Suzan Bayraktaroğlu: in pursuit of historic carpets for 28 years

Suzan Bayraktaroğlu: in pursuit of historic carpets for 28 years

Suzan Bayraktaroğlu started to study carpets and rugs on the advice of her professor while she was an art history student at university in 1978.

July 07, 2011, Thursday/ 16:35:00

Suzan Bayraktaroğlu is a prominent expert on carpets and rugs in the country. For 28 years she has been traveling all over Anatolia to collect historic carpets from vakıf mosques. So far she has examined hundreds of thousands of carpets. She has gotten lice and struggled against moths many times. In addition to overcoming these challenges to uncover priceless carpets, like a detective, she has been on the trail of carpets stolen from storerooms.

We spoke to Bayraktaroğlu in a carpet museum that opened its doors four years ago in Ankara. The background is an eye-catching Milas carpet with red and blue patterns dating back to 400 years ago. On the ground is another carpet from the 16th century. We are sitting on it. As we talk, a mother and her daughter enter. The young mother is examining the carpets on a rail system. The girl immediately crouches to examine the pattern on the centuries-old carpet.

The prayer rugs are arranged like the pages of a huge book. On each page one can find the patterns and colors of a different region and century. The mother pays attention to the patterns and colors of the carpets, as well as the centuries in which they were woven, while the girl laughs at how the rugs can be opened like the pages of a book.

Vakıf Works Museum is across from the Youth Park in Ulus, Ankara, and awaits visitors in a historic building next to the Provincial Bank. If you intend to pay a visit to it, please remember to take a careful look at the carnation-patterned Milas carpet hanging over an orange background in the hall to the left. This carpet found its way to this hall after a long journey full of action. It was Bayraktaroğlu who, as a young and curious carpet expert, first woke it up from its centuries-long slumber.

Before this, it had been performing its duty patiently amid dust and moths beneath dozens of carpets in Milas Ulucami. Bayraktaroğlu recorded this carpet, which had unmatched patterns, colors and knitting technique, as the number one entry to her inventory list and put it in the storeroom. There was no museum to display the rugs at that time, so vakıf works would be kept in storerooms. The finale of this carpet's story started in 2002, years after it was originally brought to the surface.

One day, Bayraktaroğlu was sitting in her office and looking through the catalog of a carpet exhibition in Washington. As she turned the pages, she saw a picture of the carpet that was the number one entry on her inventory list. "I was shocked. I was dithering. The carpet we thought to be in our storeroom was actually in the US and the guys had sent the catalog of their exhibition from Washington to a friend of mine in Ankara," she says, explaining her first reaction.

After long process of mutual correspondence and notifications sent to Interpol, the carpet was retrieved from the US in 2004 and it took its place in the museum established in 2007. Bayraktaroğlu believes that it is a serious responsibility to not allow vakıf carpets -- carpets that were devoted by people specifically for use in a mosque -- which were unique works of art that had survived until today to end up in other countries. Indeed, her eyes filled with tears as she described the surprise and excitement she felt when she encountered the first stolen carpet.

Coming across a stolen carpet at a symposium

A big symposium about carpets was being held in the Lütfi Kırdar Exhibition and Convention Center in İstanbul, hosting hundreds of carpet experts and companies from a number of countries across the globe. Companies were displaying their carpets for visitors in their booths. After making a speech, Bayraktaroğlu started to visit these booths. Then, she realized that a group of foreigners were examining a carpet which she had recently recorded in her inventory list and put in the storeroom. "I got closer to the carpet and was sure that it was ours. I had repaired it myself and I even found the rope I used for repair. I was dithering. I had to keep my feelings from the company, but I was very excited. Where should I report it? Should I call the General Directorate or the police? I didn't know. Then, it occurred to me that I should tell the professor heading the event. I don't remember his name now. When I went to him, I was tongue-tied and could not speak for a while. 'Calm down,' told me. I told my friend next to me that she should say it, but she did not know what to say. I calmed down after several minutes, and upon hearing what I told him, the professor went to the booth and seized the carpet. The company said that they did not know that the carpet was stolen. They said that they had bought seven more carpets from the same person. They gave all of them back to us and we were at the police station until midnight."

