Unlike Persian rugs, the decorations on Turkish rugs are hardly ever strictly ornamental. Even patterns that might look purely geometric to the Western eye symbolize flora or fauna, and are intended to convey messages, beliefs, wishes, whims, and even rebukes. Over the ages, Turkish women in urban centers and nomadic camps have been weaving in these coded messages, with some motifs originating in the Anatolia region as far back as 3000 B.C., using their double-knot technique.
The meanings are conveyed down to the smallest detail—from the color to the kind of flower woven into the rug. For example, an engaged woman expressing her giddy feelings of love weaves pink hyacinths into her rug. If a woman is feeling melancholy the hyacinths will be purple, and if she wants to express her loyalty, the hyacinths are white. Poppies represent spring, tulips and carnations are for love and peace, the clover for luck, fertility, and paradise.
Nomads were the first Turkish carpet makers; wool rugs solved the problem of covering the cold, hard ground under their tents to keep their feet warm. Eventually, the nomads sett...
Many of the motifs in these rugs and kilims are designed to defend against the evil eye, a supernatural power that can wreak death and destruction with a single look. Thus, the carpet serves as a charm often laid in the rooms of children, who are considered particularly vulnerable to this hex.
Every tribe weaves some sort of identifying stamp in its rugs. Most Turkish carpets have a border containing sacred number patterns. The number 3 stands for the holy trio—holiness, productivity, and fertility, or earth, sky, and water—while 5 is for five prayers in a day or five fingers, offering protection against the evil eye. Seven represents the levels of the sky.
Originating in Usak in West Anatolia, Kula carpets became known as Holbein carpets, as they were favored by 17th century European nobility like Baron Orsini and Prince Stroganoff and appear in many a painting by Hans Holbein. These carpets, which tend to be in cream, yellow, light blue, and beige, are the ones most often found in European museums and private collections. The corner-S shape, resembling an ear, stands for the human voice, the gold scales weighing good and evil mean justice, and the four-leaf clover is for luck.
Kayseri, a.k.a. Keisari, is one of the three top rug-weaving districts in Anatolia. There, huge carpets are made for halls, with warp and weft of cotton and knots of wool. The first examples of these symmetrically pattern rugs date back to the Seljuk period of carpet weaving in the 13th and 14th centuries. Konya Ladik carpets, meanwhile, with their floral theme and center medallion are often depicted in artworks as a place for foreign envoys to stand before the sultan.
The Hereke workshops were founded in 1891 exclusively to make carpets for the Ottoman palaces. Weavers in these workshops produced some of the finest rugs in history, often given to European emperors as gifts. Hereke carpets feature interwoven natural flowers with vines disappearing and reappearing through borders as a sign of infinity. The tulip, in particular, symbolized the Ottoman Empire—there are 48 tulip motifs found in these rugs. The Flower of Seven Mountains marked Istanbul, a city built on seven hills. Most of these carpets were made of wool and cotton, but silk carpets, which are extremely difficult and expensive to make, were also produced in small numbers in Hereke and Kayseri.
High-quality rugs by Yörük (or Yürük) nomads appear all over Turkey. The meaning of their stars are determined by their shape. A five-point star is the universe and the mystery of human life, while six-point stars in flames emblemize genius. An eight-point star stands for the passage from birth to death, while the holy 12-point star often represents Venus, who brings goodness and renewed life. The eye, meanwhile, is the ultimate defender against the dangerous looks of the evil eye, and may be depicted as a dot under an eyebrow, or a small circle inside a triangle, square, or rectangle, often divided into four by a cross.
Yagcibedir rugs, produced in the weaving district of Bergama, are thin carpets made with dark red and navy patterns—they often feature triangles in their corners to ward off the evil eye. In these rugs, the geometric representations of the cone and the wheat sheaf stand for fertility and abundance, while the eagle represents holiness and protection.
Yuntdag Kazak rugs are known for their stunning colors and motifs in high relief. The wheel of fortune, a theme dating back to 5000 B.C., stands for the four gods of wind, the revolving earth, and cycles of luck and love. The Water of Life, depicted abstractly in borders as a cup motif, is believed to heal the sick and make the old young again. Konya Kazak rugs are the most representative of nomad culture, full of emotion and warm colors like browns and reds, their geometric patterns representing the evil eye protection of the shrub, the green color of paradise, and the sky.
Blue and beige Sindirgi carpets, from Balikesir (also called Yagcibedir-Sirvan), have very dense knots; the blue warding off the evil eye with the depth and mystery of the infinite sea and sky. According to mythology, the peacock-bird of paradise (the phoenix) brought the plant that makes Soma, the Water of Life, to Anatolia. The invisible bird sets fire to itself and is reborn, representing the spirit liberating itself from its body. The dragon, meanwhile, a multiheaded, multilegged, and multitailed sacred beast able to breath fire, means power and force.
Milas rugs tend to be light brown and dark yellow, the latter color symbolizing the sun and the abundant harvest it provides. A goose foot inside a circle is thought to bring good luck, the toes symbolizing the divine tenets of holiness, productivity, and fertility. The arrow means the weaver’s man is heroic, strong, and courageous, whereas a geometric representation of a person indicates the weaver has a baby on the way.
Dosemealti carpets are dominated by blues and whites, often woven with scorpion symbols to ward the deadly animals away. Nomads believed scorpions could not get near a carpet with such a pattern. The camel, on the other hand, is a helpful beast of burden signifying a blessing. Another particularly important motif is the Tree of Life, believe to have emerged from the center of the world, its branches, populated by the birds of paradise, the ladder to paradise.
Taspinar carpets from central Anatolia are some of the most beautiful Turkish carpets, with their rich colors of indigo blue, brick red, and brown. The snake, which sheds its skin each year, guards the Tree of Life and symbolizes rebirth and immortality. The sacred light is the light of paradise, while mountains are thought to be superhuman deities connecting earth and the heavens.
Typical of central Anatolia, the velvety Sultanhan rugs have a long-pile surface with light pink, turquoise, and beige colors, and much space between the motifs. The unique Sultanhan weaving methods make these carpets very soft. Turquoise is another color thought to avert the evil eye, while images of leaves represent the cycle of life and death.
Made in the high plains of northeast Anatolia, Kars carpets get their top-notch quality from the coarse, thick black or brown wool of the local sheep. These rugs often contain the eagle motif. The abstraction known as ram’s horn indicates a strapping young man. The softer, more pastel carpets of the Nidge region of Kars have been exported to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, and China. Mothers are depicted in the hands-on-waist pattern symbolizing the sacred duty of child-rearing.
Yahiyahi rugs, made in Capadoccia, are renowned for their symmetry, fine wool, and craftsmanship—they are dyed with wine leaves, wild mint, walnut shell, and buckthorn. A chain-like pattern of diamonds and triangles known as hair band, or a representation of an earring, means the weaver wishes for marriage. A white rose stands for love, a red one passion, and a wild one yearning. A geometric pattern called wolf’s mouth offers protection against wild animals, while dots stand for fruit and vegetables, signs of fertility and abundance.
Coming from a long tradition of carpet weaving, beautiful Basmakci rugs blend Aegean and Anatolian themes, using turquoise and pink colors. The pomegranate, considered a sacred fruit of paradise in Anatolia, is often scattered in the homes of newlyweds to bring a fertility, robust health, and a long marriage, an image echoed in the rugs.
Finally, the popular Sarabi, or Serapi, rugs are often identified as Turkish rugs, but actually come from Sarab in East Azerbaijian Province, Iran (Persia). Qashgai rugs are also made by Turkish people living in Iran.