Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Topkapi Palace And The Art Of The Ottoman Court

ISTANBUL, December 17, 2009 -- Ottoman court carpets are intimately connected with a very special artistic culture, that of the Ottoman court itself.

The court both inspired and was the main consumer of the carpets, tiles, illustrated books and other art objects by countless artisans attached to court workshops inside and outside of Istanbul.

The imperial artisans, collectively called the Ehl-i Hiref or Community of the Talented, produced much of the finest work in the Ottoman Empire and their designs were copied or adapted by commercial artists even down to the village level.

But what why did the Ottoman rulers attach such great importance to developing and maintaining an artistic style that would clearly distinguish the court from the rest of the world outside?

The immediate answer might be that all courts in all lands tend to do the same. Just one other example is Versailles, designed as a pinnacle of Baroque style to underline the power of Louis XIV.

But the Ottoman court, with its seat in Topkapi palace, was very different from Versailles. Whereas Versailles was designed as a public stage, Topkapi was designed as a private one, and its culture was far more self-defined and self-contained.

There was a logic behind that choice.

The story is neatly told in the book ‘The Ottomans’ by Andrew Wheatcroft (1993). As he points out, the Ottoman court projected power through an image of inaccessibility, exclusivity, and mystery designed to create a sense of public awe. And everything about Topkapi palace and its court culture was intended to heighten that effect.

The first great Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, began building the palace almost immediately after he conquered Constantinople in 1453.

A contemporary, the Greek historian Critoboulos of Imbros, wrote at the time:

“He gave orders for the erection of a palace on the point of old Byzantium which stretches out into the sea – a palace that should outshine all and be more marvelous than the preceding palaces in looks, size, cost and gracefulness.”

The site was the ancient Greek acropolis of Byzantium, the highest ground in the city. And originally, the grounds were far vaster than they are today, extending all the way down the shoreline below.

But if the acropolis had been an open area, Mehmet’s Yeni Sarai (New Palace) was deliberately isolated and separated from the city. Its buildings were hidden behind a massive wall some 35 feet tall. And it was organized in three areas, of ever diminishing accessibility to the public, guarded by three successive entry gates.

The first great courtyard, behind the Imperial Gate was the largest, with an area of 500,000 square feet. It included the workplaces of some 600 craftsmen: goldsmiths, weavers, amber-workers, armor-makers, potters, upholsterers, and many others. There were also stables and the barracks of guards and gatekeepers.

Anybody could enter from the street but once inside had to move and speak quietly.

Europeans found the hushed atmosphere eerie and regularly remarked upon it. Artist Nicolas de Nicolay wrote in 1551 that “notwithstanding the number of people coming together from all parts is very great, yet such silence is kept, that yee could scarcely say that the standers-by did either spit or cough.”

The second courtyard, behind the Gate of Saluation, marked the real boundary between outer and inner worlds. The gate had two sets of doors strong enough to resist a siege and guests passed through it only by invitation or for ceremonial occasions of state.

Once inside, the atmosphere was of a park, with lawns and fountains under cypress trees and gazelles wandering freely. The gardens were dotted with pavilions, or kiosks, which gave the impression of tents erected in an open space. It was an echo – conscious or not – of nomadic life and love of nature in the middle of a thriving but shut out metropolis.

At times, sultans also held outdoor audiences in the park, like the one shown here.

In the park was also the meeting place of the Sultan’s councilors – a kiosk known as the Hall of the Divan. The Hall’s floor was gilded and covered with a carpet of gold and there was a dias with the sultan’s throne. But the sultans themselves often preferred to appear to be absent, listening when they wanted from behind a grilled window.

The window, and the uncertainty of whether the sultan heard what was being said, gave the sultan such a degree of control that many sultans rarely attended the meetings of the divan at all.

The innermost world lay behind a third and final gate: the Gate of Felicity. Here was the sultan’s inner realm with those who lived closest to him, including the harem, with his wives and concubines and their children, and his retainers.

This retreat, known as The Abode of Bliss, was in fact a miniature city where more than 3,000 people spent their entire adult lives.

They spent their lives in splendid, luxurious isolation. But the isolation was not intended to cut them off from the world so much as to produce people who totally identified with the court and would be loyal to it throughout their lives.

These people were the royal pages, for whom court life was a school and who later would be sent out to govern the vast reaches of the empire.

In the early days of the empire, the sultan chose the boys who would become pages from outside the Turkic population, with its strong clan system. That was yet another way of creating an isolated group loyal only to the throne.

Gia Maria Angiolello, a young Venetian who served as a translator in the palace from 1473 to 1481, describes the Sultan’s pages this way:

“Sons of Christians, in part taken in expeditions with foreign countries and in part drawn from his own subjects … after they have been in his service a certain time, when in the opinion of the lord he can trust them, he sends them out of the palace with salaries which are increased as he thinks fitting.”

The “sons” initially were part of the tribute which the Ottomans exacted from conquered peoples, particularly in the Balkans and Caucasus, to create the Janissaries, the Sultan’s most rewarded and loyal troops.

Shown here is an Ottoman miniature of Janissaries battling the Knights of St. John in the siege of Rhodes, 1522.

The Janissaries, too, were an isolated group outside the clan system and the boys who would fill their ranks spent their childhoods on special farms in Anatolia where they became Muslims, gained strength, and learned to fight.

Both the pages, who were raised in the palace, and the Janissaries were the “kul,” or slaves of the sultan.

It was a privileged position, so much so that even after the tribute system was abandoned, the status of kul and the opportunities it offered passed from father to son. And over time many free-born Muslims also bribed or negotiated their way into the Sultan’s household to gain the same status

As Angiolello remarked in his early observations about pages, “there are few that do not accomplish their duties, because they are rewarded for the smallest service to their lord, and also because they are punished for the smallest fault.”

Wheatcroft notes that after the pages finished their training, they were given wives from among the harem women who were also slaves of the Sultan. This became a further bond to the court, because both “shared the common experience of palace life and even the unique dialect spoken in the Abode of Bliss.”

When the couple was dispatched to the provinces, it modeled its own household on the Ottoman court and spread that court culture farther.

Here is a painting of an Ottoman house in Cairo, before the influence of Western styles, by Frank Dillon (1823-1909).

Did the system work well? Yes, and for centuries.

As Wheatcroft puts it, “When the Conqueror built the Abode of Bliss on Seraglio Point, he created more than a building. The palace was the apex of Ottoman society: all power flowed from it, carried forth by the sultan’s servants sent to govern in his name.”

In this system, the arts were not only decorative but also helped create a frame of reference agreed upon by the court’s members. The shared style, like everything else, reinforced loyalty to the group and distinguished them from those outside the walls.

