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Information Paper #3  - Prepared by Phil Holcomb

Tribal Carpets of Afghanistan and Central Asia 
 
 To write effectively and intelligently about carpets from the tribal areas of Afghanistan and the former central Asian States of the USSR would require many years of experience and personal knowledge of these carpet making regions. Unfortunately, I don’t qualify in any of these areas, but I do have a number of reference books written by experts in the field- and the following is a compilation of observations from these volumes. 

I  recently received a call  from a friend who was travelling through Bangkok Airport from Kabul to Singapore.  He also talked of his recent trips to Samarakand, Bhukara , Mazar-i-Sharif ,  Herat and other interesting carpet areas.   I am ready to pack and go with him next trip!! 

This paper will only serve to help put the background of the carpet making areas in central Asia in some perspective, and  to help identify some of the more recognizable designs and characteristics of carpets from these areas. 

When one considers the source of carpets from Afghanistan and the Former States of the USSR one must realize that the tribal peoples of the mountains really don’t comprehend or honour modern geopolitical borders.  Specific tribes exist on both sides and across the modern borders as if they didn’t exist.   The Baluchi tribes for example, extend from Eastern Iran through Western Afghanistan and into Pakistan.   Similarly, the Turkoman tribes extend all across the northern borders. 

Herat,  in the Western part of Afghanistan, has a history of over two thousand five hundred years and was once occupied by Alexander the Great, and subsequently invaded by Mongols led by Genghis Khan and then Tamerlane in the 13th century. Herat was considered part of  the  Persian  Empire, and the Persian influence in carpet making in Herat is still seen. 
 

TYPES OF CARPETS:

There are many names for the type of weavings found in Afghanistan and Central Asia.   For example, in Herat and the Northern Turkmen tribes an ennsi (or engsi) is a rug designed to serve as an internal tent door.  This same design is called a Hatchli  (or Hatchlu)  in Iran, and a purdah (or purdhu) in other parts of Afghanistan - all of them referring to a door curtain or closure.   

A young tribal girl who has been taught the art of carpet weaving from a young age would probably have the following carpets and weavings in her dowry: 

One Main Carpet (ghali)  9’10" x 7’ 
Two small rugs (dip ghali)  6’ x 3’ 
One engsi 
One decoration for over the engsi (kapunuk) 
12 small  personal belonging bags  2’x1.5’ and 4’x 1.5’ (mafrash & torba) 
two large bedding bags  (chuval or Juwal) always made in pairs 
three decorated tent-bands (aq yup) 50 ft long  and 2" to 1 ft wide 

Materials:     The material used for making tribal rugs are basically what these nomads have at their immediate disposal:  wool from their sheep which is used in the warpa and weft as well as the pile.   Some tribes use goat hair for  overbinding  the sides (selvedges) or rugs.  Camel hair is especially  prized for the field areas of prayer carpets.  When possible the sheep are driven into streams to wash them prior to shearing.  The wool is then sorted by color and quality and then combed and spun.  The wool is then dyed  One person can generally can generally spin one kilo per day. 

Dyes:   Natural dyes are  still used, but since the 1950s pre-dyed wool yarn (using synthetic dyes) readily found  in the towns and villages are often substituted for or combined with the natural dyes.  The wild  colors (some almost irredescent) often found in many Afghan carpets are surely synthetics.   In natural dying, the yarn is presoaked in a fixing bath of alum, copper sulfate, ferrous sulfate, tin  or urine.  The yarn is then transferred to a dye bath and soaked until the desired color is obtained.  The yarn is then washed and hung out to dry.  Dying was usually done by the men.     Natural dyes fade beautifully and often show as uneven coloring (abrash) .  Abrash  (meaning speckled or marbled)  is commonly the result of a weaver running out of wool and having to dye another lot or buying a similar color from elsewhere.   Abrash in no way detracts from the value of a tribal carpet, but is a desirable characteristic of a tribal weaving.    A naturally dyed wool will fade right through  whereas  synthetic dyes will fade only on the tips where the light hits it.   A newer tribal carpet can be "mellowed" by placing it in the direct sun for several days. 

