A vintage Turkish rug is more than a stunning piece of home decor. It’s an artistic reflection of a culture steeped in history and heritage. The craft, style, and aesthetic of these vintage rugs pay homage to a cherished tradition that dates back thousands of years to a region known as “the cradle of civilization.” Nomadic tribes in the Central Asia area used basic floor coverings for protection from severe weather conditions and acted as the first area rugs. They are handmade of wool, silk, and cotton. Turkish rug weaving became more widespread around the 13th century.
Traditionally, women have been the creators of Turkish rugs. The skillset was ideal to possess, especially if a young woman wanted to marry a suitable man. Hand-knotted rugs were often given as wedding dowry, and married women would make them for various household needs as area rugs and kitchen rugs. The craft of weaving has passed from generation to generation, allowing the practice to continue today. What makes vintage Turkish rugs so unique (and specific to Turkish culture) is the careful consideration of details. Using specific colors, motifs and symbols, weavers render a story into every rug. They often depict personal experiences, express tribal or cultural values, or simply convey an idea or message through visual elements. Here’s a look at the most common colors and motifs and their significance and meaning.
Red: Happiness, power, fate.
Orange: Humility, piety, loyalty.
Yellow: Sunshine, glory, power.
Green: Spring, vitality, hope, life. Green is also considered a holy color and used sparingly.
Blue: Wisdom, skill, strength.
White: Purity, peace.
Black: Destruction. Black was not commonly used as a dominant color in rugs, and was mostly used as an accent color.
Evil eye: Also known as “the look of evil,” it’s believed that some people have the power to cause harm from just a glance. The negative influence of the evil eye can be warded off by rendering it into an object, like a rug. It’s represented through triangles or diamond.
Hook: Used as a protection against the negative influence of the evil eye, the hook takes on a distinct vertical and geometric shape.
Cross: Also used as a protection against the evil eye, the cross reduces negative energy. The original iconography predates Christianity, as the lines forming a cross offer such protection.
Nature and Animals
Ram’s Horn: Evoking strength and power, the ram’s horn represents masculinity and heroism. It may even reflect the weaver’s husband.
Dragon: With the ability to breathe fire, the dragon is one of the most powerful (and imaginary) animals to represent. It roams the earth, sea, mountains, and sky. It represents force and strength.
Phoenix: According to mythology, the phoenix is a bird that ends its own life by setting itself and its nest on fire, only to re-emerge as a new bird. It symbolizes both immortality and rebirth. In a spiritual sense, it represents the separation of the soul from the body.
Scorpion: With a tough exterior and ability to sting its prey using venom, the scorpion is an ancient and powerful creature. Because of the harm it can inflict, weavers utilize the symbol as a means of protection against evil.
Bird: birds symbolize many different ideas. On the one hand, birds represent freedom; on the other hand, they represent the conveying of messages, either within our world or between worlds. The swan represents beauty and purity. The falcon, eagle and hawk represent strength. The dove represents peace. Owls, ravens and black birds imply bad luck.
Snake: The symbol of the snake references its biblical roots, in which the creature offers Eve forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Turkish rugs follow suit, and snakes represent cunning and temptation.
Waterline: An essential natural element, a waterline represents life itself. It is a common motif in Turkish rugs, as it forms the basis of survival and existence.
Star: Overall, the star represents brightness and happiness. It is often used to convey life in the womb, and therefore fertility.
Life and Family
Tree of Life: Trees are rather universal within monotheistic religions. They symbolize the nature of mankind as set forth by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The parable tells of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, offering immortality to whomever eats from it. The Tree of Life represents mankind’s hopes of life after death. In Turkish rugs, the tree is usually a cypress tree.
Yin-yang: Representing cosmic duality (a concept adopted from Asian), the yin-yang represents the unity of man and woman, or masculinity and femininity. It also signifies marriage, love and the procreation of life.
Hands on Hips: A very common motif, the “hands on hips” represents fertility and motherhood. Specifically, it represents pride in the birth of a son who will join the family and carry on the lineage.
Hairband: As a symbol of marriage, the hairband represents a young woman or girl who yearns to be married. The hairband, literally, is an object used for beauty and style by young women, and it’s a prominent feature in a bride’s wedding attire. Its representation in a Turkish rug conveys the weaver’s wish to be married. It’s also said that if a young woman weaves her own hair into the rug, she wishes for immortality.
Chest: Gesturing towards the nomadic tribes who cultivated the practice of rug weaving, chests represent a container of personal items for those who travel. Chests were specifically used by young, unmarried women to collect household items that may be used upon marriage. To weave a chest symbolizes a woman’s desire to marry.
Reading a Turkish rug is, in and of itself, a practiced skill set. To survey each of its visual components and draw interpretation from their arrangement allows one to decipher the story and language of the rug’s creator. Moreover, to read a Turkish rug and appreciate the artistry within it is to form a deeper understanding of Turkish heritage, one of the world’s oldest surviving cultures.