Treasures of Mesopotamia: Telkari, Metalwork, and Textiles

Updated: Mar 28

Located in the Southeast Anatolia Region of Turkey, overlooking the vast plains of Mesopotamia, Mardin province is known for many things. A rich cultural, historical, and archaeological heritage. A physical location possessing an ethereal, poetic beauty. A renowned cuisine developed 12,000 years ago. A particular kind of jewelry called “Telkari” which is specific to Midyat, the largest city in Mardin province. It is also known for its beautiful metalwork and gorgeous textiles, still produced today using age-old, traditional methods.

View of Old Town- Midyat Mardin, Turkey

This is the third in a series of four articles about Mardin province and the surrounding area. This timeless region in southeastern Turkey has been known since ancient times as Mesopotamia, from the Greek meaning "between two rivers" (the Tigris and the Euphrates). Mesopotamia - where the story began and continues to endure. Mesopotamia – the land of the oldest and the land of the firsts. Many traditional arts and crafts have been practiced in this region for literally thousands of years. Continuing to explore about this region is not only a fascinating journey but inspiring and educational as well. My plan is to walk this ancient soil and explore this land in the near future. I know it will be an unforgettable experience!

It would require writing an historical treatise of hundreds and hundreds of pages to even begin to cover the riches, the diversity, the culture, the people, the history of Mesopotamia. To pay homage to even three of its nine provinces like Gaziantep, Mardin, and Sanliurfa – let alone the numerous and unique cities in each province, is a task for a lifetime. For most of us, including me, unless you are an academic scholar who can devote your life to such a project, the most we can hope to do is to concentrate on a few key areas. For this article, we will talk about Telkari Jewelry, Metalwork, and the Textiles of Mesopotamia – the treasures of this marvelous land!

Telkari Jewelry: Telkari is both an art form and an age-old tradition. Archaeological finds in ancient Mesopotamia show that filigree was incorporated into jewelry dating back to 3000 B.C. It is used to form decorative designs in many different kinds of pieces. Specific to the city of Midyat in Mardin province in upper Mesopotamia, a form of this filigree using silver and gold wires was developed in the 15th Century. Still today, expert craftsmen in the region continue to produce fine pieces of Telkari.

The work is done by the twisting of gold and silver threads, and requires very delicate handling. The name means “wire work” and cift-isi, meaning “tweezers work”. Extremely thin wires of silver or gold are fused together to form jewelry or other items. The Telkari craftsman holds a small blowtorch in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other as he fuses the silver wires together.

Precious stones or small silver balls may also be added to the piece being made.

All of the work involved in the creation of a filigree piece is carried out by the same craftsman. This involves the design of the object and production of the silver wire from which the frame and the infill motifs is made. Finished Telkari jewelry resembles lacework.

Some of the objects produced are flatware such as trays, belts bracelets, mirror frames and others are hollowware. Filigree coffee cup holders were once very popular when the cups were made without handles. Whatever the desired end result, the design is first drawn flat on paper. If the object will be hollow, the paper is manipulated into shape before the design is completed.

Historically, the process was all done by hand. Now hair-thin 925 ct silver or 22 ct gold strings are partially obtained with machinery. Then they are curled, twisted and plaited with each other. This part of the process is still completely handmade and requires great skill.

Below are examples of Telkari Jewelry from Mardin, Turkey.

The first season of the highly popular 2019 Turkish TV Series Hercai (A Fickle Heart) is being filmed in and around Midyat in the Mardin province. As many Turkish dizis can be, Hercai is romantic, intense, and full of drama and tumultous conflict. Precisely why thousands of fans love them so much and have become addicted to them (including yours truly).

In the short video clip below from Episode 10 of the series, a young man named Miran holds a delicate hair comb, a Telkari piece woven in the shape of a butterfly. Weeks before, Miran had seen and been fascinated by a young woman named Reyyan. Miran watched as she dropped this comb. Wanting something of hers, he picked it up and kept it. This butterfly hair comb is an outstanding example of the delicate work created for thousands of years by highly skilled and creative Telkari craftsmen.

