The Seljuk Han of Anatolia

Seljuk textiles and carpets 

The fragile nature of textiles does not lend itself to long-term preservation. Few examples of Seljuk textiles have survived until the present time, making it difficult to make an assessment of the extent and nature of weaving activity in the Seljuk period. Several Seljuk-era writers have made references to the fact that fabrics were offered as gifts by the Sultan. One reference mentions a silk fabric with metallic thread made in Antalya, which was sent to the Ilkhanid ruler in Iran in 1258. Another reference states that some 2,000 rolls of brocaded silk from Erzincan were sent to the Ilkanhid ruler Rashid al-Din.  Marco Polo relates that he saw in Turkey a quantity of "fine and rich silks in crimson" and states that spices and silk cloth were traded from the interior of Anatolia to the Mediterranean, and then shipped to Venice and Genoa. It was probably the Seljuks who introduced the cultivation of silkworms to Anatolia. Several Seljuk animal rugs have emerged from ruined Tibetan monasteries, which shows that Turkish Anatolian carpets were traded far and wide in the East and West, from this period onwards.

All that remains today from this legendary production is one piece of silk fabric. This splendid fragment of a tunic, dated 1218-19, bears the name of Alaeddin Keykubad in its border. Truly worthy of being worn by its legendary namesake, this tunic has a pattern of repeating tangent roundels filled with adossed lions (symbol of the Seljuk Sultanate) woven in silk thread wrapped with gold thread on a crimson field. The lions are rendered in a vibrant and powerful fashion, with accentuated musculature, tongues extended, and raised tails and claws. The style is reminiscent of the metalwork motifs of the period. Whether this tunic was woven in Anatolia or received as a gift to the Sultan cannot be determined. It later found its way to Europe, and it is unknown how it arrived to the Abbey in Auvergne, France where it was housed for many years. Once in Europe, it was unfortunately cut and restyled as a vestry garment. Restored in 1993, it is now preserved in the Textile Museum of Lyon, France (inv. no. 23.475).  Another fabric, now in the Berlin Kunstgewerbe Museum (no. 81475), is attributed as a 13th century Seljuk work by stylistic comparison with the Lyon piece.



Konya rug, 13th c., Konya Ethnological Museum

Konya Carpet, Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (TIEM)

Konya rug, 13th. c, Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (TIEM)

Konya rug, 13th. c, Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (TIEM)

Konya rug, 13th. c, Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (TIEM)

Konya Carpet, Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (TIEM)

Konya Carpet, Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (TIEM)

Konya rug from Beyşehir, 13th c., Konya Ethnological Museum


The art of weaving knotted pile carpets is believed to be of Central Asian origin, and archeologists have found examples dating from the 3rd c. BC. Suited to the nomadic way of life, carpets served a variety of uses such as tent furnishings, door covers, eating cloths, pillows, food storage bags, and sleeping mats. Although the Great Seljuks began weaving carpets in the 11th century, there are no remaining carpet fragments of this period. The Anatolian Seljuks are considered to have continued this tradition of carpet weaving, which became an activity of immense importance later in the Ottoman period.

Carpet weaving was developed to a high-level by the Anatolian Seljuks. The oldest examples of carpets woven in Anatolia with the symmetrical ghiordes knot and surviving to the present day are dated to the 14th century. There are approximately 18 Seljuk carpets and fragments in existence today. These are referred to as the "Seljuk Carpets" or by the preferred term "Konya Carpets", as they were most certainly woven there. These rugs are important as they represent some of the oldest surviving Islamic knotted rugs. They are currently housed in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, the Mevlana Museum in Konya, the Ethnology Museum in Konya (10 pieces altogether in Turkey), in several European museums (7 pieces), and 1 in a private collection in England (The Edmond De Unger Keir Collection in London).

Despite the paucity of remaining pieces, there is, however, abundant written evidence that carpet-weaving was an important industry in Seljuk times in Konya, Sivas, Kayseri and Aksaray, and that these carpets were exported to Europe. The intrepid travelers Marco Polo, crossing Anatolia in 1272, and Ibn Battuta, visiting in the 1330's, mention the fineness of the carpets they saw, and the former mentions that they were being exported to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, India and China. Carpets were no doubt among the precious goods carried by the trade caravans: the remains of Seljuk rugs found at Fostat in Cairo attest to the fact that they were exported far and wide.


