Thursday, 19 June 2008

Pierre Loti: When Oriental Carpets Are Not Enough

ROCHEFORT, France; June 20, 2008 -- Many non-French speakers hear of Pierre Loti for the first time when they visit Istanbul

That is partly thanks to the café that bears his name on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. The veranda and interior are said to have changed little since the French traveler and writer went there at the turn-of-the-last century to smoke the narghile and gaze at his favorite city.

But once one hears of Loti -- the pen-name of French naval captain Julien Viaud (1850-1923) -- it is hard not to be intrigued.

There is the story, for example, of Loti and Sarah Bernhardt. When Loti wanted to meet the famous actress, he had himself rolled up in an oriental rug and delivered to her door by two men dressed in Arab costume. When he rolled out of the carpet, she was so surprised that they quickly became good friends.

And there is his book ‘Aziyadé,’ first published in 1872. It chronicles the doomed love affair of a young British officer, named Loti, and a Circassian concubine of a Turkish merchant in Salonica. The two flee to Istanbul until finally they are separated by the pulls of their different worlds.

"I swear to you, Aziyadé," Loti tells her, "I would give up everything with no regrets, my position, my name, my country. As for my friends, I have none and I don’t care. But you see, I do have an aged mother."

How much of the tale is autobiography, how much fiction, no-one knows. But Loti maintained for the rest of his life that his one true love was Aziyadé and that she died of heartbreak before they could meet again.

Loti was perhaps the last great French writer of Romanticism and – sailing with the French fleet – took the genre to settings it had never seen before.

His novels and travelogues explore the Ottomon Empire, Japan (his book 'Madame Chrysanthemum' is the forerunner of Madame Butterfly), Polynesia, Morocco, Iran, China, Egypt and Iceland. What his stories had in common is a longing for the exotic, a world-weariness with European bourgeois life, and immense appeal for bourgeois European readers.

But Loti, who was a member of the Academie Francaise and both admired and ridiculed in his day, reserves his greatest surprise for visitors to his rather ordinary looking home in Rochefort, on France’s Atlantic coast.

From his voyages, he brought home immense quantities of momentos. Gradually, they began to overfill his ancestral home until, as he grew richer, he bought the neighboring house and connected it to his own.

Then, he began refashioning the interior into a whole series of rooms that conjured up the exotic world of his books and, he said, inspired him to write more.

The most amazing room is a full, operetta-stage replica of a mosque. To construct it he purchased a fire-damaged mosque in Damascus that was about to be pulled down and had it shipped in its entirety to France accompanied by a team of Syrian masons.

The mosque is complete down to a Turkish multi-niche prayer rug, or Saff, and is adorned with a giant gravestone from an Istanbul cemetery. Loti said it was the stele from Aziyadé’s grave site.

By his own account, he spent hours in these rooms – which also include a fully furnished Turkish salon -- dreaming of lost love.

I spend a lot of time at home, they are the hours of calm in my life, and smoking my narghile I dream of Istanbul and the lovely limpid green eyes of my dear sweet Aziyadé.”

At the same time, Loti loved to give parties and he dressed himself and his servants for the occasion – in Arab or Turkish robes.

Was Loti mildly eccentric? That would be an insulting understatement. He was massively and joyously, but also wistfully, out of step with his rapidly modernizing and Euro-centric world.

During his travels in Morocco, he wrote ecstatically of places that Western influence had yet to reach and, at the same time, described what he knew was doomed to disappear. The clarity, detail, and color of his writing won the admiration of painters such as Matisse and writers including Marcel Proust.

Today, a quick browse through the Internet shows Loti available mostly only in French and Turkish and long out of print in English. But his house – now a museum – is an open invitation to follow him home and, from there, still further home to the farthest corners of the East.




Related Links:

Wikipedia: Pierre Loti

‘The Orient of Pierre Loti’ – Saudi Aramco World

‘Phantoms of the Orient’ - An Exhibition of Loti’s Life and Work – Al-Ahram Weeky

'Armchair Travels with Pierre Loti' - Al-Ahram Weekly

Pierre Loti Museum, Rochefort

Extracts from first chapters of ‘Aziyadé’ (French)

‘Pierre Loti – Turcophile’ (French)

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Arabesque Mamluk Carpets Mix Perfect Art With Perfect Mystery

CAIRO, June 6, 2008 -- Are Mamluk carpets the most mysterious rugs of all?