All the procedures within the palace were codified in kanunname, or law codes that even specified the dress for every rank of the ruling class.

Pictured here is the Sultan leaving Topkapi Palace for Friday prayers in one of the capital's mosques circa 1810 by an unknown artist. The once-a-week outing was the only time the Sultan appeared in public.

The advisers to the Sultan, the viziers, wore green. Chamberlains wore scarlet. Religious dignitaries wore purple and mullahs light blue. The master of horse dressed head-to-foot in dark green.

Court officers wore light red shoes. Those who worked in the Grand Vizier’s office, located just outside the palace walls, wore yellow shoes. And among non-Muslims, Greeks wore black shoes, Armenians violet, and Jews blue slippers.

Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance at the end of the 17th century, as the Sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosporus.

In 1856, Sultan Abdül Mecid I decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace (shown here), the first European-style palace in the city.

By then, the Ottoman Empire was changing rapidly and its court life was becoming more European as well.

But how that happened is another story.




Friday, 4 December 2009

The Mysterious World of Chintamani And Bird Carpets

ISTANBUL, December 5, 2009 -- Some of the most striking carpets of the Ottoman era are as white as a painter’s canvas and covered with finely drawn, mysterious icons.

The never-changing symbols repeat in array after array, like waves building strength, creating a powerful, mesmerizing effect

The mysterious icons are the “chintamani,” three balls hovering over a pair of cloud-like wavy lines. And for much of the 16th and 17th centuries, they held a special fascination for Ottoman court artists.

The chintamani appear on silks, ceramic plates, tiles, book-bindings, and embroideries. Sometimes, they even appear on the kaftans worn by the Ottoman sultans.

This kaftan, from the mid-17th century and now kept in the Topkapi Palace museum, is an example.

The huge scale of the design, which was typical of Ottoman royal costumes, made the Sultan visible even in large crowds as he appeared in public.

The chintamani design was so popular in all the decorative arts of the time that it was probably inevitable it would spill over to carpets as well. And that is exactly what many rug experts believe happened.

Rug expert Louise W. Mackie writes in “A Turkish Carpets with Spots and Stripes” (Textile Journal, 1976) that it is “highly probable” that the origin of the chintamni carpet design can be traced to the symbol’s popularity in the art of the Ottoman court in Istanbul.

But what is much harder to explain is where the symbol of the chintamani itself originated and what it means.

In carpet literature, the design is often said to derive from a Buddhist emblem. The word chintamani itself comes from Sanskrit and in Buddhist philosophy signifies a treasure ball or wish-granting jewel.

A Buddhist background for the design is an appealing argument because it also recalls the distant past of the Turkic tribes who migrated to Anatolia from Central Asia and created the succession of dynasties that culminated in the Ottoman Empire.

The original cultures of the Turkic tribes were based on religions like Buddhism and Shamanism for millennia before they converted to Islam.

But if the three-ball pattern appears in early Central Asian painting and even is associated with the badge of the great Turkic-Mongol conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) in the 14th century, there are still parts of the symbol that a Buddhist origin cannot easily explain.

Particularly puzzling are the paired stripes that appear in combination with the floating balls.

Some scholars think that the eye-catching combination may have evolved from mixing a Buddhist motif with much more worldly patterns inspired by animal skins to create an instantly recognizable symbol of power.

The argument here is that the stripes and dots are similar to tiger stripes and leopard spots on the kinds of furs powerful rulers may have worn as symbols of their office.

But perhaps the only certainty about the chintamani design is that comes from Eastern Asia, is very old and, despite every effort at interpretation, remains as mysterious as ever.

“The true significance and sources of this ancient pattern still await satisfactory explanations,” Mackie notes.

The chintamani pattern was used both for carpets woven in the Ottoman court workshops of Istanbul or Cairo, and in commercial workshops in towns like Selendi around the city of Ushak (Usak, Oushak) in western Anatolia.

The two kinds of weaving centers – royal and commercial – produced their own distinctive chintamani patterns.

The Ottoman court carpets (right) have the spots placed above the raised center of the stripes.

But the Anatolian carpets (left) have the spots placed above the lowered center of the stripes.

Why this happened is just another mystery associated with this most mysterious of designs.

The chintamani pattern proved so popular that it was woven for hundreds of years, both on white and colored backgrounds, long after the passion for the design faded in the Ottoman court itself.

Today, the motif has finally passed from rugs, too, but it remains popular in Turkey on plates and other household items.

All this makes the chintamani design one of the great success stories in Ottoman carpets. But it is not the only mysterious pattern to be set against a white background in the 16th century that achieved lasting fame.

Another is the so-called “Bird” pattern, which also was produced in or near Ushak and was much prized in Renaissance Europe.

Europeans used the term “Bird” because the design could easily be seen to represent a bird, with its head, wings, and tail.

But in fact the design is a floral pattern of leaves attached to rosettes.

The sharp, birdlike angles are simply the result of Anatolian weavers doing what they did to all Ottoman-era floral designs: converting them to more geometric to fit their own weaving traditions and techniques.

Some researchers believe that the Bird pattern is actually a variation of the chintamani design.

The late Ferenc Batari of the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts suggested the Bird pattern may have evolved from weavers experimenting with framing the floating balls of the chintamani within different arrangements of paired lines.

Batari presented this carpet as a possible step along the way in his article “White Ground Carpets in Budapest" (Oriental Carpet & Textile Studies II, 1986).

If Bird carpets did indeed evolve this way, it would be an interesting example of how one successful carpet design gives rise to another as weavers constantly explore new ideas.

White carpets decorated with chintamani, birds, or other mysterious symbols viewed as crabs or scorpions fascinated the European market, where they all were referred to popularly as “White Ushaks.”

Here is a Bird carpet circa 1625 in the painting ‘Mother, Child and Gentleman’ by Alessandro Varotari.

Three hundred years later, in the early 1900s, the fascination with White Ushaks remained strong enough to inspire one the few short stories specifically about carpets in European literature.

The story is ‘Birds and Chintamani,’ written by Czech novelist Karel Capek in 1929. It describes the discovery of a carpet that, by all known rules, cannot exist. That is, a white carpet on which the two famous designs of birds and chintamani are combined together.

The discovery of the carpet, tucked away in stack of unsold items in a Prague rug shop, changes the collector’s life forever.

You can read the story by clicking here: Birds and Chintamani.




Saturday, 14 November 2009

Romania: Transylvanian Carpets and Gothic Churches

BRASOV, Romania; Nov. 17, 2009 -- One of the greatest collections of Ottoman-era rugs in the western world is kept in what might seem one of the unlikeliest places.

That is Transylvania, the region of Romania best known since 1897 as the remote home of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula.

