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Kazaks That Are Not Kazaks

It may seem ironic, but it turns out that the two most iconic and collectible Kazaks, are not Kazaks at all.

Back in the heyday of their popularity, the late 19th and very beginning of the 20th century, Caucasian rugs were only known by the names attributed to them by the rug merchants: Kazaks, Shirvan, and Kabistan rugs in reference those from Kuba (Karaghasly, Konakend Baku).

Much later, when the shaggy and once inexpensive rugs began to undergo an aesthetic metamorphosis revealing unique colour intensities, rich and complex patterns, scholars cut into the chase and joined the growing number of collectors.

The Caucasian rugs were then categorized forming several schools (or groups): Kazak, Karabagh, Shirvan, Genje, Kuba and Baku or Absheron school.

It became evident at that point that the two most famous Kazaks, the Eagle and the Cloudband Kazaks, are not Kazaks at all. Owing to their provenance as well as their technical structure, these two rugs are unequivocally members of the Karabagh school of the Caucasian rugs, and therefore are Karabaghs and not Kazaks.


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The Irresistible Charm of Old Kazaks

Kazak Rugs

In the attempt to define a Kazak rug, many collectors focus on geography. Kazak rayon however is but one administrative part of present-day Azejberjan; it shares history and ethnicity with the entire Caucasus.

The Caucasus is ethically complex; its history witnessed great many migrations; Turkic tribes moving West, Georgians and Armenians moving East.

Tovuz Kazak in our collection

Owing to this peculiarity of the region, most scholars, view Kazak as a Caucasian rug originating from villages within Kazak and the surroundings parts of the country (Akstafa, Shulaver and Tovuz) and some territories abroad (Borchalou in Georgia, Fachralo and Lake Sewan in Armenia).

Bonhams : A Kazak rug Caucasus size approximately 4ft. 7in. x 8ft.
Karachof Kazak

The Lake Sewan district includes such Kazak works as Lori Pambak, Lombala, Yeravan and of course Lake Sewan (often referred to as) Shield Kazaks.

Antique rugs from these areas are collectively referred to as the Kazak school.

All these rugs may feature different weaving techniques or materials, they share several patterns and colours leaving, for the most, a large margin for unpredictability and creative whimsicality more or less typical to their geography and ethnicity.


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Investing in Rugs

Buying a rug may constitutes an opportunity to beat the inflation in many counties. In Iran, for instance, it is a common practice.

In the West, few people can be now convinced that rugs are a sound albeit long term investment.

A guide to buying antique Oriental rugs | House & Garden

Knowledge is the key; that little should be obvious.

For the purpose of this research, we will focus on the US market trends stretching from the early 1900s till today with respect to Caucasian rugs, both popular and economical home décor fixtures of the period.

We will rely on the following sources:   Libraries – University of Missouri and     Dr. G. Griffin Lewis The Mystery of the Oriental Rug J.B Lippincott Company, published in 1914

The early 1900s in the US witnessed and an unprecedented rise in imports of Oriental carpets.

Anatolian Antique Rug - 8'1 x 5'1

It is believed that the cost of a Caucasian rug at that time was lower than that of a machine-made one.

Rugs from the Caucasus were shaggy; (long nap was the term commonly used in that period) and not very elegant.

Over a period of less than a century however they began to show their true colours.

The natural process of wool corrosion (gradual flaking away of rich in iron and other metal wool ) and the contraction of the foundations brought out the beautifully harmonious tones characteristic to the antique rugs from the Caucasus and created embossed patterns of high and low pile across their surface.

At the beginning of the 19th century, an average salary in the US was about $200 while the cost of a Caucasian rug ranged from $1.5-$3.00 per square foot. Even a family of modest means could then afford a $15-$20 rug for their home.

Handmade Carpet Antique Rugs Tribal Living Room Rug, Traditional Red Wool  Rug For Sale at 1stDibs

With hardwood floors becoming a common feature in modern home décor of the early 20th century, wool rugs became popular if not in fashion.

A $20 dollar purchase of a Caucasian rug constituted no more than a tenth (10%) of the average salary of the period in question.

A handful of these rugs survived till today; many are sold in rare rug shops and at auctions.

It is a conservative assumption that a late 19th and early 20th century Caucasian rugs can be sold/bought in the US for no less than $1500-$3000.

Thus, the average cost of an antique Kazak, Shirvan or Kuba is $2250.

Therefore, it is also a conservative assumption to suggest that an average Caucasian rug from the turn of the past century increased in value more +/- tenfold in market value approaching the cost of an average full one month salary in the US.

The number of these rugs is diminishing (at least certainly not growing); the question is whether the value of these rugs will increase at the same pace.

Hypothetically, we can assume that the cost of a Caucasian rug purchased in e.g. in New York in 1910 for $20 (a tenth of a monthly salary) may reach the value of a nearly one full annual salary in the US in 2100.