*Video clip courtesy of Mia Yappim and ATV

Copper and Metalwork:

Copper working in Mardin dates back thousands of years. An ancient craft, it is still practiced in traditional ways today. The patient, rhythmic tapping of hammer on metal permeates in an alley of coppersmiths in many cities and villages. In a corner of each shop, a single worker, usually an older man, patiently toils away on his latest creation. Each piece is never quite identical to the one made before. Shelves in the shops are filled with gleaming pots, bowls and pitchers.

Unfortunately, this occupation is about to disappear because of the availability of cheaper, mass-produced items, such as nonstick cookware, that do not have to be looked after as carefully as copper. In the following picture, coppersmiths forge pots and copper trays in Mardin’s Old Bazaar.

Turkish metal artwork dates back to the 2nd and 3rd Century B.C. In Anatolia, the oldest existing Seljuk piece of metalwork is a silver tray and a silver candlestick dated 1137. Metal artwork reached its pinnacle in the Ottoman Empire with the making of weaponry – swords, helmets, armor, daggers and knives. For domestic use, copper or copper/zinc (tombac) was the material chosen. Bronze, silver, and gold were also used. A mass of copper would be beaten with a hammer (dogme), turned into a slab, then shaped by an artisan into the desired form.

Like other branches of art, the Ottoman art of metalworking took over the Seljuk cultural heritage. It became a melting pot for a variety of trends, befitting an empire that combined many lands and peoples. In the 14th Century, the widespread implementation of the art of repousse’, familiar in Seljuk metalwork, is an outstanding feature of the period.

Repousse’ is a method of decorating metals in which parts of the design are raised in relief from the back or the inside of the piece by means of hammers and punches. Definition and detail can then be added from the front by chasing or engraving. The name repousse’ is derived from the French pousser, “to push forward”.

With their many conquests, especially of the Balkan lands which were rich in gold and silver, the Ottomans acquired metalworking artists. These artists possessed the raw material resources to produce amazing metalwork pieces, but they brought with them long-standing traditions and concepts of art. This allowed the Ottoman art of metalworking to purge itself of manifest influences and develop its own unique style in the mid-16th Century.

A number of decorative techniques were used on the objects made in this century including intaglio, repoussé, filigree, embossing and metal plating. The group that best represents the character of the period is the metal work known as ‘murassa’ (studded with precious stones). It was fashionable to embed precious stones in metal surfaces such as swords, daggers, book covers (in the picture), and even porcelain using the technique of stone inlay.

In contrast to this ostentatious style, many pieces stand out simply for their harmonious proportions and fine workmanship.

Textiles: Turkish fabrics are unique in weaving features, the materials used, and in the variety of designs. The main material used was silk with gold and silver threads. The designs were rich in motifs. Flowers – tulips, roses, spring blossoms, and hyacinth. Trees – apple, date palm and cypress. Animals – the peacock and deer. The crescent moon and star motifs. Fruits – the pomegranate, apple, date, and pineapple.

Silk is a costly fabric and the raw materials were difficult to obtain. Silkworms were cultivated in Bursa and the surrounding countryside long before the arrival of the Ottomans. Bursa became an important commercial center where silk thread was produced and woven in quantities sufficient for the requirements of domestic and foreign markets. The Turks were superior in the weaving of silk fabrics. The colors, motifs and compositions used produced items of incredible beauty. Some types of silk fabric are taffetas, satin velvets, kemhas (brocades) - and more lightly-woven silk canfes (a fine taffeta) and burumcuk (silk crepe). (Below are a few examples of the patterns used in weaving silk fabric.)

Catma is a velvet fabric with a double ground and raised design. In the 16th century, the fame of Bursa catmas spread far beyond the confines of the Empire. Even though it was a costly fabric, it was in great demand in foreign markets and a very important export. It was very popular on the domestic market and greatly used in gifts presented to foreign heads of state by envoys and ambassadors.

The larger, single pictures below are examples of catma velvet used in chair cushions.