The rugs have been there for centuries, hanging from the walls and behind the side pews of a handful of German-built Gothic churches that dot the mountainous countryside.

How they got there, and remain on display today as a national treasure, is one of the great stories of rug collecting.

But first, it’s helpful to give a few details about the number and range of the rugs in Transylvania to suggest just how extraordinary this story is.

There are almost 400 rugs in the region’s churches and museums and they include many of the rugs that once most fascinated Renaissance Europe’s painters, such as Holbeins, Lottos, and white background Chintamani and Bird carpets.

There are also rugs with Ottoman-era designs that are virtually unknown outside of the samples preserved in Transylvania.

These rugs – ranging from single and double niche formats, column formats, to various prayer rugs -- are today simply called “Transylvanians” for lack of any better way to classify them.

Here is 17th century carpet from Transylvania. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

So, how did so many carpets, all woven between the mid-15th to mid-18th century, get here? And why were they given such importance in the churches that they were so carefully preserved?

The answer takes the form of a series of actors taking their place on a stage in a remote corner of Europe where one would hardly expect them to meet.

The first are German-speaking colonists who came into Transylvania at the invitation of the region’s Hungarian rulers. The immigration was intended to revive the area’s economy and bolster its defenses, particularly after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

The Germans, known locally as Saxons, built towns for themselves whose central feature was a church surrounded by massive walls that could double as a citadel.

The area they inhabited came to be called the Siebenbürgen or “Seven Citadels” after these distinctive redoubts.

Pictured here is the citadel in the town of Cincsor.

All of this might never have connected to rugs except for another development some 300 years later -- the Protestant Reformation.

Most of the Transylvanian Saxons gave up Catholicism to embrace the new creed of Martin Luther and, as they did, they threw out the traditional, baroque Catholic furnishings of their churches.

That left the churches open to new decorating ideas. And the ideas arrived with the next actors taking their place on the stage at about the same moment, the Ottomans.

Just how suddenly the Ottomans arrived in Europe after conquering Constantinople in 1453 is worth taking a moment to mention.

At the time, no army in the world made greater use of artillery and musket firepower than the Ottomans. So their opponents, who in Eastern Europe relied mostly upon the massed charge of heavily armored knights, were routed in terrible massacres.

The Hungarian nobility, which still ruled Transylvania, was eliminated at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, along with Hungarian King Louis II.

Immediately after the battle, the victorious Sultan Suleyman (right) summoned the hastily crowned new Hungarian King John to his camp for a lesson in wealth and power. The Hungarian royal chaplain, George Szerémy, described the scene:

“Along the short mile the King traversed to go to the Emperor, Turkish and various fine carpets were laid on the earth as far as the Emperor's tent.”

The Ottomans occupied Budapest but did not bother to take over Transylvania. They let Transylvania pay tribute instead as a self-ruling vassal state on the periphery of their Empire.

The fact that the Ottomans never occupied Transylvania defied the odds at the time.

Every year throughout the 16th to 18th centuries, the Ottoman Empire launched a military expedition to expand its holdings.

Sometimes the army, which assembled in Istanbul, marched toward Europe, sometimes toward Persia, North Africa, or Arabia. Eventually, they went in every direction.

Pictured here is an Ottoman miniature of the Siege of Vienna in 1529.

Andrew Wheatcroft explains the Ottoman’s expansionism in his book ‘The Ottomans’ (1993). He notes that war was essential to the economy because it brought in revenue and tributes that funded the state. But it also gave the state, army and people a sense of higher purpose:

“A common faith provided the cement that held the Ottoman host together. It was the duty of every Muslim to extend the ‘Domain of Peace’ – the dar ul Islam, the lands where Islam reigned supreme – into the ‘Domain of War’ – dar ul harb – where Allah was not honored,” he says.

“Since the wars were driven by the demands of an advancing faith, the enemy was also clear, and unvarying. In the west, and at sea, it was Christendom; to the east, it was the heretic Shiah empire of Iran.”

Given all this, one might have expected the Transylvanian Saxons to have lived in such dread of the Ottoman Empire that they would have tried to remain as isolated from it as possible.

But, in fact, trade flourished between Europe and the Ottomans. The same kinds of rugs that had lined the road to Suleyman’s camp became highly desired imports and wealthy Saxons, like Europeans elsewhere, sought them for their homes.

Just where the Saxons’ got their unique idea of festooning the walls of their Gothic churches with Ottoman rugs is unknown.

But the tradition seems to have begun with rich parishioners bequeathing their valuable rugs to the churches when they died.

Here is the interior of the Black Church, in Brasov.

Romanian carpet expert Stefano Ionescu notes that some rugs had the function of identifying the pews of individual families, like place markings. Describing the rugs in his article ‘Transylvanian Tale’ in Hali Magazine (Issue 137), he says:

“In the austere and aniconic spirit of the early Reformation, they were considered decent, and indeed suitable, decoration for recently denuded (former Catholic) churches. And when used by parishioners to mark out their personal space in the church, they also subtly hinted at the wealth and prestige of their owners.”

Interestingly, the Saxons’ custom bore a curious resemblance to the Turkish custom of bequeathing carpets to mosques. Such gifts have made layers upon layers of rugs build up on mosque floors in Anatolia over the centuries. In Transylvania, too, the endowments resulted in huge collections of carpets, far more than could be displayed.

Today, the Black Church in Brasov, and the Brukenthal Musuem in Sibiu hold the most important collections in the region. The History Musuem of Transylvnia in Cluj-Napoca also has a less well-known collection.

Rug collectors often debate whether the most unique among rugs in these collections – the so-called “Transylvanians” – could have been woven in Transylvania or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, rather than in Anatolia.

Rug historian Charles Grant Ellis has proposed that some of the rugs might have been produced in the Balkans under Ottoman provincial rule.

But Ionescu argues that “ever since the rugs in the Black Church were first catalogued … in 1898, they have been considered of Anatolian origin and that is still the opinion of most experts.”

He adds that “attention is rarely drawn to the fact that rugs of this type, in all its familiar variants (single and double-niche, prayer and column rugs) are also to be found in museums in Turkey, as well as in Beirut and Cairo.”

This carpet is a single-niche Transylvanian from the mid 17th century.

Many experts thing that the “Transylvanian type” will ultimately be traced to an as yet unidentified region in western Analtolia, not far from Izmir, Usak, Kula, Ghiordes and Milas.

But that is a task for future rug scholars to pursue.

(Photo at the top of this article is of downtown Brasov around the Black Church.)


Related Links

Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, edited by Stefano Ionescu

Ottoman Miniatures, Bilkent University




Sunday, 1 November 2009

Ottoman Court Prayer Carpets: The Mystery Of The Ballard Rug

NEW YORK, November 1, 2009 -- Perhaps the best known prayer rug in the world is this Ottoman court carpet woven in the late 16th century.