There are many reasons to think so.

The rugs were created during the reign of the Mamluk sultans in Cairo from 1250 to 1517 at a time when medieval Islamic art was at its pinnacle in Egypt.

And it is clear that the sultans spared no expense -- from the painstaking weaving of the rugs’ mosaic-like designs to their saturated colors and their superb wool.

But no-one is sure exactly where these masterpiece workshop rugs were woven. Some carpets experts say Egypt, some Spain, some Turkey.

One of the reasons for considering so many places is that the rugs appeared under the Mamluks as if out of thin air. Elisabeth Greenberg observes in her article ‘Jewelled Carpets: Treasures of the Mamluk Empire’ that “prior to these rugs there was no pile-rug weaving tradition in Egypt.”

Examining the rugs for clues just offers more riddles. Their lustrous wool is unlike that used in other Egyptian textiles of the time, but doesn’t clearly come from somewhere else. The wool is spun clockwise, when most carpet wools are spun counterclockwise. And, the red dye is obtained from lac – an Indian insect – at a time when master weavers in Turkey and Iran were using entirely different pigments.

That leaves only the carpets’ designs as a guide. These, at least, are consistent with other artworks created under the Mamluks. Thus many experts conclude that the carpets must have been woven in Cairo under the close supervision of the Mamluk court.

As to who the Mamluks were, their story is no less extraordinary. Although they ruled Egypt and Syria, they originally came to the Mideast as slave-solders from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Arab rulers purchased or recruited them as youths from Turkic, Mongol, and Circassian tribes in Central Asia and trained them as elite palace troops.

But the Mamluks revolted and seized power for themselves. And still more surprisingly -- despite a warrior ethos so competitive that, on the average, the Mamluks killed or removed their own leaders every five years – they were huge patrons of art.

When the Mamluk empire fell to the Ottomons in 1517, their distinctive carpets disappeared with them. Today, only one remains in Cairo and the rest of the some 100 or so pieces that survive are the prizes of a handful of top world museums. The images above are of a rug in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Museums rarely display their centuries-old Mamluks for fear they will be damaged by too much exposure to light. But when the rugs are shown, they always amaze viewers -- just as their designers intended.

The Mamluk’s complex Arabesque patterns evoke the harmony and infinity of the divine. Astonishingly, they do so with patterns that appear both perfectly mathematical and perfectly mystical at the same time. And the carpets literally shimmer before the eyes, making a them appear as much like a vision of a rug as a reality.

Small surprise, then, that some carpet producers today are interested in trying to recreate the Mamluks in whole or part.

Woven Legends, a Philadephia-based company, has for several years worked with Turkish weavers to try to duplicate some of the Mamluk Rugs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The results – Woven Legends’ ‘Sardis’ line (right) – have won critical acclaim. The retail price is $ 968 per square meter and the rugs come in a variety of sizes and patterns.

The original Mamluk weavers not only produced the complex geometric medallion carpets they are most famous for but also full-field rugs as well.

The full-field designs are best exemplified by the so-called para-mamluks produced in Damascus. The rugs are often referred to ‘chessboard’ carpets in Europe and are highly coveted collectors’ items.

This one (left) is from the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

Today, the chessboard designs, too, are inspiring some carpet producers to explore new possibilities.

This rug is produced by Afghan weavers, who are among the most innovative designers for the popular market today.

Simply called 'Mamluk' (right), it is offered by Nomad Rugs of San Francisco and has an Arabesque field with cartouche borders – both staples of Mamluk design.

At a price of $ 488 per square meter, it can only hint at the charms of more complex chessboard patterns.

But that may be just where many first-time rug explorers would want to begin.




Related Links:

Barry O'Connel: Guide To Mamluk Art

Jewelled Carpets : Treasures of the Mamluk Empire, by Elisabeth Greenberg

Mamluk Carpets - Legacy of the Conquering Nomads, by Roy Chatalbash

Art of the Mamluks – Saudi Aramco World, Nov/Dec 1981

History of Mamluks – The Battle of ‘Ain Jalut

Woven Legends

Nomad Rugs of San Francisco