The Ottoman kemha fabric known to westerners as “brocade” was also very popular abroad. It is a silk fabric with a double ground, and an admixture of wire thread is often used in its weaving. The picture of containing small squares above shows various pattern designs used in kemha brocade fabrics. In the 16th century, orders were placed for this type of fabric for use in papal robes and in the ceremonial apparel worn by the imperial entourage. Papal costumes made from Ottoman brocades can be seen in museums and church treasuries.

Textiles were divided into three categories: cotton, wool and silk. A great deal of cotton was produced in Anatolia but it was not enough to meet the demand for it. Cotton had to be imported from the East, India in particular. The same was true of wool supplies. Used for civilian clothes and military uniforms, local supplies were just not sufficient. Wool cloth always had to be imported from western countries – France, England, Italy, and Hungary.

Anatolian Turkish Rugs: There is no reliable source to prove exactly when and where rug weaving began, but it can be traced back as early as the Neolithic age (7000 B.C.). It is thought that rug weaving originated in the dry steppe regions of Anatolia where many nomadic tribes lived. It was a suitable location for rug-weaving centers because of the availability of land for herding sheep and the climate of the region. Anatolian rug designs integrate different strands of traditions. Specific elements are closely related to the history of Turkic peoples and their interaction with surrounding cultures. The most important cultural influences came from Central Asia and from Islam.

Within the generic term “Oriental carpets”, the Anatolian rug is distinguished by the particular characteristics of its dyes and colors, motifs, textures and techniques. The earliest surviving examples of Anatolian rugs known today date from the 13th Century. Distinct types of rugs have been woven since then in court-mandated manufactories, and they are still produced today in many provincial workshops, village homes, tribal settlements, and in the tents of nomads. These rugs are produced mainly using sheep’s wool, cotton, and natural dyes. (The picture shows is a Turkish roller beam loom and weavers from 1908.)

From the 1870’s onward, Ottoman court manufactories also produced silk-piled rugs, sometimes with in-woven threads of gold or silver. But as stated before, the traditional material used in the majority of Anatolian rugs continued to be hand-spun, naturally-dyed sheep’s wool and cotton.

In Europe, Anatolian rugs were frequently depicted in Renaissance paintings, often in the context of representing dignity, prestige and luxury. Political contacts and trade intensified between Western Europe and the Islamic world after the 13th Century AD. When direct trade was established with the Ottoman Empire during the 14th Century, numerous kinds of carpets were given the trade name of "Turkish" carpets – regardless of their actual place of manufacture. Since the late 19th Century, “Oriental” rugs have been the subject of great interest to art historians, collectors and scientists in the Western world.

In the last third of the 19th Century, the art and craft of producing Anatolian rugs has undergone serious change with the introduction of synthetic dyes. The mass production of cheap rugs designed for commercial success caused the ancient tradition to come close to extinction. But thankfully, all is not lost! In the late 20th Century, different projects and initiatives have successfully revived the tradition of Anatolian rug weaving using hand-spun, naturally-dyed wool and traditional designs.

Samples of Anatolian Turkish Rugs

We will close part three of this four-part series by bringing our focus back to “Mardin, Turkey – The Shining City of Mesopotamia”. Coming full circle to the inspiration for this series. One of the most distinctive cities in Turkey, Mardin continues to preserve the cultural influences of the numerous dynasties that have existed here throughout the long history of these lands. A city that seamlessly combines the modern-day with the rich, mystical and historical heritage inherited over thousands of years.

Mardin - a city of ethereal beauty, mystical dreams, and endless mystery overlooking the vast and ancient plains of Mesopotamia.

Mary Bloyd is a retired corporate manager, living in Centerville, Ohio with her husband, Jon. A mother of one daughter and grandmother of four beautiful children, she loves cooking for her family and friends. Taught by a professional chef how to use spices and herbs, make stocks and mother sauces, she developed a curiosity about all manner of food and cuisine. A dedicated colorist, she is also a journal-keeper, writer of short stories and poetry, and loves to travel.

@Copyright by Mary Bloyd and North America TEN

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