The precise origins and early history of the Kilim rugs are not known, although there are many theories surrounding this beautiful, flat-weave rug or tapestry. Kilims have graced homes on floors, walls and beds for thousands of years, and been rolled up and carried with nomadic tribes on their travels. It is likely that the first kilims were created before there was recorded history, and that they were utilitarian only, developed without the two outstanding elements that make them desirable today: their decorative appearance and their symbolic and often personal designs.
Because they were woven, the earliest kilim rugs represent human advancement over the use of animal skins as rugs and blankets and were relatively plain. Their now-familiar appearance of color and design may have originated between the seventh and 11th centuries B.C. when the flat-weave technique began to be used in Egypt.
“…and here they make the most beautiful silks and kilims in the world, and with the most beautiful colours.” Marco Polo, early fourteenth century.
Whatever the origins are, kilims (also called kelim, gelim and gilim) have been and still are produced primarily in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, China, North Africa, and the Caucuses. In fact, the name “Turkish Kilim” is as common as simple “kilim,” and the word itself is Turkish for weft-faced tapestry.
Kilims are made using the simplest method of weaving that exists. The weave is flat rather than pile, and the color comes only from the weft, which is woven into the warp. When a color change is needed for the pattern, the first color is looped back and knotted off and the new color is started.
In most kilims there will be vertical slits that are unique to these rugs; these are created when the weaver pulls the warp strings away from the weft. This feature is known as “slit woven” and is highly prized by collectors for the way in which these slits highlight the designs and colors of the rugs. The weft is nearly always made of wool, while the warp can be made from either wool or cotton. The wool can come from sheep, camels, goats or even horses.
Kilim rugs have always had a variety of uses. Because they have a flat weave, they are lighter than other types of rugs and could be easily folded or wrapped around precious objects when nomadic tribes were on the move. Over the centuries they have been used as tapestry-like wall hangings, colorful throws for benches and chairs, prayer rugs and bedspreads. Their current popularity has made them desirable for everything from throw pillows to table runners. Whether they are used decoratively for the wall or floor or for more utilitarian purposes (prayer rugs, travel bags), the kilim is a versatile and eye-catching tapestry-like rug.
Design and Meaning
One of the most consistently intriguing elements of kilim rugs is the use of symbolism in their designs. While not every design means something, many of the designs we see today are rooted in symbols that had meaning to specific tribes and weavers, symbols that communicated ideas and beliefs.
There are countless numbers of designs and design combinations that are used in weaving kilims, but there are several motifs that are commonly used and notable for their meanings.
The often seen elebelinde (hands on hips) motif feature a woman with her hands on her hips, and is the symbol of motherhood, fertility and abundance. The ram’s horn represents male strength, courage and fertility. The bereket design uses both the elebelinde and the ram’s horn motifs to symbolize the union of male and female.
The boteh design is the ancestor of today’s paisley design, uses a symbol that has been interpreted as representing a seed enclosing a mature plant. This design has been traced back to 200 – 650 AD in Persia.
Tree of Life:
This symbol dates back further than the story of the Garden of Eden, but is generally considered to mean the connection between human and the divine. It reminds humans of the desire to be divine ourselves, and of eternal paradise. The duality of the spiritual and the natural world is represented by the design, as is the idea hope, the afterlife, and the possibility of immortality. The tree of life design can be naturalistic and figural or very stylized, and is common to many monotheistic religions all over the world.
Tribal rugs like kilims use many different symbols to symbolize protection of family members, children, marriages, crops and animals against the evil eye, natural disasters and ill wishes. The protective symbols include crosses, stars (up to eight points), dragons, hooks,scorpions, and the triangle with a sacred verse in it that is an amulet. The written charm inside the amulet symbol, which may or may not be figurative, is also believed to carry magical power to protect the owner against dangers.
The Evil Eye:
This symbol familiar to cultures across the globe is one of the most commonly seen protective designs in the world. Where it is believed that there are people who possess the power to cause misfortune, the evil eyes is used to ward off or diminish that misfortune, injury or death.
The bird (kus) as a symbol can carry completely different or even opposite meanings. While nightingales, peacocks, doves, pigeons and the mythical phoenix are commonly used to symbolize good luck, the raven or owl implies bad luck. The bird is also the symbol of the soul of the dead, as well as happiness, power, strength and long life. Birds are also considered to be divine messengers.
Each of the regions that produces kilim rugs has its own culture, traditions and beliefs, and these beliefs are often associated with colors and patterns. Thousands of years of area-specific histories have made for individual designs unique to the regions and tribes producing kilims. This makes it easy to recognize where a particular rug was made, and it has provided both kilim collectors and novice buyers a wide variety of choices.
Art Meets Function
The light, flat, beautiful kilim is a piece of art as well as a functional item. Whether you use it to brighten up a wall, under a coffee table or in pillows decorating a couch, the kilim creates a bright spot and a design focal point anywhere it is used.