Oriental carpets and tribal rugs have fascinated world
consumers for centuries. Whether this meant curvilinear arabesques of the Safavid
or Ottoman court carpets, or geometric patterns of rugs from Anatolia or the Caucasus,
the appeal of the magic effect of these wool coverings that are art weathered time
Tribal rugs appeared in Europe and soon after in European art
as early as the Renaissance. They are on display as background in paintings by court
painters throughout the continent.
Jazzy and abstract rugs from the Caucasus reached America in
the late 19th and early 20th century; they were unrefined
and inexpensive. Soon, however, they proved to be the foremost choice among art
lovers and intellectuals.
Gabbeh, tribal rugs from Iran reached the consumer market later in the century, perhaps at the same time as Berber rugs from the Moroccan Atlas Mountains popularized by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born French architect of the world fame.
However, what gabbeh is and what is its origin maybe quite unclear. While commonly known and sold at the Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz as Qashqai gabbeh, the popularity of these ‘primitive, spontaneous and utterly unpredictable’ [i] works of tribal art has led many nomadic and settled peoples of the Iranian south-west to produce them in a wide range of styles.
Gabebeh, a rough unclipped
tribal rug is often attributed to the Qashqai tribes of the Fars province. This
according to P.R.J. Ford is misleading as ‘The Luri style predominates …’[ii]
Pictorial gabbeh rugs seem to be in fashion of late; they can be beautiful, intricate and quite expensive, but the main appeal of the traditional, unrefined rugs may be their simplicity.
The Shuli tribe of the Zagros Mountains have for centuries produced
simple gabbeh tent rugs executed
entirely in undyed yarn and goat’s hair. They are not intended to last or be hard-wearing;
they are meant to be used n the tents for everyday use.
These rugs are becoming increasingly popular among collectors but their subtle colours and the ease with which they blend with contemporary home décor affords them some level of popularity among interior designers as well.
Antique Kazaks, as well as other rugs from the Caucasus, are
perhaps among the most coveted collectible rugs in the world; they are rare,
beautiful and expensive.
Caucasian rugs appeared on the western market at the end of the 19th century. They were, it is said, an inexpensive alterative to other more elaborate oriental carpets. However, their beauty and the creative originality soon attracted the attention of savvier consumers;
For some time, Caucasian rugs rode on, speaking colloquially, what was left the tidal wave of Orientalism that swept the West earlier in the century.
After all, the abstract geometric patterns of the Caucasian
rugs reflected those immortalized in the Renaissance paintings by Lotto,
Holbein and others.
Sadly, however, around 1920-30s, their quality began to deteriorate. While the designs continued to stun the world consumers, the introduction of synthetic dyes had a very detrimental effect on the rugs’ overall colour harmony.
Furthermore, with the idea of improving sustainability of the rural Soviet Caucasus, efforts were undertaken to increase the production output of the indigenous rug industry.
Transcaucasian State Import and Export Trading Office, operating under the patronage of Josef Stalin, was set up facilitating mass production and distribution of both Caucasian (Georgia, Azejberjan) and Turkoman (Turkmenistan) rugs with critical consequences to creativity and quality of the former traditions.
When discussing Kazaks, or nearly all Caucasian rugs, therefore,
world scholars tend to focus on the period between 1880 and 1920-30s.
Arguably, Kazaks play the most vital role within the spectrum of scholarly discussions centered on the rugs from the Caucasus; however, what distinguishes a Kazak from the rest of the Caucasian rugs remains in the sphere of fog and confusion.
Geographically, Kazak rugs production is limited to a triangle in the Lower Caucasus encompassing Kars in Turkey, Tbilisi in Georgia and Erivan in Armenia. Rugs from the adjacent Lake Sewan are also considered Kazaks, and so are rugs from Genje and Krabagh further east.
Some rugs from Kuba, closer to the Caspian sea, such as Gymyl village dragon rugs, display Kazak patterns as well.
