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Gabbeh (addendum)

Tribal rugs from Iran’s Zagros Mountains have for decades captivated the attention of rug collectors the world over.

At auctions, the tribal works by the Qashqai, Bahtiari and Afshars would at times outsold exquisite artifacts from the most prestigious palace workshops.

The charm of these primitive works of art in textile rests mainly in their fascinating play of colours, and their spontaneity of design.

Among these tribal wonders, a coarsely woven, long-pile and low-knot density gabbeh plays a very important role.

Image result for gabbeh lion rug

Efforts by rug collectors and educators such as Jim Opie and late Peter Wilborg led to increased popularity of gabbehs (Bahtiari Kersaks) bringing this ancient ‘uncomplicated’ art out of the ‘black tents’ to the world museums, and the market at large.  

 ‘The increased interest in gabbas among Western collectors since the 1980s and a shared aesthetic with minimalism and the color field movement in modern art, as well as a contemporary appreciation of the charm of gabba rugs, have led to higher demand [and] has spawned commercial manufacture …’ (Jean-Pierre Digard and Carol Bier)

The first references to gabbeh can be traced in texts dating to the middle of the 16th century (J. Opie), however:

‘Some authors believe that gabba represent much older traditions of pile weaving, and that their origins may date to the emergence of this technique in the steppes of Central Asia soon after domestication of sheep.’
(J-P. Digard and C. Bier)

This thesis is strongly argued against by J. Opie:

‘…  [there is] abundant evidence of extremely old tribal design traditions in western Asia, especially in Iran, [suggesting that e.g.]  Luri gabbehs, like indigenous Luri weavings did not merely survive in southwest Iran, but originated there, and that the weaving techniques involved were even more deeply rooted in western Asia than they were, out on the steppes.’

Sadly however,

‘Those that have survived date only from the last two centuries. There is evidence, however, that the lion motif was utilized by rug weavers prior to this.’ (Tanavoli)

These gabbehs, insinsts Opie, originated in Luristan taking root later further north among the Kurdish tribes as far as Sanandaj, Nehavand, Bijar and south among the Qashqai (also Tanavoli, Amanolahi)

An interesting element common to gabbeh are the various representations of anthropo- and zoomorphic motifs. A gabbeh that stand out in this respect is the so-called gabbeh-ye siri, the lion gabbeh.

The technical structure of the lion gabbehs –  a higher knot-count, lower pile – may suggest their greater relevance among the nomads alluding perhaps to some very distant shamanic past.
‘Lion guards the tent’ (Opie); a tent represents a family.

Lions represented in the earliest style of gabbeh-ye siri, do not however feature a lion as we know it. The African lion, it is believed, begins to appear in much later works. It was introduced to Iran through images on imported objects during the Kajar period.

Image result for gabbeh lion rug

Lions featured in the pre-Kajar gabbehs (circulating in much later replicas and only known to us as such) are representations of a mythical creature symbolizing majesty and masculine power rather than a long extinct Asiatic lion as it is often suggested.

Bazaars in Iran are inundated with commercial replicas of lion gabbeh;  they are extremely popular with visitors from abroad.  

This is in part at least owed to the extraordinary success of the Iranian artist and avid rug collector Parvez Tanavoli, who views those ‘primitive’ works as a genuine expression of artistic traditions rooted in mankind’s long-forgotten mythologies.

Tanavoli,’s art remains profoundly inspired by the gabbeh imagery, colour and obscure symbolism.

Tanavoli,’s art gained the artist his world-fame and recognition while bringing the spotlight onto that very ancient and genuine artform.


Read more about Pavez Tanavoli in our next newsletter

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The Shahsavan Nomads

Recognized for their exquisite textiles, the Shahsavan have for centuries lived the life of hardship and economic penury. Over the recent years, ‘the price of their product, especially sheep wool and dairy produce, have risen very slowly while the price of purchased commodities has increased sharply.’  

Shahsavan Mafrash | MasterArt
Shahsavan mafrash

Some Shahsavan took up farming and sedentary lives; others however continue to foster their pastoral traditions.

The short documentary by Arlene Dallalfar and Fereydoun Safizadeh offers a rare glimpse into their life of struggle against modernity and economic changes.


Additional recommended reading: Shahsavan Nomads

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The Qashqa’i

Their carpets are praised and recognized around the world, but who are the their makers?

The Qashqai are Turkic peoples said to have once abandoned Anatolia and later settled in southwestern Iran.  Now, and for nearly a millennium, they roam between the pastures in the Zagros mountains near Shiraz and their winter camps in the Persian Gulf.

Each year, with the coming of winter, the tribe and their flocks leave the mountains and tread their ancestral routes to reach the warmer plateaus near the seaside.  The trying journey takes over a month; it covers nearly 500 miles, but this is their very way of life.

Winter in the Zagros mountains 

Their Turkic origins are evidenced in their language; the Qashqai speak a Turkic dialect which is foreign to the Fars, the indigenous peoples of the region. Their heritage and the Anatolian roots may be also seen  in their arts: songs, dances; but nowhere are their origins more manifest than in their world -renowned tribal rugs.

Not only in fact do the Qashqai artists draw on motifs, bold geometric designs, borrowed from ancient Anatolian traditions, but in their weaving, they continue to use the so-called Ghiordes knot, a symmetrical knot named after a city in central Anatolia and used primarily in today’s Turkey.

The Qashqai live off their stock:  they sell goat meat and goat’s milk; sheep’s wool and above all, their beautiful carpets. The latter are often referred to as Shiraz carpets as they are sold, mostly, at Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz city’s centre.

The Qashqai know their trade; the wool from the sheep raised in the highlands is luscious; their weaving skills are unparalleled.  

Their carpets in staple designs, often triple-lozenge pole medallions, broach the tribal simplicity with designer quality elegance. As such they have been popular locally in Iran and beyond.

More often than other nomadic tribes, the Qashqai use zoomorphic (animal) imagery in their designs. This tradition may be rooted in the primeval times and the tribe’s shamanic past.

Qashqai carpets have been long known on the markets in Europe and the USA; but more recently, a more primitive and rougher nomadic rug has been gaining popularity among the interior designers and consumers alike: a gabbeh.

These often simplistic long-piled rugs have rarely meant to be sold and sold abroad to boot; they are  made as utilitarian objects for the nomads; simple tent furnishings.

It is however the gabbeh that provides the Qashqai artists with a platform for unrestrained artistic expression. As such the gabbehs have become the diaries of the Qashqai nomadic life challenging the intricate and canonical designs of the more commercial Shiraz carpets with its primeval symbolism and personal accents.

Qashqai gabbeh 

Life is colour’, says a tent school teacher in the acclaimed 1996 Iranian film Gabbeh; and while the Shiraz carpets may seem consistently limited to but a few earthy and mainly dark colours, the gabbehs display an unlimited array of splendid tones reflective of the countryside along their journeys.

The modern Qashqai, nearly 400 000 of them; some settled,semi-nomads; and others still faithfully pursuing their ancient traditions, face many challenges. The Iranian regime perceives them as unassimilated and backward.

Contemporary Qashqai gebbeh in our collection

Progress continues to have an impact of their lifestyle; the newly built highways, for instance, often cross their ancestral routes forcing them thus, each year, to walk longer and further. The several economic embargoes imposed on Iran, indirectly, cut them off the international markets.

Qashqai woman with a child

The Qashqai are nomads: their history and identity are reflected in the art of carpet weaving; Qashqai carpets are unique, recognizable and recognized worldwide.


 Tour the wonderful world of the Qashqa’i 

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