Natural dyes originate from the following materials: 

Reds: 
Madder- Root of Madder Plant  - (ranges from reds to orange and purple) 
Cochinteal- produced from the female shield louse (Blue /red tone) 
Lac ? Deep purple- from the excretions of a scale insect native to India 
Kermes ? from an insect which breeds on the Kermes oak 

Blues:  Indigo plant (Dyers Woad) 

Black:  Can be achieved by using a very dark blue or by use of a bath of tannic acid, acorn cups, pomegranate skin, oak galls, and then adding to a bath iron sulphate to make the color fast.   This can produce a weakness in the black wool which in carpets 50 to 100 years old can be seen as worn black areas where the remaining pile is still OK. 

Yellow:   Many sources including; Dyers weed; Saffron; wild camomile; tanners sumach; buckthorn; pomegranate tree; isperek (a flowering larkspur) 

Green:    Obtained from walnuts and olive leaves ? or by blending blue and yellow agents 

Brown:   Can be natural undyed wool or by dying with fresh or dried pods of the walnut, oak guls or acorn cups. 

Looms: Tribal carpets are almost always done on the horizontal or ground loom.  This is due to the fact that the nomads rarely remain in  one location for more than two months.  The horizontal loom can be easily dismantled and packed on an animal to the new location and then staked out on the ground again.   A  Turkoman woman will usually take  at least six months to finish a carpet 6’6" by 4’.   The loom therefore can be set up and taken down four to six times before a carpet or Kelim is finished.   This often results in different tensions in the warp threads and is the reason why tribal rugs often have an irregular shape.    While this irregularity is part of the charm of a tribal rug, carpets  which do not lie flat should be avoided. 
 
 

TRIBES OF AFGHANISTAN 

In a  short paper, it is not possible to properly identify  and describe the many and varied tribes of Afghanistan.   What I will present is the general geographic areas and the key carpet making tribes in these areas: 

1. AFGHAN TURKESTAN: 

This area lies along the border with Uzbekistan- and is about 300 kilometers North of Kabul.    In Samangan, or Aibek,  people are of of Arab descent, but now call themselves Uzbeks .  Aibek is known as a center for brightly colored kilims.    Mazar?i-Sharif, or Mazar is the 4th largest city of Afghanistan was on the old silk route and today is an important commercial centre and rug market (little production is done in Mazar).  Uzbek villagers often bring rugs to Mazar with the hope of receiving a higher price.    East of Mazar is Kunduz  which is said to be the Eastern-most limit of Afghan Turkestan and a capet producing area.  The peoples living in areas North of Kunduz are Ersari Turkoman.   As in Mazar and all Turkoman areas, the people speak Turkic.     West of Mazar are the carpet areas of Aq Chah, Sheberghan, Andkhoy and Daulatabad.  Following are general characteristics of some of the rugs typical of these areas: 

Kunduz carpets:  firm and supple; back ridged;  tight knots double weft; mostly synthetic dyes; selvedge blue, red or undyed; persian knot; usual size 2x 1 metres or 3x 2 metres. 

Qarqeen Carpets:  These are the coarsest and cheapest of all Afghan Turkomans. They usually  use the "Bokara" or the "Filpa" gul designs; spongy feel, cotton wefts; undyed wool warps ; Persian knots;  often coarse Karakul (dead) wool; plain kelim.  Primarily sold to Saudi Arabia 

Barmazid Carpets:  These are woven by Tekke Turkomans: firm; tight knotting; very high quality;  fine detail; small tekke gul; warp- undyed  wool;  single weft dyed red ; selveges usually indigo; persian knot; size 2x3m, 3x4m 

Daulatabad Carpets:  Sold mostly in Mazar: Firm and supple; ridged back tight weave; Tekke gul;  double weft ? often includes one cotton weft dyed red hidden by woolen weft; colours red, indigo and white;  asymmetric knot; many sizes. 

Aq Shah Carpets ( includes large area of some 14 villages occupied by Turkomans of Ersari stock plus some Uzbeks, Pashtuns and Arabis) :  handle varies from spongy to firm; some have "plywood" back from too thick cotton in wefts;  filpa and tekke gul;  ridged back; wool warp;  double weft- (early rugs red dyed wool) mostly cotton; selvedge- red. blue, undyed some goat hair; 

Andkhoy Carpets:  Firm Handle; mostly cotton wefts; double weft;  warp undyed (some recent carpets with white machine spun wool yarn) : Bokara gul; Fil-pa Large rosette in Border;  Colors, orange red, indigo, white, green; selvedges Red indigo or royal blue; assymetric 

Alti Bolaq Carpets (Andkhoy region)  Some of the finest of the "Bokara" design (or kar-i-sefide) ? similar to Tekke Gul, but guls are not joined by a grid line.  Borders usually feature the large rosette  motif. 

