by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's latest entry in UNESCO's non-material cultural heritage list is on the brink of extinction

chiprovtsi carpet weaving.jpg

A smiling man offering to sell you a traditional carpet supposedly woven by his old mother herself – everyone who has been to any part of the Middle East has met the omnipresent "genuine" rug dealer.

Bulgaria is the complete opposite to this experience. Few people will bother to direct your attention to the century-strong local tradition of carpet making developed in two major regions – the northwest, with centres at Samokov and Chiprovtsi, and the east, at Kotel. Most of the time, handwoven carpets for sale are displayed in antique and souvenir shops, waiting quietly and without advertisement for some tourist to notice them.

Such underappreciation is sad. In 2014, the Chiprovtsi carpet-making tradition made it onto UNESCO's non-material cultural heritage list. These beautiful traditional carpets of pure wool are a rarity in Bulgarian homes, mainly because of their price and the old-fashioned designs. Few foreigners are aware of their existence and, as a result, the carpet making "industry" is barely surviving. Few women in Chiprovtsi can make ends meet with their laborious craft, and some of them are reluctant to sell their carpets, as they make them mainly for sons and daughters, as beautiful and expensive heirlooms which will last for generations and bring happiness and good luck.

About 300 years ago, however, carpets became the saviour of Chiprovtsi's economy. In the 15-17th centuries, this now desolate town was a buzzing community of Saxon settlers, merchants from Dubrovnik and Bulgarian Catholics, who worked the local mines and sold their wares and jewellery all over the Balkans. Wealthy Chiprovtsi thrived, had a sophisticated literary school and local boys grew in the ranks of the Catholic church. It all ended, in 1688, when Chiprovtsi rebelled against the sultan. The promised Austrian support never materialised, and the uprising was brutally crushed. Catholicism and minework were wiped out.

Chiprovtsi carpets, BulgariaThe craft of carpet weaving was imported to Chiprovtsi probably from nearby Pirot, now in Serbia, to revive the town's economy

Then began the carpet weaving. In the 18th Century the craft took off in Chiprovtsi, supposedly introduced by settlers from nearby Pirot, a Bulgarian town which is now in eastern Serbia and still maintains its own carpet making tradition. By the 19th Century, Chiprovtsi carpets were sold all over the Ottoman Empire and were the source of local wealth and fame. After Bulgaria regained its independence, in 1878, Chiprovtsi presented the Russian imperial governor of Bulgaria, Prince Aleksandr Dondukov, with the biggest carpet ever made in the city; it was seven metres long and six metres wide.

Chiprovtsi carpets thrived in the new Bulgaria, finding customers among the growing urban population and winning prizes at industrial exhibitions in Antwerp, Brussels, Liège and London. Under Communism, the production of Chiprovtsi carpets boomed, organised by a state-run coop. Its abandoned building, yet another victim of the ill-conceived economical policies during the Transition Period, is still in central Chiprovtsi – a ghost of its former self. The post-1989 economic hardships almost killed carpet production – few Bulgarians had either the money to afford an expensive hand-woven carpet, or the taste to enjoy the traditional designs.

In the past several years, several small companies have renewed production. Their Chiprovtsi rugs can even be bought online. The prices, depending on the design and size, range between 300 and 900 leva.

In spite of all the historical twists and turns they have gone through, Chiprovtsi carpets are still made using a technology unchanged by time. The women – no man has ever taken up the craft – use vertical looms, just as the first weavers, in Neolithic times, did. The warp is of pure cotton, and only genuine wool is used for the weft. Weaving is a slow process; a skilled worker produces between two and three square meters of carpet in a month. A finished Chiprovtsi carpet has two identical faces, and each of them can last for at least 30 years, far longer than any Ikea rug.

Chiprovtsi carpets, BulgariaTypical Chiprovtsi designs include vines and trees, birds and rhombs, which supposedly represent the forces of nature and how the old Balkan peoples imagined the world

The vivid, long-lasting colours of the Chiprovtsi carpets are made with natural dyes from mineral and plant pigments. Bright red, ochre, beige and grey-brown dominate the colour palette, and smaller details are in black, white, green, blue, orange, and yellow. Since the 1700s, the colour scheme of the Chiprovtsi carpets has gone through a gentle evolution, mirroring changes in taste and the lifestyle of customers. Dark red was the preferred main colour in the old Chiprovtsi carpets, while after the turn of the 19th Century rugs became lighter, in grey-brown and beige.

Bulgarians see the decorative motifs of Chiprovtsi carpets as unique, but many of the old designs are similar to ones found in carpets all over the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Middle East. These motifs are geometrical, based on combinations of triangles and rhombs, each with its own name and symbolism.

One of the most popular motifs in Chiprovtsi carpets, which resembles a human being, is the so-called karakachka. The word literally means "black-eyed woman" but according to some interpretations the design symbolises the ancient Indo-European concept of the Mother Goddess. Of course, there are other theories which say that the karakachka is a dragon or a mythical bird.

The tree of life is another well-loved motif. It symbolises the idea that the world is divided into three ‒ sky, earth and the nether-world. The makaz motif, which consists of two triangles with touching angles, represents the feminine and the masculine elements in the universe. The oktsata is interpreted as the "eyes of God".

In the late 19th Century, the repertoire of the carpet weaver diversified and more ornate motifs appeared, of vines, flowers and birds.
Today, 27 different motifs are listed as typical of the Chiprovtsi carpets. Each weaver knows them well; it is up to the customer to chose if they want a rug with geometrical karakachki, with oval, multicolour bombichki, or small bombs, or with the blossoming spirals of the spring vine motif.

The Chiprovtsi History Museum is the best place in Bulgaria to take a look at the bold designs and vivid colours of the local carpets. If travel to the northwest is not an option, though, visit Sofia's Ethnographic Museum, in the former Royal Palace. There, until 5 October, about 50 beautiful rugs are on display in a special exhibition. The oldest ones are 200 years old.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

ors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.