All rugs produced in these areas share some characteristics in design but are specific to their category, and to a lesser degree origin. They are defined as follows: Karachov, Bordjalou, Akstafa and Lori Pamback.
It is not clear why Karachov Kazaks bear such a name. Bordajalou is a village, Akstafa is both a village and a river; and Lori-Pamback is a mountain range.
Up until the early 20th, the Armenian village of Shusha in Azerbaijan produced ‘nazmalyk‘ Kazak rugs resembling classic Islamic prayer rugs. Yet, nazmalyks feature Christian motifs, and are referred to as baptismal rugs.
It may be concluded, in the face of such a range of references, that the naming of Kazaks was a matter entrusted likely to merchants rather than scholars, but the latter accepted the existing denominations a priori.
Many villages in the Caucasus produce however other lesser known Kazaks such as Tovuz Kazaks (Kazak rayon) or dragon Kazaks from the village of Gymyl in the Kuba district.
There are a number of factor that differentiate all Kazaks: weaving techniques, design patterns, colour schemes. They all however display a most unpredictable variety of ideas and seemingly unlimited imagination while being constrained by the specificity or origin.
The typical Kazak patterns have been imitated all over the rug world; Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere; but it has been suggested that the bold geometric designs typical to Kazaks from the Caucasus originated many centuries before further east, in Central Asia; in Khotan and Yarkand.
Kazaks as well as well as other Caucasian rugs are collectible artifacts of the bygone times; though still in production, the geopolitical changes that occurred in the Caucasus following Russia’s annexation of the greater part of the Persian Caucasus, and later the Bolshevik revolution put effectively an end to the weaving arts of unrestrained imagination that flourished throughout the region for centuries before.
‘Just as when we step into a mosque and its high open dome leads our minds up , up , to greater things , so a great carpet seeks to do the same under the feet …’ – Anita Amirrezvani The Blood of Flowers
It is believed that Art has its roots in the mystic experience, and if rugs are to be viewed as works of art, which no doubts they are, the origins of their symbolism ought to be sought in religion.
The Islamic carpet traditions abound in examples of the religious influence; carpets from Ishahan and Tabriz often reflect the mosaic vaults in the city’s mosques. It is an aesthetic accent that developed in Islamic arts when the first carpets were brought into the mosques.
There is a philosophical dimension to this: the sacred space in the centre of the mosque is to reflect the heavenly order above and carpets in such mosques as, for instance, the contemporary Sheih Zayed Gran Mosque in Abu Dhabi are placed directly beneath the vault.
Carpet artists from the Persian city of Kerman created a unique pattern referred to by merchants, collectors and scholars alike as the Koranic design. The Koranic design reflects the great Islamic book bidding tradition and resembles the very common cover of the revered Quran.
Elaborate prayer rugs designs evolved also from the mosque settings
appearing initially as permanent patterns stencilled in the rows facing al Kibla and designated for the devotees
during the prayer.
Since prayer is compulsory in Islam, and regulated by the movement of the Sun, but not limited to a mosque; travelling Muslims found themselves often praying en route, more often than not, far from the comfort of the sacred spaces A portable prayer rug became indispensable to early caravanners, and other travelling followers of the Mahometan religion.
The evolution of the so-called ‘prayer design’ extends however
beyond the rug’s functionality; prayers rugs, particularly that from the
Ottoman period became a means for the expression of the spiritual devotion. The
most intricate work of Islamic woven arts in silk and silver or gold brocade such
as those from Hereke have never meant to be prayed on but looked at instead in
awe and contemplation of the Almighty, Allah.
As it often happens, art transcends religions; there are rugs where Islamic symbols appear next to Christian crosses as it is the case with the Anatolian and Beluch prayer rugs (see below)
Tribal rugs from Anatolia, the Caucasus, various parts of Iran and other parts of the Orient show sacred motifs shrouded the mist of long forgotten mythologies. It takes in fact a scholarly effort to decipher the meaning, or meanings of various encrypted symbols on display.
The elaborate medallion characteristics to rugs from the Persian town of Tafresh seemingly reflects the Zoroastrian symbol of the Sun.
