DOBAG: Keeping Turkish carpets Turkish

But for carpet-lovers everywhere, and İstanbul residents in particular, the end of autumn means the excitement of the annual DOBAG carpet weaving and dying exhibition. And it’s just in time to get ideas of how to insulate those drafty concrete rooms most of us live in, with, of course, some lovely new kilims or carpets! Faithful readers of this space are by now very familiar with the DOBAG exhibition, expat weaver and carpet aficionado Linda Robinson, and the charming venue at Beyoglu’s Christ Church, also known as the Crimean Memorial Church. For the rest of you, here’s a little background:

Robinson, one of İstanbul’s pre-eminent expatriates, has a passion for carpets and all things woven. She has been involved for many years in a project known as DOBAG — Dogal Boya Arastirma ve Gelistirme Projesi (Natural Dye Research and Development Project), the goal of which is nothing less than to preserve and facilitate the production of traditional Turkish carpets by the people who invented them, the descendants of nomadic peoples now settled in Turkish villages; the carpets are created within the context of traditional village life. During the weekend of Nov. 28 and 29, the public will have its once-a-year opportunity to find out more about the project and to see examples of these modern-day miracles: carpets made from wool spun and dyed in the traditional manner and made using traditional tribal patterns, rescued from obscurity by the efforts of the DOBAG team. The event will be held at the Crimean Church in Beyoglu, off İstiklal Caddesi, behind the Swedish Consulate.

DOBAG is the brainchild of a remarkable German chemist and former professor at Marmara University, Dr. Harald Bohmer. Dr. Bohmer first came to Turkey on a teaching contract in 1960. He soon developed a passionate interest in carpets, and most particularly the process of dying. He found that many then-contemporary Turkish carpets were being dyed using harsh chemical dyes. When his scientific nature led him to wonder how they did it in the “old days,” he found that not only did the weavers he spoke to not have the answers to his questions, but many of the natural dyes no longer existed; the secrets had already been lost.

In a wonderful, 20-year-long process of detective work, incorporating interviews and, most significantly, original research of his own on fibers from antique carpets, Dr. Bohmer was able to re-construct and rediscover the natural sources of virtually all the colors used in traditional carpets made in the area of his research, which was mostly in the villages around Canakkale and Manisa, near the Dardanelles, although his pilgrimage for authenticity took him all over Turkey and parts of northern Europe.

With the constant support and assistance of his wife, Renate, Dr. Bohmer formed DOBAG in 1981, under the aegis of what was to become the Faculty of Fine Arts of Marmara University. He obtained the cooperation of, and indeed was sought out by, the heads of various regional government agencies, such as the Forest Administration in Canakkale. The joint project went forward with surprising speed and great success. Dr. Bohmer’s team formed two cooperatives in the early 1980s, in Ayvalık, where it turns out the “Bergama,” “Ezine” and “Cannakale” rugs originated, and in Yuntdag, near Manisa.

The Bohmers’ passion for their project went far beyond any job description imaginable — organizing, re-educating, explaining, drawing pictures, reproducing recipes, even going personally to far-off places to obtain roots for dyes. Dr. Bohmer led his students, volunteers and weavers alike by his example and enthusiasm. An instance of the team’s attention to the mission was their insistence that weavers not be placed in factory-like surroundings, but work from their homes, enabling them to perform their necessary day-to-day duties for village and family, thus supporting traditional village values.

35 years into the project

Many years later, with the project now nearly 35 years along, the Bohmers still maintain a home in Turkey, but are pretty much retired. Dr. Bohmer’s replacement at the project, Serife Atlıhan, a professor at Marmaray University, continues his work. Serife Hanım, who has been with the project since its inception, performs quality control inspections at the co-ops every two weeks, to maintain the valued reputation and continued success of the village weavers.

The rugs produced by the cooperatives, including the pile and the cicem (a type of brocaded kilim), are for export only. One of the concepts of the program was to produce a high-quality product for foreign sales, both to promote the idea of the superiority of traditionally made Turkish carpets abroad and to avoid increasing competition from cheaper producers of non-traditional “village” rugs flooding the market. The carpets produced by the cooperatives tend to be more expensive because of the additional steps and increased time involved. One of the project’s objectives is to keep weavers in the villages, weaving, and to preserve a fast-disappearing way of life.

Unfortunately, over the past half-century or so, huge numbers of Turkish people have left their ancestral villages and moved to the urban areas, where the jobs are, and so the mother-to-daughter process of teaching and learning to weave carpets has been ruthlessly reduced; it only takes one generation of apartment living to end such a non-urban-friendly tradition. But the DOBAG project’s implementation of a consistent source of income, not influenced by tourist seasons or the vagaries of carpet brokering, is achieved by the project’s supervision of the carpet sales. For a much more comprehensive story of DOBAG’s early days, please see Dr. Jon Thompson’s “A Return to Tradition,” Halı, The International Magazine of Antiques, Carpets and Textiles, Issue 30, April 1986.

For many years now, the exhibition has been held at the beautiful Christ Church, which is a destination by itself. The church was built from 1858 to 1868 as a memorial to the British soldiers who died in the Crimean War (1853-56). All the dead in that war amounted to about 740,000, a huge majority of them from disease and poorly tended wounds. The war was famous for bringing the talents of Florence Nightingale to the fore establishing modern nursing techniques, as well as Kipling’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and the introduction of the Victoria Cross. The pastor there is Canon Ian Sherwood, who was instrumental in rebuilding the ruin the church had become by the late 1980s; he has been there ever since. Father Ian is very fond of tortoises, to whom he gives sanctuary in its garden. (This is as it should be — the last survivor of the Crimean War was a tortoise named Timothy [1839-2004], mascot of the crew of HMS Queen; the Queen participated in the bombardment of Sebastopol on the Black Sea.) Clearly, not just another Anglican church, and well worth seeing in between shopping for carpets and dye demonstrations!

The carpets sold at the DOBAG exhibition come with a certificate and a unique serial number, as well as a guarantee from Marmara University. The exhibition will include weaving and dye demonstrations by members and friends of the first woman’s rug-weaving cooperative in the Islamic world. Why not start your winter in more comfort with a new, cozy carpet, while supporting one of Turkey’s premier cultural preservation projects? You won’t regret it.


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