It is the so-called Ballard rug, named for the American collector James Ballard, who bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1922.

It is an amazing rug for several reasons.

First, it is the only surviving example of its kind. All of its sisters and brothers have disappeared with the passage of time.

And second, the origin of the pairs of columns in the design is one of the great mysteries of carpet history.

The mystery comes from the fact that the pattern is clearly inspired by architecture. But it is not the architectural style of the Ottoman Empire or even of any building on Ottoman soil that the weavers might have seen.

Walter B. Denny, a historian of Seljuk and Ottoman art, notes that “in the entire history of Ottoman architecture, from the 14th century onward, there is neither a tradition of slender-paired columns nor is there any tradition of faceted-column bases, nor round arches such as these.”

The main border of the carpet, however, is another story. Its tulips, carnations, rosettes, hyacinths, and leaves very much reflect the Ottoman court style of its time.

But if the architecture of the rug is an enigma, there could be at least one possible explanation.

Denny writes in his book ‘The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets’ (2002) that “there is one place in the Islamic world with architecture that bears significant resemblance to that of the Ballard prayer rug.”

That place is at the other end of the Mediterranean from Anatolia, on a hilltop in Grenada, Spain. It is the Alhambra, and specifically, that Moorish citadel’s famous Court of the Lions.

The Alhambra was completed in the 14th century, one hundred years before the rise of the Ottomans. And by the time the rug was made, Grenada had already long been conquered by the Spanish kingdom of Castile and Aragon. So, the Alhambra hardly seems like something many Ottoman designers would have seen.

Still, the resemblance of the rug to some of the columns in the Alhambra’s courtyard is uncanny.

The courtyard, whose center is a fountain surrounded by small statues of lions, is itself surrounded by the pavilions. And the pavilions have the rug’s same triple-arch pattern that includes pairs of slender columns. The only difference is that the columns are arranged in a different order.

The idea that an artistic model for an Ottoman court rug could travel over time and space from once Moorish Spain to Turkic-ruled Anatolia might seem far-fetched.

But Denny sees it as just another possible example of how widely artistic inspirations can travel.

Carpet weaving in Moorish Spain, and in Catholic Spain for some time afterward, was heavily influenced by designs from Anatolia and, beyond that, the Silk Road as far as China.

“If artistic ideas could travel from east to west,” Denny asks, “then why not in the opposite direction?”

But who could have carried the ideas east?

The answer may be impossible to know. But there were people in motion at the time who could have provided the link.

They were Spanish-speaking refugees who began arriving in Istanbul, Salonika, and Sarajevo at the beginning of the 16th century as they fled the Inquisition.

Denny notes that many were Sephardic Jews and that this community had a connection with carpets. Some synagogues in Spain and in Italy had the practice of covering the Torah ark with a pile carpet that served as a “parokhet,” or curtain. The carpets were made on commission by Muslim weavers and the designs could be very different from the usual vocabulary of patterns the weavers knew.

The missing link between the Alhambra and the Ottoman court conceivably could be a prayer-rug sized parokhet like this one found by Italian carpet historian Alberto Boralevi in a synagogue in Padua, Italy.

The carpet is an intriguing blend of cultures. One of its most striking features is that the columns are drawn as in an Italian Renaissance painting -- from a single point of perspective. The makes the carpet a vivid example of ideas flowing into it only from different corners of the Mediterranean but even from different art forms.

Denny suggests that the Ballard rug may reflect a similarly complex Mediterranean synthesis unique to the 16th century.

He notes that the Ballard rug includes, in part, “elements of Ottoman court design (the borders and flowers in the field), Ottoman architecture (the small domes above the parapet), Ottoman adaptations of Egyptian dyeing and weaving techniques (the materials and construction), Islamic iconography (the hanging lamp and the triple gateway to Paradise), Italian one-point perspective (the column bases) and an adaptation of Spanish Islamic architectural forms that traveled east (slender coupled columns) perhaps in the form of a now-lost embroidered or woven parokhet brought to the Ottoman empire by Jewish refugees.”

If so, all this would make the Ballard rug a fitting symbol for the Ottoman empire at the height of its power in the 15th and 16th century.

The empire did not just physically straddle Asia and Europe, in many ways it did so culturally, too.

Mehmed II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453 was not only a warrior, but also an aesthete and scholar who spoke Greek, Latin, Persian, and Arabic, and maintained an extensive library. He was an enthusiast of both the Eastern and Western art traditions and had his own portrait painted by the Italian artist Gentile Bellini.

By the 16th century, the century in which the Ballard carpet was woven, Ottoman rule extended over the Balkans from Greece to the border of Austria, over Hungary and Crimea, over the Arab East and North Africa, and at times covered parts of Italy, Sicily, Poland and Ukraine.

One result was that craftsmen came to the court workshops of Istanbul from all corners of this far-flung empire and Ottoman patronage tended to reflect the diverse taste and styles of both Eastern and Western cultures.

Interestingly, many of the cosmopolitan and extremely sophisticated court designs these craftsmen produced went on to have a major impact on the folk art of Anatolia.

The Ballard carpet offers a superb example. Town and village weavers, taken by its graceful and exotic colonnade, adapted its design to their own rich tradition of geometric patterned prayer rugs.

The first adaptations spawned further generations of modifications and over time produced many distinctive village prayer rugs that were highly prized by European collectors in the 19th century.

This antique prayer rug was woven in Karapinar, not far from Konya in south-central Anatolia. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Denny offers this insightful description of how the Ballard carpet design entered popular weaving:

"The chain of stylization from the prototype to village weavings in the late 19th century is one of the most fascinating art historical metamorphoses in the Islamic world," he says.

“A sophisticated architectural idea, replete with Corinthian columns, faceted column bases, a parapet with flowers between the crenallations, small rumi split-leaf forms in the arch spandrels, and small domes on top of three half-round arches, gradually changes into a more formulaic type of rug. Finally, it succumbs to the creativity of village weavers who knew almost nothing of columns and arches but a great deal about color, and whose desire for top-to-bottom symmetry obliterates both the form and the meaning of the original design.”

Any discussion of the Ballard rug would not be complete without a few words about Ballard himself. His own history is no less amazing than the carpet that bears his name.

Ballard (1851 – 1931) was the son of a wealthy family in Ohio. But rather than enter his father’s timber business, he chose to join the circus and travel the country at a young age.

A natural entrepreneur, he soon moved on to starting drug stores and then manufacturing medical products. One of the most famous of his products continues to be a common product on drug store shelves today. It is Campho-Phenique, a salve for cold sores, and blisters.

