Blog 70 09/10/2018. A Shared Heritage: Carpet Weaving in Turkey and Greece.

Posted in on 9 October, 2018 in News

A Shared Heritage: Carpet Weaving in Turkey and Greece.

Panos Telemezian c1913. Women Weaving a Carpet

When I purchased an upright Turkish carpet loom in Athens in the nineteen-seventies, I was aware that I was following in the footsteps of a tradition that had been handed down from generation to generation with hardly any change over a few centuries. In 1972, I went to Greece to design carpets. The factory, “Anatolia”, produced machine made carpets, which is quite a different process to the handmade ones. The factory was situated in the Athens suburb of Nea Ionia/Kalogreza, and the majority of workers were refugees from the Asia Minor Catastrophe 1919-22, who arrived in Greece in 1922 or during the population exchange of 1923.

At the time, I discovered that many families still wove the traditional hand-knotted carpets on their old looms in their homes. After a while, I decided to purchase my own from a family where the older generation still spoke Turkish as their first language, something that came as a great surprise because this was fifty years after the Catastrophe. Indeed, this was not uncommon in those days. More importantly, the family was kind enough to give me the tools of their trade – a carpet beater, special scissors with an adjustable attachment to cut the pile to the desired height, and a carpet knife.  What touched me the most was that I knew these would have been handed down as treasured tools from generation to generation, and in many cases would have been part of a dowry. Today these tools are hard to find. We kept the upright loom in our bedroom, just as Elpida did in The Carpet Weaver of Usak, we dyed our own carpet yarn, and of course, painted the design first on squared paper, much as I did in the factory for the machine-made carpets.

Carpet weaver in Cappadocia

Whilst there were one or two carpet knotting weaving workshops in Greece before the refugees arrived, prior to this, it was mainly flat woven kilims and flokati rugs that were produced. It wasn’t until after 1923 when the carpet workshops really took off due to the skill the weavers brought with them from Anatolia. How often do we see this happen in history? We only have to look at Europe in the 17th century to see the effect the persecuted Huguenots fleeing France had on England. The textile industry in England flourished after that.

Detail of the Pazyryk carpet

But let’s take a step back in time to see where knotted carpets began. Any study of carpets takes into consideration the history and cultures of a vast area stretching from Spain and North Africa to China. It is not known at what time and in what place knotted carpets began, but from the evidence so far, carpet weaving is thought to have begun in the East-Turkestan – Mongolia region, an area populated by nomadic sheep-herders. The oldest carpet found was discovered in a Scythian burial mound in the Altai region of Southern Siberia, dating to about 500B.B.C. This carpet, known as the Pazyryk rug, is now in the Hermitage. Because of the geographical position of the tomb, it is in excellent condition. The designs resemble Assyrian, Achaemenian and Scythian motifs, and it is thought to have been woven by Scythian tribesmen of Mongol descent, who over time, migrated westwards toward Turkey. It has over 200 knots per square inch and is woven with the Ghiordes knot, better known as the Turkish knot, as opposed to the Persian knot which is different. Such a fine carpet makes us wonder how long carpet weaving had been going on before this. After all, such beauty and skill did not happen overnight.

Nomadic carpet weavers

The Turkish Knot

The Persian Knot

Carpet weaving then moved into Persia and also into Turkey with the Seljuk Turks. Fine examples of carpet weaving were found in two mosques at Konya, the Seljuk centre for carpet weaving, but may not have been produced there. During the transition from the Sejuk to the Ottoman Empire, high quality rugs were being made, most of which we see in European paintings. During the second half of the fifteenth century, the carpets, which we came to know as Holbein or Lotto carpets through the paintings of Hans Holbein and Lorenzo Lotto, are thought to have come from the area around Uşak in Western Anatolia. By the 16th and 17th century, Uşak had become one of the most important centres of Ottoman court weaving.

