Carpets, whether knotted or flat woven (hummas) are among the best known art forms produced by the Turks from time immemorial. There are environmental, sociological, economic, and religious reasons for the widespread art of carpet weaving among the Turkish people from Central Asia to Turkey.

The Expansion and Development of Turkish Rug and Kilim Weaving in Anatolia

During the time of the Selcuk Empire and before they came to Anatolia, Turks reigned over Iran (Persia) and Caucasus for several centuries. The art of weaving was introduced to Anatoly by the Selcuks toward the end of the 11th and the beginning of 12th centuries when Selcuk sovereignty was at its strongest. In addition to numerous carpet fragments, many of which are yet to be documented, there are 18 carpets and fragments which are known to be of Selcuk origin. The technical aspects and vast variety of designs used proves the resourcefulness of Selcuk rug weaving. The oldest surviving Selcuk carpets are dated from the 13th-14th centuries. Eight of these carpets were discovered in the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya (capital of Anatolian Selcuks) in 1905 by Loytred, a member of the German consulate staff and were woven at some time between the years 1220 and 1250 at the apex of Selcuks reign.

Antique Seljuk Carpet

Of these 8 striking rugs, 3 are large complete rugs; 3 are large fragments from small rugs, and 2 are fairly small fragments originating from large rugs. Three more carpet fragments from the Selcuk period were discovered in 1930 in the Esrefoglu Mosque in Beysehir. Today, these rugs are displayed in the Mevlana Museum in Konya and the Keir collection in London. A third group of carpet remnants were recovered in Fostad (old Cairo) in 1935-1936. These 7 rugs from Fostad were identified as having originated in Anatolia in the 14th century. The most common design characteristic of the 18 rugs before mentioned are the Kufic border, the eight pointed star, and the hooked (geometric) motif. The Turkish rug, which originated in Central Asia, preserved all of its characteristics until the 14th century. After the Ottomans gained control over the whole Anatolia, changes began to appearing the composition of the field, in the characteristics of the motifs, and in the sizes of the still traditionally woven Turkish rugs.

During the Ottoman reign, Several Turkish tribes decided to settle down and build a number of villages and small towns. Notably, the village of Hereke was settled on the edge of Marmara Sea some 60 kilometers east of Istanbul. The first court carpet workshop was established in Hereke and began to weave carpets of unusually large sizes to be used in decorating Ottoman palaces. These exceptionally fine rugs were also used to tie and retie relationships with European countries in time of war and peace and so they were given as gifts to kings and queens, as well as to key army commanders and statesmen.

Turkish Ambassador's Hall Carpet

Marco Polo, who traveled through Anatolia in the late 13th century, commented on the beauty and artistry of the carpets. A number of carpets from this period, known as the Seljuk carpets, were discovered in several mosques in central Anatolia. These were under many layers of subsequently placed carpets. These Seljuk carpets are in the museums in Konya and Istanbul. Towards the end of the 14th century, these rugs which were the finest examples of the eye and hand harmony. They began to enter European homes, churches and castles than through other intermediaries such as merchants from Florence and Genoa.

During the 14th and 16th centuries, Turkish rug designs appeared prominently in many European artists' paintings, with the rugs so depicted being of Anatolian origin. These paintings were subsequently named for the respective artists. For example, in the works of Lotto (15th century Italian painter) and Holbein (16th century German painter), Turkish carpets are seen under the feet of the Virgin Mary, or in secular paintings, on tables. In the 17th century, when the Netherlands became a powerful mercantile country, Turkish carpets graced many Dutch homes. The Dutch painter Vermeer represented Turkish carpets predominantly to indicate the high economic and social status of the persons in his paintings. Turkey carpets, as they were known, were too valuable to be put on floors, except under the feet of the Holy Mother and royalty.

Madonna & Child by Lorenzo Lotto
Giovanni della Volta, Wife & Children by Lorenzo Lotto
The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein
The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer

In the beginning of the 16th century, every European prince owned a private carpet collection. In Vienna, the people were allowed to own rugs after 1671. When the Turks left Vienna, many Turkish rugs were left behind in their tents. This allowed fine Turkish carpets to become known by the European populace. A short time thereafter, the kings and queens of Europe began to open their castles and palaces, as well as their residences, to visitation by their subjects. This in turn, spurred European interest and thereby dramatically increased the demand for hand-knotted Turkish carpets.

Selcuk Carpet Factory

In the 19th century, additional court workshops were opened in Istanbul in the districts of Kumkapi, Topkapi and Uskudar. And in 1891, Sultan Abdullhamid II increased the number and sizes of carpet workshops in Hereke, and thus, the exquisite carpets woven in Hereke became more plentiful. Throughout their development- from Central Asia to the Caucasus region to the Anotolian plains, steppes, and coastal areas, and through the Selcuk and Ottoman eras Anotolian rugs have maintained the purity and characteristics of their origin. Turkish court rugs were originally influenced by sources brought under Turkish control, but which were modified Turkish standards and requirements. Thus, Turkish rugs reached their deserved place in Europe. Rugs from Hereke, Usak, Bergama etc. became well known and their demand continued to increase with time. Anatolian rugs are unbelievably rich in design, color and symbols. Today, these fine rugs are woven in more than 750 villages and tribal (nomadic) areas. Each of these rugs differs from each other by their particular design, symbolism, and relative size; these characteristics are passed on from mother to daughter, and thus for centuries they have kept same design, symbols, and beautiful shades of color. Because traditionally women have woven the carpets, this is one art form that is rarely appreciated as being the work of a known or a specific artist.

Sources and inspiration: Bérinstain, Valérie, et al. L'art du tapis dans le monde (The art of carpets in the world),. Paris: Mengès, 1996. Print.; Jerrehian Jr., Aram K.A. Oriental Rug Primer. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1980. Print.; Herbert, Janice Summers. Oriental Rugs, New York: Macmillan, 1982. Print.; Hackmack, Adolf. Chinese Carpets and Rugs, Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1980. Print. ; De Moubray, Amicia, and David Black. Carpets for the home, London: Laurence King Publishing, 1999. Print.; Jacobsen, Charles. Oriental Rugs A Complete Guide, Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1962. Print.; Bashir, S. (n.d.). Personal interview.; Web site sources and dates of consultation vary (to be confirmed). Without prejudice to official usage.