Sunday, August 19, 2012

Symbolism of rugs in Anatolia: My Soumak and an old friend, Kathy Hamilton

**First blog from Istanbul! I’m finally back!**

One day a Yürük tribal chief saw a kilim rug lying on the ground by a tent. Looking at it brought anguish to his heart, so he called on his men to find the father of the girl who had woven that kilim rug. 


When the father of the girl was brought to the tent the chief asked:

"You have a daughter, don't you?"

"Yes, I do" replied the father.

"As I understand it," continued the chief, "you want to marry the girl to someone she doesn't want. She has set her heart on another.

At first the father was stunned - how could the chief know of this - but then his tongue was loosened:

"That's true, I'm a poor man and the man who wants to marry my daughter is rich, so I promised to give him her hand in marriage. My girl, though, lost her heart to a poor young man…but how could you know of this?"

The chief pointed to the kilim rug on the ground saying:

"Didn't your daughter weave this kilim rug?” 

"Yes, she did" said the father, to which the chief replied:

"So I knew about it from the language spoken by this kilim rug…I'll give you a horse, a camel, go and marry the girl to the one she loves. Oh! and tell her this…she wove it well, but she should put a bit less of a green accent by the red…as it is, I was almost misled."

Murat! Friends since my first trip to Turkey in 2001.
My my, the past two years of living in Canada have gone quickly. For those of you who have followed my blog, you’ll remember a few years ago I took a textiles class at UBC. I had to do a presentation on something to do with textiles and so I chose to do my presentation based on a soumak I bought a few years back in Turkey.

I have a friend who sells carpets in Sultanahmet, Murat at Artemis Rug Store on Akbiyik Cadesi/ Adliye Sokak. We’ve been friends for years, and once I stopped in to say hello, and saw this soumak hanging on the wall and fought with Murat to sell it to me. He didn’t really want to part with it, knowing he’d probably get a higher price from a richer tourist, but I insisted, and I still love it to this day. (In fact, it has been on my floor in the UAE, Istanbul in 2009, Throughout many bedroom floors in Canada, and now it has come home to Turkey and it's lying five feet away from me as I type this!)  I now avoid looking at walls in Murat’s shop, though! He also says he won’t sell me anymore rugs and I ought to take my business elsewhere, but the truth is, Murat has amazing carpets and I’m always guaranteed an honest price and honesty about the quality of the piece and where it comes from. (My sister and I once locked him out of his own shop and went through his merchandise- which he thought extremely funny, but that’s another story!) 
Kilim weave

Okay, what is the difference between a carpet, a kilim and a soumak? Rug 101 coming up.

A carpet is the kind of carpet you know of- it’s thick and has a pile. Carpet weavers tie each piece on and cut it according to a pattern they usually have taped to the side of the loom. 

Soumak Weave

A kilim is a flat woven carpet, and can be reversed. It takes more skill and some critical thinking skills in order to work the pattern and still keep the structural integrity of the rug. because the colours don’t overlap there is often a small gap between the colours, so the kilim needs to be planned out in such a way that these slits aren’t too long.

Mine in particular is a soumak, which is very close to a kilim, except it’s embroidered as well as woven, and can’t be reversed, and has a different kind of weave.
Kathy Hamilton and her son. 
Lucky for me, I have lots of interesting and intelligent friends in Istanbul. Meet Kathy Hamilton from Texas and her son. This picture is a few years old, taken on the day that Kathy, her son, my sister and I stalked Obama on his trek between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Kathy is the shopping tourists dream, as she has researched and organized tours of the Grand Bazaar to help people navigate the crazy number of stores there: Not only can she tell you the history of the Bazaar, she knows where to get the best stuff for the best price. She also knows a lot about kilims, so I showed her my kilim and she helped me deconstruct the story over a cup of tea one day. 

My soumak and what it means! 
(As deconstructed by Kathy and me)
(Mini disclaimer: Neither of us claim to be experts!)

Animals and Ram’s Horns inside a burr design. 
Animals, most likely livestock that needs protecting. the two little squiggly S’s are snakes, a symbol of renewal and protection. The two blueish symbols in the middle are ram’s horns, symbolising fertility in males, heroism, power and masculinity. In its earliest forms, ram’s horns were curvilinear and used in felting in Central Asia. They only became geometric because of the constraints weavers have of making curvilinear forms.

The oatmeal-coloured  shape you see is a burr (burdock) shape.  Burrs often get stuck on humans and animals that live very close to nature, and it is believed that the burr can ward off the evil eye.  It can also mean “full of flowers” and so therefore it’s often depicted on the side of flour bags in Anatolia. By putting her livestock and ‘ram’ in the burr pattern, the weaver is protecting her family and security. 