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Kouhi Afshar Rugs

This very rare and beautiful Persian  all-wool  rug is attributed to the small off-shoot of the Afshar peoples (the Jabal Barezi) from the Zagroz Mountains in the Jebalbarez district of Kerman Province

The so-called Kouhi Afshar rugs are extremely rare. This small group of the Afhar tribe is known to have produced mainly animal trappings that used to occasionally appear on the bazaars in Shiraz and Kerman. 

Because of their unusual characteristics (untypicality), these works were often referred to as ‘rugs from beyond the mountain’  (posht-e kuhi = over the hill). Although, Reinhard G. Hubel suggests in his The Book of Carpets (Praeger Publishers, N.Y. 1970 p.224 ) that Kuhi is actually the name of a Turkoman tribe that migrated to the south of Iran from the Caucasus.

… the use of anthropomorphic motifs

This rug shows a genuine nomadic work for tribal domestic use and likely not intended for sale at bazaars

The seemingly poorly executed lozenge pole medallion may suggest a deliberate concept when scrutinized. The bottom (deformed) lozenge inscribes a smaller diamond pole medallion while the top one constitutes the classic Afshar gûl.

… the rich border
… seemingly poorly executed lozenge pole medallion

What is intruguing about this unique ethnographic artifact, apart from its rather obscure provenance, is its asymmetry, the rich border and the use of anthropomorphic motifs .

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Prison Dhurries

The end of the 19th century in late colonial India bears witness to a revival of textile industry and carpet weaving.

Interestingly enough, many products of this re-emerging economy, quality rugs in intricate designs, came from Indian prison factories.

The so-called Jeeli or jail carpets was not a new idea; earlier, in the 16th century, Mughal Emperor Akbar is said to have brought skilled weavers from Persia to teach the art to inmates in Mughal jails across the Subcontinent.

The idea appealed later to British authorities who decided to continue the Mughal tradition in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Apart from the obvious economic reasons, weaving was viewed as part of prisoners’ ‘reform’ therapy.

Jeelis were produces in a variety of styles; opulent wool pile carpets emulating ancient Persian designs, or simple kilim-like Dhurries, an Indian tradition from the time immemorial.

It is however the humble cotton yarn dhurries that have of late become most coveted home décor floor coverings and a popular choice of many designers in the west.


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Serapi (Heriz) Rugs

Heriz, Gorevan, Ahar, Kharajeh etc. are ‘Rugs of Sarab, which are [often
classified and known] as Heriz, (/)  The usual adjective for “of Sarab” would be “Sarab-i”, this changed to “Serapi”. ‘ (Wikipedia)

‘.. the designs of Serapis were heavily influenced by Tabriz rugs made during the late nineteenth century. ‘ (-) The Origin of Serapi Rugs by Majid Paydar, PhD

Most rugs coming of the county of Sarab would be referred to as Serapi. We shall however find out that in practice, this term applies only to finer quality rugs from the region.

In the later part of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 2oth, rugs from towns of Heriz, Ahar, Gorevan, Karajah, and possibly Bakshaish, were marked as Heriz on the market in Tabriz and on international shipping labels.

Antique Persian Serapi Rug 47251 by Nazmiyal

Many village rugs produced throughtout the region were labelled as Heriz as well.

It is only later in the 20th century that merchants began to observe differences in design, weave and colour scheme.

Heriz rugs from Heriz town, rugs that Cecil Edwars refers to as ‘proper Heriz rugs’  showed a clear tendency toward geometric form drawn likely on the Caucasian designs. Ahar rugs seemed to continue the curvilinear traditions of the region.  

Antique Serapi carpet, Persia - Farnham Antique Carpets

All these rugs however shared a technical structure of weave rarely exceeding 30 KPSI and were known and referred to on the western markets as Heriz rugs.

A significant number of finer rugs however left Serab province (via Tabriz) throughout the most part of the 19th century.  They featured a range of designs typical to earlier Heriz and Ahar rugs but differentiated from them structurally; they were all made in no less than 100-110 KPSI.

Antique Persian Serapi Rug For Sale at 1stDibs

Most likely, being destined for more demanding buyers, finer materials and better skilled weavers were selected to make these rugs.

The natural process of aging further enhanced the aesthetic differences between the lower and higher end rugs; the latter being known today as Serapi rugs.

Interestingly, as Tschebull argues, coarse village rugs from Heriz literally replaced  Kazaks on the western market, and the same ‘coarse Heriz rugs’ replaced finer Serapis from the market in Tabriz and consequently the world.

Economy and fashion have always shaped the rug insdustry around the world, and the rug industry in the Transcaucasus was no exception.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the westerners discovered Caucasian rugs. They appealed to consumers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rugs from the Caucasus were prediminantly a product of the so-called ‘cottage industry.’

A loom was a permannt fixture in nearly all housholds across the region and women produced small and nedium rugs afforded by the size of the ‘domestic’ loom.

When the market demanded larger carpets with similar course feel and geometric designs, the production shifted to Heriz and the surrounding villages (Tschebull).

Possibly, the demand for simple Heriz rugs was such that the tradition of much finer ‘Serapis’ was abandoned.

