First-period Single and Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ Rugs

By , October 27, 2014

On the 100th anniversary of the Budapest 1914 exhibition, when the ‘Transylvanian’ rugs were brought to the attention of the wider public, it’s time to have a fresh look at this fascinating and controversial group. Today about 400 Turkish rugs of different types are preserved in the Lutheran Churches and Museums in Transylvania and Romania. About half belong to the ‘Transylvanian’ group, which is divided in 4 subgroups: Single- and Double-niche rugs, Plain-niche prayer rugs and prayer rugs with Columns. The ‘Transylvanian’ rugs represent the larges surviving group of 17th cent. Anatolian carpets. Studying this group is fundamental for understanding much of the 18th and 19th century carpets of Bergama, Demirci, Dazkırı, Gördes, Karapınar, Konya, Kula, Ladik, Milas, Mucur, and even beyond to eastern Anatolia.

Black Church, Braşov a must see for every carpet connoisseur: Ushak, Lotto, ‘Bird’, Cintamani rugs
and the greatest ensemble of ‘Transylvanian’ rugs, in outstanding condition.

The key idea of this article is that the Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rugs evolved from the Prayer format with decorated field (usually called Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’). For long time it was thought that the forerunner of the Double-niche ‘Transylvanian were the Small-medallion Ushaks.

Download the article published by Carpet Collector magazine:  Article.pdf (including German version Frühe Siebenbürger Nischen- und Doppelnischenteppiche) or  English Article.doc; to contact the author please write to


The Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’ Group

According to many authors the prayer carpet, called sajjada in Arabic, is the “most popular and widely used type of carpet” (R. Ettinghausen).  The 17th cent. Anatolian prayer rugs with star-and-cartouche border  and decorated field, with a mosque lamp hanging from the apex of the niche are called Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rugs. Only 12 First Period examples have survived untill today, mostly in Transylvania but also in Turkey. The overall design is very well organised which points to a common prototype, today lost. All but one show arabesque spandrels.

Little is know about how this design came into being and how it was adopted by the provincial west Anatolian weavers. The lobed profile of the arch recalls the prayer rugs as those illustrated in 15th and 16th cent. Persian miniatures. The overall composition shows similarities to 16th century Safavid or to Cairene prayer rugs and also to earlier works of architecture: the tiled mihrab with arabesque spandrels at the Tomb of Mehmet I in Bursa (built around 1420 by the ‘masters of Tabriz’) or the late 16th cent. Iznik tiled panel, at the Mausoleum of Selim II, in Istanbul.


Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’ with arabesque cross-panel, west Anatolia, early 17th century, 118 x 155, 2400 knots/dm2, National Brukenthal Museum, inv. M 1626, formerly in the Lutheran Church of Sibiu.

Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rug with arabesque cross-panel, west Anatolia, early 17th century, 118 x 155 cm, 2470 knots/dm2, National Brukenthal Museum, inv. M 1626, formerly in the Lutheran Church of Sibiu.

The field shows a scrolling vine with rosettes, flower buds, palmettes and simplified saz leaves. As in Cairene prayer rugs the composition is symmetrical along the vertical axis, with palmettes, of different types,  alligned vertically. The motifs, borrowed from the saz repertoire and partly from the Ushak style are organised according to a precise design:

(1) central ascending palmette pointing to the mosque lamp;

(2) a pair of simplified split leaves above the palmette;

(3) two ‘rotating’ palmettes (often seen in Ushaks);

(4) a pair of four-petalled rosettes below the palmette;

(5) stylised saz leaves with half palmettes, at the bottom of the field;


An interesting feature of the Sibiu example is the cross-panel above the niche, with multicoloured arabesques on a brick-red ground. This motifs have been wrongly interpreted as confronting animals, but a closer examination reveals that they complete the spandrels’ pattern, displaying ivory arabesques on a dark ground. The well drawn star-and-cartouche border, flanked by reciprocal trefoil minor borders and ‘chain link’ stripes is typical for early examples. From the technical point of view this example stands out for the very high knotting density; there are no lazy lines are visible on the back but there are weft colour changes. The rug bears the donor name MICH Stamp, without any date. Research carried in the Parish archives could not trace the donor.

The rug from Sibiu was first published in the 1914 catalogue of the Budapest exhibition as cat. 73 and also in Végh and Layer 1925, pl. 11. This fact inspired several fakes by Tuduc, published as authentic: Schmutzler 1933, pl. 43, and Wulff 1934, pl. 15.

More recently this prayer rug was exhibited in Rome (2005), Berlin (2006), Istanbul (2007) and Gdansk (20013).

