Monday, 23 June 2008

Turkish Prayer Rugs And The Gates Of Eternity

ISTANBUL, July 4, 2008 -- Is eternity something artists should illustrate as a physical thing? Or should artists represent it as something abstract and supernatural?

It is a question that every religion approaches differently and on which philosophers disagree.

But it is interesting that Turkish prayer carpets offer both possibilities: realistic and abstract. And perhaps that is one reason for their great appeal.

Turkish prayer carpets became widely familiar in Europe and America during the late 19th century, when Western tourists began traveling to Istanbul in large numbers by the Orient Express and by ship. The travelers helped popularize the rugs as symbols of the exotic and spiritual East at a time when Orientalism was at its height.

As a result, production boomed in towns like Ghiordes, Ladik, and Melas (Milas), and their typical designs became household names in the Western market.

The Anatolian town and village weavers, who adapted and simplified the designs of earlier Ottomon court prayer rugs, were not trying to show what heaven looks like. The purpose of all prayer rugs is only to mark out a space for prayer that is secluded from the mundane.

This is in line with the injunction in the Koran to "pray in a clean place". The first mosque is traditionally said to have been a space drawn in the sand by the Prophet Mohammed, who said "take off your shoes when you enter here. This is holy ground."

But because the weavers had to fill the space set aside for prayer, they had to address an art problem that is shared by all cultures. That is, how to best symbolize the eternal.

The designers of Ghiordes and Konya opted for solid architecture. They depicted the central feature of all prayer rugs – the arch – as resting upon columns. The arch itself symbolizes the focal point in a real mosque, which is the mihrab, or ornamental niche, that marks the wall facing Mecca.

This carpet above is a 19th century piece from Konya in central Anatolia.

But weaving natural-looking “gates to eternity ” -- as some Western experts like to describe prayer rugs -- is just one possibility.

By contrast, the rugs of several of the other great traditional prayer rug centers of Turkey – Kula, Ladik, Melas, and Mudjur -- took an abstract approach.

In these rugs, the mihrab is still the defining feature. But the field of the rug is fluid and appears to change with each glance. Instead of a sense of certainty, it offers the mystery of a curtain which one day may be drawn aside.

The rug shown here is from Ladik, a town in central Anatolia not far from Konya.

Both the realistic and the abstract designs were widely collected in the West. But partly due to export pressure to adapt to Western tastes, the quality of the patterns began to decline with time. They became more and more decorative and less and less certain of their identity.

Some experts say the export pressure was so great it caused workshops to reverse the way the rugs were woven. Instead of starting at the bottom and weaving toward the mihrab, some weavers started at the top. That way, the pile would catch the light best when hung on a wall.

Other experts disagree. They say that individual weavers may have started at the top when they were uncertain of their stocks of dyed wool. Since the mihrab is considered the most important element in any prayer rug, they may have wanted to be sure of completing it first before running out of preferred colors.

Whatever the case, it is certain that by the middle of the 20th century, Turkish prayer rugs had lost favor – both in the West and at home.

In the West, fashions changed and collectors began looking for bolder village and tribal weavings free of – among other things – Western influence. Today, in real terms, the cost of a Ghiordes or Ladik in the West is said to be less than it was at the height of the rugs’ popularity at the turn-of-the-last century.

In Turkey, the end of the Ottomon Empire and the rise of the secular republic equally reduced the prayer rugs’ value as weavings.

Townspeople who once commissioned expensive pieces for the Haj or for their homes, and later bequeathed them to the local mosque, gave up those customs as the population shifted to major cities. Prayer rugs became plainer and simpler, as shown by this recently made Ladik.

But all that may just make the great 19th century prayer rugs of Turkey more interesting for those who still want to collect them. Not only do they offer a creative vision of the spiritual world, they also offer a reminder of how much our own aesthetic world keeps eternally changing.