In 1905, while waking down Fourth Avenue in New York City, Ballard passed an oriental carpet shop. A small piece caught his eye and he made his first rug purchase. He was 55.

Over the next 15 years, he amassed a collection of over 300 carpets, buying at auctions, from dealers, and traveling the world. By the end of his life, he had traveled over 470,000 miles through Southeast Asia, China, the Caucasus Mountains, India, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and all over Europe, mostly due to his interest in rugs.

As his collection grew in value, he first kept it in a fireproof and burglarproof vault in his home and then added a full-time guard. But his intention even from the start seems to have been to ultimately give his collection to museums.

Ballard’s gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the St. Louis Art Museum in the early 1900s created two of the finest public collections of oriental rugs in America.

He put his reasons for collecting this way when he published a book on Turkish Ghiordes prayer rugs from his collection in 1916:

“It would seem to me that every many and woman should have a hobby of some kind – something sufficiently interesting to make it possible to forget for a time, the everyday cares and worries and get the mind into a new environment.”

As far as is known, Ballard never collected anything before oriental rugs and never collected anything after.




Friday, 16 October 2009

The Floral Medallion Revolution and Ottoman Court Carpets

ISTANBUL, October 17, 2009 – Do carpet designs change with the fortunes of war?

It may not seem likely, but many historians have long attributed the changes that occurred in the design of Ottoman carpets in the 16th century to the battle of Chaldiran.

That battle was fought on a hot August day in 1514 and is famous for several reasons.

It marked the Ottoman halt of the vigorously expanding Safavid Empire under that empire’s founder, Ismail.

And it marked the first time that a Muslim army massively deployed artillery and musketry in the field. The Ottoman’s use of large-scale firepower devastated Ismail’s troops, who still relied upon the time-honored force of archers on horseback.

Before the battle, the two emperors, both of whom were Turkic speaking, exchanged belligerent letters daring each other to fight. In one, the previously undefeated Shah Ismail, who had already expanded from his base in Tabriz to conquer Persia, wrote:

Mən pirimi hak bilirəm,
Yoluna qurban oluram,
Dün dogdum bugün ölürəm,
Ölən gəlsin istə meydan.

I know the Truth as my supreme guide,
I would sacrifice myself in his way,
I was born yesterday, I will die today,
Come, whoever would die, here is the arena.

But how badly Ismail was defeated can be judged from the fact that he himself was wounded and almost seized and his harem with two of his wives was captured in the mayhem. After the defeat, which established the boundary between Turkey and Iran as it remains today, Shah Ismail never personally led his army into battle again.

Here is a photo of the memorial marking the battle-site near the Turkish border in northwestern Iran.

The victorious Ottoman sultan, Selim I, later made this comment about the confrontation: “A carpet is large enough to accommodate two sufis, but the world is not large enough for two Kings.”

Perhaps more directly related to rugs, the battle also led to the Ottoman’s brief occupation of Tabriz, the then-capital of the Safavids.

The city was a major weaving center for the new Safavid style of floral medallion carpets and, when the Ottomans withdrew several weeks later, they allegedly took top artisans from the city back to Istanbul with them.

This has long been seen by rug historians as one convincing way to explain why, around this time, carpets woven for the Ottoman court suddenly moved from being geometric (see: Renaissance European Painters’ Passion For Turkish Geometric Rugs) to a new floral medallion style of their own.

Here is a picture of one of the new Ottoman court medallion rugs, from around the 16th century.

Rug experts Murray L. Eiland and Murray Eiland III describe the new Ottomon court rugs this way in their book ‘Oriental Carpets’ (2005):

“Unlike other Turkish rugs these are extremely finely woven with a design vocabulary – the so called “saz” style that includes curvilinear medallions, palmettes, scrolling vines, and elaborate lancet-shaped leaves.”

The authors add, “The sudden appearance of such lushly naturalistic vegetation within a tradition that had previously produced coarser rugs in geometric designs has raised many questions, particularly since these (new) rugs are woven with the asymmetrical knot.”

The Eilands suggest the temporary Ottoman capture of Tabriz could be one explanation. They also suggest that the Ottoman’s capture of Cairo three years later, this time by using massive firepower against the Mamlukes, could equally be a factor.

Both Safavid and Cairene rugs were asymmetrically knotted – a knotting system which allows weaving of greater detail than does the traditional Turkish symmetric knot.

Still, if the Ottoman court carpets moved to a floral medallion style, they did not duplicate Safavid designs. They are very much their own variation on the theme.

Safavid carpets had a single large medallion that appeared to be floating like a picture in a frame created by four quarter-sized corner medallions.

But the Ottoman court carpets often had not one medallion but several columns of medallions.

The central medallion is still the focus, but identical, partial medallions float above and below it. Other, non-identical partial medallions, float beside it. The result is the impression that the medallions go on forever, in an endlessly repeating pattern extending beyond the rug.

This sense of an endlessly repeating pattern was heightened by the fact that these rugs were huge compared to other Ottoman rugs, often reaching a length of five to seven meters. They were palace carpets, conceived by professional artists and woven on huge looms by master craftsmen in court workshops in Istanbul or in the commercial center of Usak (Ushak, Oushak) in western Anatolia.

The differences between Ottoman and Safavid floral medallion rugs make some researchers wonder whether the Ottoman design revolution can really be explained merely as the result of the fortunes of war.

Another possibility now gaining ground is that the Ottoman and Safavid floral medallion carpet styles originated quite independently and more or less simultaneously as the result of trends in the shared artistic culture of the region.

Here is an Ottoman miniature painting from 1570, showing a medallion rug. It is from the illustrated book, the Sehname-i Selim Han, that celebrates the achievements of Sultan Selim, the victor at Chaldiran.

The argument for a shared regional culture, rather than Anatolia’s borrowing of the floral rug style from Safavid Persia, is based on some interesting bits of recent research.

For many years researchers assumed that the earliest surviving medallion carpets from the Safavid Empire pre-dated the medallion carpets of the Ottomans.

But art expert Julian Raby argues that the ovid Ottoman carpet medallions closely resemble the medallions tooled in leather on the covers of Ottoman manuscripts that date from the 1460s. That’s earlier than the Safavid rugs.

Here is an Ottoman bookbinding from the early 1500s for comparison. The resemblance to the Ottoman court carpet is especially close in the drawing of the medallions’ scrolling and interlocking floral forms.

