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A Late Eighteenth-Century "Karapinar" Kilim
by Robert Torchia, Ph.D

R. John Howe invited me to contribute to this forum by writing about an old Anatolian kilim that I recently acquired after three years of negotiations with a dealer in Philadelphia. I want to gather as much information as possible on this specific type of kilim, and invite readers to identify other examples that I may have overlooked, and to comment on various aspects of my discussion. I am an art historian of nineteenth and early twentieth-century American painting, who somewhere along the line became obsessed with oriental rugs, particularly Anatolian kilims.

Fig. 1

Fig 1a and 1b: Details of Fig. 1

This slit-weave, single-piece kilim (Fig. 1) probably dates from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Jürg Rageth, in Anatolian Kilims & Radiocarbon Dating (Riehn, Switzerland, 1999), plate 38, recently published an unusual two-piece example with two adjacent rows of medallions that he dated from sometime between 1639 and 1824. Like so many Anatolian kilims, unfortunately, nothing is known of my kilim's provenance. It belongs to a small group of published examples that are distinguished by their having a row of four multilayered diamond shaped saw-toothed medallions arranged side-by-side on a horizontal axis, set against a white background decorated with a variety of small and spontaneously distributed secondary design elements. These often eccentrically designed and placed multicolored motifs form the perfect background for the strikingly bold and archaic medallions. The dominant medallion motifs are separated into distinct zones by vertical bands that contain what are variously referred to in the literature as interlocking "candelabra," or "tuning forks." The bands are flanked on each side by narrow multicolored strips. Other than certain areas of severely corroded dark brown, this kilim is in excellent condition and has never been restored. A number of design elements are outlined with extra weft contour wrapping. There are some remnants of the original knotted end finish.

Each medallion is composed of a central polygon surrounded by four increasingly large concentric layers. The weavers adhered to a basic ABAB repeating format, so that the coloration of the layers in the first medallion is repeated in the third, and the second in the fourth. Starting with the central polygon, the colors in the first and third medallions are a noticeably abrashed dark red, dark brown, cream red, yellowish green, and aubergine. The second and fourth are abrashed dark red, dark brown, cream red, blue, and the abrashed dark red. The deliberate contrast of the two shades of red seems to be a characteristic of this type of kilim.

Such kilims are generally attributed to Karapinar, a town in northeastern Konya, although it is more accurate to say that they were woven by some of the nomadic groups that were active in that general area. The closest published example to my kilim is illustrated in Belkis Balpinar and Udo Hirsch's Flatweaves of the Vakiflar Museum, Istanbul (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

The authors note that their example was collected in Karapinar at the famous Selimiye Mosque, and attribute it to "one of the 21 groups which settled in Karapinar"(1). The two pieces are so strikingly similar that they must have been woven by the same tribe, and possibly by the same individuals. The most significant difference between them is that the weavers of the Vakiflar example did not use any yellow, while those who made mine used the color for the interlocking "tuning forks"and for various background elements. Another noteworthy difference is that the two medallions on the far right of my kilim have small designs placed in their centers. This feature serves to diminish the overall symmetry of the design, as do the background elements. Both the Vakiflar and my kilim are in comparable condition, so I suspect that mine may also have been donated to a mosque by the family whose members made it.

A similar four medallion white-ground kilim (Fig. 3) from the Galveston Collection is reproduced in Yanni Petsopoulos's Kilims, Masterpieces from Turkey, where it is identified as Central Anatolian (2).

Fig. 3

The coloring of the medallions in this piece is dull, it has no "candelabras," and its widely spaced background design elements are larger and serve as cornerpieces. Petsopoulos noted that the Galveston kilim is related to a two medallion fragment (Fig. 4) in extremely distressed condition that is reproduced in Bertram Frauenknecht's Early Turkish Tapestries (3).

Fig. 4

A related two medallion fragment was illustrated in Hali in 1990 by Sizma-Kunst in Altdorf, Germany (4).

There are a number of Central Anatolian kilims attributed to the Karapinar area with similar dyes and design formats that have alternating ground colors. Ignazio Vok owns a powerful example of this variety (Fig. 5; endnote 5), and until recently Franz Sailer owned an unusual three-and-a-half medallion example with a border (Fig. 6; endnote 6).

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

A well preserved example published by Frauenknecht (Fig. 7) has a reddish ground throughout its four panels (7). The literature dates such pieces to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Fig. 7

A noteworthy variant of the type is in Heinrich Kirchheim's celebrated "Orient Stars" collection. In this example a single medallion is set against a red field, flanked on each side by two broad bands that each contain five small diamonds. The coloration of this kilim is distinctly different than the pieces discussed above, and it has been dated to the first half of the nineteenth century or earlier (8).