Without going into the designs of Uşak carpets which I covered in an earlier blog, what was important was that knotted carpet weaving flourished, in part due to patronage from the Sultan, but to a larger extent, to the capitulations given to Levantine traders which enabled these carpets to be exported to all parts of the globe. Unlike Persia, which mainly produced court carpets or carpets for diplomatic gifts at that time, the Turkish carpet trade flourished to such an extent that at the time of the outbreak of WWI, it was the second largest industry after Tobacco.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

Ghirlandaio. Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, Detail ca1483

By capitulations, we mean treaties with the Ottomans which had been in existence under the Byzantines.  The Europeans were thus subject to their own national laws and paid virtually no tax. A few years prior to the outbreak of WWI, the carpet exporters had become so big, they formed cartels and employed thousands of weavers all over Central and Eastern Anatolia, besides the workshops in Uşak. The largest family in the cartel was the Spitali family who were originally Armenian, but later came under an Italian family through marriage. There was also two major English families, one of which had a French connection, and the Turkish Çolakzadeh family. When they amalgamated in 1907, the cartel was legally an English company even though it was registered in Smyrna. In its heyday, the cartel employed 100,000 weavers working on 20,000 looms. Carpets were woven in 27 towns throughout Turkey. Along with the dye works, woollen mills, and other types of woven cloth, the industry was immense.

The Ottoman Empire was a cosmopolitan one. Throughout Turkey, the carpet industry employed mostly Greeks and Armenians, not because they considered them to be better weavers, but because Muslims would not allow company inspectors to enter the houses to check the carpets. As almost all the carpets were being exported and had to comply with a certain standard, this proved too difficult a task. With the ascent of The Young Turks, the country entered a new era which was quickly overshadowed by the political upheavals at the time. First the Balkan Wars, which not only brought Balkan Muslim refugees into the country by the thousands, but diseases also. The carpet manufacturers and exporters started to suffer.

When Turkey entered WWI on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Young Turks abolished the capitulations and the cartel was given the option of either registering as a Turkish company, or be considered an enemy of the state and leave. Now the government had more revenue for the war effort. Woollen mills were obliged to weave cloth for the army and the carpet manufacturing side sank even further. Further problems occurred with the loss of Armenian weavers, and then the Greeks after the Greek army landed in Smyrna in 1919. The town of Ghiordes, whose name is given to the famous knot, was virtually destroyed in 1921. When Mustafa Kemal’s Nationists retook Anatolia from the Greek army and entered Smyrna, the cartel’s head office and warehouse which was on the waterfront, burnt down during The Great Fire of Smyrna and the entire stock was lost. They were not the only ones to lose a fortune. The American Tobacco Company suffered the same fate. To add to these devastating losses, insurance companies refused to pay out stating that the losses were an act of war and not an accident.  The losses amounted to millions of dollars. When the Greek refugees fled, they took their skills with them, and in the ensuing years of poverty and disillusionment – disillusionment because many had expected to return to Turkey after the war – they slowly began to establish a hand-made knotted carpet industry throughout Greece, but it would never be on the scale that it was in Turkey.

After the situation settled in Turkey and the new Turkish Republic found its feet, commerce started to improve. Indeed, only one year after The Great Fire of Smyrna, advertisements appeared in English newspapers asking for experienced dyers in Uşak. The address of the office was given as Smyrna. Just as things started to improve, the Wall Street Crash sent commerce in to a spiral again and the carpet weaving industry would never again recover to the great heights of the early 20th century.  In the follwing years, Persian weavers would start to compete with Turkish weavers in the export market, and the modernization of industrial carpet looms further impacted the craft. Throughout all this, Turkish carpets have managed to survive and recent government initiatives have helped.

Joice Lock

The Byzantine Tower at Ouranoupolis

A carpet designed by Joice.