While the tribal mystical allusions are subtle, the Islamic concepts are more direct and obvious, the Armenian rug designs seem rooted in religious experience of a different kind. The nature of the relationship between the sacred and the profane here is more complex.
Upon a close comparative study of some of the most typical works from this part of the Caucasus, it may appear that apart from the most obvious imagery – crosses and less frequent churches – the religious character of the Armenian rugs are the colour scheme and the frequent inclusions of the text, Armenian or Arabic. This would suggest that the roots and the inspiration for the Armenian weavers are ancient religious manuscripts.
“ Old Armenian manuscripts show the same light and dark blue contrasts that are found in [Armenian rugs]. “
(-) Raoul Tschebull Kazak The New York Rug Society, New York 1971 p.
Interestingly, both Armenian and Arabic inscriptions (and dates) appear in Armenian carpets .
The study of antique rugs and their mythologies, relationship with past and present religions have become complicated and confusing with the influx of purely decorative elements in carpet design. Here the aesthetics override traditions; sacred symbols of
one ethnic groups may be blended with motifs borrowed from another.
Perhaps for this reason, most rug collectors react with irate displeasure when in the face of contemporary commercial designs incorporating ‘sacrilegious’ compositions often inclusive of contrasting significance and origin.
(1) The beauty of this rug rests in its symbolic ambiguity. The image of the mosque strikingly resembles a Christian church while the other symbolic elements can be easily interpreted as a goblet and a host. The image is further blurred by the application of a very meticulous (dazzling) weaving technique. Who was the weaver? What did she want to say?
Bacali is situated near Konya and Konya, was known in classical antiquity and during the medieval period as Ἰκόνιον (Ikónion) in Greek (with regular Medieval Greek apheresis Kónio(n)) and as Iconium in Latin. (Wikipedia)
Yagcebedir or “Yagci Bedir” rugs are made in Sindirgi village near the town of Balikesir in the Eagean region of Anatolia. Sindirgi is well-known for producing excellent quality rugs, mainly in prayer design.
While almost unheard of today, Yagcebedir rugs play an important role in the 20th century British home décor history.
Yagcebedir rugs appeared in Britain commercially i.e. on a
larger scale, in the mid 20th century.
Most British rug aficionados had long appreciated Yagcebedir rugs; all made in fine Ghiordes knot, bold colours (almost exclusively dark red and blue) and shiny pile cropped short enough to resemble kilims. As such, they might have been perfect as both floor and wall coverings. So at least thought and hoped the importers.
The discerning British public did not share their hopes, and Yagcebedir rugs sold only sporadically.
In a way similar to Persian Sarouqs in America, for years Anatolian Yagcebedir rugs clattered the darkest corners of London storerooms collecting dust, at times, devoured by moths.
At one point however, an unexpected change, and a complete reversal of fortunes took place. It was brought about by a small and inconspicuous London-based (long gone) carpet cleaning shop London Wash.
London Wash specialists used a concoction of chemicals to treat the commercially unappealing combination of deep burgundy red and ultramarine blue bringing out a completely new appearance: rusty brick red and shiny silver.
The effect proved very pleasing to consumers at large and though ‘adulterated’, Yagcebedir rugs became a very popular home décor accessory across the nation.
In the next Blog, we will be exploring the complex symbolism of the Yagcidebir rugs.
Sarouq is village in north-western Iran. It is renowned for producing good (and sometimes great) carpets typically in all-over floral design and, on occasion, animal motifs. What distinguishes Sarouqs from other Persian rugs is that their variation became part of the American heritage.
In the 1920s, between WWI and WWII, a number of Sarouq rugs reached
the shores of America. They were made the way people in Sarouq made them for
generations: naturally dyed peach-rose coloured fields, blue borders and busy floral
The American consumers did not fall in love with the colour and stocks of Sarouqs began piling up and collecting dust in showrooms across the country.