Other Anatolian kilims possess a similar design scheme based on the prominent serrated medallions. The most common among these are the red-ground pieces attributed to Mut, a large village in the mountainous region south of Konya (9). The design also appears in Persian flatweaves. Ignazio Vok owns two late-nineteenth kilims that he attributes to the Shahsavan nomads in the Hashtrud area of Northwest Persia (10).

Petsopoulos has noted that in Anatolia the serrated, rhomboidal medallions and related motifs are called baklava, the name of a popular Turkish pastry (11). This design is of considerable antiquity, and has been found on one of the earliest painted ceramics in the eastern Mediterranean, a cup from the Sesclo culture from circa 5,000 B.C. (12). What do these primitive configurations signify? Some may opine that they are simply a nomadic geometric interpretation of the large Ushak medallion rugs. Jungians will note with some justification that such designs appear in the art and artefacts of many geographically dispersed and widely different cultures from different historical eras, and thus view them as manifestations of the collective conscious. Are the serrated medallions derived from cosmic phenomena such as the sun or stars, and thus suggestive of the omnipotence of nature? Or was the imagery derived from the configuration of the vulva, and thus symbolic of fertility? Vok described his related kilim as "Four big multicoloured birds [that] are flying towards us, each in a different colour sky" (13) and associated his Shahsevan examples with the Simurgh, the Persian mythical bird. My piece reminds me of a giant bolt of lightning, but that response is as subjective as the others. These "Karapinars" have a pronounced totemic quality, and one can readily understand why the rather fanciful term "cult kilim" is frequently encountered in the literature.

The iconographic significance of the secondary background elements is equally obscure and open to conjecture. They are probably nazarlik, talismans that ward off the evil eye, which are discussed in Peter Davies's classic study, The Tribal Eye: Antique Kilims of Anatolia (14). Adherents to the earth goddess theory will note two evidently decapitated elibelinde (hands on hips) motifs in the far right panel of my kilim.

In the final analysis, we can only conjecture what this exceptional group of kilims signified to their creators. Although far removed from their original cultural context, such kilims communicate a tremendous sense of energy and potency to the contemporary viewer. Despite the great antiquity of their imagery, Anatolian kilims have almost the same aesthetic impact as American Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1950s. In any event, I hope that you have all enjoyed this article, and look forward to your comments and impressions.

Technical notes: Slit weave tapestry with with weft contour wrapping. Size: 5'1" x 14'3". Colors (8): White, aubergine, green, dark brown (corroded), light blue, yellow, creamy red, and dark abrashed red. Warp: Z2S, mostly pure white wool, sometimes intertwined with dark brown. Weft: Z. Remnants of original end finish; original selvedges.

1. Belkis Balpinar and Udo Hirsch, Flatweaves of the Vakiflar Museum, Istanbul (Wesel: Uta Hülsey, 1982), plate 6.

2. Yanni Petsopoulos, Kilims: Masterpieces from Turkey. (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), plate 41.

3. Bertram Frauenknecht, Early Turkish Tapestries (Nürnberg, Germany: Verlag Bertram Frauenknecht, 1984), plate 45. See also plates 46 (probably a later example), and 33.

4. Hali 53 (October 1990), p. 74.

5. Udo Hirsch, Ignazio Vok, & Krys Pupko, Vok Collection: Anatolia, Kilims and Other Flatweaves from Anatolia (Munich: Grafische Betriebe Biering, 1997), plate 35.

6. The Sailer Collection (New York: Sotheby's Sale 7190, October 1, 1998) p. 64, no. 79.

7. Frauenknecht, Early Turkish Tapestries, plate 46.

8. Jürg Rageth, "The Anatolian Kilims,"in Heinrich Kirchheim et al., Orient Stars: A Carpet Collection (London: Hali Publications, 1993), p. 162, plate 89.

9. Yanni Petsopoulos, Kilims: Flat-woven Tapestry Rugs (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), pp. 88-90, nos. 103 and 104.

10. Hamid Sadighi, Karin Hawkes, & Ignazio Vok, Vok Collection: Caucasus Persia, Gilim and other Flatweaves (Munich: Grafische Betriebe Biering, 1996), plates 56 and 57.

11. Petsopoulos, Kilims: Masterpieces from Turkey, p. 40.

12. Jürg Rageth, Kilim: Primitive Symbols of Mythology (Rome, 1986), fig. 8.

13. Hirsch, Vok, & Pupko, Vok Collection: Anatolia, Kilims and Other Flatweaves from Anatolia, plate 35.

14. Peter Davies, The Tribal Eye: Antique Kilims of Anatolia (New York: Rizzoli, 1993).