Additionally there are 5 Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rugs  with arabesque spandrels and decorative cross-panel above the niche: the Avachian rug in Bucharest, the Single-niche from Sighişoara, the Ballard fragmentay rug in the SLAM (according to Tom Farnham it was probably bought from the  Turkish collector Kafaroff around 1916), the Bensilum Single-niche (acquired by Herrmann from a collectotor called Bensilum who had bought it from Ulrich Schürmann), and the Achdjan-Tabibnia Single-niche (found in Paris long time ago), which is probaly the latest in the group.


Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rug with inscribed cross-panel, first half 17th cent.,126 x 167 cm, TIEM inv. 401, formerly in Sinan Bey Mosque of Kastamonu.


Three Single-niche rugs have a cross-panel with the same religious script, which translates:

Hasten to pray without delay.

The angular design and the profile of the niche of the TIEM example point to a later date. The fact that it survived in a mosque confirms that prayer rugs with religious script were produced for the local market.

A second example, with very fine design, with different spandrels, is the well known Eskenazi-Dall’Oglio Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’ now in Tabibnia collection (see Franses and Eskenaz1, 1996).

A third example, with important restorations, is now in a Connecticut collection.


Single-niche ‘Transylvanian’, west Anatolia, first half 17th cent., 122 x 154 cm, 1.600 knots/dm2. Lutheran Church iof Mediaş, formerly in the Wurmloch Church.


Three examples  have no cross-panel above the niche. Here to the left, the Single-niche rug from Wurmloch (now in St Margaret Church in Mediaş), with a red ground niche.

Two other examples of this type are known so far:

MET 22.100.92, donated to the MET by Joe Mc. Mullan who  acquired it from Ballard who bought it in Istanbul, from a collector called Kafaroff;

MIA Doha, CA.96.2012 which belonged to the Saxon collector from Braşov Emil Schmutzler, who published it as Plate 42 in his album of 1933.

Except for the cross-panel the design of all 12 Single-niche rugs is very similar and well organised. This suggets that there was some sort of earlier prototype, today lost.
‘Transylvanian’ prayer rugs (Single-niche, Plain-niche and those with arches and columns) are always woven from top to bottom (a technique called ‘upside down’ weaving) because this method enabled the weaver to position properly the cusp within the field. In all cases the vertical borders start with a complete motif (star or cartouche in this case) while the truncated one, if any, occurs in the final section of the rug.
The lack of corner solution reveals that such rugs were not woven in organised workshops, after a complete cartoon (Jon Thompson, The Sarre Mamluk, p. 18, 1980).

  The Double-niche Layout

Double-niche Transylvanian with one lamp, west Anatolia, early 17th cent., 120 x 167 cm, 2400 knots/dm2, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, inv. 9123.


The reason why the Double-niche layout came into being is probably related to a historical fact, the edict sent to Kütahya in 1610, under the rule of Sultan Ahmed I, which stated:

We heard that, weavers are producing carpets and seccades in your kazas (townships) depicting mihrab, kabe (Kaaba) and hat (calligraphy) on carpets and seccades and selling them to non-Muslims.

Shaykh al-Islam prescribes this is against Islam and forbidden by şeriat.

(Ahmet Refik, Istanbul Hayati (1000 – 1100), Istanbul, doc. 83, pp.43-44 Transl. by Levent Boz, Ankara)

So, producing rugs for export in this format was a way of ostensibly obeying the Edict.


When the second niche was added the field pattern had to be adapted. The idea of the double-niche could have been borrowed from small-medallion Ushaks or from book-binding but all the design elements reflect the Single-niche rugs. Most often the field pattern of early Double-niche rugs is not perfectly symmetrical (on the horizontal axix) and there are clear directional elements (like the lamp in this case).

Rugs in the Double-niche format were exported in considerable numbers to the West where they became very ‘trendy’. Soon this layout took over the Single-niche one, which continued to be produced in smaller numbers.
11 examples have star-and-cartouche borders and arabesque spandrels. In most cases the design has directional elements: note the motifs surrounding the rising palmette and the extra hooks on the upper cusp of the Budapest rug.
The term ‘Siebenbürger’ Teppich had been coined by Neugebauer and Orendi in their Handbuch Der Orientalischen Teppichkunde of 1909. Unfortunately the double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ of Abb. 39 was published upside-down, with the cross panel downward and with the ascending palmette pointing down. This error persisted for over hundread years as the prayer design was not recognised.

Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’, west Anatolia, early 17th cent., 132 x 172 cm, 1.540 knots/dm2, Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest, inv. 7.967

The close relationship between Single- and Double-niche rugs implies that they should be displayed and published the same way, with the start of the rug on the top.

