SULEYMANKOY, Turkey — About 100 whitewashed houses lie along rutted dirt tracks dominated by a squat mosque and a tall minaret. On a fragrant spring afternoon in the back lands of western Turkey, century-old Suleymankoy looks like a village that ought to be poor.
It isn't. Suleymankoy has put the rug back under its feet.
Many homes harbor a loom at which women hand-weave carpets the old way. They earn First World luxuries for their families and honor a tradition of craftsmanship nearly as ancient as the ruins of nearby Troy.
Muzayen Yildiz, 33, knotting like lightning alongside her 17-year-old daughter Aynur, tosses her scarfed head toward the fenced yard where hens peck in the shadow of a hulking and venerable harvester. "The men buy expensive machines so we can work hard to pay their debts," Yildiz says with a loud, teasing laugh that calculatingly rouses her husband, Huseyin, from a siesta.
Suleymankoy, about five hours by car from Istanbul, is a rural laboratory for an audacious but fragile self-help project that has recovered the nearly extinct tradition of carpet-making with natural dyes: deep and lasting colors drawn from the madder root, from yellow straw, from chamomile, insects and indigo.
\o7 Rug \f7 is Turkey's middle name. Rug-making is as much a part of the Anatolian history and landscape as are sheep. Rare is the visitor who leaves Turkey without some woven treasure conquered with zeal and deliberation over a glass of tea. Even rarer, though, are rugs in Turkey's bazaars that are made of natural colors of the sort that have drawn the eye of princes and painters over the centuries.
Enter, then, Harald Bohmer, a German high school chemistry teacher. Traveling around Turkey in the 1960s with his wife, Renata, between semesters at a German school in Istanbul, Bohmer loved the tufted charm of the rugs he saw. But he hated their hard, garish, fade-quick colors derived from cheap commercial dyes; he found some weavers using pots of Polish and Czech dyes dating to the 1920s.
"There were no recipes for the dyes. Nobody wrote down what happened in the villages. We decided to try and do something about it," Bohmer said at his lavishly carpeted Istanbul home.
Analyzing old carpets, the chemist patiently unlocked old but forgotten peasant secrets of the natural colors. He wrote his own recipes, with measurements given in teacups for illiterate weavers. He scoured old photographs and paintings to find rugs in forgotten tribal designs.
A decade ago, with the support of the West German government and a local Turkish governor, Bohmer took his old rug patterns and his new old recipes to the Turkish town of Ayvacik to try them out.
Today, Ayvacik is the center of a cooperative of 220 weaving families in Suleymankoy and 19 other nearby villages in what is called the Dobag Project. Each year, the weavers produce about 4,000 square meters of rugs. Dobag rugs average 100,000 knots per square meter; an average weaver ties 4,000 knots a day. A sister cooperative at Yuntdag farther south is made up entirely of peasant women.
Dobag rugs are some of the most exclusive and most expensive now being produced in Turkey. And they are getting around. There's a 26-square-meter Dobag on the floor of the British Museum in London and a 68-square-meter rug in production for a college at Oxford.
The rugs, with the spring shear of seven sheep per square meter, are sold in Turkey only at the cooperative, at about $300 per square meter. Most of the production goes to importers in San Francisco and Oslo, where retail prices are about double that.
"When we started, the villages had no electricity. Now they buy olive groves. They buy gold," Bohmer said.
At Dobag headquarters in Ayvacik, coop President Suleyman Aydin talks of a new world in the countryside.
"Carpet-making had degenerated. It was finished as a handicraft. Now, that backwardness has been put aside. Before there were two or three tractors in a village. Now there are 20 or 30. People have televisions, cars, refrigerators."
They also have trouble meeting the new standards for old ways. About 100 members have been bounced from the cooperative for not meeting quality standards, according to Aydin.
At the municipal fountain in Suleymankoy, Serife Atlihan is politely but doggedly chewing out a mother and her daughter who have come to wash a rug of handsome madder red that they have just finished. They were washing it thoroughly but without soap.
Atlihan is a member of the formerly nomadic Yoruk tribe, whose women are the mainstay of the Dobag project. Twenty years ago, she recalled with a smile, when she was offered a chance to go to university, her father objected because he feared she would wind up wearing blouses with short sleeves. He surrendered after she promised to wear peasant dresses when she returned to their village on vacation.