+40 745 501 861 info@ygt.ro

Unveiling Transylvania’s Ottoman Carpet Legacy: Discover the Intriguing Journey from Anatolia to Altar, and the Surprising Role in Christian Churches. Delve into History, Art, and Cultural Paradoxes.

From Anatolia to Altar: The Legacy of Ottoman Carpets in Transylvania

Historically, during the Middle Ages, Transylvania was situated on the border between the West and East. It was a frontier area in both senses and was mainly inhabited by Saxon settlers from the Rhine and Moselle regions, invited with privileges by the Hungarian king Geza II to create a human buffer zone securing the eastern border of the Hungarian Kingdom. The Saxon settlers brought with them a culture based on labor and community spirit, which, paradoxically, 7 centuries later, turns Transylvania into one of the most famous tourist destinations in Eastern Europe.


Transylvania today, in the 21st century, boasts the world’s largest concentration of medieval fortified churches, alongside castles and noble residences. In several of the over 150 fortified churches in Transylvania, tourists can probably admire the last examples of symbols of wealth and medieval refinement in this part of the world, preserved “in situ”, namely, the Oriental carpets. These can be admired in the evangelical churches of Sibiu, Mediaș, Bistrița, Sighișoara, Biertan, and others, but the largest collection of Oriental carpets in the world outside Turkey can be found at the Black Church in Brașov.


The Black Church’s collection comprises around two hundred Ottoman carpets. Most are part of the church’s historical heritage. Approximately 50 pieces arrived here during the 20th century, after the collapse of communism and the mass emigration of ethnic Saxons to Germany. They were brought from the Saxon churches in the villages around Brașov to be maintained and cared for. The term “Ottoman” refers both to their origin and their age. All carpets produced in the Ottoman Empire during the Ottoman dynasty (1326-1922) are generically called “Ottoman carpets”. Ottoman carpets are mostly made of wool. From the warp and weft threads, a textile structure was created on the weaving loom into which knots were inserted. These knots were then cut, a procedure that resulted in a fluffy pile.


Why Ottoman carpets in Christian churches in Transylvania?


Their presence in evangelical churches represents a paradox considering the ongoing military and religious confrontation throughout the Middle Ages between the Muslim world and Christianity. It should be noted, however, that this is not an isolated case in the evangelical churches of Transylvania. In almost all of Western Europe, in Catholic and Protestant churches, Oriental textiles such as silk, gold-brocaded velvet, mohair, linen, and others were used in the medieval period for the making of priestly vestments. Outside Transylvania, most of these Ottoman textiles have gradually disappeared from churches over time. The Ottoman carpets that still exist today in some evangelical churches in Transylvania represent the last authentic example linked to what maximum opulence meant in the medieval period, their presence in the sacred space meant to bring glory and praise to God.


Where were these Oriental carpets produced?


The Ottoman carpets existing today in Transylvania were made in a region in western Anatolia, in the upper valley surrounded by mountains of the Gediz River. Here were the main carpet workshops, in places like Bergama, Ușak, Kula, Gördes, Demirci, or Selendi. From here, the carpets were transported along land trade routes to reach Western Europe.


Along these trade routes, numerous spices from the East such as pepper, saffron, and ginger, textiles such as linen, mohair, or taffeta reached Brașov from the East. Among the many goods passing through Brașov on their way to Western Europe were often carpets. The city of Brașov collected its trade taxes under what was called “the right of staple,” which meant that passing merchants were obliged to offer all wares at fair prices in the town market, this way locals had full access to goods from Orient. Because Ottoman textiles were opulent and extremely expensive, they were highly appreciated in Transylvanian cities.


How were they used in their region of origin?


Initially, Turkish nomads from Anatolia (Turkmen or Yörük) worked them as substitutes for the furs used to cover the floors of tents. They also played an important role in religious rituals and prayers. A devout Muslim prays five times a day, kneeling on a carpet, facing Mecca. The carpet thus becomes a symbol of the formal isolation of the one immersed in prayer. In European countries, Oriental carpets completely lost their role in their region of origin.


How were they used in the Evangelical churches of Transylvania?


Considering their origin and initial destination, that of Muslim prayer rugs, the natural question arises: how were they used in Transylvanian churches? Here they had a strictly decorative role, used primarily to cover the altar and decorate the pulpit, as well as the benches belonging to the wealthier guilds. They thus had the role of highlighting the most important points in the Church. Additionally, they also served as symbols of the social status of the Transylvanian Saxon communities. Their number also reflected the prosperity of the respective faithful community, blessed by God.