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.)
Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, edited by Stefano Ionescu
Ottoman Miniatures, Bilkent University
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