The rugs, woven in the symmetrical Turkish ghiordes knot, are in a distinctive ton sur ton palette of various shades of red, brown, ochre, green and blue. This subtle use of two shades of the same color is a noteworthy feature, as it does not appear in later Turkish rugs. The colors of the rugs still sparkle brightly to this day, as wool was treated with natural vegetal dyes.

Seljuk carpets are often of considerable size (2-3 m X 5-6 m long). Made of sheep’s wool, they all used a white weft. They have a relatively coarse weave, with 36-50 knots per square inch. It is believed that rugs were woven in many places in Anatolia, although Marco Polo, traveling in Turkey in 1272, specifically mentions the "Beautiful rugs of Konya and Karaman".

The 18 known "Konya" rugs are an odd group and pose many questions to rug scholars as they are among themselves quite varied. Like Seljuk architecture, they display a noble, dignified severity in their design, yet are animated with great vibrancy and power. They display the following design characteristics:

The information concerning rugs woven during the Seljuk era comes from 3 important discoveries of rugs at Konya, Beyşehir and Fostat. Once thought to have been woven in the 13th century, modern scholars now attribute the rugs found at these 3 places to the 14th century, during the late Seljuk-Beylik era. These discoveries rate as some of the most exciting ever made in the history of Islamic decorative arts. They include:


-1905: The researcher F. R. Martin (or by the German Consul General, Loytved, according to some) discovered a group of rugs in a dark corner of the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya in 1905. These rugs are considered to date from the expansion of the mosque in 1220. The find comprised 3 complete carpets and 5 fragments. It was first assumed that they were woven between 1220 and 1250, but current scholars believe that date to be 75-100 years too early. Watercolor paintings of these rugs were commissioned at the time of their discovery by the vizier of Konya, and their publication by Martin in 2 volumes in Europe in 1907-8 caused great excitement in the scientific world. These rugs are now in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul and the Ethnographical Museum of Konya.

-1930: The American Professor R. M. Riefstahl discovered a group of 3 rugs in the Eşrefoğlu Mosque in Beyşehir in 1930. The mosque was built in 1296. One rug carries a date of 1298. They are very similar in style, technique, color and design to the Alaeddin rugs. These rugs are now in the Mevlana Museum of Konya.

-1935-36: the Swedish art historian Carl J. Lamm discovered 100 Anatolian rug fragments dating from the 13-16th centuries in the excavations of the garbage heaps of Fostat in Cairo, of which 7 are considered to be Seljuk, and which were probably woven in Aksaray. They show geometric decorations similar to Seljuk stone and woodwork. The design concept shows main fields in dark blue and red with design motifs (lozenges and stars) in light yellow and green. These carpets were taken to Europe and dispersed to several museums.


Highly prized in Europe, especially by the Venetians and Florentines, Turkish carpets are often seen in European religious paintings of the Renaissance. The rugs are depicted on the ground underneath the feet of the Virgin Mary as she sits in a throne-like chair with the infant Jesus on her lap, surrounded by worshipping patrons. This representation attests to the perceived precious nature of these rugs, considered luxurious enough to adorn the Virgin's surroundings. These paintings are for the most part dated, and as such provide a fairly reliable terminus ante quem timeframe for the rugs depicted. We cannot know, of course, if the rug depicted is contemporary with the painting or predates it, but the timeframe does provide reliable dating parameters. There are no representations in Italian paintings of Turkish carpets before 1420, and those that are represented do not resemble Seljuk rugs. The emerging Ottoman rug repertoire unfolds in these paintings. We can only thus speculate about the designs and production of rugs during the 150 year period between the rugs of the 3 finds (approximately 1300) and these first datable representations in European paintings. We can only imagine what must have been the design scheme of Seljuk carpet production by studying the rugs of the 3 famous discoveries discussed above and by a comparison with the design program of Seljuk ceramics and stone carving.




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