A Catholic Kilim

Unraveling the Past at Saint-Benoit
by Gabriel Doyle

[1] Detail of kilim found in the chapel of Saint-Benoit, showing the date of 1874. Photo by Author.

Works of art are often not only beautiful objects, but also important historical sources, telling a larger story just as any written document could. In one of Istanbul’s many churches, I encountered a mysterious carpet that could be read as an archive of information, modestly contributing to the city’s history.

[2] Detail of 1882 Map of Istanbul, with the location of Saint-Benoit highlighted. The old walls of Galata are indicated with a dark blue line, revealing that the foundation was originally extra muros along the shores of the Bosphorus. Map from the Istanbul Urban Database project (IUDB). 

[3] Exterior of the Saint-Benoit church,
first constructed in the 15th c., with the later
buildings of the lycée in the background.
Photo by Mansevikobora, CC license.
In the summer of 2015, trying to enrich my master’s thesis with some photographs, I was allowed to enter the chapel of Saint-Benoît, a major historical building of Istanbul situated in the neighborhood of Karaköy. Owned by the same Catholic congregation since 1783, Saint-Benoît is today a French-Turkish private school. The building itself dates back to the Byzantine period, when it was converted into a monastery as part of the Genoese colony in Galata. After the Ottoman conquest, but especially following the agreement between France and the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th century, the monastery was offered to the Jesuits under the protection of the French ambassador. In 1783, the Jesuits were excommunicated, sent away from Istanbul and replaced in Saint-Benoît by the Lazarist order. This overall history of Saint-Benoît makes it still today a major monument of Galata. Its eclectic architecture, which one can see from the outside, clearly illustrates such a tumultuous past. 

[4] Inscription above the door at Saint-Benoit church recording a restoration in 1687. The Latin phrase "Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam" ("For the Greater Glory of God")  is specific to the Jesuit monastic order. Photo by Mansevikobora, CC license.

[5] The large 19th-century kilim covering the floor of
the chapel at Saint-Benoit. Photo by the author. 
I arranged a meeting with Père Lazare, the last Lazarist priest living in Saint-Benoît. We met up in the mid-afternoon heat and walked through the renovated staircases of the school. We gazed together at the Byzantine pillars, rummaged around the early modern bibles in the library and finally entered the chapel. Covering the floor was a large-scale Turkish kilim. As carpet aficionados know, a kilim is the thin “pileless” rug traditionally made in Anatolia, Iran and Central Asia, as opposed to the halı, a thicker knotted carpet. In Turkey, recurrent patterns found on kilims express mostly pre-Islamic symbols such as wolves, the Elibedelinde (a women with her hands on her hips said to represent fertility), the evil eye, and the pomegranate, a sign of abundance. 

[6] Detail of the carpet in Saint-Benoit showing the alternating symbols of the fleur-de-lys and the cross appearing in star-shaped medallions. Photo by author. 

A Turkish carpet on the floor of a Catholic church did not surprise me that much. After all, we were in Istanbul, in a prestigious school where half the classes were taught in Turkish, where a bust of Atatürk welcomed students at the entrance. But one pattern did attract my curiosity, as it was a symbol familiar to me from another context entirely: the fleur-de-lys. This three-petal flower is still today a major emblem of monarchism in France. I could also read French text on all four sides of the carpet: "Dames de Constantinople, Dames de la Charité, Hommage à Saint-Benoît, Ste-Anne S Vincent-de-Paul," as well as a date: 1874.

Noticing my interest, Père Lazare shared his personal experience with the kilim. When he moved from Isfahan to Istanbul a few years ago, the French priest began discovering the secrets of his new home. One day, he found this carpet rolled up at the back of the chapel’s cellar, covered in dust. Once unfurled, the Lazarist found that the piece of weaving perfectly fit the chapel’s sitting area. He consequently decided to use it to cover the church’s marble floor. Père Lazare also shared his personal theory about how the biography of this carpet could be explained through French history. The fact that the motif of the fleur-de-lys is linked to both the French aristocracy and the Catholic faith could have been a reason for its disappearance. It was only in 1875 that France was officially declared a republic again, with no official use of the fleur-de-lys. Given that it was the French government that protected and financed these Catholic congregations in the Ottoman Empire, the missionaries might have thought it best to tuck away the potentially offending carpet.