1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash, was also the year another type of carpet began to be woven in Greece. The Australian philanthropist and self-trained doctor, Joice Nankivell Lock, settled in the village of Ouranoupolis near the monasteries of Mount Athos. It had become a refugee village and the villagers were in dire straits. They lacked any form of income and had no money for medicines. With funds dwindling, Joice realized that some of the villagers were skilled carpet weavers and immediately hatched a plan to help the starving families by starting up a rug-weaving enterprise. After discussing the idea with a weaver from Kayseri in central Anatolia, the woman disappeared inside her house and emerged with a pile of shimmering silks, enough to make several rugs. Joice went to the local carpenter and commissioned several looms. It so happened that the carpenter was also from Kayseri and had previously made carpet looms. Before long, a women’s co-operative was established and Pirgos Rugs was born. Wool was purchased by Joice from further afield and dyed in Ouranoupolis. The Byzantine tower where Joice lived with her husband, Sydney, became a dye-house for natural dyes. Each recipe was noted down in order to give consistency. One major problem arose. The weavers all wanted to make the Turkish designs woven over generations by their ancestors. Joice on the other hand, wanted to make Byzantine designs. The monks of Mount Athens would never let a woman into their libraries and Joice was forced to draw on her extensive knowledge of Byzantine art in the churches and on embroideries she had seen on her travels.

Still, the arguments persisted. At one point, a village leader came to her and said, “I am sorry, Kyria Loch, but rugs have always been Turkish. No-one will buy Greek rugs.” In the end, Joice got the women on side. If they sold, then they would continue. Much to the astonishment of the village men, three of Pirgos Rug’s carpet won first prize in the International Trade Fair held in Thessaloniki. The American Board of Missions recognized the skills would allow the women to sustain themself and agreed to fund her work. Over time, she would add pre-Christian designs such as those from Knossos. It became a financial success and saved the lives of the villagers.

Carpet Weavers in Hereke

In the 21st century, Turkish weaving has expanded once more. Unfortunately, in the case of hand knotted carpets, it has declined in Greece. Today’s modern lifestyle has much to do with this, yet in Turkey, carpet weaving still remains one of the country’s most important art forms – a legacy to the early Turkic tribal nomads. For future generations, let us hope the tradition is kept alive.

Carpet Vendors by Jafar Petgar 1952


Latest release. The Carpet Weaver of Uşak Available from all online retailers.

“Springtime and early summer are always beautiful in Anatolia. Hardy winter crocuses, blooming in their thousands, are followed by blue muscari which adorn the meadows like glorious sapphires on a silk carpet.”

Set amidst the timeless landscape and remote villages of Anatolia, The Carpet Weaver of Uşak is the haunting and unforgettable story of a deep friendship between two women, one Greek Orthodox, the other a Muslim Turk: a friendship that transcends an atmosphere of mistrust, fear and ultimate collapse, long after the wars have ended.

Life in Stavrodromi and Pınarbaşı always moved at a slow pace. The years slipped by with the seasons and news was gathered from the camel trains passing through. The Greek and Turkish inhabitants of these two villages managed to pull together in adversity, keeping an eye out for each other. In the centre of the village stood the Fountain of the Sun and Moon. Here the locals congregated to celebrate the events in each other’s life – their loves and losses, their hopes and dreams. When war broke out in a faraway place that few had heard of, a sense of foreboding crept into the village, as silently as the winter mists that heralded the onset of another long, cold winter.
1914: As the tentacles of The Great War threaten to envelop the Ottoman Empire, Uşak, the centre of the centuries-old carpet weaving industry in Turkey, prepares for war. Carpet orders are cancelled and the villagers whose lives depend on weaving, have no idea of the devastating impact the war will have on their lives.
1919: In the aftermath of the war, the tenuous peace is further destabilized when the Greek army lands in Smyrna and quickly fans out into the hinterland. Three years later, the population of Stavrodromi and Pınarbaşı are forced to take sides. Loyalties and friendships that existed for generations are now irrevocably torn apart. Their world has changed forever.


Blog 15 26/07/2015 Turkish Carpets: From the Steppes of Central Asia to the Tudor Court.