A Brief History of Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, and Their Influence on cross-point™ Patterns
cross-point™ Design of the Month – March 2016
My cross-point™ pattern collection contains several pillow kit designs that are my interpretation of some of the motifs found in historic Anatolian rugs that date back to the 17th Century. The current Design of the Month, KILIM II (above) is loosely based on a rug found in the rug collection in Transylvania. These Ottoman rugs stand out by their diversity, artistry and remarkable state of conservation. The story of these rugs kept in Lutheran churches of the Saxon population of Transylvania is an intriguing, complex and unique cultural phenomenon.
A very brief History of Transylvanian Rugs
The mythical country of Transylvania really did and does exist beyond Dracula. Now a part of modern Romania, historically it was the connecting land between the Christian West and the Islamic Orient. It has a long history going back to the second century BC.
As well as being on the trading routes between East and West, over the centuries the land was overrun repeatedly by Mongolian and Ottoman hordes from the East. In the 12th Century the Hungarian King called for immigrants throughout the Holy Roman Empire both for military defense and land cultivating. His call was answered mainly by German-speaking farmers, craftsmen, traders and low ranking aristocrats from the Rhine/Moselle area. These “Saxons” were granted self-government in exchange for safeguarding lands to the west.
However, by 1526, Transylvania became part of the Ottoman Empire which granted them liberal religious freedom (religious tolerance became part of their constitution during the Reformation). I find it interesting that despite the Saxon traditional tolerance of religious freedom, Muslims could not live in Transylvania, nor buy land or erect mosques there. If you are interested, the book Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania covers the history of the region in great detail, but here I am mainly interested in how the rugs survived in Transylvania through hundreds of years, two World Wars, and the years under Communist rule.
Today Transylvania has one of the largest collection of well-preserved small Oriental rugs going back 350 years. Throughout the region’s history, rugs were considered precious assets, were rarely used underfoot, and were often offered as valuable gifts on special occasions such as births and weddings.
While in central and western Europe rugs were the prerogative of nobility and wealthy clergy, in the Saxon sections of Transylvania they were owned by both upper and middle classes as well as trade guilds. Over time they became the property of the churches. Following the Reformation, rugs were hung in Lutheran churches from balconies and pews and to cover walls left empty by the removal of iconic images and so Churches became the main custodians through donations and gifts and sometimes abandonment. Interesting too is the fact that many of the rugs are so-called prayer rugs, which to me shows that wonderful capacity of Oriental rugs to bridge different cultures.
If you are curious about Transylvania and this rare collection of Oriental rugs, I recommend the books Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania by Alberto Boralevi, Stefano Ionescu and Andrei Kertesz, and Antique Ottoman Rugs in Transylvania, edited by Stefano Ionescu.