As of the second quarted of the 20th century, Serapis were no longer made and the ‘cottage rug industry’ in the Caucasus was already in decline.

It can be said that the middle of the 19th century witnesses the develpment of some of the finest rug traditions both in the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.

Whimsical, undpredicatble in design, rich in colour but rather coarse rugs were produced in towns and villages across the Caucasus.

Rich in colour, complex in design ‘Serapis’ were made in Serab county (Transcaucasus) .

The first were in serious decline as of 1930s, the latter literarily ceased to exists.

Meanwhile, Heriz, Gorevan, Karajeh and Ahar carpets continue to be produced in large numbers and sold London, New Your, Paris, Miland and beyond.

According to Cecil Edwards, ‘upwards of half a million carpets of these types have been woven in the villages of the area.’ (1950s)

The process of mass production in the region brought about changes in production and materials.

Coarse Heriz rugs in 30 KPSI were simply faster to make than much finer ‘Serapis’ , and since they were designed to be substantially less expensive, lower quality wool and chemical dyes were used in their production.

‘Until recent years the weavers of the Heriz area produced their wools or spun yarn from the neighboring Shahsevan tribes. That admirable practice is unhappily fast disappearing. Today the villagers buy their yarn ready spun in the bazzars of Tabriz and Ardebil. (/) The system of dyeing, too, has sadly deteriorated. (/) The blue, red and green are now dyed in Tabriz by the twon dyers, with synthetic dyes.’ (C. Edwards)


This article is a continuation of our previous blod Heriz Rugs and the Caucasian Influence

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Heriz Rugs and the Caucasian Influence

Quotation from the previous blog Heriz and Ahar Rugs

‘…  Heriz rugs underwent a change toward more geometric forms. (/) Such a change may have been dictated by the market demand for more tribal geometric patterns …

“Weaving in East Azarbayjan: A society composed of urbanites, villagers and nomads, each turning out distinctive products, the latter two groups much less affected by commerce than weavers in the Transcaucasus. (-) Raul ‘Mike’ Tschebull

It is suggested that at the peak of the export of Caucasian rugs, larger Heriz rugs ‘… took over the Kazak market.’ (-) Tschebull.

1880 Kazak rugs

 This may explain the gradual process of geometrization of the central medallion occurring in Heriz design.

It was perhaps not the Soviet regime that put the end to the rich and Caucasian village rug industry, but the western market’s demand for larger carpets better suited for contemporary homes.

Shaggy and inexpensive village rug were forced out of the marked by more refined and larger manufacturing workshops carpets from the Transcausus.


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Anatolian Rug

‘Anatolian rugs represent an essential part of the regional culture, which is officially understood as the Culture of Turkey today, and derives from the ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism of one of the most ancient centres of human civilisation.’

Bergama rug, west Anatolia, first half of 18th century

Please read this very informative article on the origins of the art and the term Anatolian rug.

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Ma`dan People– The Marsh Arabs

The origins of the Marsh Arabs, the swamp dwellers of southern Iraq are rather obscure; their customs are neither Arab nor Muslim and they speak a dialect that is largely foreign to other Iraqis.  

The Ma`dan people, it appears, ‘likely maintained a range of pre-Arab, pre-Muslim cultural practices going back to the Sumerians.’

It is believed that sometime in the late eighteenth century, they converted to Shiite Islam which had a tragic effect on their destiny later in history, namely, during the reign of Saddam Hussain at the end of the past millennium.

The Hussain regime viewed Ma`dan clans with suspicion; allegedly ‘the marshes were used by expatriate Iraqi Shiite guerrilla fighters based in Iran trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, to infiltrate into Iraq.’

To prevent that, in the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, on the orders of Saddam Hussain, the Ma`dan people were relocated to other parts of Iraq and the marshes drained out.

What is left of the Ma`dan People, the Marsh Arabs, however, is their artistic legacy.

The women of these Arab tribes were famous for their most exquisite wedding blankets with abstract, yet symbolic patterns embroidered on plain wool kilims bought on nearby markets from Kurdish weavers.

Typically, two naturally brown wool kilims would be sown together (a symbol of unity in marriage) and covered densely with intricate designs in a most unpredictable range of colours.

These beautiful object d’art are no longer produced, a result of Hussain’s genocide against the Marsh Arabs, the destruction of their way of life and diaspora.

Thanks for reading

Quotations from Marsh Arab Rebellion: Grievance, Mafias and Militias in Iraq Juan Cole Fourth Wadie Jwaideh Memorial Lecture, (Bloomington, IN: Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Indiana University, 2008). Pp. 1-31.

Aditional readings: The Kilim Diaries

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The Heritage of The Middle East

A new and exciting post by

Eccentric Wefts Musings of a rug and textile collector

“Heritage of the Middle East” is one of the largest and most comprehensive exhibitions of antique oriental rugs in the United States.  These rugs date from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries and reflect the traditions of four major weaving areas in the Middle East: Persia, Turkey, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Click here to read

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