Turkish carpets and rugs, whether hand knotted or flat woven (Kilim, Soumak, Cicim, Zili), are among the most well known and established hand crafted art works in the world. Historically: religious, cultural, environmental, sociopolitical and socioeconomic conditions created widespread utilitarian need and have provided artistic inspiration among the many tribal peoples and ethnic groups in Central Asia and Turkey. The term tends to cover not just the products of the modern territory of Turkey, but also those of Turkic peoples living elsewhere, mostly to the east of Anatolia.
Apparently originating in the traditions of largely nomadic Turkic peoples, the Turkish carpet, like the Persian carpet, developed during the medieval Seljuk period a more sophisticated urban aspect, produced in large workshops for commissions by the court and for export. The many styles of design reached maturity during the early Ottoman Empire, and most modern production, especially for export, looks back to the styles of that period. Turkish (also known as Anatolian) rugs and carpets are made in a wide range of distinct styles originating from various regions in Anatolia. Important differentiators between these styles may include: the materials, construction method, patterns and motif, geography, cultural identity and intended use.
The oldest records of flat woven kilims come from Çatalhöyük Neolithic pottery, circa 7000 BC. One of the oldest settlements ever to have been discovered, Çatalhöyük is located south east of Konya in the middle of the Anatolian region. The excavations to date (only 3% of the town) not only found carbonized fabric but also fragments of kilims painted on the walls of some of the dwellings. The majority of them represent geometric and stylized forms that are similar or identical to other historical and contemporary designs.
The oldest known hand knotted rug is the famous so-called Pazyryk Carpet, dating back to the 5th century BC. It was excavated by Russian Professor Sergei Rudenko and his archeology team, from the Pazyryk burials, a Scythian burial mound in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, near the tri- border area of modern day Russia, Mongolia and China, in the late 1940s. 5400 feet above sea level, the rug, along with other textiles and artifacts, was preserved in ice probably due to the common belief that bandits had robbed the grave site soon after the burial, thus allowing water to enter and eventually freeze over the next 2500 years. The origins of the Pazyryk Carpet are still a matter of scholastic debate. However, the general consensus of scholars and historians hold that the art and practice of rug weaving originate from Central Asia.
The populace of Anatolia through the ages have included many great ancient civilizations, such as the Hittites, the Phrygians, theAssyrians, the Ancient Persians, the Ancient Greeks, and the early Byzantine Empire (Roman Emperor Constantine the Great's Eastern Christian Capital). Later the Seljuks and the Ottoman Empire. There are documentary records of carpets being used by the ancient Greeks and Persians, but we have little idea of what such carpets were like. The knotted rug is believed to have reached Asia Minor and the Middle East with the expansion of various nomadic tribes peoples during the latter period of the great Turkic migration of the 8th and 9th centuries.
Very little is then known about the history of rugs until the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries from which Seljuk examples found in various Turkish mosques have survived, nearly all now in museums or private collections.
In 1272, the Venetian merchant traveler and explorer Marco Polo was the first European writer to mention Anatolian carpets, specifically mentioning the "Beautiful rugs of Konya and Karaman". Konya carpets are named for the region in which they were made. Renamed from the Greek Iconium when the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum made it their capital, Konya is one of the largest and oldest continuously occupied cities in Asia Minor. When Polo wrote of the Konyas, he had probably seen them in manufactories that were attached to the Seljuk courts. In the early 20th century, large carpets were found in the Alâeddin Mosque in Konya. They are now housed in the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul.
Famously depicted in European paintings of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, beautiful Anatolian rugs were often used from then until modern times, to indicate the high economic and social status of the owner. Among other names, some of these rugs have come to be known as "Lotto carpets", "Holbein carpets", and "Memling" or "Memling gul carpets". These terms make reference to their depiction in minute detail in paintings by Lorenzo Lotto, Hans Holbein the Younger and Hans Memling. In addition, there are a great number of other known and unknown artists who also represent Anatolian carpets of the Seljuk Empire era in their paintings.
Seljuk carpets can be characterized by geometric and stylized floriated motifs called guls in repeating rows and by Kufic syle inscription border patterns. By the beginning of the 14th century, less stylized large animal figures emerged in Turkish rugs. By the 16th century, the medallion motifs and the diverse foliate compositions had taken over, as the influences of the expanding Ottoman territories and Persian and Mamluk arts were felt. This period claims two major groups of rugs; Usak rugs with the motif of one or more very large medallions and Ottoman Court rugs with naturalistic motifs. Ottoman Court rugs utilized the Iranian senneh knot, in order to accommodate the very fine and detailed floral designs and the clusters of Turkish flowers – the tulip, hyacinth, carnation, rose, and the blossoming branches.
The modern history of carpets and rugs began in the 19th century when large cottage industry and workshop productions flourished in Iran, Azerbaijan and Central Asia in order to meet the ever increasing demand for handmade carpets on the International market.
The geographical regions where inhabitants have lived throughout the centuries lie in the temperate zone. Temperature fluctuations between day and night, summer and winter may vary greatly. Turks; nomadic or pastoral, agrarian or town dwellers, living in tents or in sumptuous houses in large cities, have protected themselves from the extremes of the cold weather by covering the floors, and sometimes walls and doorways, with carpets and rugs. The carpets are always hand made of wool or sometimes cotton, with occasional additions of silk. These carpets are natural barriers against the cold. Turkish pile rugs and kilims are also frequently used as tent decorations, grain bags, camel and donkey bags, ground cushions, oven covers, sofa covers, bed and cushion covers, blankets, curtains, eating blankets, table top spreads, prayer rugs, and for ceremonial occasions.
The Kurds, Yörük, Turkomen and other tribal groups throughout Turkey continue to weave much sought after rugs. Eastern and Central Turkey in particular, weaving a great number of nomadic pieces for the market and for personal use.
Turkish rugs are fairly distinguishable amidst carpets from other major weaving groups, such as Persian or Caucasian carpets. Aside from the classic double knot, their color scheme and design features are mostly recognizable, albeit, there are numerous variations province to province. From the faded palette and elegance of an Uşak carpet, to the bold colorful design motifs of an Eastern Anatolian nomadic piece, Turkish carpets have maintained their distinct identities reflecting an equally strong, diverse and colorful nation.
In general, the Turkish take their shoes off upon entering a house. Thus, the dust and dirt of the outdoors are not tracked inside. The floor coverings remain clean and the inhabitants of the house, if need be, can comfortably rest on the floor. In traditional households, women and girls take up carpet and kilim weaving as a hobby as well as a means of earning money. Women learn their weaving skills at an early age, taking months or even years to complete the beautiful pile rugs and flat woven kilims that were created for their use in every aspect of daily life. As is true in most weaving cultures, traditionally and nearly exclusively, it is women and girls who are both artisan and weaver.