Raby puts his argument this way: "The Ottoman carpet revolution was comparable to the change being wrought at the same period by Timurid designers. However ... the Timurids resorted to a different compositional formula in freeing their carpet designs from the geometric traditions. Their is therefore no need to argue a direct Timurid influence on Medallion Usaks. There development should be seen not in the context of a specific carpet influence but of a general change in Ottoman decorative arts." ("Court and Export: The Usak Carpets" by Julian Raby, Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies II, 1986)

If the Ottoman medallion carpets have their origins in the overall development of Turkish art in the late 15th century, that would make for an interesting parallel with the way Safavid carpets are closely related to the overall development of Timurid art of the late 15th century.

But if the floral revolutions on both sides of the Ottoman-Persian border were indeed two manifestations of a single “international style,” what would that say about the way art evolves? The message in this case, happily, would be that art is the world of shared ideas and inspirations, not of kings and wars.

The Ottoman court carpets came in two main variants: those with ovid medallions and those with star-shaped medallions. It is not known which style predates the other. Here is a Star Usak from the 16th century.

Ottoman court carpets continued to be woven for many centuries and their complexity was such that one might expect, incorrectly, that they would have a minimal impact on Turkish popular weaving. After all, their giant formats were much too big to fit ordinary looms and Turkish popular weaving, in any case, has always preferred geometric designs.

But, in fact, the court carpets had a massive influence. As textile expert Walter B. Denny notes in his book ‘The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets’ (2002), “the new designs diffused into the lexicon of the town and village industries and adaptations of the court medallion rugs from Usak and elsewhere soon appeared.”

Town and village weavers adopted the floral designs by making them more geometric and that created a whole vocabulary of new designs that still influence Turkish weaving today.

Here is just one example: a three medallion carpet from Usak in the 16th century.

This process of highly complex, curvilinear court designs being re-interpreted into geometric patterns by town and village weavers was not limited to medallion rugs.

A still greater influence was exerted by Ottoman court prayer rugs upon popular prayer rug designs.

The “geometrization” of highly curvilinear court prayer rugs by village and town weavers would create some of Turkey’s most successful commercial carpet designs and set off a European passion for Turkish prayer rugs in the 19th century.

But how that happened is the subject of another story.




Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Circassians: Myths, Truths, And Oriental Carpets

LONDON, October 2, 2009 – When Europeans discovered Caucasian rugs in the 19th century, they often assumed they were woven by a once-famous people who today are barely remembered.

Those people are the Circassians. At the time, their domain was the Northwest Caucasus along the Black Sea (in modern Russia) and for a number of reasons they captivated the West’s imagination.

And so, even though the Circassians were not great rug weavers themselves, many rugs woven by other peoples in the Caucasus were attributed to them.

Rug experts Murray L. Eiland, Jr and Murray Eiland III write in their book ‘Oriental Carpets’ (2005) that “much has been written in old rug books” about the Tcherkess, the Turkish term for the Circassians.

“During the early 20th C, it was common to label many Kazak or Karabagh rugs as Tcherkess work, and even now one will occasionally run across a “sunburst” Karabagh with that label. However, the Tcherkess are not from the area that produced Kazak and Karabagh carpets, although they have been associated with the production of several types of kilim.”

What was it about the Circassians that once made them so much a part of Europe’s image of the Caucasus? And why are they almost totally forgotten today?

The story begins far back in history, probably with the Circassian’s own reputation as fierce warriors. In times gone by, there was much money to be made marketing able fighters to imperial armies and the Circassians developed an internationally famous brand-name.

Circassian and other youths from the Black Sea region and Central Asia were both purchased and recruited by Arab rulers as “Mamlukes,” or slave-troops. When the Mamlukes later usurped Egypt and Syria for themselves, several of their sultans were Circassians. The Circassian sultans, who reigned from 1422 to 1517, presided over the Mamluke empire during one of its highest points of power and artistic achievement.

Hundreds of years later, the Circassians continued to find ready employment as fighters in the Ottoman and Persian empires and their brand-name remained as strong as ever. It was powerful enough to attract the attention of Orientalist painters, who fanned out from Europe in the 19th century to rediscover the East both as it was and as the West imagined it to be.

One of those painters was William Allan, born in 1782, who apprenticed as a carriage painter but later studied fine arts at the Royal Academy of Edinburgh. Initially unsuccessful in the art world of London, he opted for travel instead. And for nine years, he journeyed deep into the Russian and Turkish empires.

He sketched what he saw and after he returned painted scenes such as these. It is titled “Circassian Chief Preparing his Stallion,” painted much later in the painter’s life, in 1843.

There is no doubt that Allan painted what he saw – his own collections of artifacts that he picked up during his travels attested to that.

And there is no doubt he was particularly passionate about the Circassians and their remote, mountainous homeland.

When, after his return to London in 1814, the London art world continued to reject him, he told friends he would retire to Circassia forever.

At times, Allan donned Circassian armor himself. Here he is in Circassian costume in 1815, shortly after returning from his travels.

Eventually, Allan’s friends persuaded him to give up Orientalism and focus on painting scenes from Scottish and English literature and history instead. He illustrated scenes from the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the creator of Ivanhoe. And, in the end, he was knighted, as Sir William Allan, before he died in 1850.

But if Allen had little success with his paintings of Circassians – he also painted works like “The Sale of Circassian Captives to a Turkish Bashaw (Pasha)” in 1816 -- others had more. And that success came as European artists traveling in the East portrayed Circassians in a quite different role: this time as women in Turkish harems.

The new fascination was with Circassians -- who are fair-skinned – as white sex slaves and concubines kept by Eastern masters.

This painting featuring likely Circassian women is “Choosing the Favorite,” by Giulio Rosati (1858 to 1917).

The fascination was frankly erotic and commercial and it connected with images that dated back in Europe to at least as far as Voltaire, a century earlier.

Here is what Voltaire wrote about Circassian women in 1734, in his “Letters on the English:”

"The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish with those beauties the seraglios of the Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all of those who are wealthy enough to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise. These maidens are very honorably and virtuously instructed how to fondle and caress men; are taught dances of a very polite and effeminate kind; and how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed."

The idea of female Circassian beauty got a further boost in the early 19th century as early European physiologists and anthropologists took on the task of classifying humans.

The most influential was the German Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 to1840), who taught comparative anatomy at the University of Göttingen. He used the school’s collection of skulls from around the world to divide the human species into races.

Blumenbach came up with five races and had to designate names for them. He chose the word “Caucasian” to denominate the white race, apparently with the view that the region’s inhabitants were uncommonly attractive and thus were archetypes for his grouping. The world Caucasian later passed into English as a synonym for white.

All this helped to create a brand-name for Circassian women as beauties that became easily as well-known as the earlier brand-name for Circassian men as warriors.

One result in England was several beauty and health products purporting to be from Circassia. Here is an advertisement for "Circassian hair dye" in the 1840s which promises “a rich dark lustrous effect.”

