Friday, 29 January 2010

Mejid Rugs And The End Of The Ottoman Era

ISTANBUL, January 29, 2010 -- Can a single carpet style symbolize the sudden decline of a country’s carpet making tradition?

Many European carpet collectors once regarded this carpet – a so-called Mejid rug – just that way.

The rug is typical of a whole class of small-size, town-woven carpets that appeared in the mid-1800’s. It was a time when the Ottoman Empire was moving rapidly toward its final eclipse in 1923.

The rugs are striking for several reasons. One is their distinctly non-Anatolian look. The other is that, even though they were clearly influenced by the West’s own artistic values, Europeans at the time found them distasteful and fled from them.

How did these rugs come about and why were they popular in Turkey at the time?

The place to begin the story of the rugs is with their namesake, Sultan Abdul-Mejid.

He reigned from 1839 to 1861, during a time of massive threats to the empire’s traditional way of life. His efforts to fend off those threats by Westernizing many Ottoman institutions reached to every level of society, including the Arts. But the results were often mixed.

Abdul-Mejid came to the throne just as one of the empire’s prize possessions, Egypt, had permanently broken away. That followed the earlier loss of Greece and dramatically underlined the need to modernize both the army and to build loyalty among the empire's far-flung, multi-national subjects.

Abdul-Mejid, like his father Mahmud II before him, looked to France and the ideals of the French Revolution for inspiration.

At the time, monarchies everywhere were awed by the way ordinary Frenchmen had enlisted en-masse in the Revolution’s armies to defend the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, and how Napoleon had later harnessed that power to all but conquer Europe. Many kings realized that their future depended upon at least partially making their societies more equitable.

Abdul-Mejid sought to transform Ottoman life by introducing the first of what would be many attempts at “Tanzimat,” or “Reordering” over the next decades.

The reforms attempted to stem the tide of nationalist movements within the Ottoman Empire by enhancing the civil liberties of non-Turks and non-Muslims and granting them equality throughout the Empire.

They also established a new system of state schools to produce a new generation of government officials more open to European technologies and administrative practices.

But the reforms were not only changes in substance but of style. Abdul-Mejid built Dolmabahce Palace in the French baroque manner, decorated it the same way, and moved there from Topkapi Palace. He also dressed in the European fashion and government functionaries began to do the same.

Over time, the new European dress-code would fully replace the complicated Ottoman hierarchy of different clothing styles and even shoe colors which had distinguished officials by rank and office. It consisted of a monotonous, long-tailed frock coat that was called the “stambouline” in the West and, more facetiously, the “bonjour tuxedo” in Turkey. Like new uniforms for the army, the coat was intended to change the mindset of those who wore it.

The message was not lost upon Turkish artists, including weavers, who closely watched court styles.

Entrepreneurs responded with new European-flavored designs of their own. One answer was the “Mejid” carpet, which gained wide domestic popularity.

The “Mejids” clearly reflect the Francophile taste of the sultan, though it is not known whether the sultan liked them himself. They were woven in bright pastel shades and decorated with sparse, natural-looking flowers or even rococo swirls. It was a huge departure from Turkey’s own design tradition of non-naturalistic ornamentation and richly concentrated colors.

Here is a carpet woven in Ghiordes at the time. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

How much any empire can stave off collapse by adopting new models at times of crisis is debatable. Abdul-Mejid’s efforts ran into huge obstacles, not the least of which were the Western European powers themselves.

They loaned him massive amounts of money to buy weapons to confront the expanding Russian empire, but attached fatal conditions to the loans.

The conditions were demands for trade concessions to open the empire’s raw materials -- wool, cotton, silk and coal -- to European businesses and its markets to European products, including textiles. The results of this, too, were soon visible in the carpet industry and its commercial hub, the Istanbul bazaar.

Until 1830, the Ottoman Empire was still largely a self-contained and self-sufficient space. But with the opening to the West, its manufacturers suddenly came into direct competition with the industrial revolution. European textiles flooded the market and domestic producers found it impossible to compete.

Worse still for the domestic producers, the introduction of European fashions in the court harem caused a wave of emulation among Otttoman women. Dresses were made of European rather than local fabrics and the market for fine Ottoman silks collapsed.

Celik Gulersoy in his 1980 book ‘Story of the Grand Bazaar’ sums up the process this way:

“When ten thousand hand looms disappeared, villages could no longer be closed production units and the villagers turned into laborers and imported European goods rapidly took the place of domestic textiles in the Empire’s markets.”

