Anatolian Rugs in Transylvanian Churches

Anatolian Rugs in Transylvanian Churches
exhibition at the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Emirgan, Istanbul
19 April to 19 August 2007

The rugs
  The beauty of Ottoman rugs from western Anatolia has clearly appealed so greatly to generations of the people of the Transylvania region of Romania that they have cherished and displayed hundreds of them in their churches for at least five centuries. These rugs, mostly from the provinces of Usak and Manisa, represent a part of Turkish art history that would otherwise have been lost, as very few similar examples survive in Turkey.



  In the Muslim world, rugs have a number of functions: as platforms for prayer, as seating mats, bed and table covers or indeed items for sale. In pre-Islamic times the carpets of the orient served as reflections of the heavens, and their symbols were designed as protection and as a means to carry the soul to the next world. Although the same patterns can still be seen on rugs from as late as the 19th century, their ancient meanings were largely lost centuries before. As each generation made their own carpets, the old ones were often discarded, and the tradition was kept alive by the act of making new rugs. The old rugs found new homes outside the Islamic world and many were treasured and preserved, with the result that far more antique rugs have survived outside of their countries of origin. There was a great demand for Turkish rugs in western Europe, as can be seen from the numerous depictions in European paintings. Whereas in the mosques such rugs were used on the floor, the Europeans admired and respected this great art and often displayed the carpets on their tables and walls both as symbols of wealth and status, and as 'works of art'.


Early Anatolian Rugs

Usak Region


Numerous oriental rugs can be found depicted in Italian paintings from the 1300s onwards, especially decorating the floors and altar steps of churches, and often displaying designs that are not represented on extant examples. By the early 1500s we find in paintings recognisable types whose designs compare closely with surviving rugs, including many that were preserved in Transylvania. For example, an Interlaced-Gul and Cross rug with a Kufic-style border in Madonna and Child with Saints, circa 1510, by Francesco Zaganelli (1470s-1532). The fact that the early rugs were clearly used on the floor no doubt helps to explain why so few have survived.

A few 16th century rugs with Hebrew inscriptions are known that were specifically made to hang as ark curtains, parokhet, in front of the cupboard containing the Torah scrolls in synagogues. One example, made in Cairo in the early 16th century, still hangs in the synagogue in Padua and another, the Yerkes-Benguiat Ottoman Synagogue Ark Curtain, is in the Textile Museum, Washington, DC. These two rugs have Ottoman designs that share a common heritage with many of the west Anatolian rugs still hanging in the churches of Transylvania, and because they too were hung rather than used on the floor they have survived for us to appreciate and enjoy today. At least three 17th and 18th century rugs also made for use as Torah curtains, with the same Hebrew inscriptions, survive that were made in the Kula region of Manisa Province in west Anatolia. It is no coincidence that the west Anatolian rugs preserved in Transylvania, where they were mostly hung up around the churches, form one of the largest surviving collections of this great art form.


Ivory-Ground Rugs

'Transylvanian' Rugs

Iranian Influence

  The dating of west Anatolian rugs is not an exact science. Rug designs were a traditional art form and probably evolved slowly, with some continuing in use and developing over several centuries. Very few dated rugs survive, and the dates that some of them do bear, often in ink, do not mark the year they were made but were added later. The dates on several of the rugs in the churches of Transylvania, for example, usually indicate when they were donated to the church - they may well have been in private collections for many years previously. The appearance of similar rugs in European paintings certainly helps with the process of ascribing dates to the various types. Bearing in mind that these rugs were probably not new at the time they were illustrated, the dates of the paintings at least serve to establish that rugs with similar patterns were already in western Europe at that time. The dates expressed for the individual rugs here are therefore by no means proven, but they represent a measured opinion based on paintings, and on the careful study and comparative analysis of the body of rugs that survive.

Ottoman Influence

Black Church

Two Ottoman Kilims

  This exhibition focuses on a group of Ottoman rugs that were made in west Anatolia between 250 and 500 years ago and have been preserved in the region of Transylvania, in present day Romania and Hungary. These rugs were made in Usak, Kula, Izmir, Milas, Bergama and the surrounding villages and represent a small but important aspect of a lost artistic tradition. Very few examples from this period and region have survived in Turkey, with just a small number in Turkish museums. Fortunately, however, they have been greatly admired over the past 500 years by the Protestant Christian communities of Transylvania: at the beginning of the 20th century some 600 of them were kept and hung in more than 80 churches, and almost 400 are known to survive there today. In order to represent the diversity of the art of the rug in western Anatolia between 1500 and 1750, a number of outstanding examples have been carefully selected from churches and museums in Romania and Hungary. To these have been added a few contemporaneous Egyptian rugs by courtesy of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. We would like to thank Stefano Ionescu for allowing us to reproduce large sections from his book Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania.
  The rugs presented here have been selected from the churches and museums in Romania to represent the variety of patterns displayed. Added to these are a number of rugs once in the churches and now in Hungarian collections, along with a small group from Berlin that show how similar patterns seen on west Anatolian rugs were adopted in Egypt both before and after the Ottoman conquest in 1517.
return to: Two Exhibitions at the Sakip Sabanci Museum

text and images © Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul,
Stefano Ionescu, Rome, and textile-art, London, 2007:
not to be reproduced without permission