets can be divided into two main types: those with medallions and those with a design of stars.
Van Kilims: Colors used on Van kilims are mainly dark blue, red black, natural brown and Van white (yellowish white). They can be identified by the shortness of loop stitches, dark colors, variety of motifs, single borders, and the stylized flora and animal figures alongside geometrical and symmetrical patterns.
Yağcıbedir: Pure wool Yagcibedir carpets, produced in the mountain villages of the Balikesir, are some of the best quality of their kind. The dominant colors of these very soft carpets are red and the deep blue of the Aegean Sea. They are patterned with geometric forms, stylized birds, and stars of Solomon, and framed in a border of five or seven bands.
Yuntdağı: These carpets are knotted with 100% wool. A dominance of green and white can be found on these primarily pastel carpets. They are knotted in mihrap and medallion designs and feature geometric figures.