The Mysterious Language Of Kilims

As I toured Brigitte and Ayan Gülgönen’s kilim exhibition at the Milli Reasürans Art Gallery, I could almost hear the kilims speaking their mysterious language.

Right next to me lie brilliant yellows produced from mustard greens and cumin leaves, vibrant greens obtained by boiling forget-me-nots and wild lavender in vats for days. Not far away it’s burnt siena, distilled from the shells of fresh walnuts. We are surrounded by a palette of colors. All obtained from nature in natural ways, hundreds of colors that, rather than fading, will deepen and become richer with the years. They glow before us like a rainbow. Mauve browns extracted from sumac and glossy blacks obtained by boiling pine cones of cypress with valonia oak transport us to bald mountaintops where nomadic herdsmen pitch their tents of coarse felt. Colors that conjure up images of Turkey’s great mountains, isolated valleys and steep mountain passes where none but nomads dare to tread flaunt themselves in designs and motifs at least as impressive as the colors themselves.
Their tones produce glints of light in the myriad motifs—wolf’s foot, scorpion, budgerigar, ram’s horn, shepherd’s rose, dragon, nightingale’s nest, highland rose, carob, hook, hairpin, earring, hand, water, medallion, oil lamp, dove and tree of life. The kilims (flat woven rugs) large and small where all these colors and designs line up row by row, knot by knot, lie there mute at first, like seasoned Anatolian sages. Then suddenly they begin to speak, in a mysterious language woven of the ancient alphabet of the knots. Their barely audible whispers tell a story of days long past, of long-forgotten customs, years of bitter war and pain and fertile periods of peace and plenty, of immortal love, intermittent happiness and more frequent sorrow, birth and death, joyous celebrations, henna nights, the yearning of young brides for the distant family hearth, and of the women whose weary hands wove rugs for them. In short, the kilims speak a language all their own.


Such were my emotions as I toured Brigitte and Ayan Gülgönen’s ‘18th and 19th Century Anatolian Kilims Exhibition’ at Milli Reasürans Art Gallery and first set eyes on the kilims there that dazzle the eye with the richness of their colors and designs. The Gülgönens’ interest in Anatolian textiles, which goes back to 1975, continues undiminished today. Their first collection, Karapınar ‘Tülü’ Rugs, was exhibited at the Dolmabahçe Culture Center under the title ‘Flying Carpet’. In 1997 and 2001 they exhibited their Cappadocian rugs. The current exhibition, which runs through 23 June at the Milli Reasürans Gallery, includes some thirty specially selected kilims.
Defined in dictionaries and encyclopedias as a ‘flat weave’, kilim is the term used to designate the decorative, frequently embroidered, textiles generally used as throws and floor coverings in homes. There are also flat weaves that are used as cushion covers, large sacks, saddle bags and coin purses. Originally produced to meet a practical physical need, in time kilims were enriched by human creativity and power of imagination, eventually coming to express a wide range of human emotions through the designs woven into them.
Each kilim has its own story to tell. And understanding the language used in telling those stories is not given to just anybody. Take, for example, the kilims woven with the well-known ‘arms akimbo’ motif, which expresses motherhood and fertility. Hairpin and earring motifs in a kilim indicate that the girl who wove it is looking for a husband. The ram’s horn on the other hand symbolizes war, manliness and heroism, while the tree of life motif embodies the hope that the family or tribe will endure forever. It is not for nothing that the art of the kilim has been characterized as an ‘abstract art’. As Picasso once said, “If you’re looking for something as beautiful as my paintings it would be a kilim.”


Experts on the subject compare the weaving of kilims to speaking a language. Indeed the motifs used in kilims are comparable to the characters of a symbolic language. Just as there are certain linguistic rules that govern the use of written and spoken language, so do a set of aesthetic rules and principles of visual language reveal themselves in the warp and woof of kilims. In the knots they cast with woollen threads, whether dyed or not, kilim weavers not only employ the refined art of weaving to produce timeless designs, they also manage to transcend the limitations of the two-dimensional loom. A third dimension is thereby imparted to the language of color, design and space, simultaneously broadening the range of emotions that can be expressed by the kilim. As those who contemplate kilims try to understand things experienced a long time ago in the minds of the women who wove them, the metaphors apparent in kilims engender countless emotions that trigger intricate thought processes. The visual beauty of kilims, each one an inimitable example of the art of weaving, and of the hands that wove it and what those hands added to a time-honored pattern, are no less magnificent than the variety and creativity that are unique to each one. The symbolic language that finds expression in kilims inspires the viewer to reflect on life in a bygone era, on the traditions of the women who wove these timeless textiles and the cultural context from which they emerged, in other words, to recreate those times in their own imagination.