Then, a New York-based company came to the rescue; Rug Renovating was commissioned to hand re-dye several samples of the ‘sitting ducks’, and change the light pink into deep burgundy red. It was a desperate experiment that worked a miracle.
It was love at first sight this time, and hundreds of hundreds of Sarouq rugs were re-painted by Rug Renovating firm over the following decades. The new, re-invented rug was named the American Sarouq.
The ‘painted Sarouq’, as it is also called, survived as fashion nearly up to the second half of the 20th century, but its story does not end there.
In the 1970s, some American, or ‘painted’ Sarouqs appeared in Germany. Again, they were not too popular at first.
Then some German importers decided to chemically strip them of the burgundy paint which resulted in yet another colour change; American Sarouqs that appealed to the German consumers had a lively brick red and silver shine. Sales in high volume continued for years
For more stories on rug colouring experiments wait for our upcoming article London Wash
Many different home décor trends have come and gone since the acclaimed Swiss-born French architect Le Courbousier launched a unique fashion by accessorizing his ultra-modern designs with minimalist and seemingly unrefined carpets hand-made by the Berber tribes of the Moroccan Atlas Mountains. Berber carpets weathered many home decor fashions over the years and are certainly here to stay.
For many decades beautiful yet somewhat simplistic carpets made on primitive looms by peoples of the Beni Ouarain (Middles Atlas) and Azilal (High Atlas) appeared in some of the most sophisticated living-rooms around the world.
In contrast to colorful and opulent Persian carpets, or fine Turkish rugs meticulously hand-knotted in millions of knots, Azilal and Beni Ouarain tribal rugs show little care for finesse; the designs are simple and nonuniform, almost childish; but it is precisely their limited colour-scheme consisting of mostly undyed cream-color field with zig-zags in black or brown patterns forming often uneven lozenges that make them fashionably attractive and most suitable for modern homes.
Both Beni Ouarain and Azilal carpets feature original patterns rooted in ancient Berber mythology; their undeniable charm rests in their simplicity. From the designer’s perspective they lend themselves to most modern interiors providing warmth to otherwise cold and austere home décor ideas.
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The fascination with oriental carpets in the western world may go as far back as the 15th-16th century. Rugs from Anatolia and the Caucasus appeared in paintings by Holbein, Lotto and other notable painters of the Renaissance period.
Moroccan rugs did not make it onto the European market until much later; it was Le Corbusier who first used the works of Berber nomads in some of his most prestigious designs. Today, Berber rugs are again the latest fashion in home décor.
There are in very generic terms, two types of Moroccan rug:
Rabat rugs coming out of ateliers and small shops in Moroccan urban centres; and
tribal rugs which are made by various Berber and Arab tribes scattered across the
large territory of the Atlas and Siroua Mountains.
The first bear the marks of heavy Anatolian and Mamluk influence;
they typically made and Ghiordes knot and feature geometric designs; the latter
are nearly always executed in a unique Berber knot and display a rich array of abstract
designs and often very limited range of colors.
It is Berber rugs however that appealed to Le Courbousier more
and that are now so often the choice of contemporary interior decorators.
The works of the Zeomour tribe of High Atlas nomads are often a common feature in more conservative home décor design; they are characterized by bold colours and more often than not, deep burgundy red obtained from the concheal.
Boujaad carpets made by Berber women in a small region in Haouz between the Middle Atlas and the Atlantic ocean have also been popular in modern homes. Inspired by geometric patterns rooted in Anatolian weaving arts, Boujaad rugs display bolder colours (rich sunset reds, golden yellows) utilizing solely organic dyes obtained from a handful of regionally available plants.
Minimalistic in design and rather mono-chromatic carpets made by the Middle Atlas peoples Beni Ouarain seem however to be the number one choice of floor covering for most moder and ultra-modern home décor designers.
Also, the High Atlas Azilal carpet are often used as a
foundation for modern living space design. Azilal carpets too tend to be simplistic
and based solely on black (sometimes brown) primitive drawings against the off-white
natural wool colour.
