Turkish carpets are famous for their beautiful and complex patterns and rich, naturally-dyed colors. They come in various forms: “nomadic” or “tribal” rugs (knotted pile) kilims (flat-woven rugs), cicims (embroidered rugs), angora goat hair rugs, sumaks (kilims that have been hand embroidered to enhance their patterns), prayer rugs (often with an arched niche called the “mihrab”, which is pointed towards Mecca when its use prays) and cushion covers. Kilims can be placed on walls or on the floors. They are associated with Turkey but are produced in Pakistan, India and other places. Sumaks are often used as covers or blankets.

Sara Wolf, a director at the Textile Museum in Washington D.C, and an expert on Turkish carpets told the Washington Post, “What inspired me was the fabulous designs and colors. They have every bit of the pizzazz as a piece of modern art. They’re straight forward and bold, and they never go out of style...There’s a lot of personality, individuality and whimsy in the old pieces. I pine for the personality that the weaver incorporated into their work when it was an important part of their culture.”

Turkish, Central Asian and Caucasian carpets are usually coarser and have jagged geometric designs and brighter and wilder colors. They have a knot count that runs from 60 to 100 per square inch. City carpets from Turkey and Iran are known for their formal, dense curved floral patterns. They traditionally have had a higher knot count.

Istanbul has been described as the best place in the world to shop for carpet (and one the easiest places to get ripped off). There are literally hundreds of shops. Many shops are located in and around the Grand Bazaar and Arasta Bazaar, near the Blue Mosque, which has dozens of stable-like shops that specialize is textiles and carpets. In Turkey as a whole, there are thousands of carpet dealers. Any town of any size has some. Those that sell high-end carpets can live comfortably by selling around 100 carpets a year. Most supply the tourist trade by selling mass-produced carpets with thick pile, poor quality wool with garish colors made by chemical dyes.

Book: Aslanapa, Oktay, ed. One Thousand Years of Turkish Carpets. Istanbul: Eren, 1988.

History of Turkish Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Often referred to as Anatolian, rugs have been woven in the area of present-day Turkey since the 13th century with the arrival of the Seljuks, who were nomadic tribes from Central Asia. Turkish rugs were first brought to Europe in the Middle Ages and were in such high demand that Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries referred to all oriental rugs as " Turkey rugs." In contrast to Persian rugs, Turkish rugs of the nineteenth century were less sophisticated, brighter in color, more rectilinear, and were more coarsely-woven. Repeating patterns are rare and prayer rugs with mihrabs in solid colors are common in antique Turkish rugs. Of the many weaving centers throughout Anatolia, each created an innately Turkish rug with a distinct signature style native to its specific region. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau ~]

“With many weaving centers throughout Anatolia, each created an innately Turkish carpet with a distinct signature style native to its specific region. In the fifteenth century, inspired by the example set by the Timurid and Safavid Courts, Turkish artists introduced floral and Chinese motifs, first into ceramic tile-work and textiles, and then adapted into oriental carpet patterns. These designs included elegantly drawn prayer rugs decorated with architectural motifs serving as models for centuries of village weavers of rugs and textiles across Anatolia.” ~

Marika Sardar of New York University wrote: “In Ottoman Turkey, weaving patterns and techniques changed in the early sixteenth century after conquests in Persia and Egypt. Anatolia had been known for carpets with stylized animal and geometric designs, but with these new cultural contacts, carpets designed around a central medallion and with flowing saz-style vegetation came into vogue. Similar motifs also appeared on book covers, textiles, and in manuscript borders. The style of these Ottoman court rugs, first produced in Istanbul, then spread to other weaving centers in Cairo and Ushak (58.63; 1984.69), but never fully overtook the various regional carpet traditions. Caucasian and Armenian carpets retained their customary geometric patterns, and kilims (or flat-weaves) remained popular. [Source: Marika Sardar Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Different Types of Turkish Rugs

Among the most famous types of Turkish rugs are Ghiordes, Kulah, Bergama, Ladik, Anatolian, Melez, Kirsehir, Oushak, Sivas, Tulu, Kayseri, Hereke, Borlou and Konya. Carpets from southeastern Anatolia are influenced by carpets from Syria and Iran. They use a lot of red and feature a lot of alternating positive and negative space. Carpets from northeastern Anatolia are influenced by carpets from Armenia. They feature Armenian floral and tree designs.