The new shopping focus was the Bonmarches, the borrowed-from-French generic name for the shops erected in European style on the main avenue of Istanbul's chic Beyoglu district.

In 1881, a visiting English writer, Lady Brassey, described in her book ‘Sunshine and Storm in the East’ how rich Turkish ladies with their servants visiting the Grand Bazaar were surrounded by the treasures of the East but demanded the merchants show them Western goods instead, though these were mostly second quality. She regarded it as very strange.

By the turn-of-the-last century, the Grand Bazaar itself lost its most distinctive feature: the merchants sitting passively on wooden divans with their cupboards full of goods behind them. That, too, gave way to the new European style.

The arches lining the walls of the old Bazaar were connected to form shop facades and the merchants took to standing in their doorways.

In many cases, the merchants had no better choice because their new premises were no bigger than telephone booths. To complete the image of shops on a European street, they added signs and advertising above their doors.

During these decades, the Ottoman carpet production industry changed equally dramatically. Western capital entered the business and the Western market became the driving force of almost all the large-scale carpet manufactories.

Miroslav Jungr observes in his 2005 book ‘Oriental Carpets:’

“The European powers brought every aspect of mass production to bear on the weaving process, including using synthetic dyes and demolishing traditional design schemes. Floral patterns, beloved by foreign customers, became standard even though – with a few exceptions such as medallion ushaks – they had never been part of the Turkish tradition.”

Curiously, the Mejids, the Turkish weavers’ own early experiment with incorporating European styles, were completely overlooked in Europe. Jungr notes their stylized flowers and mostly shiny colors did not correspond to the cosmopolitan taste of the time. But in Turkey they remained popular even after the death of Sultan Abdul-Mejid himself in 1861.

Only today, as their story is becoming better known, are the Mejids beginning to win respect from collectors. And that is partly because of the bittersweet story they tell of the end of one era and the start of another.




Saturday, 16 January 2010

Salting Carpets And Topkapi Prayer Rugs: A Detective Story

ISTANBUL, January 16, 2010 -- The Topkapi Palace treasury is the repository of many interesting things.

But for carpet lovers, some of the most fascinating – and mysterious – are the niched prayer rugs which are carefully stored away in its darkened rooms, safe from the aging effects of sunlight, air, and wear.

The carpets are so intricately made, and so fragile, that they were obviously never intended for daily use. But just who made them, and what they were intended for, is one of the great mysteries of carpet history.

Here is an example of one of the niche rugs in the Topkapi collection.

The rug is fragile because it is woven in some places with metal-wrapped silk threads. The metal -- silver that is gilded with gold -- gives parts of the carpet a metallic sheen that glitters in the light. But the metal itself can be worn away by the slightest abrasion and, at the same time, it makes the rugs so inflexible that even folding them could tear them.

Thus any of the normal things one does with carpets, from rolling them to stepping on them -- and certainly praying on them -- would destroy them.

Yet that is just one of the many peculiarities of these prayer rugs.

Still more surprising are the inscriptions on the borders.

Prayer rugs are usually associated with the Sunni branch of Islam, which was also the state religion of the Ottoman Empire. But the inscriptions here are Shi’ite, the state religion of one of the Ottoman Empire's greatest rivals: the Safavid Empire of Iran.

And, because Shi’ia themselves use prayer stones but not prayer rugs in their religious observances, the existence of Shi'ite prayer rugs should be an impossibility.

For decades, carpet experts have wrestled with the problem and come up with two explanations.

One is that many of the pieces are modern forgeries of classical carpets.

Another is that the pieces are, in fact, classical carpets but created for a very special political purpose.

Let’s take the forgery charges first.

The trail, like many a good mystery story, begins in London, specifically in the dark corridors of another museum, the Victoria and Albert.

In 1909, the Australian millionaire and art collector George Salting bequeathed to the museum upon his death a rug he believed was made in the 16th century and which in many ways seemed similar to the prayer rugs in the Topkapi.

Like the prayer rugs, it was extraordinarily fragile and woven in places with metal-wrapped silk threads, It also bore inscriptions in cartouches on its borders.

And though it was not a prayer rug itself – it was a medallion rug – it too was clearly never intended for use on the floor.

The “Salting carpet," as it became known, soon caught the European rug world’s eye but not in the way Mr. Salting likely intended.

One reason was its colors. They were very bright and amazingly well preserved. And that, on a rug which otherwise looked like it was from the classical era, struck many as a blatant sign the weaving was a recent forgery.

