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.
The 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.
Typical 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.
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.