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The History & Anatomy of Turkish Rugs, The World’s Oldest Carpet

The term ‘Turkish rug’ has become something of a catchall for describing carpets that are antique, vintage, and of particular beauty. In fact, Turkish rugs have a history every bit as rich as their celebrated place of origin.

One could be forgiven for thinking that home décor in the 21st century isn’t guided so much by taste as by novelty and perceived techie-ness.

Think furniture prized not for its beauty but for its ability to multitask or serve as hidden storage space for people living vertically in small spaces. Mattresses that arrive folded into impossibly tiny boxes. Items bought online without the benefit of touch or 3-D perspective.

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Yet it is precisely in these times of faster/smarter/easier that bespoke, hand-crafted items ought to be most prized, especially at home, which is always a sanctuary but has, of late, been doubling for many as office, bunker, and retreat from society at large.

Few things in this world are lovelier or more beguiling than antique rugs, specifically Turkish rugs which not only instantly imbue a space with enduring warmth and charm but provide a rare link to a rich and storied past while being synonymous with quality, craftsmanship, and style.

Owning a handmade Turkish rug such as the famed Hereke or Oushak carpets — with their combinations of silk, wool, cotton, and sometimes gold or silver threads, or a stunning traditional hand-woven Ghordes from the late 19th century — is akin to housing a piece of art or history.  No, it is housing a piece of art and history, right there in your home.

But what to choose? Let’s take a brief look at the history of Turkish rugs, and drill deeper into various categories. As always, Mansour’s vast inventory — representing the largest antique rug collection in the world —offers gorgeous, authentic options suitable to any taste or decorating criteria.

History of Turkish rugs

Charting the history of Turkish rugs is a bit like charting human history: long, winding, occasionally messy, and with many cultural, ethnic, and religious influences impacting design and approach over the ages. But there are some absolutes.

As might be deduced from the name, Turkish (also called Anatolian) rugs denote a specific region, notably, the area dominated by the former Ottoman Empire. Those available today mostly hail from the 19th and 20th centuries. The history of these rugs is vast — too big to be précised here — but can easily consume an afternoon of online digging. Recommended search criteria includes ‘rugs from different areas of Anatolia’ and ‘origins of patterns.’

Although rug weaving dates back centuries, it’s no overstatement to say that the artisans who produced what we would recognize today as Turkish rugs raised the bar on every conceivable level, from fabric and threads to colors and designs with many thematic influences flowing through. 

However, as Forbes noted a few years back, “Often, Turkish carpets do not come from Turkey, but from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Armenia and the Caucasus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.  The consumer needs to know the region where the carpet was produced as one measure of value. While you may buy something in Turkey, that does not guarantee quality or authenticity, or that it is even a ‘Turkish carpet.’”

Reputable vendors like Mansour are vital in this regard, so consumers can answer critical questions about Turkish rugs such as the type of knots and density per square inch, where the carpet was made and by whom, the materials used, and whether something was handmade or machine-made. You wouldn’t buy something as mundane as seafood from a non-professional. Same goes for top-quality Turkish rugs. Actually, it goes double.

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Hereke Rugs

If you’re seeking a rug with a back story, it’s the Hereke, named for the coastal area in Turkey where, in 1841, Ottoman sultan Abdülmecid I (1823-1861) founded the Hereke Imperial Manufacture to produce textiles for his Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus. As one does. Initially, the carpets were exclusively given as gifts to visiting VIPs. But by the end of the 19th century, restrictions loosened, and traders could sell Hereke rugs to householders… albeit well-heeled ones.

Several features make Hereke rugs highly collectible. They’re big, and generally woven in one of two ways: wool on cotton yarn and silk on silk.  Plus, the precision of their double knots makes for a clear display of patterns.

To wit, see Mansour’s Hereke rug #21088. This traditional hand-woven Turkish Hereke rug has a polychrome overall field of delicate rosettes issuing bold angled tendrils forming lozenge lattice, each enclosing radiating palmettes, in a royal purple border of palmette icons issuing alternating dense floral patches, between detailed floral stripes. Say that five times fast.

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Ghordes Rugs

Even a basic online search suggests that Ghordes rugs, notably from the North Aegean in the late 19th century, are stunning, coveted, and kind of like the little black dress of homewares: effortlessly adding class and elegance to its surroundings while remaining understated. A traditional hand-woven Turkish Ghordes carpet can run fairly small (four feet by five-and-a-half feet as in Mansour’s item #15881) meaning that even those in compact settings can access the unparalleled splendor of these rugs, with their intricate patterns and often vivid colors; perfect as hallway runners.

Oushak Rugs

Sometimes referred to as “Ushak” carpets, these gorgeous traditional Turkish wool rugs, with their Persian influence and subtle palettes, infuse any room with a palpable sense of serenity as well as history, their loping vines and terra cotta colors frequently emerging as earmarks. Oushak rugs are stunning in spaces with an emphasis on wood or more traditional furnishings, although almost anything looks pretty alongside these rug types. Eagle-eyed art fans will note that Oushak carpets frequently crop up in Renaissance paintings owing to wealthy Europeans importing them to decorate cathedrals, churches, and, of course, their sprawling homes. Naturally.