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Rugs from Turkey (Anatolia)

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The pile rugs and carpets of Turkey are justly admired for their artistry. The majority are made in Anatolia, the greater Asian land mass of Turkey. Some are the large and ornate workshop carpets woven for wealthy elites during the Ottoman period. Most are smaller 19th and 20th century village rugs with attractive colours and abstract patterns. The Museum’s rug collection contains examples of both.

Ottoman court workshops from the 16th to 19th centuries employed professional carpet designers and teams of weavers under royal patronage. They produced finely knotted pieces fit for a Sultan: a pile of wool and sometimes silk and metal thread, with sumptuous colours and ornately drawn Islamic motifs such as Qur’anic inscriptions and smoothly curving arabesques. Many were prayer rugs with a niche (the Muslim mihrab) at one end to be pointed towards Mecca.

During the same period, commercial rug workshops wove fine and generally large carpets in rich reds and blues with a range of designs. They exported these in large numbers as luxury furnishings for the nobility and wealthy merchants of Christian Europe. Several design types are named after European painters who depicted them, such as the Holbein pattern (after Hans Holbein the Younger c.1497-1543). The Museum holds a rare fragment of a large Holbein carpet, a type woven in Ushak in Western Anatolia in the 16th to 17th centuries. The original carpet featured a large ornate central medallion and half medallions at each end.

The most popular and numerous Turkish rugs in museum and private collections were produced by village women across Anatolia. They are mostly of wool and were often woven for family use, such as dowries. But many more were produced commercially by rural cottage industries; entrepreneurs paid the weavers, supplied the wool and dyestuffs and sold the rugs locally or to exporters supplying Western markets. The warm colours of village pieces, especially reds and yellows, and their abstract or geometric patterns that were possibly originally symbolic, appeal to both art collectors and the furnishing trade in the West.

Certain village designs, such as prayer niches and simplified arabesques, are rustic versions of classical court and workshop carpets. An example in the collection is the Manastir rug. Pre-20th century village rugs used natural plant dyes, but synthetic dyes later came to predominate, sometimes with unappealing results. There have been several projects to revive the use of plant dyes and traditional designs.

Anatolia is also renowned for its large colourful kilims; these rugs and hangings are flat-woven rather than pile-woven. Two striking examples are the Sarkoy kilim from Thrace, Western Turkey, and the Konya kilim displaying a pattern of stylised carnations, a popular Ottoman motif. Like most large Anatolian kilims, it was woven in two long panels sewn together lengthways.

Turkish nomadic rugs, woven by the mountain nomads the Yürük, are relatively rare due to the wear and tear of nomadic life. They are typically all wool and coarsely woven, as is the mid-19th century rug woven by a Yürük woman from Kagizman village in eastern Anatolia.

Leigh Mackay, President, Oriental Rug Society of NSW Inc, 2020