In this way the ascending palmette is pointing up, all the upper part of the design matches with Single-niche rugs and the unresolved part the border (the truncated cartouche, if any) will be in the lower side.

Like all ‘Transylvanian’ prayer rugs Single- and Double-niche ones are woven “upside down”.

The Budapest Double-niche is thought to be the finest and earliest example. It is not known where it was sourced, but in conversation, the great Hungarian expert Ferenc Batári considered the provenience from Transylvanian most probable. The rug was first published (with the palmette pointing up) in Orientalische Teppiche of the K.K. Österreichisches Handels-Museum, vol. I-III, 1892-1896 as Plate. 27. Then, starting with Végh and Layer 1925, Plate 12, for almost 100 years, it was consistently published the wrong way. This great example also inspired several fakes by Tuduc.

In the case of the Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ from Skokloster Castle the design is almost symmetrical along the horizontal and vertical axis. Arguably the different shades of blue in the upper and lower spandrels could be a way of differentiating the niches.


Star and Cartouche Main Border

(L) Cartouche of an early 17th cent. ‘Transylvanian’ rug (R) Detail of the Anhalt carpet, mid 16th cent. Iran.

A common element of all first-period ‘Transylvanians’ is the star-and-cartouche main border. The distinctive motif inside the cartouche is formed by two confronted split-leaves, usually red on a white ground, joined together to form a ‘shield’. This overlays scrolling flowers issuing from a central palmette. Similar motifs are found in 16th century Persian carpets or ceramic tiles. The star-and-cartouche border lacks a direct prototype among surviving knotted Ottoman carpets but layouts employing stars and cartouches, with floral motives or with Islamic script, are found throughout 16th century Mamluk carpets, Safavid prayer rugs and silk kilims and also in Islamic bookbindings, miniatures and architecture.


Star and Star Main Border

Double-niche 'Transylvanian' rug with star and star border, first half 17th cent., MET 22.100.90

Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rug with star only border, first half 17th cent., MET 22.100.90



Among the early examples it should be recorded a variant with less elongated cartouches, looking almost as a star-and-star border.

The field of the rug shown here is almost symmetrical but in order to diferentiate one of the niches the weaver placed a supplemetary stripe, probably to point the bottom niche.

The minor borders of this example are typical for Ushak area.

Two Single-niche rugs with star only border, but with large flower and feather leaf spandrels (which are later), survived in Transylvania in the Lutheran churches of Biertan and Blumenau.


Single-niche versus Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ Rugs

Single-niche (MET 22.100.92) versus Double-niche  (CLO, Oct 1996, lot 410)

Single-niche (MET 22.100.92) versus Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ (CLO, Oct 1996, lot 410)

– The field of the Single-niche rugs is better planned; all the examples reflect the same design;
– In Double-niche rugs the upper part of the field is almost identical to the Single-niche one, while in several cases the lower part seems to be adapted. Note in the CLO example shown here how the weaver was running out of warp and simplified the design of the lower niche;
– In many cases the weaver differentiated the two niches and the design has a clear direction;
– Single- and ‘directional’ Double-niche ‘Transylvanians’ are woven ‘upside down’ which further confirms that the second type evolved from the prayer format.
– In any case, given the close relationship between Single- and Double-niche examples they should be displayed and published the same way. This facilitates the understanding of the niche pattern (in the early examples the design is always directional, with the central palmette pointing up) and of the border construction, with the truncated cartouche, if any, always occurring in the lower section of the rug.
– A few later Double-niche rugs have a decorative cross-panel, but none has an inscribed panel, most probably to obey the Edict of Kuthaya.
Dating the Early ‘Transylvanian’ Rugs
7 1627, Thomas de Keyser, Constantijn Huygens and his Clerk det

1627, Thomas de Keyser, Constantijn Huygens and his Clerk.

The dating of west Anatolian rugs is supported by the inclusion of ‘Transylvanian’ carpets in Dutch paintings.

Generally only part of the carpet is visible; the carpet is in pristine condition which suggests it was new at the time it was painted.

The iconic star-and-cartouche border is documented after 1620, but usually it is not possible to discern between Single- or Double-niche rugs; but as the rugs invariably are shown on a table it is more likely that those were Double-niche rugs.

The earliest depiction of a ‘Transylvanian’ rug dates from 1620, Portrait of Abraham Grapheus by Cornelius de Vos; this correlates with the period of the Edict of Kütahya (1610).

The small part of the border and field from the Civic Guards Company of Captain Albert Coenraetsz Burgh, by Werner van den Valckert, of 1625 probably reveals a Single-niche example.