The challenge became to discover which carpet workshop in the modern era could possibly have forged such a complex piece. And the leading detective was Germany’s Kurt Erdmann, one of the most influential carpet experts of his generation.

Dubbing the “Salting” and similar rugs in other collections “disturbingly colorful,” he blazed a trail to Hereke, about 50 miles east of Istanbul. That is the home of one of the most famous workshops of the turn-of-the-last century Ottoman court, where weavers were routinely commissioned to make copies of Persian and other classical rugs for Istanbul’s palaces.

The “Saltings,” he concluded in 1941, were frauds, but almost perfect ones, and he paid tribute to their weavers, whose identity was betrayed only by their "Anatolian" sensibilities:

“What was achieved deserves full recognition. In the best pieces, the Persian 16th century style is remarkably successful. A wrong note is often struck in the coloring, whereby a difference of artistic sensibility leads, on the one hand, to an exaggeration of the richness of the coloring and, on the other, to adoption of the Anatolian coloring scheme which is restricted to a few shades.”

Here is a detail from George Salting's carpet showing its bright colors.

Few dared argue with Erdmann. So, for decades the Salting carpets lived in limbo.

Because they were incredible pieces of art by any measure, museums and collectors continued to treasure them. But they were identified as 19th century rugs, making them a historical anomoly.

Things might have stayed that way forever except for the march of time.

More recently, a new generation of rug experts has become intrigued again by the Salting carpets and, more particularly, their similarities to their prayer rug cousins in the Topkapi museum.

And those prayer rugs have cast doubt on Erdman’s theory because they, unlike the Saltings in Europe, have a documented biography. The curators of the Topkapi have listed the prayer rugs as part of the royal collection for centuries, long before the Hereke workshop produced its earliest confirmed rug in 1892.

Now, as scholars increasingly regard Salting Carpets and Topkapi Prayer Rugs as a single category, the hunt has turned to piecing together a history that explains how such clearly “Persian 16th century style” weavings came to Istanbul, why they include such a self-contradictory thing as Shi’ite prayer rugs, and how some of these carpets – the “Saltings” – eventually made it to Europe in such a fresh state that they could be regarded as modern weavings.

It is not an easy task, but the history that is taking shape is fascinating. The supporting evidence comes from two relatively new fields of rug study, rug structure and rug documentation, and have helped trace the carpets to the court workshops of the Safavid Empire during the 1500s.

Michael Franses summed up the historical explanation in his article “Some Wool-Pile Persian-Design Niche Rugs,” published in Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies Volume 5 (ICOC 1999).

He notes that in the 1500’s, the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire were locked in a struggle for supremacy. The balance of power went back and forth and the stakes were who would control eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan and Mesopotamia.

Eventually, the tide turned consistently against the Safavids due to the energies of Sultan Suleyman, the same Ottoman leader who was known as Suleyman the Magnificent in the West.

His armies took took Tabriz twice from the Safavids for various periods and captured Baghdad for good. As a result, the Safavid Shah Tahmasp, who reigned for 52 years during this regional warfare, turned to a policy of appeasement instead.

The gifts the Safavid court sent to Suleyman and his immediate successors are well illustrated in Ottoman miniatures of the time. The paintings show lines of courtiers streaming before the throne bearing boxes, bags, and lengths of fabrics.

The gifts came in special caravans headed by Safavid ambassadors and the caravans were sizable enough to stagger European diplomats to the Ottoman court who witnessed their arrival.

A Hungarian ambassador who was present to see a Safavid delegation arriving to congratulate Suleyman’s son, Selim II, on his accession to the throne in 1567 wrote:

“The train consisted of 700 men and 19,000 pack animals, bearing all sorts of luxuries, including woolen carpets so heavy that seven could scarcely carry them.”

He also wrote that he saw “silk carpets from Hamadan and Dargazan … 20 large silk carpets and many small in which birds, animals, and flowers were worked in gold.”
Some of the miniature paintings of the time show what could be courtiers carrying rolled-up carpets among other gifts including precious silver trays and decanters.

If the carpets did indeed come to Istanbul as gifts, there are still other things to explain, including the giving and accepting of “Shi’ite” prayer rugs.

That they had to be considered “Shi’ite,” there is no question. The calligraphic inscriptions on many of them are in praise of Ali, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, who is particularly venerated by the Shit’ite faithful.

