Anatolian Rugs in Transylvanian Churches


Trade and the Arrival of Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania
Stefano Ionescu

A number of surviving documents confirm that the principal way rugs arrived in Transylvania, either as a final destination or as a transit point en route to the West, was through trade with the Turks. This trade continued from the middle of the 15th to the end of the 18th century, a period that correlates with the age of the classical Turkish rugs still preserved in Transylvania. Rugs probably represented one of Turkey's most significant exports during this time and were especially favoured by the Saxon and Hungarian communities.


  Though it had earlier roots, organised trade between the Romanian countries and the Ottoman Empire really began with Sultan Mohammed II's firman of 1456, granting Moldavian merchants the right to travel by sea to Constantinople in order to sell their merchandise and acquire other goods. The first known document from Brasov, and in fact the oldest in Transylvania referring directly to rugs, was issued between 1462 and 1464. The town archives of Brasov and Sibiu make possible a partial reconstruction of the intense commercial activity that took place between Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire, and the important role that rugs played within this trade. Documentation in the form of customs registers, municipal registers and wills reveals that record keeping was at first rudimentary, but with time it become more detailed, making it possible to ascribe some rugs to known categories. During the 16th century, details concerning the dimensions and quality of the rugs are included in the entry; in the second half of the 16th century one finds references to their age; in 17th century wills, rugs were sometimes classified according to use, for instance 'table rug' or 'wall rug'. Gradually the wording became so precise that it is easy to recognise the type of rug that is being described.



Transylvania: A Land of Diversity Between Worlds
Beate Wild

Transylvania's special status within the Ottoman empire allowed for a liberal religious policy. In contrast to other lands, the Reformation quickly gained a foothold here, and this period of radical change was characterised by a widely-recognised and often quoted tolerant attitude in Transylvania. This resulted in official recognition being extended on equal terms to four religions (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and Unitarian) between 1557 and 1568. Religious freedom thus became a fundamental part of the Transylvanian constitution, a phenomenon that is without parallel in the rest of Europe at the time. This uniquely qualified the region as a safe harbour for religious refugees from many other countries.

Transylvania's legally-protected religious freedom was reflected in the everyday social life of the population. The society still points to an age when the traders and craftsmen were guarantors of a cosmopolitan attitude, in a country where Roman and Byzantine influences met and where the Islamic orient and the Christian occident would later confront each other. It offers us an insight into a kind of small-scale Europe where the creativity of various ethnicities mingled, without merging into a uniform culture. With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, this model of cultural contact was replaced by others, as people's view of history became increasingly narrow and an ethnocentric view of the past largely precluded concepts of cultural exchange. Transylvania's cultural history is gaining relevance in a European Community whose borders have been redefined by the recent accession of neighbouring eastern states, and the Ottoman carpets in Transylvania's Protestant churches are an attractive testimony of a historical context - of a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional coexistence - that is perhaps more topical now than it has ever been.



The role of Ottoman rugs in Transylvania
Stefano Ionescu

The significance that Turkish rugs had within the urban and rural communities of Transylvania was certainly complex and went well beyond their domestic uses, and the range of their functions led to their accumulation. Rugs were considered very precious assets and were offered as valuable gifts (donum) on special occasions (births, weddings) or to honour the recipient (in honorem). Unlike in other countries of central and western Europe, where rugs were the prerogative of the nobility and the wealthy clergy, in the Saxon sections of Transylvania both the upper class and citizens of a certain social standing, including guilds, owned Turkish rugs. This is proved by archival evidence and also by inscriptions on some rugs donated to the churches. While some inscriptions are in Latin, the official language written and spoken by the elite, including the clergy, others are in the everyday German language, indicating middle-class ownership of the rug.


  Rugs were also used to decorate homes, less frequently on the floors, and of course the balconies, walls and choir of the churches. Many have ink stains caused by using them as table covers. Others have tears and fraying, evidence of being hung on the wall over a long period. In the 16th century, with the coming of the Reformation, when the number of figurative images inside the churches was drastically reduced, the interiors must have appeared in the eyes of their recently converted parishioners as large, cold and empty spaces, arousing feelings of horror vacui. The warm and colourful Turkish rugs, the creations of a world that was spiritually different from Christianity, imported from the Empire that had achieved military domination over the region, found their place in the Reformed churches, which were to become their main custodians. This fact again confirms not only the traditional religious tolerance of Transylvanians but also the capacity of oriental rugs to bridge cultural differences.
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text and images © Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul,
Stefano Ionescu, Rome, and textile-art, London, 2007:
not to be reproduced without permission