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Seljuk Rugs and Turkish Beylik Carpets

About Early Antique Seljuk Rugs

Carpets of the Seljuks and Beyliks: the Roots of Modern Carpet Design

The Seljuk Turks are a branch of Oghuz Turks, who ruled Central Asia and the Middle East from the 11th to 14th centuries. They originally migrated from what would later be the northern Iranian provinces and into the mainland of what would become the Persian Empire and modern-day Iran. We do not have many surviving examples of carpets from the Seljuk Turks, but they still play a significant role in the development of the designs that became iconic in the Ottoman Empire and modern Anatolian tribal designs. There is no doubt that these designs are some of the most beautiful in the world and some of the most recognizable among carpet collectors.

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts Seljuk Rug Nazmiyal

13th century Seljuk rug from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

History and Development of Seljuk Rugs

The Seljuk Turks are regarded as the ancestors of the western Turks and the present-day inhabitants of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan. One of their major accomplishments was creating a barrier to Europe that protected Europe from the Mongol invaders from the east. By the end of the 13th century, the Empire was on the decline and would later make way for the Ottoman Empire. By the middle of the 13th century, the Empire was invaded by the Mongols and divided into smaller Emirates that became known as the Anatolian Beyliks.

After the Mongolian invasion, the Beylik tribes settled in northern Anatolia and took on a nomadic lifestyle. Their history is dotted with tribal warfare and the harsh realities of living in the mountains surrounding the Black Sea. For the most part, Beylik rulers controlled small regions and never again established the vast Empire that was occupied by the Seljuks.

As time went on, the Beylik tribes became more isolated and cut off from each other. It was during this time when the tribal designs developed their own individual styles. However, all of them have their roots in the designs of the Seljuk Turks, which continues to connect them as a carpet group. This is one of the reasons why you will find common symbols throughout Anatolian tribal carpets. Yet, they take on their own regional and individual characteristics.

Seljuk Rug Fragment 13th Century Nazmiyal

A Seljuk rug fragment from the 13th century, at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art.

Surviving Seljuk Rugs

The world only has a few surviving Seljuk carpets, and many of them are only small fragments, but what they can tell us about the development of Ottoman Turkish design provides a wealth of information. Unfortunately, carpets are made from organic material, which eventually deteriorates, even with our best efforts to preserve it. These few Seljuk and early Anatolian Beylik carpets are a world treasure.

So, what can these carpets tell us about the development of modern carpet design? First off, these early carpets show the design element of a clearly delineated field and border was an established concept by this time. This carpet group tells us that all-over designs with repeating geometric patterns were also quite common. For the most part, the main border may, or may not have been, surrounded by guard borders. It appears that this design concept became more prominent as one reaches the time of the Ottoman Empire. However, we begin to see its early development in these early Seljuk and Anatolian Beylik examples.

By the 13th century, the carpet contained large geometric borders, but they lacked the intricate designs that one would later see in the Ottoman and Persian Empires. They are large scale geometrics that seem to lack the resolved corners and stylized borders that we later see in the carpets from the carpet-producing centers of the Ottoman Empire. From a design standpoint, the geometric designs used in the border were rather simple and sometimes included familiar tribal patterns, such as the star.

One of the more famous groups of rugs is called the animal rugs and contains animals rendered in simple geometric forms and bright colors. They are placed in rows and seem to face each other, as if in combat. The designs are of a large scale, compared to the overall size of the rug. These animal rugs would later be captured in the paintings of Renaissance painters, but there are only a small number of these rare carpets left.

One important thing of note is that you began to see some of the more common tribal symbols that are still used in carpets today. For instance, in this early group of rugs, you can see the symbol for water, the star, and birds. They are often rendered as simple geometrics at this time, but they later developed into more complex themes and detail.

Turkish Seljuk Carpet Nazmiyal

A 13th century Seljuk carpet fragment from Turkey, at the Vakiflar Carpet Museum in Istanbul.

Seljuk Rugs Influences on Today’s Carpets

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Seljuk surviving artifacts is that you can begin to see the development of geometric, angular, stylized forms that remained throughout the carpets of the Ottoman Empire. This style would become considered the “brand” of the Ottoman rulers that distinguished it from their arch rivals, the Persians. By comparison, in Persian design, you tend to see more free-flowing florals, but the angular geometric simplicity of the carpets of the Ottoman Empire remained throughout the early 20th century. These designs have their beginnings in the rugs of the Seljuk Turks.

From a design perspective, the colors that you see are as bright and vibrant as today’s carpets. There are predominantly blues, reds, yellows, ivories and darker midnight blues. The midnight blues almost look black but are easily distinguished from modern synthetic blacks by their organic hue. In this group of carpet artifacts, you also see a range of browns and earth tones. Of particular note, is the occurrence of a turquoise color that was produced by over-dying an indigo blue with green, such as weld. This is a highly desirable color because it was difficult to produce during this time.

There is no doubting the beauty of these rare, existing carpet examples from an empire that is long gone. However, in today’s carpets, we still have the essence of the designs that grew into prominence during the Seljuk Empire. You can still see the essence of the rugs produced by these early tribal people in the symbols used in Anatolian and tribal carpets of the Caucasus mountains. The angular design of the motifs remained throughout the history of the Ottoman Empire. One thing of note that does not appear to have been present in this group of carpets is the medallion design carpets. They would develop a few centuries later. A majority of them are based on all-over repeating geometric designs.

Nazmiyal has a beautiful collection of carpets from the Ottoman Empire and later tribal carpets from the Caucasus mountains. We invite you to look around and enjoy them and perhaps find that special one that is the perfect addition to your home. As you look around, see if you can spot some of the characteristics that echo these early carpet fragments and the carpets that are the ancestors of today’s modern designs.

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