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Alas, which Yuruk?
by Joel Greifinger
I recently purchased this rug at auction. It comes from the collection of Ambassador William Eagleton, the author of An Introduction to Kurdish Rugs. The auction catalogue listed it as “Yuruk Rug, circa 1875”.
There is a genuine irony here, since it is rather clear from his book that Eagleton would judge this rug to have been made by Kurds from the area now called Gaziantep and not by Yoruk. This particular rug not only has the coloring, edges and border design associated with east Anatolian Kurds, but a design in the end finish of weft-faced plain weave with distinctive extra weft brocading followed by a band of braided warps. Eagleton described this as probably reflective of the work of a particular tribe of Kurds in the Gaziantep area. (see Plates 115 and 117). His book levels the most informed criticism of the common attribution of many eastern Anatolian rugs woven by nomads to the Turkic group of mountain dwellers properly called Yuruk. Nonetheless, rugs clearly akin to this one are widely labeled Yoruk and, even more confusingly “Kurdish Yuruk” by knowledgeable contemporary dealers and websites. This, despite Bruggemann and Bohmer’s admonition that although not all migrating Turkish tribes are properly called Yuruk, “nomadic Kurds are not to be so categorized under any circumstances.” While I am aware that the labeling of rugs is freighted with confusing and misleading historical conventions, the Yuruk appellation seems particularly opaque.
As the immediate past Turkotek salon on Shahsavan pile weaving illustrates, rug nomenclature is often an admixture of scholarship with the historical accretion of marketplace jargon and shifting fashion in its emphasis on geographical location, tribal and ethnic affiliation, and nomadic or settled status. Sometimes terms seem to shift meaning and become more or less inclusive. All of these difficulties seem to apply to the use of the term ‘Yuruk’ as it applies to rugs.
Generally, Yuruks are described as Anatolian mountain-dwelling nomads probably descended from the Oghuz Turks. Are there any ways that we can distinguish the products of their weaving traditions from the pile rugs woven by Kurds from the areas around Malatya and Gaziantep? Although Eagleton wrote in 1988 that “the Yuruks are seldom confused with Kurds; and dealers in Turkey have no problem separating the weavings of one group from the other”, the tendency of dealers “who have adopted convenient, but misleading labels” for these Kurdish pieces has continued, as they are still regularly labeled as Yoruk. Even in texts published by scholars in the last twenty five years, Yuruk rugs are described in terms that apply equally well to Kurdish pieces from eastern Anatolia (see, for example Denny’s text in the 1982 calendar, Yuruk Rugs: A Woven Legend). What are we to make of characterizations (like those at Jozan.com and by many dealers) of pieces as ‘Kurdish Yuruk’? Isn’t this an inherently contradictory notion? Is this merely an over-generalized usage of ‘Yuruk’ to denote any nomadic group in Anatolia (literally “those who walk”) or does it attempt to specify some more specific attribution? Do we have much chance “to put together the remaining parts of the jigsaw”, as Brian MacDonald refers to sorting out the contributions of these groups to what he calls in Tribal Rugs, “the dying moments of a great tribal tradition”? In the book, MacDonald refers to two main groups of Yuruk (the Yaghcibedir and the Yuncu) that both historically settled in western Anatolia. Nonetheless, the only pictured weaving he attributes as Yuruk is an eastern Anatolian pile rug. He writes that “the weavings of the Yuruk nomads stand out for being meaty and long piled.” But does this really stand out as distinctive in relation to the work of eastern Anatolian nomadic Kurds?
At the auction at which I bought this rug, six items were listed as Yuruk. All were eastern Anatolian in design and color and would fit Eagleton’s (among others’) criteria as Kurdish.
And, while Denny (1982) wrote that “Yuruk Nomads practiced the art of the knotted-pile rug, a form evidently brought by their ancestors into Anatolia from Central Asia,” in Landreau and Yohe’s ethnography of Yuruk weaving, Flowers of the Yayla (1983), only two of the study’s 40 plates are of pile weavings (one prayer rug and one heybe). Based on their fieldwork (1980), they wrote that ”very little pile weaving is found today, although informants say it was once common, and we were shown a few older pieces.” Unfortunately, there is no description of what might have distinguished those pieces from ones made by other Anatolian nomads, particularly the Kurds.