Sulayman Carpets (mostly in the Andkhoy region but found in Kunduz and Aq Chah ? Ersari Turkomans) ;  "pine tree motif in Filpa guls 

Maimana Carpets : from the westernmost province of Afghan Turkestan Maimana is the capital and market centre.   The Uzbeks of this area are especially known for their extremely fine Kelims and Kourjeens. The kelims usually have a good amount of yellow and gold colours and are larger than most kelims (about 8 sq. metres or more) 
 

2.  HERATI AND WESTERN AFGHAN PRODUCTION 

Herat is situated in the one of the richest and fertile provinces.  In the 15th century, Herat  was the artistic, architectural and intellectual  center of the Islamic  world. Today, Herat continues as a center of traditional artistic skills.  It is the market  center for Beluch and Beluch-type carpets which ate brought to it from the southernmost desert of Afghanistan  as well as from the mountainous regions of Ghor and the Northwest. 

In Herat,  Tekkes as well as members of the Yamoud and Saruq tribes are weaving extremely fine Turkoman designs ? some with over 500  knots per linear metre of warp.  Mauri design refers to the small octagonal Tekke gul design on a fine carpet  as well as the purdah and Zahir Shah designs.   Mauri means "from Merv" ? a city in Russian Turkestan .  Similarly, the Yamoud Turkomans are found only in Herat 

Mauri Carpets:  Firm, silky handle; flat back;  tight knotting; 
Single weft (sometimes one and a half weft ? one normal, one small) ; some double weft in larger carpets; natural and synthetic dyes:  designs such as small tekke gul. Zahier Shah;  purdah; white motifs of Kandahari wool; colours, madder red, indigo, brown, orange and green; warp 2 ply wool; weft 2 ply wool; selvedges- blue, red, undyed; asymmetric; all sizes 

Yamoud Carpets: Firm, silky handle; tight knotting;  Single weft (sometimes one and a half weft  yak-o-tara- one normal, one small) ; some double weft in larger carpets; natural and synthetic dyes:  designs such as small tekke gul. Zahier Shah; purdah; white motifs of Kandahari wool; colours, madder red, indigo, white gold- Plain white kelim; warp 2 ply karaqul wool; weft 2 ply wool; selvedges- blue, red, undyed; asymmetric; all sizes including prayer carpets. 

Saruq Carpets:  limited production in Herat; firm; ridged back; fine quality; Saruq or Salor gul;  double weft;  colors- indigo,  red, white. Aubergine, camel; warp Karaqul wool or machine spun; selvedges Indigo, asymmetric. Rug sizes. 
 

3. AFGHAN BELUCH  (AND BELUCH-LIKE) PRODUCTION 

The Baluch are nomadic tribes located primarily in the areas west and south-west of  Herat adjoining  The Iranian border.   They are primarily from the Chakhansur district in the irrigated part of the Seistan desert.  The Beluch can be divided into two main ethnic groups, the Rukhshantis and the Brahuis, numbering some 300,000 with over 100 clans and sub-clans.  Their true origins are not known, but they are probably descended from old Persian stock, who established in the mountains of Kirman, were pushed east by the Turkic invasions of the 11th and 12th centuries. 

The distinguishing characteristics of Afghan Beluch carpets are that tey are made entirely of wool (Iranian Beluch use cotton warps and wefts).  Many pieces contain the makers hallmark (usually a large dot of colour extraneous to the design).  All weaving is done on horizontal looms,  and only women do the weaving.   Wool comes from the Belouchi and Ghilzai breeds of sheep in the South. Baluch carpets vary widely in style, quality and colours.  They are today mostly chemical colours but some natural colours are also used.   Belouch carpets tend to be long, dark and narrow. 

 The Beluch-type carpets are similar in design and construction but are made by Pashtun people from Farah.  The Pashtun have learned their carpet making from the Beluch.  The northern tribes are semi-nomadic, of mixed origin and are Persian speaking.

