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The name Transylvanian rug is used as a term of convenience to denote a cultural heritage of 15th–17th century Anatolian carpets of Ottoman Turkish origin, which have been preserved in Transylvanian Evangelical churches. The corpus of Transylvanian rugs constitutes one of the largest collections of Ottoman Anatolian carpets and rugs outside the Islamic world.
The cultural heritage of the Transylvanian rugs originated from three conditions:
- The political position of Transylvania between the Christian Habsburg and the Islamic Ottoman political powers;
- The geographical location of the area on an important overland trade route between East and West;
- The intercultural and religious pragmatism in everyday life of a region with high ethnic and religious diversity.
Due to its geographical position, Transylvania has been an important trade center between East and West during the 15th–17th century. Pile woven carpets from Anatolian manufacturers were part of the merchandise, and were traded in large numbers. Anatolian carpets were also appreciated as objects of high value and prestige, and collected as such by Transylvanian municipalities and individual persons. Inscriptions on the rugs and church records prove that rugs and carpets were donated as decorative wall and pew furnishings to Protestant churches. By their preservation in Christian churches, the rugs were protected from wear and the changes of history, and often remain in excellent condition today.
“Church rugs” in Transylvania
Organized trade between the Romanian countries and the Ottoman Empire began with Sultan Mehmed II‘s decree of 1456, granting Moldavian merchants the right to travel to Constantinople for trade. The first known document from Brașov relating to rug trade was issued between 1462 and 1464.Vigesimal accounts for various towns are preserved and bear evidence of the large amount of carpets transported through Transylvania. The extent of this trade can be judged from the much quoted Braşov vigesimal register of 1503, which states that over 500 Turkish rugs entered the town during one single year.
The role of Turkish rugs as trade goods of high value and prestigious collectibles is documented in the merchant accreditations, vigesimal accounts, municipal and church annals as well as individual contracts and wills, archived in the Transylvanian towns. The municipalities and other institutions of the Saxon towns, persons of nobility and public influence, as well as citizens were owners of Ottoman rugs. The towns acquired Turkish rugs either as customs duty paid in like, or purchased rugs from the trade. Rugs were frequently offered to public persons as a gift of honour. It has been estimated that from 1500 to 1700 over one thousand rugs were used as gifts from the municipality of Brașov alone cited after. Rugs were used to mark the place of individual persons, or members of a guild, in church. There is also evidence of collections owned by private persons. Contracts specify that the rugs were hung on the walls of private homes for decoration. As such, rugs were used to confirm the social status of the owner, but the reports also confirm that the carpets were perceived as objects of beauty and art. The Transylvanian Saxons referred to them as “Kirchenteppiche” (“church carpets”) even though a significant number of the rugs which still are on display in Transylvanian churches show Islamic prayer rug designs.