Yohe admits that he mislabeled Kurdish rugs from what he termed “The Yuruk Triangle” as Yuruk in his earlier work. The Eilands (in the most recent edition of Oriental Rugs) conclude that, in the view of a growing number of researchers, it “seems to be generally true” that except for the Kurds, Anatolian nomads are “almost exclusively weavers of kilims” only taking up pile rugs when they settle. If this is the case, virtually all of the long-piled east Anatolian rugs attributed as Yoruk are, in fact, Kurdish. Nonetheless, major auction houses as well as widely regarded dealers regularly categorize such rugs as Yuruk. Recently, this rug was sold by a highly respected online dealer described as an “Anatolian Kurd Yuruk Prayer Rug.”
There are pile rugs sold and published as eastern Anatolian Yuruk that lack some common elements of east Anatolian Kurdish design, but which nonetheless seem clearly east Anatolian Kurdish from their structure, side and end finishes, palette and thick, fleecy pile. One example might be this piece, sold and published as Yuruk by Eberhart Herrmann:
The Eilands describe this rug as “a common type of east Anatolian Kurd, which often shows cochineal red, along with edge and end finishes associated with Kurdish work.”
Whatever the current state of scholarly opinion on the matter, the Oriental Carpet departments of the major auction houses (Sotheby's, Christies, Rippon-Boswell, Bonham’s, Skinner, Adam's and Grogan, among others) have all described eastern Anatolian pile rugs as Yuruk in just the last few years. By their descriptions and in the absence of more detailed structural data, nearly all would comfortably fit a Kurdish attribution. As Barodosky noted, “Eastern Anatolian weavings have a distinctly "Kurdish" flavor. Most of Eastern Anatolia is Kurdish and their design influence predominates in weavings from the area.”
Nevertheless, a rug occasionally pops up that shares some design features with flatweave pieces more surely attributed to the Yuruk. Here, for instance, is a prayer rug that prominently features the tarak, or double comb, that Landreau and Yohe describe as “the most prevalent motif observed in Yuruk weaving.” While this motif is certainly not exclusive to the Yuruk, its inclusion might be a useful indicator of a Yuruk attribution.
On the other hand, the prolific use of this and other devices cited as common in Yuruk weaving is also seen in pieces confidently assigned to Kurds. Here is another prayer rug that Bruggemann and Bohmer attribute as characteristically Kurdish, in part because of “the mirror-image rows of amulet-like motif”, i.e., exactly the design Landreau descibe as the characteristic Yuruk tarak.
This also holds true for rugs sporting the “small patterned Holbein medallion” that Denny cites as “one of the most powerful tribal symbols of the Oguz Turks.” This design is found on rugs from throughout the region, including Kurdish pieces from Malatya and Gaziantep. Rug #13 is from Yuruk Rugs: A Woven Legend; Denny dates it to the early 19th century. Rug #14 is dated 1278 (1861); Eagleton describes the top five guls as a common type in the Malatya area.
Among recent commentators, Middleton has attempted to describe and illustrate distinctions between Yuruk pile weavings and other eastern Anatolian groups. He cites their long, thick lustrous pile, colorful, geometric designs and narrow format. These are all, of course, elements that are equally characteristic of eastern Anatolian Kurdish rugs. About this rug he writes, “the colouring and polychrome motifs within the narrow ivory guardstripes are indicative of Yurk weaving.”
Similar polychrome guardstripes occur frequently in rugs attributed to eastern Anatolian Kurds. Here is a rug that Eagleton says “was almost certainly woven in the Malatya area, possibly by the Derejan tribe.”
On my rug too, there is a similar guardstripe on the outside of the main border.
If there are eastern Anatolian pile rugs produced by Turkic nomads, the most likely candidates are rugs from northeast Anatolia that utilize a palette somewhat different from most of the Kurdish pieces from the area. Perhaps rugs such as this one were made by Yuruk (or, just as likely, Turkmen) weavers:
The over-inclusive use of the term 'Yuruk' continues relatively unabated in the rug trade. At the same time, we have little clear evidence that the people who refer to themselves as Yuruk have ever woven the characteristic eastern Anatolian pile pieces that nonetheless bear their name.
Are there extant eastern Anatolian pile rugs that we can confidently attribute to the Yuruk, properly so-called? If so, what are the distinguishing characteristics that set them apart from the Kurdish products that have been and are still being mislabeled as Yuruk? Is the term as applied to pile rugs nothing but a marketplace anachronism? And, if not, what is the base of evidence that might provide the foundation for surer attribution? In relation to pile weavings, perhaps we should abandon the term ‘Yuruk’ altogether, as Peter Stone has suggested. On pieces where a Kurdish attribution seems uncertain, why not just settle for “eastern Anatolian nomad”?
It is clear that when we come upon pile weavings from eastern Anatolia that are labeled Yuruk, we will have to continue to wonder, which “Yuruk”?