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Decorative antique carpets from Sivas are often finely-woven interpretations of the classical Persian medallion design and have floral infill. Hereke rugs often feature luxurious materials such as silk and metal-thread worked into designs emulating the antique Persian carpets of the Ottoman and Safavid Court workshops. Ghiordes, in the western part of Turkey, is known for precisely figured, colorful, multi-bordered antique prayer rugs with open prayer niches, and stylized architectural motifs. The antique Borlou carpet most closely resembles the dramatic scale, informality and pleasing palette of oriental Oushak rugs. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau ~]

“Ghiordes, in the western part of Turkey, is known for precisely figured, colorful, multi-bordered antique prayer rugs with open prayer niches, and stylized architectural motifs. The antique Borlou carpet most closely resembles the dramatic scale, informality and pleasing palette of the oriental rugs in nearby Oushak, later manifesting itself in grand room size carpets. Formerly called Caesarea, Kayseri is a rug production center in central Turkey (Anatolia). Due to its location along the Silk Road, rugs from the region reveal the heavy influence of Gordes and Iranian carpets.” ~

“Since the beginning of their production in the 18th century, rugs from the Anatolian town, Ghiordes have mostly been known for their rectilinear, colorful, multi-bordered antique prayer patterns. Ghiordes rugs often have open fields with mihrabs or hanging lamps and stylized architectural motifs that are found on sixteenth and seventeenth century Ottoman court rugs.

Ghiordes is the oldest knot found in the most ancient of rugs/carpets. However, the oldest fragment of rug found with this knot was discovered in Siberia amongst the remains of the Pazyryk people and has a date stamp that places it in the Iron Age. ~

Oushak and Tulu Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Since the sixteenth century, antique oriental carpets and rugs from Oushak have been represented among the carefully chosen and highly esteemed objects d'art in the studied interiors and still life paintings of important European personages, as depicted by such artists as Holbein, Lotto, Velasquez, Memling and Vermeer. Until the eighteenth century, the vogue for Ottoman carpets was unabated designs such as 'medallion' and 'star' Oushaks in royal tones of brick red, terracotta, deep blue and gold continued to grace European interiors. Over time, designs of antique Ushak carpets and antique Oushak rugs evolved, managing to retain the distinctive character of sixteenth century prototypes continuing to reference large scale ovoid or star shaped medallions enclosing split-leaf rumi and floral vinery displayed on fields of delicate floral tracery. [Source: Doris Leslie Blau ~]

“Characteristics of antique Oushak rugs are: relatively loose knots giving a supple hand a fairly long pile colors that have oxidized into a riotous sorbet of summer fruit such as melon, tangerine, passion fruit, mango, orange, lemon and lime green. The monumental scale, relaxed structure and playful palette of antique Oushak rugs ensure that they remain a favorite within the pantheon of decorative antique oriental rugs. ~

“Tulu means long haired in Turkish. These rugs were made in the past for the purpose of getting warmth and for sleeping. They are soft, usually have vibrant colors and are very shiny. Antique Tulu rugs are some of the most beautiful textile creations in the entire world. They can be identified by their artistic details and luscious texture. These rugs were made by hand knotting with the Ghiordes knotting style. Tulu rug patterns are unique but they are mostly based on flowery or vinery designs with something solid or plain for a centerpiece. Tulu rugs are usually woven with a combination of vibrant and earthy tones for balance. ~

“Tulu rugs are woven in the city of Karapinar, which lies east of Konya. It is home to a lot of mountains and plains. At least 100 years ago, the people of the village could not grow plants or tend livestock because of the conditions at the time. As a result, they started doing Tulu weaving (long-haired) and producing Tulu - rugs. Most of these rugs are 70-100 years old. They begin weaving these Tulus to keep themselves warm in the blistering cold up in the mountains. Commercial Tulu rug weaving only started recently to help them make a living for themselves.