Père Lazare had, on the contrary, decided to put it back where he thought it belonged. I personally had trouble believing he had been the first to discover this piece of cloth since its initial weaving. Anyhow, we carried on our stroll through Saint-Benoît, of which he showed me some other peculiarities. What an uncommon place, I thought, full of secret doors and uncovered mysteries. The next day I left Istanbul.

[7] Detail of the kilim mentioning
the charitable organization
"Ste-Anne S Vincent-de-Paul."
Photo by the author.
Back in in the city at the end of 2018, I thought straight away of obtaining more information on this curious carpet. In the meantime, I had started a PhD on foreign charity and beneficence in the late Ottoman capital. Along the way, I continued to encounter all the names that were inscribed on the carpet, including the 
Dames de Constantinople and the Society of Ste-Anne and S Vincent-de-Paul. Mostly female charitable associations with close links to the French embassy, they took care of orphans, abandoned children and migrants around Pera and Galata. Female members of prominent families participated, taking the children out for excursions in what was already at the time a major metropolis. According to an 1885 census, Istanbul had then around 130,000 foreigners out of an overall population of 800,000. Trade had made thousands of Europeans join the already settled Levantine families, and the moral cost of commercial success was investment in charity for those living in abject poverty.

The date on the carpet also tells of the French side of the story. 1874 is the year before the political regime ratified laws that were to become the constitutional basis of the Third Republic. At the time, hopes to see a monarchy overcome the country were still strong. These charity organizations had clearly demonstrated their support overseas by choosing the fleur-de-lys as a pattern. I had looked for information on the kilim in various archives before coming to Istanbul, but nothing came up. The carpet could have been woven in the context of a local event or could have been the present of an Ottoman official. 

This kilim could thus be understood as a hybrid object. This might even be the case with some of the symbols in the carpet: while the tiny diamonds and cross-shaped forms inscribed in the letters of the text (see Figures 1 & 6) could be associated with Christianity, they also can serve as protection against the evil eye in traditional Anatolian craft arts. Cultural ambiguity could have well been the aim of those who participated in the fabrication of this object. This kilim incarnates the will for foreign communities living in Istanbul to show their belonging to the city through the adoption of local aesthetics. Carpet weaving was moreover an art tradition associated with women and could have been connected to the appearance of female patrons in the public sphere through charitable associations. The patterns of the carpet and the message it conveys shows that these communities also tried to stay irremediably linked to France and Catholicism, to the point that they expressed their opinion on the country’s dramatic political context of the beginning of the 1870s. 

The carpet provides a visual context to a long and complex story set in Istanbul. As an archive, its patterns, context of production, fabric, colors, and shape or state of preservation are all messages that inform us about how people navigate through various material cultures. I am reminded of a passage from Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities, in which the author describes the imaginary place of Eudoxia:

"At first sight nothing seems to resemble Eudoxia less than the design of that carpet, laid out in symmetrical motives whose patterns are repeated along straight and circular lines, interwoven with brilliantly colored spires, in a repetition that can be followed throughout the whole woof. But if you pause and examine it carefully, you become convinced that each place in the carpet corresponds to a place in the city and all the things contained in the city are included in the design, arranged according to their true relationship, which escapes your eye distracted by the bustle, the throngs, the shoving." [96]

While this city exists only in the mind of Calvino, it is interesting to note that Eudoxia was the name of a Byzantine empress who died in 404 CE, in the imperial capital of Constantinople. The name, remarkably, means “good repute or honor” or “good deeds” in ancient Greek, echoing the spirit of charity across time. And pausing and examining this particular kilim with great care, as Calvino recommends, was a way for me to understand a city that has left us still so much to unweave.

Gabriel Doyle is a PhD candidate at EHESS (Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales) in Paris, France.

Works Cited and Further Reading

***More information about the 19th-century charity organizations can be found at the Archives de la Congrégation de la Mission, Paris.

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1974.

Diller, Ahmet and Marc-Antoine Gallice. Symbolique des kilims. Paris: Bleu Autour, 2017.

Duclert, Vincent. La République Imaginée (1870-1914). Paris: Belin, 2010.

Landreau, Anthony N. From the Bosporus to Samarkand: Flat Woven Rugs. Washington DC: Textile Museum, 1969.

Mellaart, James. “Turkish Kilims," Anatolian Studies 30 (1980), 91–99.

Shaw, Stanford. “The Population of Istanbul in the Nineteenth Century," International Journal of Middle East Studies 10/2 (May, 1979), 265-277.


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