Avicenna, an early 11th-century Arabian philosopher said
“The symbol is the mediator because it is silent, saying and not saying and thus enunciating precisely what it and it alone can express”.
Symbolism has existed in the world since the beginning of time. It is only when the world experienced art-related movements in the late nineteenth century, that the people started talking about it. Also knows as Motifs, these recurring elements carry a symbolic significance and convey themes like social status, the frame of mind, and at times deeper meaning to the narrative. Anatolia or modern-day Turkey is home to such ancient artistic tradition. They have such beautiful motifs sewn on their vases, carpets, and so on.
There are quite a few symbols or motifs that exist in Turkey. However, there are a few that have gained popularity over the years because of their perfect blend of imagery and meaning. Look out for products that carry these symbols when you go to a Turkish Pazar or in layman’s terms, a market.
Hands-on Hips (Elibelinde)-
This symbol is very popular and widely used on kilims (woven carpets). The inward-facing hooks represent the arms of the figure and a triangle or diamond represents the female body. Some scholars consider this motif as an equivalent to the Mother Goddess. Symbolizing fertility and motherhood, this form has gone through many stages of evolution. The oldest form of this motif can be found in the mother goddess statuette of 3000 B.C found in Ankara.
Although the motif has gone through a great deal of change, the interpretation is the same and clear. The woman is proud as she has been blessed with the gift of motherhood. Older texts mention that this is sewn only when the weaver gives birth to a boy. There is also a belief amongst the Turkish population that using and gifting items with an Elibelinde motif could bring the blessing of fertility to the family. Unusual yet common use of this motif is seen on sacks carrying grains. This implies fertility of the grain and indirectly a rise in the family income. This motif is also known by other names like gelin kiz (bride), cocuklu kiz (girl with child), aman kiz (the mercy girl), etc.
Ram’s Horn (Kocboynuzu) –
If Elibelinde symbolizes female energy, Ram’s horn is a definite male symbol. Symbolizing heroism, power, and masculinity, this motif has also gone through a few changes over the years. It shares traits like fertility and abundance with other Anatolian motifs. When used in combination with the love and marriage motif, it may represent the husband or lover of the rug weaver.
Hands-on hips and ram’s horn denote a man and woman when used together. The fertility motif comprises two ‘elibelinde’ motifs indicating woman and two ‘kocboynuzu’ motifs indicating man. This symbol has an ‘eye’ motif in the middle, which is said to protect the family against the evil eye. This motif also symbolizes sacrificial animals, so by weaving them into carpets, the weaver hopes for his merit to last. Though abundantly used on kilims and rugs, you will find this symbol carved on tombstones as well in Turkey. This symbol has also graced a few sculptures and various fabrics and clothes. This motif is also known by other names like koc (ram), boynuzlu yanis (horn motif), koclu yanis (ram motif).
Evil Eye (Muska and Nazarlik)-
People in ancient times considered their house, family, animals, and grains as the most valuable assets. This paved the way for the extensive use of protective motifs in Anatolian kilims. The ‘evil eye’ is an important notion in Turkey which is given a lot of thought when buying and gifting. They believe that some people have the power to cause harm, injury, or even death by gazing at the unfortunate person. Vulnerable ones like babies and pets or valuable objects in the home or property are considered at risk. Glasses or plates breaking at an important function or people falling sick without any symptoms are supposedly indicators of an evil possession.
Since the source of this evil glance is the human eye, people believe that the harmful effects can best be prevented by a human eye itself. Objects which have the evil eye as a motif are said to have magical powers that protect the wearer from the effects of ‘Nazar’. These objects are made of blue beads, mustard, garlic, seashells, old coins, lead, mercury, and wordings on silver or gold motifs which say ‘Mashallah’ (God save him).
Muska has essentially the same purpose of warding off evil. The symbol might not match the ‘nazarlik’ motif, however, its triangular shape bears some resemblance to the evil eye symbol. These motifs when woven into kilims or any flat woven products serve like an amulet, protecting the possessor and his family from any evil.
This motif has been used in multiple ways to convey different messages and emotions. The interpretation is not only restricted to the superficial existence but also transcends into a spiritual and occult world mostly unseen to a layman’s eyes. Birds like doves, pigeons, and nightingales symbolize good luck. These figures convey the message of happiness, power, strength, and love.
Birds like owls, ravens suggest bad luck and you should be careful while buying or gifting items with such symbols. Bird resembling vulture is shown as attacking human beings. While birds like eagle, falcon, and hawk represent power and strength. They also symbolize rulers and heads of tribes in certain Turkish epochs. They are said to be the very essence of the leaders’ souls and protect them throughout the journey.
It goes without saying that the birds carry a celestial aura around them in the Turkish language of symbols. Phoenix is known to burn itself when nearing death and to rise from its ashes. As a result, this bird also symbolizes reincarnation and immortality. This motif has also been used to convey a change in season. Like the phoenix bird fighting the dragon conveys the onset of spring. An article which combines a bird and woman motif conveys longing and expectation of some news. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the bird is the imperial symbol of various states in Anatolia.
Tree of Life (Hayat Agaci)
Like the bird motif, the life tree also symbolizes certain aspects of the earth as well as some which are otherworldly. The shamans consider the life tree as a symbol of continuous development and change. A tree is looked upon as a link between the earth and the sky, or even heaven. It is through this tree that the various elements communicate with each other. The underground soil, the lower branches and the trunk above the ground, and the uppermost branches rising towards the sky which shine in the sunlight symbolize the tree of life. These all combine to form a symbol that encompasses both Earth and Heaven.
While this explanation seems to have a very physical nature to it, if looked at carefully, it also conveys the evolution of a human soul. With the id or ego as the baser instincts and wisdom the soul gathers while experiencing life, it looks forward to living in paradise, post death. Anatolian motifs also call this symbol as “tree of the soul”, confirming our assumption of the tree being a symbol for the human soul. This motif is also widely used on gravestones, with the hope that the dead become immortal and experience a life after death.
Different cultures use different trees or plants to symbolize the tree of life. While the acacia tree is used in Egyptian mythology, the Rastafari from Africa consider Cannabis as the life tree, for Anatolians, ‘Cyprus’ tree is the one. Along with Cyprus, fig and palm trees have also been used to convey a similar message. A widely used motif is the bird on a tree of life. Some motifs that combine this tree, bird, and dragon convey the meaning of the continuity of the soul. The life tree motif is stylized at the time, yet carries the same meaning. It is widely used on stone masonry, pottery, rugs, and even in literature and music. You will find many such symbols used in different artifacts, handiwork, flags, and tapestry expressing the different stages of life. There are intellectual, artistic and emotional messages’ woven, nailed or stamped onto the items which grace Turkish markets. Sometimes they are logical and the meaning is conveyed straight away and at times, you have to look between the lines to understand the meaning. It is said that the person who prepares any artifact using these symbols is a storyteller weaving an anecdote into a beautiful pattern for the world to see. No doubt, the legacy of carving and weaving these meaningful symbols will be passed on to future generations and will last till the end of time.