When it comes to the knowledge of the Moroccan rugs, and particularly the tribal ones; much is owed to the United States Naval Forces admiral named Albert Parker Niblack. Niblac collected some of the most interesting Moroccan tribal artefacts and donated his entire collection to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Museum upon his death.
Studies of the unique textile art of the north African tribes would not be possible without Niblack’s contribution and the role played since by Indianapolis Metropolitan Museum.
All Moroccan rugs are a great investment; they continue to retain excellent value and are both attractive, aesthetically pleasing and very fashionable.
Nain is a city in Isfahan Province in central Iran. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, Nain was little known as a carpet producing area. Carpets produced in Nain were labelled as Isfahan; they were predominantly lower grade products sold on the local market.
Then came the unexpected change: a visionary man named Fatoallah Habibian started producing very fine, beautifully designed, quality carpets in wool with finishes in silk. They were all signed Habibian and marked as Nain carpets.
Habibian carpets had quickly become noticed and gained international recognition. Orders began to flow from all over the world while the production within the small studio was limited.
Soon, other manufacturers, small studios in Nain and the area, followed affording a steady supply of carpets in unique and characteristic patterns and a rather limited colour range: grey and blue arabesque designs with a large, centrally located floral medallion set against a warm cream-colored field.
Nain carpets are relatively easy to recognize; nearly all are made within the same style and colour, although red maybe be sporadically used in contrast to the traditional blue.
Almost all Nain carpets have some silk woven into the wool pile. The aim is to highlight the intricate arabesque patterns.
Fatoalah Habbian died in 1975; his studio however never shut down. Beautiful carpets of the highest quality continue to emerge out of his original shop produced under a very strict supervision of the master’s progeny.
All original Habibian designs had been copied by other manufacturers in Nain and beyond; sadly, at times, inclusive of the master’s signature.
Buying a genuine Habibian has therefore become a problem, as ‘fakes’ are aplenty while certificates may be forged as well.
Studying the signature maybe of help to some learned collectors but a chance of paying a high price for a forgery remains a probability.
This situation has seriously hampered the popularity of Habibian carpets; they are however recognizable by their outstanding quality.
‘You will tell a Habibian once you see it’, said once a respected New York merchant.
In essence, buying a Habibian is no different than buying diamonds: always consult an expert.
Here are some tips for buyers on Nain rugs:
LA is a mark of quality in Nain rugs. LA refers to a numberof plies making a single weft thread.
There are 3 types of Nain rugs: commercial quality 9LA ; good to very good quality 6LA; and 4LA carpets wherein a weft consists of 4 plies to a single thread.
4LA Nain carpets with knot densities in the upwards of 1 million knots per square meter are extremely rare.
Importantly, all Nain carpets represent good value and are aesthetically pleasing .
The Luri (or Lurs) are a nomadic tribe of shepherds inhabiting the valleys of the Zagros Mountains in south-western Iran, a large area they share with other pastoral tribes.
They are believed to be the indigenous peoples of the region; they speak Iranian dialects: Luri and/or Laki; the first being related to Persian; the latter to Kurdish.
As other nomadic tribes, the Luri are renowned for their beautiful wool carpets: nomadic rugs called the Luri Behbehan rugs, which are made entirely of wool; and the Khorramabad rugs with predominantly all-over patterns and, often, beautifully braided fringes
Most Luri Behbehan rugs feature bold geometric nomadic motifs, while the Khorramabad rugs often display busier patterns in more restrained colour schemes.
All Luri carpets are made exclusively by women; men may be only involved in collecting and preparation of materials for the dyeing process.
‘The story of the Lurs is one of strength and beauty, courage and pride, discrimination and prejudice, humiliation and poverty. Yet the luster of their weavings shows through the mists of time, like the glint of precious gemstones from beneath a heavy haze of dirt and grime. Long neglected and marginally collected, the weaving of the Lurs can rightfully be claimed to be as elegant, colorful, timeless and striking as that of their better-known neighbors.’
(-) Alluring Luris, Denizens of the Zagros by Patrick Weiler … read here