What the Circassians themselves thought of their market image in Europe is not recorded. And that may be because, throughout this period, they were busy fighting for their lives in the northwest Caucasus.

The threat was the Russian Empire’s moving south in the 18th and 19th centuries. In much of the Caucasus, Moscow’s aim was limited to sovereignty over the region. But in the northwest Caucasus, along the Black Sea, the drive for land came from Russian settlers, creating a situation not unlike that of the American West.

The Circassians fought against Russian conquest for over a century, from 1763 to 1864 – longer than any other people of the Caucasus. But the end was inevitable. Their final defeat in the 1860s led to massacre and forced deportation, mainly across the Black Sea to Turkey, during which a large proportion of them perished.

Here is a photo of a Circassian fighter in the Russian-Circassian wars by an unknown artist.

One Circassian leader described his people’s defeat this way in a conversation with the English writer, Frederick Burnaby (1842 - 1885), who traveled through Turkey around the time:

"We once thought that England was going to help us to drive the Russians out of our country. However, you did not come; they outnumbered us, and they had artillery opposed to our flint guns. What could we do? We resisted as long as possible, and then, sooner than be slaves, came here."

Burnaby describes the speaker, Osman Bey, as “the chief of a large band which had emigrated from the Caucasus a few years previous. He was dressed in the Circassian style, with a sheepskin coat, tightly buckled round his waist, embroidered leather trousers and high boots; a black Astrakhan cap surmounted his bronzed features.”

This final view of the Circassians, which appears in Burnaby’s book “On Horseback through Asia Minor,” was not as fascinating as the previous images of them had been. With time, the Circassians slipped out of the West’s memory.

Today, only a few hundred thousand Circassians remain in the Caucasus while the majority are scattered over the globe, particularly through Anatolia and the Levant.

For decades, carpet books were one of the last refuges where memories of the Circassians remained alive. The mention of them is still there, but now only to correct the record on Caucasian weavers.

(Photos from top to bottom: “Veiled Circassian Beauty,” by Jean-Leon Jerome, 1876; “Conference of Circassian Princes, G. Gagarin, 1839-40; “Circassian Chief Preparing his Stallion,” William Allan, 1843; William Allan in Circassian costume, 1815; Choosing the Favorite,” Giulio Rosati, 19th C; Portrait of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach; Advertisement “Circassian Hair Dye,” 19th C; “Circassian Fighter” 19th C.)




Saturday, 19 September 2009

Europe’s 19th-Century Discovery Of Caucasian Carpets

TBILISI, Sept. 19, 2009 -- In the 19th century, the West discovered one of the world’s great mother lodes of carpets: the Caucasus.

It was a late discovery as far as Caucasian carpets themselves were concerned. They had been there for millennia and debate rages today over whether some of them appear in Renaissance paintings.

But for home-owners of the mid 1800s – when western interest in carpets as furnishings was at its height – Caucasian carpets were a discovery not unlike finding a new planet.

What made the discovery so extraordinary was both the immense variety of Caucasian carpets and the fact that, previously, the region had been seemed so remote to most Europeans that it was well off their mental map.

It was not that people did not know how to locate the Caucasus -- the mountainous land between the Black and Caspian Seas that is home to Christian Armenians and Georgians, Muslim Azeris and many other peoples.

It was just that over the preceding centuries the region had become exclusively the backyard of two great Eastern powers.

The Caucasus was fought over by the Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persia throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. And it was only the fact that local Christian nobles and Muslim emirs managed to retain some independence while swearing allegiance to their powerful neighbors that they avoided being swallowed by them.

In distant Europe, that meant most people thought of the Caucasus in terms of Turkey and Persia, without realizing the region had its own unique artistic traditions.

But by the 18th century, things began changing dramatically.

Russia was moving south and, by the mid 19th century, had annexed the entire region. And suddenly, the Caucasus was not part of the East but part of the world’s biggest European empire.

The carpets that began flowing west via Russia were Kubas and Shirvans, from cities of the same names near the Caspian Sea, in present-day northeast Azerbaijan. This is a Shirvan from the end of the 19th century.

Here is an antique Shirvan carpet. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

The carpets caused a sensation because their finely drawn ornamental features perfectly matched Europeans’ decorating tastes at that time.

To many Europeans, they appeared to be a welcome new variety of Persian carpets, which had similar high-knot densities and delicate ornamentation. Persian carpets were already so popular that European importers for some time had been investing in looms in northwestern Persia to try to satisfy Western demand.

But, in fact, the Caucasian carpets had a totally distinct weaving tradition behind them. And that tradition – of which Europeans were now just seeing the tip of the iceberg – contained a variety of styles that was nothing short of incredible given the relatively small size of the Caucasus region.

How wide is the range of Caucasian designs? Here is a Kazak rug from several hundred kilometers west of the Caspian, in an area roughly where the borders of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan meet today. Instead of ornamentation, its emphasis is on geometry and graphic design.

The boldness of the Kazaks' patterns and colors did not conform to the mainstream decorating tastes of the 19th century, and there was originally little European interest in them. But a hundred years later, when Western rug tastes shifted from decorative to abstract designs in the 1960s and 70s, collectors would rediscover them with a passion.

Where does the huge variety in Caucasian carpets come from?

The answer is in the region’s incredibly dense mix of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. Some of its peoples long pre-date the earliest recorded history, while others arrived later in wave after wave of invaders.

The constant waves of new invasions might have leveled the pre-existing cultures in a region less mountainous than the Caucasus. But the Caucasus chain is the highest in Eurasia apart from Himalayas, and is honeycombed with hidden and isolated valleys that serve as refuges.

Here is a photo of a small Georgian village today that gives some idea of the terrain.

Still, if hidden valleys suggest that groups could be so insulated that their culture existed separately from others, this was never the case in the Caucasus anymore than in the Alps.

Instead, overlying the individual cultures, a shared regional culture developed across the mountains. And in carpet weaving, the shared culture became so strong it often was impossible to know by which people a specific carpet was made.

In the Transcaucasus – the area on the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountain chain -- the principal population groups are Azeri, Georgian, Armenian, Kurdish, and Persian-speaking Talish.

Caucasian carpet expert Zdenka Klimtova writes in her 2006 book ‘Caucasian Rugs’ that all of these peoples in the 1800s and early 1900s were involved to a greater or lesser extent in weaving rugs and kilims.

The Azris, Kurds, and Talish wove both for home and commercial use. Klimtova notes that "most of the commercially produced rugs are assumed to have been created in the homes of Muslim Azeri Turks, who constitute the majority population of today's Azerbaijan."

Here is a photo, circa 1910, of a master weavers’ studio in the Kuba district, in present-day Azerbaijan.

