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.
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