One of my very most prized travel souvenirs is a vintage kilim, about 75 years old, which I bought more than a decade ago in the otherworldly medina of Fez, Morocco – with its black-and-yellow zigzag motif, it evokes exoticism and the quintessence of travel whenever I look at it. I’m instantly transported back into that world of mint tea and mysterious narrow byways, the tannery where I watched young boys dying leather for shoes and Ottomans, the rooftop restaurant where I first tried tagines and pigeon, and the bathhouse where I found myself being vigorously pummeled by a wiry Moroccan masseur.
So what exactly are kilims and how are they different from carpets? Well, they’re also made of wool, but in many ways are closer to tapestries – flatter, lighter, more tightly woven, and less durable than carpets, with no pile to speak of. All the above add up to one key reason kilims also tend to be less expensive than most rugs – another is that they have traditionally been a homespun village craft, made for locals instead of the tourist or export market as increasingly became the case with rugs.
Having said that, over the years I’ve spotted quite a few gorgeous, skillfully crafted, even quite sophisticated kilims in several countries, and in various countries, more of them have been made for export than they used to be – and some command prices into the thousands of dollars or pounds. The word “kilim” itself is Turkish, derived from the Persian gelim, but in addition to Turkey and Iran they can be found throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. So look for them at local markets - many will be relative bargains, and I can assure you from personal experience that whether hanging on your wall or laying on your floor, they make some of the most spectacular and evocative travel souvenirs going.
photo: Stephan Geyer