Some Tulu rugs show regional geography and terrain, hence, the flowery and vinery centerpieces and designs. Some Tulu rugs exist with oatmeal fields (centers) and more solid edges. This depicts the plains of the Karapinar and the mountains depict the solid edges that give some balance to the city of Karapinar.” ~

Sivas, Borlou and Hereke Rugs

According to Doris Leslie Blau: “Borlou rugs originate in Turkey. They have been handmade since as early as the 13th century. It is believed that a tribe known as the Seljuks were the skilled weavers responsible for these early masterpieces. The Seljuks are said to have hailed from Central Asia and were nomads. During the 1400s and 1500s, Europeans collected and treasured these rugs so much so that all rugs that came from Asia were thought to be products of Turkey. Each rug bears the intricate designs that represent the weaving base that produced it. Each region in Turkey has a signatory design that identifies it.” [Source: Doris Leslie Blau ~]

“The following are some of the regions and their associated designs: 1) “Hereke” is weaving center is located near Istanbul in the northern tip of Izmit Bay. These rugs were reserved for royalty and people held in high esteem on the national and international front. They incorporated motifs from Persia, traditional Turkish designs, Egypt, Western Europe, and of course the Usak medallion. These rugs are considered to be the finest in the world. 2) “Konya” is located in Central Anatolia. The rugs produced here also have a Persian flavor as well as a floral motif. Marco Polo once commented on the beauty of the carpets produced in this region. 3) “Sivas” carpets incorporate the Usak medallion, have a Persian flavor, and tend to be more floral.

“Sivas rugs and carpets weavers traditionally used a smaller assortment of color than their Persian counterparts, achieving a remarkable range with only eight or nine colors. Primary colors tend to dominate, particularly blue and madder red, although a softer and lighter palette is often used on late nineteenth and early twentieth century carpets. Decorative antique carpets from Sivas in the southeast are finely woven and formal, tending to interpret the classical Persian style with central medallions and floral infill. A palette of soft and pale gelato tones in the typical antique Sivas rug makes it more feminine and sugary than other any other antique Turkish carpet. ~

“Hereke rugs made in the small coastal town of Hereke, Turkey. In the early nineteenth century, on the outskirts of Istanbul, the Hereke carpet workshop was established, becoming famous for producing exceptional, finely woven carpets of outstanding technical ability. These antique Hereke rugs often feature luxurious materials such as silk and metal-thread worked into designs emulating the antique Persian carpets of the Ottoman and Safavid Court workshops. ~

“Antique Hereke rugs are truly beautiful pieces of art, and it's truly mind-boggling to think that so many beautiful pieces came from a single town. Like many antique rugs, Hereke rugs feature subtle, muted colors that span the spectrum. They also feature intricate designs from edge to edge. Hereke rugs can range from small 6'x4' rugs that will cover a small piece of a room to massive, room-spanning 22'x14' carpets. Each one will serve as a unique piece of art with its own distinct flair. ~

“Originally intended to furnish palaces, Hereke rugs were made throughout the 1800's. To fit their palatial purposes, Hereke rugs are not only made of cotton, wool, or silk, but many also feature threads of gold or silver. These threads help antique Hereke rugs stand out visually, and vastly increase their value among collectors. While some Hereke rugs are still produced today, the most beautiful and valuable of them are the antiques. There is no need to worry about any degradation of quality over time, however. Even in the 1800's, Hereke rugs were precisely made with double knots, and their patterns are still clearly visible and their colors have not faded.” ~

Turkic and Islamic Carpets in European Paintings

Walter Denny of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The popularity of what we call oriental carpets—pile-woven carpets from the Islamic world—in Europe from the fourteenth century onward is reflected in the frequent depiction of oriental carpets in European paintings. Indeed, European paintings are a primary source for scholarship on early carpets, and many groups of Islamic carpets from the Middle East are today called by the names of European painters who depicted them: Lotto, Holbein, Ghirlandaio, Crivelli, and Memling are among the European painters whose names are now used to describe certain groups of carpets woven in Ottoman Turkey. [Source:Walter Denny, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“From biblical times onward, the concept of having an expensive textile underfoot has been associated with wealth, power, and sanctity; when the Sienese painter Duccio depicted the story of those who spread their garments under Christ's feet on Palm Sunday, he was simply renewing an age-old cultural concept. By the time Sir Walter Raleigh put his cloak on the ground to help Queen Elizabeth over a mud puddle, the mystique of textiles underfoot had been around for millennia.\^/