Others making Baluch-like carpets are the Chahar Aimaq  the largest tribe of which are the Taimani- from a mountainous area to the south east of Herat. The Taimani produce a design called the Dokhtar-i-Qazi (or judges daughter) .  Prayer carpets usually have a single mihreb and a repetitive motif and often contain orange and white.  The Yaqub Khanah (House of Jacob) design.   The Jan Begi are a small Persian speaking tribe in the Ghorian district who make small but superb quality carpets with a floral motif.   The Mushwani are of Puashtun origin but are now primarily Persian speaking .  They were known for the finest kilims, but now make mostly rugs of excellent quality. 
 

CARPETS OF CENTRAL ASIA 
 

In Central Asia the development of felted carpets as well as knotted carpets and rugs it was due primarily to the need to keep the yurt warm  in the colder seasons, as well as the nomadic style of life itself.  Considering the abundance of wool and the pastoral scene,  carpet making became an essential skill.   Where felted mattings and flatweaves were produced throughout Central Asia, pile weavings was mostly practiced by the Turkomans on the south east coast of the Caspian Sea, in the foothils of the Kopet-dag range and in the valleys of Atrek, Sumbar, Tenjen. And Murgab.  Pile weaving was also practiced by the Uzbeks from Bukara and Samarakand and by Kazakhs , Kirghiz and Karakalpas and Baluch from the Kyzyl-Kum desert and the highlands of Samarakand 

The Turkomans inherited their carpet making skills from Persian ancestors inhabiting this region from  1000 BC and in the 9th century AD, the Turko-Oghuz. Two distinctive styles of pile carpets developed in the the two ancient tribal federations- the Salor, and the Chodar.    The tribal groupings of  today include the Kirghiz, Kazakh, Karakalpak, Uzbek, Baluch, and Turkoman.      Turkoman carpets are further divide into carpets from the tribal groups of the  Ersari, Salor, Sakar, Kizak Ayak ,  Olam and Karkin,   The large tribal federations  are identified as the Tekke and the Yomud.   Bukara, the name of the city often used to describe a Tekke Turkoman design, is in fact, a market city to where many of the tribal pieces are brought for sale. 

The nomadic Turkomans are also known for their decorative door weavings  called Ensi.  Common among all the people of Central Asia are the decorated bags of various sizes and shapes, and tent hangings and prayer carpets.   The nomads also adorned their camels, horses and donkeys.   Such decorative weavings, often the finest and most beautiful pieces  were used in dowrys .   Therefore the finest Turkoman carpets ? the Salor ? were especially prized. 

In Central Asia, carpet making has always been an exclusively female craft, with the tecniques being handed down from mother to daughter.   Weaving was a creative process,  and many design motifs were copied from fragments that the weaver fancied- regardless of their tribal origin.   Conversely, certain distinctive tribal ornaments called "gols" were used exclusively for decorating main carpets. 

With the tribes of Central Asia,  the materials and colors were strictly defined.  The Turkomans, for example, always used wool warps and most pieces of the Salor, Saryk and tekke used white wool warp yarn.  In the 19th century, the Kirghiz, Uzbeks and Kazakhs began using cotton warps.   The number and color of weft threads also vary from tribe to tribe.  The Kirghiz usually have one weft shoot, while old Salor and Saryk always had two shoots of brown wool.  The Chodor often employed camel hair twisted with white cotton thread as the weft. 

Central Asian weavers used both asymmetrical and symmetrical knots.  The symmetrical (or turkish) knot was used by the Saryk and a portion of the Yomud, while asymmetrical knots (Persian) were used by all of the other tribes0 with the knot opening to the right.  Turkoman carpets usually have a knot density between 1000 and  3000 knots per square decimeter ( one decimeter = 1/10th of a metre = 4in).  Some torbas exceeded a knot density of  5000. 

Pile colors were mostly red ? which symbolizes life, prosperity and life.  The selection of colors was largely limited to mostly natural dyes available in their respective locals ? with white and brown being natural undyed wool shades.  The Turkoman were especially expert in using a wide variety of red shades to obtain variety in their designs, with brighter colors used to pick out the designs.   The designs were always geometric ? often with a repeating ornamental motif in rows.  The addition of an extra end border is a common characteristic of all types of Turkoman  pile weavings.    Another tendency of Central Asian Turkoman  carpets is to have a considerable number of borders.  Carpets with 16 to 18 borders and guards are not uncommon. Examples of  Central Asian main ornaments or Gols are shown in the attachment to this paper. 

To describe all the nuances of all the Central Asian tribal weavings  would be impossible in a short discussion paper.   It is perhaps better to  get our hands on the carpets themselves and gain the knowledge first hand!!