By contrast, Kilmtova says, the Georgian and Armenian women wove almost exclusively for home use, with the Geogians weaving almost exclusively kilims.

This picture is of an Armenian woman surrounded by textiles in the late 19th century.

In the North Caucasus – on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains -- there are still more population groups, too many to list. Among them, the peoples of present-day Daghestan were and are the best-known weavers.

What all the Caucasian weavers shared in common was a preference for bold colors and a love of abstractions rich in symbolism.

Their use of abstractions to represent both plants and animals is something that distinguishes their work from both the Turkish and Persian weaving traditions.

Whereas Turkish weavers will sometimes depict carnations, tulips or apple blossoms faithfully enough that they can be recognized as real plants, the abstractions on Caucasian rugs bear no relations to specific flowers.

And whereas Persian carpets often feature fully recognizable lions or fairy-tale beasts, the animals that appear in Caucasus carpets are only zoomorphic shapes.

In fact, the Caucasian weavers’ abstractions of animals are so complete, that zoomorphic forms even can appear on Muslim prayer rugs, a thing never seen in other Islamic areas.

The weaving style of this mountainous region has still other striking characteristics, particularly a love of sharp contrasts.

Richard E. Wright and John T. Wertime describe it well in their book ‘Caucasian Carpets and Covers’ (1995):

“Another major quality is contrast, created in numerous ways: the juxtaposition of certain colors (for example blue and yellow), the use of white (both as highlight and background), and abrupt changes in scale, that is, substantial size differences between adjacent motifs. The heart of Caucasian art is contrast in color and form, linked to brilliance of color.”

The origins of this artistic tradition are lost in time, but it is not hard to imagine they come from living in the mountains themselves, with their strong contrasts of altitude, light, and nature.

As Wright and Wertime put it, “Villagers and nomads of all ethnic origins shared a common world; they drew from the same design reservoir and portrayed the world as they saw it.”

This picture is of a Georgian woman standing upon a kilim. The picture was taken by the Russian traveler and photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii at the turn-of-the-last-century.

The Western traders of 19th century who first brought Caucasian carpets into department stores in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere did not even try to distinguish between the multiple designs of the carpets or the many peoples of the Caucasus who wove them.

They simply gave all eastern Caucasian carpets a common brand name: “Daghestans.”

That was a nothing more than the name of one region where the importers knew many Caucasian carpets could be purchased. Specifically, the purchase point was the ancient walled port city of Derbent, in Daghestan, on the Caspian Sea. It was a prominent export station for goods of all kinds from the Caucasus northward to Russia.

But, in fact, the carpets sold in Derbent came from a much wider region, including Kuba, the biggest commercial weaving center in the Caucasus at the time.

Still, the traders’ practice of giving Caucasian carpets all-encompassing generic names that lumped together dozens of styles continued for many years.

Another brand name, used as late as 1900, was “Genje.” It, too, is just the name of a trading center, now called Ganja, in western Azerbaijan. The bazaar of the town, photographed circa 1910-11 is shown here.

John Kimberly Mumford, a rug expert writing in 1900, described the use of “Genje” as a brand name this way:

“In Constantinople, as in the American market, miscellaneous bales of rugs, all measuring between three and five feet in width, and six and eight feet in length, are jobbed under the name of Ghenghis, or, as the bills of lading have it, ‘Guendje.’ They are made up of the odds and ends of Shirvan, Karabaghs, Mosul and other secondary fabrics of the Caucasian class which usually come from Elizavetpol, the old Armeno-Persian name for which was Gandja.” (Quoted in Ralph Kaffel’s 1998 book ‘Caucasian Prayer Rugs.’)

Such use of fanciful brand names went on for decades because the European importers themselves rarely traveled to the region. They even more rarely had any direct contact with the weavers, who often were in remote villages.

Nevertheless, with time, the Western traders eventually did become familiar with the nomenclature used by local rug merchants. And that became the basis for the European market's beginning to distinguish between the Caucasian rugs' many styles and origins.

The local rug merchants whose terms Western traders eventually adopted were located in Tiflis (today Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia), which was a major collection point for Caucasus carpets moving west through Russia’s Black Sea ports.

Here is a photo of rug shop in Tiflis at the turn-of-the-last-century.

The Tiflis dealers divided the carpets of the Transcaucasus – the source of the vast majority of exported carpets -- into three broad categories.

Western region: Kazak and Ganja rugs with bold geometric patterns, thick wool, and high piles.

Eastern region: Kuba, Baku, and Shirvan rugs with minute motifs, fine wool, and low piles.

Southern region: Karabagh, Moghan and Talish rugs.

There was an underlying genius to the system, because these categories to some extent mirror the different climates of the Transcaucasus region.

The west has a harsh climate where thick carpets are desirable for insulation from the cold ground. The thick yarn and long piles needed for that, in turn, allow only the weaving of large and rectilinear geometric motifs.

The east has milder climate, particularly along the Caspian Sea, allowing carpets to be more decorative. The weavers could use thinner yarn, and that allows a higher knot density and more intricate designs.

And the system has another bit of genius, because it implicitly recognizes the often subtle influences of neighboring cultures upon the designs.

The southwest weavings, with their powerful geometry echo, to a greater or lesser degree, the distinctly geometric patterns of Ottoman rugs dating from the 15th and 16th C in neighboring Anatolia. An example is the Kazak Karachop design, shown here, which is reminiscent of Large Pattern Holbein carpets.

By contrast, the northeast weavings with their detailed ornamentation show the influence of Tabriz, the great weaving capital of the Azeri Turk area of northwest Persia.

That same ornamental influence can be seen in the weavings of Karabagh, in the south. There, where rugs were woven by Armenians, Azeris, and Kurds, the designs are more ornate, frequently have floral motifs, and are more decorative than in other parts of the Caucasus. The picture below is an example.

But if the Tiflis merchants’ nomenclature gave a good framework for identifying the large categories, and even many sub-styles, of Caucasian weaving, it still was filled with large groupings of rugs under single place names that tell little about who wove what and when. Sorting out those details is the task of modern researchers and it remains an imposing one.

It is fascinating to think how many millennia of mountain life stand behind the designs and for how long – despite so many conquests and upheavals in the region – the weaving tradition remained distinctly its own.

In fact, the biggest challenge to the tradition did not come until the 19th century, just as Europe was discovering Caucasian carpets and beginning to understand their uniqueness.

The challenge was from Russia, the region’s third major neighboring power after Turkey and Iran and a country which, until then, had exerted almost no influence upon the region’s culture at all.

The occupation of the Caucasus by imperial Russia and subsequent life under the Soviet Union would drive the Caucasus’ carpet culture close to extinction. But how that happened is another story. (For more read: Russia And The History Of Caucasian Carpets.)