Symbolism on Rugs


The Symbol as image

   Flat-woven rugs are woven without the use of design cartoons. The designs are carried from one weaving generation to another and if they change, do so only slowly. The Anatolian weaving designs and compositions have been slowly channeled innto their unique state both by the technical limitations which have dictated a preference for simple horizontals, verticals and diagonals, and by the restrictions of their symbolic associantion and meaning, reinforced by popular Moslem taboos on the representation of living beings.

   A genuinely naturalistic representation never really comes close to the original, however life-like it may be. It is merely an image, an interpretation of the real object. More important, each representation takes on a reality of its own. A symbolic motif or drawing is the direct symbol of the very idea or object itself. Thus the symbol replaces the object. Communication through language is in its own way a medium used to express the existence of the animate and the inanimate, of thoughts and feelings about both the concrete and the abstract. It is a human method of expressing involvement with the environment by building up a vocabulary of symbols.

Universal and specific

   One motif often seen on kilims in Anatolia is the tree of life (hayat ağacı). This is a universal symbol. İt was also a common feature on the stone reliefs and seals of pre-Turkic Anatolian cultures. The original meanings of such symbols are now submerged in lost history. On the walls of this cave the cave dweller painted, not just for decoration but as a protective gesture, the beasts he hunted and fought. TheTurkic peoples of Central Asia believed that good and evil spirits, the prototypes of their cults, were present in their totems. Under the influence of Shamanism, Manicheism, Buddhism and Islam, they wove symbolic figures – pictorial expression of their beliefs and fears on the rugs and covers spread over the interior of their tents and shelters. These rugs not only protected them from the cold, damp and dust; they were statements expressing their need for protection against the forces of nature and the unknown, their need for a collective identity, and their desires for blessing of plenty from their godhead.

   The totemic damgas of the Oghuz in Central Asia, it will be recalled, were invariably animalistic, often in the shape of birds.  Similary, animal figures were given great importance in the civilizatins of Anatolia. It is very easy to imagine that the highly stylied goose head, ram horns and wolf jaw motifs common in kilims were actually cult figures, rendered unrecognizable through the angularity of their forms.

Before Islam

   The Oghuz brought the Central Asian natural life symbolism westwards and into the Islamic world and retained it long after as design motifs despite the iconoclastic attitude of Islam and their natural tendency  towards geometric stylization. The Islamic strictures against images, contrary to popular belief were  greater laxity by some Turkmen groups. This is especially true of the Shiites and Alevi. Human and animal figures do appear in some Anatolian folk drawings and on some rugs. Nevertheless, abstraction tended to prevail.


Islamic influences

   It is not, in fact, representational at which is forbidden by the Koran, but idolism (Koran: Sura 4, verse 116; Sura 5, verse 92; Sura 39, verse 17). This is interpreted in canonical law ( Hadith) with the following words: “Those who copy living things shall answer for their actions on the Day of Judgement and shall be punished.” This was Islam’sa answer to the widespread idolatry of the early Islamic period. The canonical rule on representational art was later modified by prominent Islamic leaders who restricted the taboo on representation to such surfaces as domes and walls while permitting the depiction of animate objects on rugs an furnishings. In particular,one early religious leader declared pictorial object taboo if they were to be hung, but permitted if they were to be spread. It was considered disrespectful to walk on  anything created. Figurative forms on the floor fell in this category. Interpretations of the Law also refer to the artistic approach to the animate. According to one account, when an artist asked advice as to whether or not painting of animals was allowed, he was given the reply: “You may do so, but make your subject appear as the flowers, as the plants as if it were inanimate.”

   The idea that making a representation of a created being was equivalent to copying the Original Creator tended to affect Islamic thinking, hence the general withdrawal from representational art in Islam. The diety in Islam has never been postulated in concrete terms. He was never humanized like the Christian deity who:”Descended to earth for his love of mankind.” The God of Islam took no form; the abstract existence of the diety is expressed in Islam by the Absolute Will. The Christian Notion of the Divine descended to earthand crucified is countered in Islam by the transformation of the very concreteness of animates and inanimates alike into abstracts.