“A fifteenth-century painting by Giovanni di Paolo, Madonna and Child with Two Angels and a Donor, depicts under the feet of the Virgin Mary one of the earliest and rarest types of carpets from Turkey to be exported in quantity to Italy; the design consists of highly stylized animals in octagons (41.190.16). By the sixteenth century, carpets were frequently depicted in portraits as a signifier of sophistication, education, and high social and economic status; an anonymous portrait by Moretto da Brescia shows at the very bottom a minor border of a contemporary Anatolian rug from Ottoman Turkey; the design of the rest remains an enigma (28.79).\^/

“By the seventeenth century, depictions of carpets were widespread throughout Europe. The Museum owns several Lotto carpets; the earlier and larger examples have a border of stylized strapwork recalling squared-off kufic Arabic writing (08.167.1), while borders of later examples have small medallions, such as those shown in the painting by Jan Breghel and Peter Paul Rubens entitled The Feast of Achelous (45.141). Here, we see a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses portrayed as a contemporary Flemish outdoor banquet, with a beautiful Lotto carpet with red and yellow arabesques from central Turkey shown on a table partially protected by a linen tablecloth. The pattern was a favorite in Europe; the seventeenth-century painter Nicolas Maes depicted a young girl peeling apples, seated next to a table covered with a sumptuous Lotto carpet (14.40.612).\^/

“Carpets woven in Syria were extremely rare in Europe: a painting by Gabriël Metsu entitled A Musical Party shows a so-called chessboard carpet with a design of geometrical stars from early seventeenth-century Syria over a table (91.26.11); the Museum owns an actual carpet of this design, given by Joseph V. McMullan (69.267).\^/

“Medallion carpets woven in Ushak in west-central Turkey were also depicted frequently in European paintings. Metsu's sumptuous Dutch interior scene The Visit to the Nursery shows a large Ushak medallion carpet draped over a table (17.190.20). The Metropolitan has several Ushak carpets of this type in its collection (08.173.13). The attractive genre scene by Gerard ter Borch, the Younger, entitled A Woman Playing the Theorbo-Lute and a Cavalier depicts a small west Anatolian medallion carpet with an unsual design on the table in front of his musical couple (14.40.617).\^/

Although Johannes Vermeer's lifetime output of paintings was very small, a large portion of them contains depictions of oriental carpets. Two in particular feature carpets prominently: the famous A Maid Asleep depicts two different seventeenth-century Anatolian carpets from Turkey (14.40.611), while Young Woman with a Water Pitcher shows a soft and thickly textured Persian carpet, again on a table, with a design of floral arabesques on a red ground (89.15.21). The tradition of showing carpets on tables in upper-class interiors continued well into the eighteenth century; Longhi's The Visit shows a western Anatolian prayer carpet from the Gördes district draped over a table in an elegant Italian interior (14.32.2).\^/

As carpets became more affordable in Europe, very large examples were imported for use as floor covering. Francis Wheatley's The Saithwaite Family, for example, presents an aristocratic British couple and their daughter on a very large eighteenth-century carpet from Ushak (2009.357). In early nineteenth-century France, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, a great admirer of Italian Renaissance art, self-consciously referred backward in time to earlier portraits in his well-known portrait of Jacques-Louis Leblanc (19.77.1). The carpet-covered table shown with books, a handwritten letter or manuscript, and an inkwell (a concept that horrifies today's textile conservators) refers to a long tradition in European painting, in which carpets are associated not only with economic and social status in general, but also with learning and literacy. The small carpet on the table, of a well-known eighteenth-century type from Anatolia, is strikingly similar to an actual example from the McMullan collection in the Metropolitan (1974.149.15). Depictions of carpets in European and American paintings continued throughout the twentieth century, in works as diverse as the orientalist paintings of Matisse or American interiors by artists such as Glackens; the colors, textures, and patterns of carpets continue to fascinate patron and painter alike into our own time.

Books: Erdmann, Kurt Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. Mack, Rosamund From Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600. Berkeley: University of California.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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