Related Links:

Spongobongo: A Guide to Turkish Prayer Rugs

Spongobongo: Notes on Ghiordes Rugs and Carpets

Spongobongo: Guide to Konya Rugs

Spongobong: Guide to Ladik Prayer Rugs

Spongobongo: Guide to Melas Rugs

Old Turkish Carpets: Prayer Carpets

New England Rug Society: Prayer Rugs and Related Textiles

Wikipedia: Mihrab

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Pierre Loti: When Oriental Carpets Are Not Enough

ROCHEFORT, France; June 20, 2008 -- Many non-French speakers hear of Pierre Loti for the first time when they visit Istanbul

That is partly thanks to the café that bears his name on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. The veranda and interior are said to have changed little since the French traveler and writer went there at the turn-of-the-last century to smoke the narghile and gaze at his favorite city.

But once one hears of Loti -- the pen-name of French naval captain Julien Viaud (1850-1923) -- it is hard not to be intrigued.

There is the story, for example, of Loti and Sarah Bernhardt. When Loti wanted to meet the famous actress, he had himself rolled up in an oriental rug and delivered to her door by two men dressed in Arab costume. When he rolled out of the carpet, she was so surprised that they quickly became good friends.

And there is his his book ‘Aziyadé,’ first published in 1872. It chronicles the doomed love affair of a young British officer, named Loti, and a Circassian concubine of a Turkish merchant in Salonica. The two flee to Istanbul until finally they are separated by the pulls of their different worlds.

"I swear to you, Aziyadé," Loti tells her, "I would give up everything with no regrets, my position, my name, my country. As for my friends, I have none and I don’t care. But you see, I do have an aged mother."

How much of the tale is autobiography, how much fiction, no-one knows. But Loti maintained for the rest of his life that his one true love was Aziyadé and that she died of heartbreak before they could meet again.

Loti was perhaps the last great French writer of Romanticism and – sailing with the French fleet – took the genre to settings it had never seen before.

His novels and travelogues explore the Ottomon Empire, Japan (his book 'Madame Chrysanthemum' is the forerunner of Madame Butterfly), Polynesia, Morocco, Iran, China, Egypt and Iceland. What his stories had in common is a longing for the exotic, a world-weariness with European bourgeois life, and immense appeal for bourgeois European readers.

But Loti, who was a member of the Academie Francaise and both admired and ridiculed in his day, reserves his greatest surprise for visitors to his rather ordinary looking home in Rochefort, on France’s Atlantic coast.

From his voyages, he brought home immense quantities of momentos. Gradually, they began to overfill his ancestral home so, as he grew richer, he bought the neighboring house and connected it to his own.

Then, he began refashioning the interior into a whole series of rooms that conjured up the exotic world of his books and, he said, inspired him to write more.

The most amazing room is a full, operetta-stage replica of a mosque. To construct it he purchased a fire-damaged mosque in Damascus that was about to be pulled down and had it shipped in its entirety to France accompanied by a team of Syrian masons.

The mosque is complete down to a Turkish multi-niche prayer rug, or Saff, and is adorned with a giant gravestone from an Istanbul cemetery. Loti said it was the stele from Aziyadé’s grave site.

By his own account, he spent hours in these rooms – which also included a fully furnished Turkish salon -- dreaming of lost love.

I spend a lot of time at home, they are the hours of calm in my life, and smoking my narghile I dream of Istanbul and the lovely limpid green eyes of my dear sweet Aziyadé.”

At the same time, Loti loved to give parties and he dressed himself and his servants for the occasion – in Arab or Turkish robes.

Was Loti mildly eccentric? That would be an insulting understatement. He was massively and joyously, but also wistfully, out of step with his rapidly modernizing and Euro-centric world.

During his travels in Morocco, he wrote ecstatically of places that Western influence had yet to reach and, at the same time, described what he knew was doomed to disappear. The clarity, detail, and color of his writing won the admiration of painters such as Matisse and writers including Marcel Proust.

Today, a quick browse through the Internet shows Loti available mostly only in French and Turkish and long out of print in English. But his house – now a museum – is an open invitation to follow him home and, from there, still further home to the farthest corners of the East.




Related Links:

Wikipedia: Pierre Loti

‘The Orient of Pierre Loti’ – Saudi Aramco World

‘Phantoms of the Orient’ - An Exhibition of Loti’s Life and Work – Al-Ahram Weeky

'Armchair Travels with Pierre Loti' - Al-Ahram Weekly

Pierre Loti Museum, Rochefort

Extracts from first chapters of ‘Aziyadé’ (French)

‘Pierre Loti – Turcophile’ (French)