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.)