Researchers not allowed, thieves are

Two years later in 1996, Bayraktaroğlu as an expert attended another international meeting in İstanbul. A rich German collector was talking about his carpet collection and its finest items, Turkish carpets. Towards the end of his presentation, he said: "Now, I will show you the most valuable item of my collection. I did not put it in my book or in my presentation because I just bought it." Bayraktaroğlu was shocked to see the photo that was projected on the screen. She released such a deep sigh that everyone in the room turned and looked at her. Coincidentally, another person, who had attended the previous meeting with Bayraktaroğlu, said, "Again."

When the collector heard that the carpet he bought had been stolen, he left the symposium and the country. The long process of correspondence proved useless. The carpet is still in Germany, although the collector has died. Such unfavorable fates do not fall on carpets alone. So many pieces had been stolen from the vakıf mosques before the 2000s that a favorite joke, arose among the vakıf staff members: "Storerooms are closed to researchers, but open to thieves."

Museums a good measure against theft

Until 2002, the procedures that could be pursued in case of theft were vague. In the same year, a smuggling unit was set up within the police department to pursue stolen works. But for Bayraktaroğlu, the best measure against theft is to open a museum. "People donated these works not to be kept in storerooms, but to serve humanity. As they are vakıf works, they need to used by the people," she says. Indeed, six museums were founded in 2007 to display carpets collected from mosques and kept in storerooms. Bayraktaroğlu sees these museums as the result of her 28-year efforts and talks about them with watery eyes.

"Actually, such a museum could have been established back in 1980s, but this was not done. At that time, they saw my job as an insignificant business. Eventually, everyone realized the importance of my work and our labor did not go to waste. We managed to offer the vakıf works back to the people after saving them from being stolen," he says.

Short hair a measure against lice

Bayraktaroğlu has gotten lice many times in her travels from one village to another to uncover historic carpets. "I would have my hair cut very short so that I could get rid of them easily," she says. During our visit to the museum, she said that her husband gave her the most support. "You should do your job," he would say when she was overwhelmed by the task, and he would take care of their kids when she traveled to other cities. He also provided her with all sorts of assistance during the establishment of the museum. He helped run errands. "I became a carpet expert thanks to my husband. My husband helped both me and carpets," she says.

Carpet: a Turkish invention

Bayraktaroğlu started to study carpets and rugs on the advice of her professor while she was an art history student at university in 1978. "At that time, no one cared about carpets and rugs. They were seen as insignificant subjects. My professor led me to study carpets and even my master's thesis was on this subject. Still no universities have courses on Turkish carpets and rugs. They teach people how to weave carpets in two-year programs, but no experts are educated. Since 1983, I have examined tens of thousands of carpets from hundreds of vakıf mosques. I can tell you the region and century a carpet or rug comes from by looking at the patterns, colors and knitting technique. I owe this more to my professional career than to my education. No one has shown interest in this field. I wish I could find someone to pass my experience on to. There are some new experts who are very interested. They are just taking their first steps, but this makes me feel more at ease," she says.

Carpets for the dead

Suzan Bayraktaroğlu: In Anatolia, people are wrapped in a carpet and taken from their houses when they die. This is an ongoing tradition. After the deceased is taken to the mosque, that carpet is donated to the mosque so the dead person can enjoy the rewards of this donation in the afterlife. These are called carpets for the dead. Before marriage, every young girl weaves two such carpets: one for herself and the other for her future husband. These carpets are woven using the most beautiful patterns and colors and are kept in dowry boxes. There are such carpets dating back to 500 or 600 years ago. They signify the fine aesthetics of their time. As they are donated as vakıf carpets, they are not thrown away even when they grow very old. There are six or seven layers of these carpets covering the floors of many historic mosques. The centuries-old carpets are usually found on the bottom layer. If it were not for this tradition, no carpets would have survived until today. Respect for the vakıf objects can no longer found anywhere. We go and examine the carpets. We put a reserve on them, but if we fail to take it that same day, thieves come and steal them out of nowhere.