Similarly, there is no question that the Ottomans, who controlled Mecca and styled themselves the protectors of Sunni Islam, knew what the inscriptions said. The language used in the Ottoman court during much of the 16th and 17th centuries was Persian and Persian culture, like Italian Renaissance culture in Europe, was familiar to everyone in the region.

Were the messages on the carpet a diplomatic slap to the Ottomans even as the gifts were sent as tribute to keep the Ottoman powers at bay?

Or were they a Trojan Horse, slipping the Safavids’ state religion into the very inner sanctum of the Ottoman Sultan, the “Guardian of all the Holy Places”?

The answers may never be known, but the carpets were clearly so valuable that they were not only accepted but preserved in immaculate condition in the vaults of the Topkapi Palace treasury. Whether they were ever publicly displayed is not recorded.

That leaves one last mystery: how some of the Salting type carpets - like this one in Copenhagen's David Collection museum -- arrived in such pristine condition to Europe.

One intriguing possibility is offered by John Mills, whose article “The Salting Group: History and a Clarification” also appears in Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies Volume 5 (ICOC 1999).

Mills suggests some of the rugs may have been smuggled out of the Topkapi and sold in the streets of Istanbul when the city plunged into chaos during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. That was when Russian troops, pushing the Ottoman Empire out of Bulgaria, advanced to the gates of the city and were thought to be on the verge of taking it.

As refugees from the Balkans streamed into the city, there was near anarchy, the price of food shot up, and panicked people began liquidating valuables for cash. Incredible carpets began appearing in the bazaar.

Were carpets from the Topkapi Palace among them?

An anonymous correspondent writing a report five years later in Burlington Magazine has left this intriguing clue:

“I well remember much hawking of harem treasures during the terrible winter of the Russo Turkish war,” he wrote in 1903.

At least one European buyer is known to have bought a Salting type rug at that chaotic time. It is Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky, who was the Russian ambassador in Istanbul in 1878.

If some of the Salting carpets did come out of the Topkapi treasury, that could account for why their colors were so perfectly preserved that they could be mistaken for recent work.

It is an intriguing thought and one which carpets scholars are likely to keep pursuing in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, some Western museums continue to identify their Salting-type carpets as 19th century Turkish work. But the Topkapi palace curators have no doubt their own collection of prayer rugs comes from the Safavids.




Friday, 1 January 2010

The Origins Of Classical Geometric Carpet Motifs: Girih, Rumi, And Kufesque

ISTANBUL, January 1, 2010 - The geometric patterns of the Anatolian carpets that so fascinated European painters have diverse origins.

Some of them come from nomadic weaving traditions, such as the Memling gul. It is easy to weave and, unlike more sophisticated designs, has a flat, two dimensional appearance. It can be found in nomadic traditions ranging from Central Asia to the Transcaucasus to Iran and Anatolia.

But other motifs, especially those which appear to be three-dimensional (such as the medallion above), are so complicated they likely were borrowed from other fields of art.

The search for their origins takes one into the sophisticated world of Islamic decorative art and specifically, into the drafting rooms of court and commercial artists who created the complex designs and patterns that can be seen in the tile work of mosques and other buildings or in book illustrations.

One of the art forms such designers took to particular heights was ‘strapwork,’ the use of interlacing lines to give patterns an illusion of depth. The example at the top of this page is from a rug depicted in an Italian fresco from the early 1500s.

The motif -- an strapwork octagonal medallion -- is typical of both "Large Pattern Holbein" and "Small Pattern Holbein” carpets. The octagonal medallions are outlined by interlacing lines which make them stand out from the background field.

Shown here is a much rarer and more elaborate version of a strapwork medallion on a Large Pattern Holbein. It is depicted in the painting 'Virgin and Child with the Family of Burgomaster Meyer," by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1528.

Strapwork, also known as “girih” (the Persian word for knot), is a common design trick in both European and Islamic artwork. But eastern artists, who were particularly interested in geometric shapes, took it to levels of enormous complexity.

Just how complex it could be is only hinted at in carpets. But it is worth taking a moment to consider just for its own interest.

Here is an example of girih used to decorate the exterior of the restored Khanqah (lodging complex) of Nadir Divan Beg, dating to the early 17th century, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

The secret to understanding girih, which was meant to both delight and confound the eye, is understanding how the artisans created their designs.

They assembled them from jig-saw puzzle-like pieces, which could be combined with one another to generate an almost infinite variety of different patterns.

Here are five “ghiri tiles” representing different categories of puzzle pieces. They consist of a decagon, a pentagon, a hexagon, a bow tie, and a rhombus and all the sides of each are are of the same length, so any can fit together with the others.

