MOSAICS: The Missing Link? By Patricia T. Leiser
Over a number of years living, studying and traveling in the Mediterranean and
Islamic worlds, often visiting classical sites and museums by day and rug shops
at night, I have at times been struck by a resemblance between Roman mosaics and
oriental carpets. At first, this seems surprising as the former are composed of
hard immovable stone and the latter of flexible, portable fabric. Furthermore,
the two are apparently separated in time by one or two thousand years, and
belong to two distinctly different cultural traditions . Do their
similarities arise then simply from the functional coincidence that they both
serve as decorative floor coverings, or is there some direct connection?
Carved threshold slabs in Assyrian palaces appear to be stone reproductions of
textiles or carpets of which the oldest complete pile carpet, the Pasaryk rug,
would seem to derive . Were classical mosaics likewise modeled on
contemporary weavings of the time whose legacy could have been carried on in
later kilim tapestries and pile carpets? Or could these later weavings have
been influenced, even if indirectly, by the patterns in the mosaics? Many
scholars have noted similarities between rugs and mosaics , while a contrary
view warns that apparent resemblances are just as likely to be independent
developments of motifs . In order to determine the extent of the
similarities and if they are "genetic" and have a direct relationship and/or a
common source, I have made a preliminary survey comparing and contrasting
Greco-Roman and Byzantine mosaics with traditional kilim and carpet designs. I
restricted myself primarily to Turkey and began by focusing on border patterns,
a conservative decorative device shared by all three .
From this study have come some surprising findings that lead in some unexpected
directions. The analysis and conclusions are based on a number of principles
that I believe are critical for understanding the transfer and development of
decorative patterns. Classic mosaic borders imitated numerous woven or
decorative textile designs, some of which are also found in kilims and carpets.
Many mosaics, however, also copied or imitated the geometric patterns of the
more valuable and prestigious opus sectile marble marquetry pavements that saw a
renaissance under the Byzantines, and many of these same patterns also appear in
carpets. Textiles of the Byzantine era also incorporated these opus sectile
patterns and their influence, in combination with a variety of textile motifs,
can be seen not only in weavings of the Mediterranean Islamic world, but also in
1. In reference to the theory that the carpet originated in urban centers, the
M. Eilands JR. & III describe it as "something on the order of a portable
mosaic." Oriental Carpets; a complete guide (Boston, 1998) p. 14.
2. David Stronach, "Patterns of Prestige in the Pazyryk Carpet: Notes on the
Representational Role of Textiles in the First Millennium BC," in Oriental
Carpet and Textile Studies (OCTS) if,ed. M.L. Eiland, Jr. (Berkeley, 1993), pp.
3. R. Pinner and M. Franses note similarity between Roman and later Egyptian
fountains and 'Mamluk' carpets ("An East Mediterranean Carpet in the V&A," Hali,
vol. 4 no. 1 , p. 37; Dr. H. Bartels points out likenesses in "On the
Origins of Anatolian Kilim Designs," OCTSI, 1985, p. 206. V. Gantzhorn
illustrates Roman and "post-Roman" mosaics in Cilicia and the Levant for early
carpet designs (Les Tapis d'Orient, 1998, pp. 58-65). Dr. Enderlein sees the
resemblance between the border of a mosaic in Berlin, originally from Pergamon,
and a kilim (cf. "Fragments," Hali, 68, April/May, 1993, p. 93. Robert Pinner
finds "Crivelli" rug medallion prototypes in a Sogdian textile from the Caucasus
and Roman mosaics in Sicily and England ("The Crivelli Rug Medallion and the
Turkmen Connection," OCTS IV, p. 245). Carol Bier alludes to Roman mosaics in
her discussion of fractal geometric patterns in rugs ("Elements of Plane
Symmetry in Oriental Carpets," The Textile Museum Journal, 31, 1992, p. 54 &
60). Tom Murray remarks on the resemblance between a second century AD Roman
mosaic in a gallery in New York and the elusive geometric field patterns of many
oriental carpets (Hali, 73, Feb./Mar. 1994, p. 71).
4. L. E. Folgelberg, "Universality and Interrelationships of Certain Design
Elements," OCTS VI pt. 1 (Danville, 1999).
5. Sheila Campbell's Corpus of Mosaic Pavements in Turkey: The Mosaics of
Antioch (Toronto, 1988), The Mosaics of Aphrodisias in Caria (Toronto, 1991),
The Mosaics of Anemurium (Toronto, 1998) have been a major resource for mosaics.
the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism's series Turkish Handwoven
carpets; catalog No. 1-5 (Ankara, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1990, 1995) and The Ministry
of Culture's Anatolian Kilims, 1-2 (Ankara, 1995) published in memory of Guran
Erbek are the primary source for traditional weavings. It was he who first
introduced me to kilims in Turkey and who was instrumental in this project to
make available photographs of pieces from Vakiflar storage, museums, and private
collections in order to provide patterns from the past for modern weavers and
scholars. I am also deeply indebted to Susan York, an artist whose experience
with weaving and mosaics has also led her to wonder about a connection between
them. Her extensive library, slide collection and photographic assistance, plus
many insights and guidance have been invaluable.