Blog 15 26/07/2015 Turkish Carpets: From the Steppes of Central Asia to the Tudor Court.
Turkish Carpets: From the Steppes of Central Asia to the Tudor Court.
Most people take carpets for granted but what they don’t realize is that that they have been with us for a few thousand years and like all the arts, reflect our changing civilizations. The earliest carpet handed down to us dates from about 500- 400 B.C. and was found in the Pazyryk burial tombs of the Altai region in Southern Siberia. It was excavated in 1949 and the carpet now resides in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. Although the date of the tomb has been established, the origin of the Pazyryk carpet is unknown. Knotted and with a pile, it is the first evidence of a carpet in the strict sense of the word. It is 6’7” x 6’ and has 232 knots to the sq. inch and its quality surpasses many knotted carpets today. The composition is incredible. The main border depicts a herd of reindeer in procession around the carpet. In the outer border, Persian horsemen file past in the opposite direction. The stylization bears a close resemblance to Assyrian and Middle Eastern reliefs. Archaeologists are cautious as to the identity of the people who built the tombs. Whilst they are thought to be Scythians, the general area seems to have been the origin of the Turkomans and of the Mongols and are often lumped together as nomads. Other items found in the tomb come from places as far apart as the Black Sea and China and are equally as impressive in their artistic development. Some scholars assert that the origin of the knotted carpet originated with the nomads of Central Asia themselves in an attempt to replicate the fleece of animals by adding knots to flat-woven textiles. It is generally assumed that the knotted carpet did not originate in the earliest civilizations of Egypt and Babylon as the climate is too hot making thick pile carpets unnecessary. That said, we do not know if the earliest carpets were actually devised to be floor coverings. They may have been used to sit or sleep on or as wall coverings.
If finely woven carpets were as highly prized then as they are today, then it is doubtful that they were used as floor coverings. When it was discovered, the Pazyryk carpet was found wrapped around the chieftain like a robe. What is undisputed is that the craftsmanship of this beautiful carpet is of such quality that it must have been preceded by a long tradition reaching back as far as the second millennium when we know art was already impacting on cultures from the Mediterranean to China. Some of the motifs used, i.e. the lotus –flower palmette, which was the most characteristic single motif in sixteenth century carpets, was as common to the ancient Greeks as it was to the Assyrians and Egyptians before them.
Literary sources confirm the use of woollen rugs long before the Pazyryk carpet. In The Odyssey, Homer occasionally uses the word tapes as opposed to kivas meaning animal fleece. In Book IV, he describes a scene where Helen enters with her ladies. Adreste draws up a comfortable chair while Alcippe brings ‘a rug of the softest wool’. Here, tapes is thought to denote a rug with a looped pile similar to terry-towelling. This technique is still used in Tibet and a rug of this type was also discovered in the Pazyryk tombs. Homer doesn’t mention a design and for that we have to wait for Ovid who describes an elaborate Greek tapestry in the legend of Arachne, who was turned into a spider after weaving a fabric depicting the loves of the Gods so skilfully that even the Gods could not surpass it. Robert Graves suggests that this legend may have its origins in the commercial rivalry over the flourishing woollen textile trade in the second millennium in south-west Anatolia, an area famous for its kelims and carpets even today.
Whatever the origins, carpet weaving developed into a high art from the middle ages onwards. From the 14th Century we start to find find evidence of knotted carpets from Arab manuscripts. After the Pazyryk, the next oldest carpets were found in Turkey in a mosque at Konya which was a major carpet weaving centre under the Seljuk Empire as were the nearby towns of Sivas and Kayseri, important towns along the silk route. The earliest rugs of Turkey were of angular design, often with elaborate hooked border designs of stylized Kufic lettering. Whilst it was Persian carpets that later came to represent the highest form of carpet weaving, especially during the 16th Century under the Safavid Dynasty, it was Turkish carpets that first made their mark on the West. In fact, Persian carpets were popular for only a hundred years or so and their existence was more or less forgotten until Western penetration of Persia in the late 19th Century. From the 13th Century, the Seljuks were masters of all Asia Minor but when the Osmanli Turks arrived in Anatolia and carved out what was to be the vast Ottoman Empire reaching to across the Balkans to the gates of Vienna, they opened up a great trading empire in the process. For much of this period, the Turkish carpet was in great demand.