The shapes of the girih tiles are not visible in the final design. What one sees are the patterns formed by the line decoration on the tiles.

How to create girih designs was a whole field of study that was codified in manuscripts of the time.

One such manuscript is the ‘Topkapi Scroll,’ a 15th century collection of architectural drawings created by master builders in the late medieval period in Iran.

The scroll, preserved in the Topkapi Palace complex in Istanbul, contains 114 individual geometric drawings detailing the theory and instructions for laying intricate patterns on walls and vaulted ceilings.

Both this picture and the one above are from ‘Medieval Islamic Architecture, Quasicrystals, and Penrose and Girih Tiles: Questions from the Classroom,’ by Raymond Tennant.

With time, every art form begins to experiment with stylizations, some of which try to turn the art form inside out.

In girih, this took the form of sometimes drawing designs by representing only the interstices where certain lines met. The lines themselves were dropped from view.

An example in carpets is this para-mamluke rug. It is not Anatolian but Syrian in origin.

With large-scale tile work on buildings, the effects of showing only certain interstices could be still more dramatic. The results resembles stars in the night sky, but arranged in subtle patterns that the brain perceives almost subconsciously.

There is no room here to discuss a kind of girih that never appears in carpets and is the most complex of all.

That is designs made up of shapes which, when put together, create a pattern that does not repeat itself, no matter where one looks. Moreover, the shapes cannot be re-arranged in any way that makes the pattern repeat.

One example is on the Darb-i-Imam Shrine (1453) in Isfahan.

The existence of shapes which can do this has only recently been identified by modern mathematicians, who still have difficulty modeling the phenomenon.

The fact that such shapes were being applied in art more than 500 years ago – with or without full understanding of the geometric laws involved – is a humbling reminder of the achievement of the ‘golden age’ of science in the Islamic world, which itself built upon the science of the classical world.

Still another, much easier to understand, motif which appears on Renaissance era Anatolian carpets and is borrowed from decorative tile designs is a motif composed of ‘split leaves.’

The split leaves are known as ‘rumi’ in Ottoman Turkey and “Islimi’ in Persia and can be seen in Small Pattern Holbein rugs (left).

The split leaves are arranged to form a quatrefoil that is the secondary motif in the rug pattern. The quatrefoils alternate with the primary motif, which is the octagonal girih medallion.

What did the split-leaf motif, appears as very angular in these carpets, look like in its original version on tile work?

Here is a sample (right). It is a quatrefoil of four rumi forms embracing a lotus flower and is very curving and lifelike in design. The motif was made angular for carpets to conform with the ‘geometric’ style popular for carpets at the time.

The rumi design, like girih, was subject to much experimentation. One result was what may have been the most popular of all the Anatolian export carpets to Renaissance Europe, the so-called Lotto design.

The Lotto (below), which at first glance looks like an abstraction of the Small Pattern Holbein, has both its motif elements derived from the rumi form.

Most frequently it appears in Renaissance paintings as a yellow geometric rumi lattice on a red ground. In fact, it is the most frequently depicted classical Anatolian carpet of all, appearing this way or with variations in some 500 paintings.

This picture of also shows yet another carpet pattern – this time to form the border – derived from still another field of decorative art: calligraphy.

In the ‘kufesque’ border, the calligraphy, which is highly ornate and curvilinear in its original medium of book illustration, is made geometric by the weavers.

The Anatolian geometric carpets were characteristic of carpet tastes across the Islamic world until styles began shifting toward curvilinear and floral patterns in the late 1400s.

Walter B. Denny, writes in “Anatolian Carpets’ (2002) that “it appears that before the phenomenon known as the ‘carpet revolution’ began to dominate carpet production in the last part of the 15th century, the carpet traditions of all these weaving centers may have shared elements of a common design vocabulary of geometric girih motifs, rumi design, and kufesque borders.”

It is interesting to think that while Renaissance Europeans did not import much Eastern art other than carpets, the rugs did offer them a considerable sample of what was going on in the other Islamic arts of the time.

Today, oriental carpets remain the only form of Eastern art that is widespread in Western homes. Often unbeknown to us, it is still a window onto the much larger, and ever changing, world of Eastern design.




Related Links:

‘Medieval Islamic Architecture, Quasicrystals, and Penrose and Girih Tiles: Questions from the Classroom,’ Raymond Tennant.

‘The Tiles of Infinity,’ Sebastian R. Prange, Saudi Aramco World magazine, Septmber/October 2009.