Three paintings by Thomas de Keyser, made around 1632, show the same star-and-cartouche border and arabesque spandrels: Portrait of a Lady now in Berlin, The Music Lesson of Rouen and Portrait of a Gentleman from Louvre. Based on this evidence  ‘Transylvanian’ rugs of similar design are ascribed to early 17th century.
At a closer look the last two paintings by Thomas de Keyser reveal a rug with paired niches (see simulation). No such ‘Transylvanian’ rug has survived today but there are 19th century Turkish prayer rugs displaying the paired niches format.

Later Examples (mid 17th cent.)

Double-niche ‘Tralsylvanian’ with star-and-cartouche border and arabesque spandrels, mid 17th cent., Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), inv.10970.


The overall layout of first-period ‘Transylvanians’ can be found in a few later examples where itìs possible to trace the design changes.

The double-niche shown here is carefully executed but the profile of the niche looks stiff and there is a clear tendency to symmetry on both axis. To be noted the filling motifs added by the weaver in the spandrels and in the borders.

Another rug in a Hungarian private collection shows an almost symmetrical design, with central ascending palmette. Given the similarities of many details this rug was probably made by the same weaver as the Achdjan-Tabibnia Single niche.

In the rustic example of Black Church inv. 257 the design becomes angular, the motifs are misunderstood or lost but the overall pattern is still there.

By mid 17th century the design changed: the arabesque spandrels have been substituted by the large rosette and feathery leaves while the star-and-cartouche border became a cartouche only border.


Small-medallion Ushaks versus Double-niche ‘Transylvanians’


Small Medallion Ushak versus Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’

For long time the Small-medallion Ushaks have been considered the forerunners of the Double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rugs.

Despite the similar layout there are major differences between the two groups which do not support this hypotesis.

– According to Walter Denny  Small-medallion Ushaks have been erroneusly termed “double-ended prayer rugs”; see The Classical in Traditionin Anatolian Carpets, caption to pl. 22, p.83.
In fact the lay out of the Small-medallion Ushaks derives from book-binding, where the spandrels are quarter medallions, while in ‘Transylvanian’ rugs they reflect the cusp of a mihrab.
– the main borders are different; no early ‘Transylvanian’ has borders similar to those seen in Ushak rugs;
– trefoil reciprocal minor borders of early ‘Transylvanian’ rugs are not common in Ushaks;
– the profile of the niche in small-medallion Ushaks has often the shape of a ‘pelt’;  this does not occur in ‘Transylvanians’;
– the spandrels of small-medallion Ushaks often show cloudband motifs which are not recorded in ‘Transylvanians’;
– the Small-medallion Ushaks have a centralised design while in most cases the field decoration of the early ‘Transylvanians’ is directional;
– the hanging ornaments of the Small-medallion Ushaks are probably amulets while in ‘Transylvanian’ rugs are mosque lamps;
directional Ushaks are not woven ‘upside down’.
– there is no early ‘Transylvanian’ showing the small Ushak medallion.

Finally, we don’t know if the weavers in Ushak observed the same regulations mentione in the Edict of Kutahya but it’s worth mentioning that small-medallion Ushaks (with double-niche layout) are the largest surviving 16th century Anatolian rug group.

For a complete survey of the Small-Ushak group we suggest to vistit John Taylor’s carpet blog, (plates 157-220).




The study of the early examples sheds light on how the ‘Transylvanian’ design came into being.
A number of facts suggests that the Double-niche design developed from the Single-niche format due to regulations regarding the carpets meant for export. The Double-niche ‘solution’ was borrowed from small-medallion Ushaks or from book-binding in order to ostensibly obey such regulations.
In many cases the design of Double-niche ‘Transylvanians’ is directional as the weaver marked one of the niches. This further suggests the close relation between Single- and Double-niche ‘Transylvanians’; this suggests that the two groups  should be displayed and published the same way (pile up, against the direction of wave).
The number of early Single- and Double-niche rugs is almost the same, which suggests that for some time they co-existed. In one case we have a Single- and a Double-niche rug clearly made by the same weavers.
Later on the Double-niche format became very popular and the Single-niche one was almost abandoned. There are less than half a dozen Single-nich ‘Transylvanians’ with large flowerhead spandrels while there are hundreads of Double-niche.
In many cases there is a clear (or sometimes subtle) differention of one niche which is an echo of the prayer format.


In a next article we will discuss the composition changes of second period double-niche ‘Transylvanian’ rugs, woven by mid 17th century, when this became one of the most successful patterns in western Anatolia.