Magic carpet ride

The inaugural Istanbul Carpet Conference took us on a trip from Anatolian ‘cult kilims’ to contemporary carpet design

By Emma Harper | October 9, 2016


‘Come on down!’ bellowed the exuberant MC at last week’s Istanbul Carpet Conference. It was at this moment, which came after the slick opening video and intervals of thumping music, but before any speakers had taken the stage, that I wondered whether I had mistakenly wandered onto a game show set. My worry quickly subsided as Hamdi Ünal, the first speaker, began his talk on Hereke carpets. The knowledge and expertise of the seven speakers didn’t require a splashy presentation – it spoke for itself.

Organised by the Istanbul Carpet Exporters’ Association (İstanbul Halı İhracatçıları Birliği or İHİB) and HALI Magazine, the conference was the centrepiece of the inaugural Istanbul Carpet Week. The aim of the programme was twofold: to celebrate Anatolia’s illustrious past as a centre of carpet and kilim production and trade, and to shape the future of Turkish rugs. Academics, designers and businesspeople took the stage to speak on a wide range of topics. The talks ping-ponged between different fields and time periods, making the event feel a bit disjointed (a chronological approach may have been more effective). Minor gripes about the order aside, the speakers were excellent. 

Udo Hirsch was one of the co-authors, together with the late James Mellaart and Belkis Balpınar, of ‘The Goddess from Anatolia’, originally published in 1989

Four of the talks unravelled some historical yarn about carpets. Udo Hirsch, an independent scholar who is based in Cappadocia, gave a presentation on the various motifs found on Anatolian kilims used for ritual celebrations. Many of the designs can be traced back to Neolithic cave paintings; Hirscsh demonstrated how these former religious symbols of birth, death and rebirth, like a goddess flanked by bulls and vultures cleaning the bones of a corpse, were translated into ornamental kilim motifs.

The Hereke carpet in the Ambassador's Hall in Dolmabahçe Palace is around 120 x 120 m (Source: Wikimedia)

Tasked with warming up the crowd, Ünal waxed lyrical about Hereke rugs in his talk. A small town on the Sea of Marmara, Hereke first became a textile hub in 1841 when Sultan Abdülmecid I assembled the best carpet weavers of the Ottoman Empire there to produce all the textiles for Dolmabahçe Palace. Since then, Hereke has become synonymous with high quality Turkish carpets. Ünal’s talk was light on history, focusing more on the theme of innovation. His takeaway was that while traditions must be respected and protected, creativity is elemental in carpet design and production. 

The Black Church in Brasov, Romania, covered with Ottoman prayer rugs (Source: Stefano Ionescu)

Out of all the history talks, I was most enthralled by Stefano Ionescu’s lecture on Anatolian carpets in Transylvania. The initial images of the Black Church in Brasov, Romania, bedecked with pristine prayer rugs were striking (the top image shows a detail from a unique Usahk carpet in the Black Church collection). He then followed up these slides with a clear and concise explanation of how Ottoman rugs made their way to Transylvania, despite the fact that no Turks lived in the area when it was under Ottoman suzerainty from 1541 until 1699. Tracing the trade routes and, later, the religious developments that led parishioners to decorate Protestant churches with Ottoman rugs, Ionescu tells a fascinating story of how these rugs became objects of prestige rather than utility. His ultimate goal is to replace the prayer rugs in the Romanian churches with replicas so that the originals can be preserved and displayed in a museum setting.

Hadi Maktabi, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, shed light on another oft-ignored period of carpet history: Persian carpets after the fall of the Safavid Empire in 1722 until the late 19th century. With a particular focus on what he deemed ‘greater Azerbaijan’, which consisted of autonomous khanates after the fall of the Safavids, Maktabi explored how the design, size, use and function of carpets in this area, historically a contested zone of influence between Ottoman Turkey and Safavid/Qajar Persia, slowly evolved over time. He provided side-by-side images of rugs from the region to illustrate this gradual shift.

It was unfortunate, however, that Ionescu and Maktabi, as well as other speakers, were cut off mid-sentence by the abovementioned horrendous pop music when their 20 minutes were up. Accustomed to conferences where panel moderators give subtle reminders of time restrictions and let speakers wrap up gracefully, I found this rigidity vexing.

Erbil Tezcan designed the magnificent ‘History Rug’ for the exhibition ‘Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan’, which is on view at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery until January 29, 2017

Seeing as the goal of the conference was to highlight Turkey’s carpet heritage and its current design and production potential, the organisers peppered the programme with talks by some of today’s top designers and carpet sellers. Carol Sebert, one of the founders of Creative Matters in Toronto, talked about the importance of playfulness and creativity in designing one-of-a-kind, site-specific carpets for corporate and private clients. The designer Erbil Tezcan, the founder and owner of Wool and Silk Carpets, shared how he translates images and objects that he sees in his everyday life into rug designs, many of which have won awards and accolades. Rob Leahy, the owner of Fine Rugs of Charleston, wrapped up the show with what he described as ‘something completely different’. His presentation, which featured charts rather than carpets, dissected today’s rug marketplace in the United States, demonstrating how the internet has taken the rug business by storm.

The carpet business has changed significantly since Ottoman carpets were exported to Transylvania in the 16th century – today’s rugs, many of which are machine-made, are rarely purchased with the intent of passing them down to the next generation like a family heirloom. Yet by fostering links between academics, designers and sector representatives, the conference reminded those in attendance how important it is to look back on the illustrious past of Turkish rugs before turning their sights on the future.

Posted in Design, History, Islamic Art, Talks and Lectures, Textiles
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