The West knew them as ‘Holbeins’ or ‘Lottos’ and they were used on tables and balconies in the 16th Century. It is through the great paintings of the day that we see their beauty. Henry VIII and especially Cardinal Wolsey became avid collectors of Holbein carpets and it was at this time that the English began to produce their own carpets, albeit fine embroidered ones rather than the knotted type. Lorenzo Lotto was a Venetian at the time when Turkey’s main trading partner was Venice and it is likely that he had access to the great quantities of carpets being shipped there at that time.
In Turkey, carpets were produced from as far away as the Caucasus to the Mediterranean coast but it is generally around the Mediterranean area that the finest were produced. Istanbul itself does not have a tradition of carpet production although some centres have recently started up. Production at Hereke on the south side of the Sea of Marmara began in 1844 under Sultan Abdul Hamid. In its heyday, a number of superb Hereke carpets of silk and wool went to the various heads of state as diplomatic gifts. However, the designs were not original and reflected the growing taste in Persian design at that time.
Ushak, not far from present day Izmir, was to became known as the carpet centre. Ushak carpets are often associated with octagons or stylized bird patterns and also a curious ornament consisting of three balls arranged in a triangle with two wavy lines above them. The Cintamani motif as it is known was also widely used in fine silk Ottoman clothing. Some of the most complex designs were the innovative medallion carpets made in the 16th Century probably with the help of imported Persian weavers as Persia was a newly conquered province of the Ottoman Empire at the time.
Bergama, the ancient Greek Pergamum, was also another great carpet centre. One of the great cities of antiquity for some two thousand years before the Ottomans arrived, carpets produced here were neither Greek nor Turkish but rather Caucasian in design having large geometric ornaments and bold rich colours with little shading. Many of the early rugs are a feature of Holbein carpets. The knotting is rather loose but the glossy pile was attractive to Europeans. Melas, situated close to the Mediterranean in south-west Turkey was the first centre of real historic importance and famous for its prayer carpets which can only be seen in established collections. Ghiordes is the most famous and important of all Turkish centres and gave its name to the Turkish knot ‘unravelled’ by Alexander the Great. Turkish Ghiordes produced the finest prayer rugs and little else from the 17th to the 19th Centuries. Today, most Ghiordes carpets are not even from this area.
Two basic knots are used in carpet weaving: the Turkish, known as the Ghiordes knot, and the Persian or the Senneh knot. Generally, the Turkish knot is found in Turkey, the Caucasus, Turkestan and in Persia among people of Kurdish or Turkish race. The Persian knot is found in Persia (Iran), Turkestan, India, Egypt and in Turkey in the case of some court rugs. They are often known as symmetrical of asymmetrical knots and the type used can affect the style of design. Another knot, the Jufti knot is encountered in Khorassan.
Apart from the influence of Turkish carpets on the west, it should also be noted that Spain was the first country to possess knotted carpets and to make them, due to the influence of the Arab and Moor invasions. Only a few of these remain. They were usually of wool but on rare occasions, silk and gold threads were used. The main centres were Alcaraz, Cuenca and Madrid. They used what is known as the Spanish knot which is made on one warp as opposed to two warps as in Persian and Turkish knotting. This type of knot tends to make a zigzag pile and a design composed of straight lines could not be given a clear cut appearance. It was the Spanish who introduced carpets into England when Eleanor of Castille married Edward I in 1254.
In 1922/23 following The Asia Minor Catastrophe, Greeks refugees from Turkey took their weaving skills to Greece and a small industry began. When I worked as a carpet designer in Athens from 1972-78, one could still get all the old tools necessary for making hand-made carpets – beaters and special scissors (which could be altered to give the desired height of the knot), from bric-a brac shops in the refugee areas. Many of those were handed down through families and are difficult to find today. I even purchased a Turkish upright loom similar to the ones still used in the carpet-making regions today from a Greek family who still spoke Turkish, and I dyed my own wool. In the factory itself, there were constant reminders of the Turkish past. The Company, which no longer exists, was called Anatolia and the qualities it produced all bore names that harked back to the heyday of Turkish weaving centres; Pergamum, Bursa– capital of the Seljuks and a city later renowned during the Ottoman Empire for its silk weaving, and last but not least, although not a weaving centre, Pella, home of Alexander the Great whose empire was to influence so much of the Asia Minor and the East. When the Greeks took knotted carpet-making to Greece they were simply following the age-old nomadic migrations of a people who moved around and took their craft with them.