One day a Yürük tribal chief saw a Kilim rug cast on the ground by a tent. Looking at it brought anguish to his heart, so he called on his men to find the father of the girl who had woven that Kilim rug. When the father of the girl was brought to the tent the chief asked:
“You have a daughter, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do” replied the father.
“As I understand it,” continued the chief, “you want to marry the girl to someone she doesn’t want. She has set her heart on another.”
At first the father was stunned – how could the chief know of this – but then his tongue was loosened:
“That’s true, I’m a poor man and the man who wants to marry my daughter is rich, so I promised to give him her hand in marriage. My girl, though, lost her heart to a poor young man…but how could you know of this?”
The chief pointed to the Kilim rug on the ground saying:
“Didn’t your daughter weave this Kilim rug?”
“Yes, she did” said the father, to which the chief replied:
“So I knew about it from the language spoken by this Kilim rug…I’ll give you a horse, a camel, go and marry the girl to the one she loves. Oh! and tell her this…she wove it well, but she should put a bit less of a green accent by the red…as it is, I was almost misled.”
(Translated from “Anadolu’da Kilimler de Konusur”, an article by Dr. Mehmet Onder in issue No. 11 of the magazine “Kultur ve Sanat” published by Turkiye Is Bankasi, Sept. 1999, Ankara, Turkey.)
This touching, romantic story is a delightful illustration of the intricate art of communication practiced by the Kilim weavers who are often illiterate in our sense of the word, but are wonderfully erudite in the language of Kilim rugs. Girls weaving Kilim rugs for their dowry chests use this language to express their hopes for children, good fortune or a strong and handsome husband, while a married woman may show her irritation with a prickly mother-in-law or longing for an absent mate. Ancient tribal allegiance may also be expressed through symbols whose meanings are now perhaps forgotten but still kept in designs by some mysterious impulse of the subconscious.
“The lore of Kilim motifs, designs, colors and their symbolism is as rich and complex as the combined heritage of cultures that gave them birth and contributed to their evolution.”
Researchers such as James Opie, Parvis Tanavoli and James Mellaart investigated symbols found in Kilim rugs and proposed differing theories of their origins and evolution, a way to establish the etymology of Kilim language and a first step towards its understanding. But, perhaps as might be expected, the subject proved elusive.
Although each theory gained its own group of disciples because in each case some interpretations and conclusions appear astute and logical, there is much agreement that “…there is no direct answer or watertight paradigm that organizes and explains the development and meaning behind the patterning and motifs found in a Kilim rug.”
This lack of certainty, however, has not discouraged scholars from pursuing the subject further, nor has it restrained other interested parties from spinning appealing tales purporting to elaborate the meanings of various symbols in the context of specific design compositions.
The latter is often the way of merchants trying to sell a Kilim rug to an impressionable customer and consequently these “salesmen’s stories” are suspect. But, although it is a rather unscientific view, perhaps there may be a place for some intuitive interpretation as illustrated by the introductory story related above.
An authentic Kilim expert with local roots or deep local knowledge may seem to concoct interpretations and academics are bound to demand proof, but proof may not be forthcoming because this may not be a world of strict empirical truth but one that includes feelings, perceptions and an inborn ability to relate on the instinctive level to the inner world of the weaver.
Viewed from this imaginative but admittedly unscientific perspective, Kilim symbols could well be regarded as words or phrases whose meanings may vary according to their placement in the pattern, changes of color, or slight modification of shape, much like context, intonation or stress alter the meaning of words in a narrative spoken in a local dialect.
To understand it fully, perhaps one needs to be in a community of spirit attainable only by members of the clan, but ingrained cultural affinity and the deep empathy of an adept may well be sufficient to grasp its essentials and be able to interpret its overall meaning.
This exotic, cryptic language of the Kilim rug, however, also works its spell on many people from backgrounds and cultures very different from those of the weavers, people who seem to respond to some atavistic chord, grasping a Kilim’s essence without being versed in the intricacies of its symbols and designs. Enlightening us on this point are the disciplines of psychology and anthropology which suggest that there is a kind of unconscious unity among all human beings, a unity often seen in common archetypal symbols, beliefs and behaviors, and it may be the response of the individual to some aspect of this collective unconscious that moves the mind to a subliminal understanding and instinctive appreciation of a Kilim rug.
Kilim symbols, their various names and surmised meanings presented here are only the bare building-blocks of Kilim language. They acquire depth, nuance and emotional content through immersion, a process that is thoroughly rewarding since it brings us in contact with the great inner universe of our common human ancestry.