Image through technique

   In a number of religion the human form is regarded as created in the image of God. To portray this form, weavers of tapestry weaves pressed the flat-weaving techniques to their limits. This is especially true of tapestries produced within the Christian tradition. In contrast, the Moslem weaver strives for perfection in pure kilim weaving. She expresses her creativity directly through a weaving technique without imposing a pictorial concept on it. She avoids the use of shading and perspective, and of all representational devices as used in miniatures. She also restricts her color and form. She does not have recourse to the various technical devices essential in figural tapestry weaving. The various forms of masking and avoiding slits in the weave by the use of eccentric weft and interlocking weft techniques are not essential to the composition as they are in tapestry weaving, so their use in kilim weaving must be regarded in a different light.

   The weaver of the typical Anatolian kilim searches for a means of expression using geometric forms since she is trying to avoid reproducing the animate itself. And yet, despite all efforts to avoid this, a subconscious, possibly suppressed,  desire to express living forms inspires her with a uniquely symbolic approach to woven pattern. Perhaps because of this, kilims are te woven expressions of her ambivalence.

Interpretation in context

   The tendency throughout the whole range of Islamic art towards ambivalence and mysticism, most vividly in literature, has helped to develop an idiom of symbolic graphic allusion.  The oriental preference or implication rather than direct statement has inspired a world of imagery, one difficult to comprehend by those who are strangers to it. Typically, the Islamic modes of expression are accepted as constants in their own enviroment.

   One form of Anatolian popular art, lithography, is full of fascinating examples of Islamic mystic symbolism. A lithograph illustration in the Muhammediye text of Yazıcızade Mehmet Efendi demonstrates how popularized abstraction emerged from religious taboos. The illustration contains a fortress in front of which are two large white discs representing the prophet Muhammed and his caliph Abu Bakr. These are surrounded by smaller white discs representing the followers of the prophet. All face a large number of black discs which represent the enemy. The most obvious feature is the use of black and white to imply the forces of good and evil. However, without the caption below it, which reads: "The Prophet Muhammed and Abu Bakr departing out of the midst of the profane," it would be impossible to interpret the picture.

Language and meaning

   More recently woven rugs are very difficult to interpret because traditional notions and tribal concepts have been mixed with the older, more established expressions of symbolism. To understand them one must first try to isolate recognizable signs or motifs, or at least those which seem to have changed little from their shape on much older rugs. It would seem logical to pursue this study with the weavers themselves. However, they are only one part of the creative process and are not really concerned with this kind of analysis. Actually we would need to communicate with several generations of weavers before learning anything. As this is impossible, we ought to look at the broader cultural contexts, that of the Turkic nomads CD in their homelands in Central Asia, that of the life in the countries on their migratory routes, and that of the vestiges of the civilizations they encountered on their arrival in Anatolia. But this is far too vast a task. Each rug is, by necessity, the product of such a unique combination of cultural influences that we can only hope in our quest for understanding and interpretation to reconstruct the recent customs and thought patterns of the groups who are weaving, and to compare motifs and look for the designs that communicate meaning. 

    However, recognizing a few words in another language will not give us fluency in that language. Discovering the source of a few motifs will not necessarily allow us to speak conclusively or definitively about the message embodied in each woven piece.

   We have great difficulty in interpreting the signs to be seen on flat-woven rugs since we no longer possess an alphabet of symbols. But a few non-syncretic cultic vrro designs, woven by a specific boy or oymak can give us the key to this alphabet, and with this key we may be able to decode the less homogeneous or puzzling designs which now confront us like an unreadscript on many rugs. So, finally, we may interpret, at least to some extent, the pictorial accumulation of meaning in these complex woven flatweaves.



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