Snakes, dowry chests and a broken evil eye/cross. 
Working from the outside line, the linked S pattern is the snake again, encircling the entire carpet, thus protecting everything inside its design. 

The snake is a protection of life symbol. As it molts its skin every year, it has become the symbol for immortality and reincarnation and eternity. The snake is also the caretaker of the tree of life, which also symbolizes eternity. A black snake represents happiness and fertility, because of its real life form resembling a phallus. 

Next up are trousseau chest symbols, the dowry chests of young Anatolian girls, with a cross inside. this isn’t a coptic cross though, this one splits the evil eye in four, sending its ill-will in four different directions, warding of anyone who might be jealous of this bountiful dowry chest! The evil eye is a widespread popular motif and is still widely used to ward off jealous stared and curses. It is believed that some people have the power to inflict harm, injury, misfortune or even death with a glance, and the best way to fight off this evil eye, is with another human eye. The evil eye is a stylized representation of a human eye and can also be represented as a diamond split into four.

Coffee cups, oil lamps and water jugs and animals inside a burr.
Another burr pattern with oil lamps, water jars and coffee cups among the plentiful animals. I admit, the jars and coffee cups are what initially attracted me to this soumak, and I have yet to see another one like it. I thought perhaps these were a literal depiction of things you might find on an actual soumak being used out in the field.

 But now I know vessels hold water, a precious commodity for a nomadic tribe, moving their animals around looking for water and suitable grounds. A vessel is also a symbol of fertility as pregnant women are also vessels carrying new life. The ewer, or long spouted vessel found on the top and bottom is also a symbol for pregnancy and cleanliness. Since it is one of the household objects used daily, it is often seen on Turkish prayer rugs and kilims.  It reminds the faithful to perform ablutions before prayer.  It also represents washing after sexual intercourse, so it’s also a symbol for the wish to have children. The weaver is most likely hoping for an abundance of water and possibly an abundance of children in her future as well! The oil lamps could represent modern convenience or even Islam, as lamps are often included in prayer rugs to symbolise “the light."

First quirk: half a star.
It’s interesting to note that there are always “mistakes’ or quirks in a handwoven kilm/rug/soumak. There are two reasons for this: The first one being that only God can make perfect things. The second is that it proves the carpet wasn’t made by a machine. 

There are a few quirks on my soumak- one being half a woven star, the yellow and white shape. This simply symbolises happiness and fertility. If there are many stars on a kilim is means the weaver wishes to express her utmost happiness in life. Taking into consideration the mother goddess statues where the star symbolises the womb, it could be said that the motif is related to fertility. Due to technical weaving difficulties, the star motifs have an even number of points.

Second quirk: Half a lamp.

Besides there being a few animals with three legs, it looks like the yellow oil lamp also got cut off. 

Third quirk: A weird thingy. Someone enlighten me!

I’m not really sure what that little shape next to the oil lamp is. My guess is that it’s a flower bud maybe? or an earring? Earrings are given to bride during the marriage ceremony and symbolises marriage and the desire to get married. It shows weaver's expectations for marriage. It’s a possibility that this is an earring, as it would be fitting with the theme. Though it kind of reminds me of a curling rock from Canada! 

Favourite quirk: Escaping bird!

And my favourite little quirk of all, this little bird trying to make it’s escape at the very top of the soumak. It’s almost like he’s saying, I’ve made it past the first ring of snakes, now it I could only get past this next ring I’ll be freeee! 

Kathy’s take: 

My take on it is that she is young, but very close to marriageable age. She is hoping for a marriage with a good man who will treat her well. She also hopes for half a ton of kids. I think that in addition to showing the material things she dreams of - a home, all the necessities for a home, livestock, etc., I think that she is also giving a picture of her world. I think that the fox-ish animal and some of the birds could represent the wildlife that is around her home. If she is living in a tiny village, or a part of a nomadic unit, she is aware of the fact that there are those around her who are prone to jealousy of someone who is happier, has a nicer husband or more children, and so she is trying to protect herself, and her dreams, from the evil eye.

Or, she’s wishing Starbucks would come to her village!

You can see a short little video of Kathy here and contact her on her website @ Istanbul Personal Shopper

You can find Marat and Artemis Rug Store at their website,  here.

Off to meet a new friend under Galata Bridge! It’s nice to be back!  



  1. Nicely done! I'll bring my kilim when I come and you can "read" mine!

  2. This is one of the most interesting and educational blogs I've seen here. I'm glad you included the folk tale at the beginning(I love those folk tales!)-- perfect for the opening, then a personal narrative and then all the interesting information--The whole thing is nicely put together. I may use your blog as an example of good writing to show my students. Seriously. I had no idea there was so much to know about those carpets or that they were so magical. Cool.

  3. High praise coming from you, Nemo! Thanks! xx