Living in Turkey is enriching in many unexpected ways. One group of people I never would have dreamed I would have friends among is the colorful community of carpet sellers. Back in my old home, the good old US of A, a carpet seller works for Sears, and is usually selling machine-made wall-to-wall carpeting, which certainly has its place in the world but is definitely not what one thinks of when hearing the name “Turkey.”
The Turkish carpet, most often referred to in pre-Victorian and even Victorian literature as the “Oriental” carpet, is rightfully the first thing most people in the world think of who have never actually been to Turkey, and a fair percentage of those who have. The often-maligned carpet dealers, most of whom are pretty nice people and some even amazing, have done more than perhaps any other segment of Turkish society to spread the cultural wealth of their country to living rooms all over the world. Proud matrons in London, the chic women of Paris, collectors in Shanghai and cruise patrons from Toledo, Ohio, love to show guests their finds from İstanbul, İzmir or Cappadocia, explaining the various tribal symbols contained therein or the outlandish tales of 20 brides who worked for two solid years on their treasured keepsake, before going blind. I, for one, since my first carpet show in 2001, never tire of drinking tea and listening to carpet dealers explain the fascinating mysteries embedded in their woven inventory. (Unfortunately, I also never tire of buying carpets and kilim [flat, tapestry-woven woven carpets or rugs] that I frequently can't afford, but that is a topic for another day.) I am proud to call several carpet professionals my true friends, who are always willing to teach me more about the carpets they love so much.
An increasingly lost art
Unfortunately, over the past half-century or so, huge numbers of Turkish people have left their ancestral villages and moved to the urban areas where the jobs are, and so the mother-to-daughter process of teaching and learning to weave carpets has been ruthlessly reduced; it only takes one generation of apartment living to end such a non-urban-friendly tradition. As people become more modernized, store-bought washing machines and matching suites of living room furniture have replaced the old-fashioned trousseau items of hand-made household goods, including carpets made by the bride for her new home. Indeed, many of today's carpet inventories for sale in tourist areas come from some grandma's own trousseau, no longer needed to cover floors and walls in village homes or worth more to them as cash than as family heirlooms.
At the same time, Turkey's ever-increasing tourist industry has created a growing market for carpets, and because nature abhors a vacuum, some less-than-savory elements among the carpet industry have turned to other countries, notably China, to actually make “Turkish” carpets for sale in Turkey! Using traditional motifs obtained by said elements, the famous Chinese industrial know-how is now exporting carpets difficult to distinguish from the real thing, except by trained experts, but which can be sold at a much higher profit margin. Fortunately, or not, depending on one's point of view, these imitations, as lovely as originals to the unpracticed eye, are usually the larger, room-size carpets and big, high-end silk carpets.
Now we come to some modern-day heroes: Dr. Harald Böhmer, a chemist, and his wife, Renate. Dr. Böhmer is a former professor at Marmara University, and first came to Turkey in 1960. Thankfully for us, he became impassioned with Turkish carpets and, more importantly, how they were made. He was particularly fascinated by the use of the natural dyes that first nomads and then villagers used. He found that many then-contemporary Turkish carpets were being dyed using harsh chemical dyes. When his scientific nature led him to wonder how they did it in the “old days,” he found that not only did the weavers he spoke to not have the answers to his questions, but many of the natural dyes no longer existed; the secrets had already been lost. In a wonderful, 20-year-long process of detective work, incorporating interviews and, most significantly, original research of his own on fibers from antique carpets, Dr. Böhmer was able to re-construct and re-discover the natural sources of virtually all the colors used in traditional carpets made in the area of his research, which was mostly in the villages around Çanakkale and Manisa, near the Dardanelles, although his pilgrimage for authenticity took him all over Turkey and parts of Northern Europe.
A project to preserve traditional Turkish carpets
Dr. Böhmer formed a project called Doğal Boya Araştirma ve Geliştirme Projesi (Natural Dye Research and Development Project), or DOBAG, in 1981, under the aegis of what was to become the Faculty of Fine Arts of Marmara University, which still sponsors the project. He obtained the cooperation of, and indeed was sought out by, the heads of various regional government agencies, such as the Forest Administration in Çanakkale. The joint project went forward with surprising speed and great success. Dr. Böhmer's team formed two cooperatives in the early 1980s, in Aycalık, where it turns out the "Bergama," "Ezine" and "Cannakale" rugs originated, and in Yuntdağ, near Manisa. DOBAG's goal is to preserve and facilitate the production of traditional Turkish carpets by the people who invented them, the descendants of nomadic peoples now settled into Turkish villages, and within the context of traditional Turkish village life. This last is illustrated by Dr. Böhmer's team's insistence that the carpets be woven at the villagers' homes rather than in factories, so that weavers could perform their necessary day-to-day duties for village and family, thus supporting village values. The rugs produced by the cooperatives, pile carpets and cicem (a type of brocaded kilim) are for export only. One of the concepts of the program was to produce a high-quality product for foreign sales, both to promote the idea of the superiority of traditionally made Turkish carpets and to avoid increasing competition from cheaper producers of non-traditional “village” rugs mentioned earlier. The carpets produced by the cooperatives tend to be more expensive because of the additional steps and increased time involved. One of the project's objectives is to keep weavers in the villages, weaving, and to preserve a disappearing way of life; a consistent source of income, not influenced by tourist seasons or the vagaries of carpet brokering, is achieved by the project's direction of the carpet sales.
For a much more comprehensive story of DOBAG's early days, please see Dr. Jon Thompson's “A Return to Tradition,” Halı, The International Magazine of Antiques, Carpets and Textiles, Issue 30, April 1986.
Our other hero of the hour is weaver and expat extraordinaire Linda Robinson, who knows more about İstanbul than we ever will. Linda has been active with DOBAG for many years, and once again is one of the sponsors of the project's annual big event held at the beautiful Crimean Memorial Church (also called Christ Church) in the Beyoğlu neighborhood of İstanbul off İstiklal Caddesi, just down the street from the German School. (This is one of those times when the venue is as intriguing as the event!) Linda will be joined this year by the children of Dr. and Mrs. Böhmer, Ulrike and Jochen Bohmer, who share their parents' love of traditional Turkish carpet making. Linda emphasizes that this is the only time in the year that these carpets will be on view and offered for sale within Turkey. The carpets come with a certificate and a unique serial number, as well as a guarantee from Marmara University. The exhibition will include weaving and dye demonstrations by members and friends of the first woman's rug-weaving cooperative in the Islamic world. Why not start your winter in style with a new, cozy carpet, while supporting one of Turkey's premier cultural preservation projects? You can't get more win-win than that!
For further event information, email Linda Robinson at [email protected]
Who: Marmara University Natural Dye Research and Development Project (DOBAG), with featured guests Ulrike and Jochen Bohmer
What: Traditional carpet weaving and dye demonstration exhibition
Where: Crimean Church, down the street from the German School, off Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu, Istanbul
When: Saturday, Nov. 30, 9:30 a.m. to 16:00 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 1, 12:00 p.m. to 16:00 p.m.