CARPETS IN TURKMENISTAN

CARPETS IN TURKMENISTAN

Turkmenistan is famous for its carpets, which are regarded by carpet experts as descendants of the purest and oldest carpet-weaving traditions in Central Asia. Many Turkmenistan carpets are misnamed Bukhara carpets after the town in neighboring Uzbekistan they where they were sold.

Turkmen carpets are prized for their quality, rich colors and lovely geometric and floral designs. They have traditionally been brilliant red and decorated with indigo, black and white designs. The red has been traditionally made with madder and rubia tinctorum, an herb that produces extraordinarily brilliant and long-lasting reds. Other colors come from beetle dyes. The best ones are made with the soft, curled grey, black or brown wool from the pelts of Karakul or Sarajin sheep.

Carpets have traditionally been prized by nomads because they were easy to transport, they provided warmth and they could be used as furniture and decorative wall and floor coverings. The Soviets transformed carpet making into a state industry with factories churning out mass-produced carpets. The world’s largest handwoven wool carpet hangs in Turkmenistan’s presidential palace. Completed in 2001 it is approximately 300 square meters (3333 square feet) in size and weighes almost 1.5 metric tons according to the Guiness Book of Records. The second largest is in the Turkmen National Carpet Museum, which opened in 1993 in Ashgabat and has largest collection of antique Turkmen textiles with more than a thousand 18th and 19th century carpets, chuvals (storage bags), khorjuns (saddle-bags) and torbas (tent bags) on display.

Turkmen take their rugs very seriously. Carpets are symbol of Turkmen culture in general. Each Turkmen tribe has owns its own unique motifs and five major ones are depicted the Turkmenistan flag. According to artiesa.com: “They have the Ministry of Carpets, which focuses on the preservation of hand-weaving traditions. When one wants to buy a carpet in Turkmenistan, he or she has to prepare a lot of documents that clarify: the age, region of origin, the materials used in it, the name of the merchant, the day when it has been purchased, and provide documentations from the Ministry of Carpets that gives the approval for taking the carpet out of Turkmenistan.” Turkmenistan marks Carpet Day on the last Sunday of May.This national holiday was established before the country declared independence in 1991. One of the main events is a large carpet show organized by the Turkmen Carpet state-run corporation comprising 16 enterprises.

Modern classification divides the Turkmen rugs into three groups: 1) Teke rugs, Akhal-Teke rugs, Pendi rugs; 2) Yomut rugs, Choudour rugs; and 3) Beshir rugt, Kerki rugs, Kizylayak rugs. All these groups are differed from each other by decorations, patterns, coloring, density and height of a pile. In turn, the rugs in each group are united by various designs which have their own beauty. [Source: Ashgabat Rug Plant, turkmens.com]

Books: “Turkmen Tribal Carpets and Traditions” edited by Louise W. Mackie and Jon Thompson, Washington D.C., Textile Museum, 1980.

Turkmenistan Carpets

According to centralasiacultures.com: “Turkmenistan produces some of the most unique and beautiful carpets in the world. Because they are sold internationally under different names (such as Bukharan or Afghan), many people don't realize their source. Carpet weaving is an ancient art, and each tribe developed its own distinctive pattern. Some of these patterns have been found to be duplicated on ceramics from the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C.! Turkmen carpets have been traditionally woven out of wool, cotton, and silk by women, using horizontal looms. The method of weaving has been modernized, but the beauty and quality of the fabrics remains.” [Source: centralasiacultures.com]

Turkmenistan carpets have won many prestigious awards including a Grand Prix, eight gold medals and one bronze medal at international exhibitions and fairs in Paris and Montreal, Leipzig and Brussels. Many carpets have ornaments featuring the Turkmen national flag and coat of arms as a symbol of people's unity. Marco Polo (1254-1324) wrote that Turkmenistan boasted the thinnest and most beautiful carpets in the world. Renaissance artists depicted these carpets in their paintings. Turkmen carpets were mentioned in Avesta (Zoroastrian archives), works by ancient Greek and Chinese historians, the ancient Indian epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, The Shah Nameh by Persian poet Firdousi and The Thousand and One Nights. [sputniknews.com]

“Nomadic carpet weaving in Turkmenistan changed during the 19th century when war and conflicts caused increased poverty. Therefore, this craft became commercialized. Carpet weaving turned into a source of income and weavers adapted their designs and colors conforming to the foreign market demand. Later period when the use of synthetic dyes thrived. Meanwhile, political changes induced people that the concept of nomadic life had no place in Turkmenistan. Rugs and carpets weaved after the revolution were all produced in state-owned workshops.” [Source: artiesa.com <*>]

Turkmen Carpet Designs and Colors

Each Turkmen tribe has developed its own unique design, or gul, which distinguishes the carpets of different tribes and clans from one another and Turkmen carpets from other Oriental rugs. Designs and patterns also traditionally vary from village to village. The Ersia clan near Caspian Sea, for example, uses an anchor motif.

Generic Turkmen patterns are predominantly geometric in design. Many variations of the red color are characteristic of the Turkmen weaving. The origin of ornamental carpet designs is rooted the realities of Turkmen everyday life and the area where they have live such as local vegetation and animals, irrigated fields. These designs are found both in the Gols (Guls), carpet patterns of the central field, and the framing and edges of a carpet. [Source: turkmencarpets-online.com]

The main ornaments on Turkmen rugs are the primary and supplementary "gels"— carpet designs inspired by nature, life and customs of the Turkmen people, sometimes augmented the feelings, dreams, joys, griefs, hopes and wishes of the weavers and their tribes. The also express heroism, courage and devotion to the Motherland. [Source: Ashgabat Rug Plant, turkmens.com ~/~]

Carpets by Salor tribes share some common characteristics with Tekke tribes. Their name is related to well-known Bokhara or Bukhara rugs. The designs of these rugs are the result of a mixture of Persian, Pakistani and Afghani designs. They are the most famous of all Turkmen rugs. <*>

The gels of early Turkmen tribes are kept alive in modern Turkmen rugs. Through Salor and Choudour rugs scholars have gleaned insight into the early Turkmen and their crafts. The Salor tribes are still considered the pioneers of Turkmen carpet-weaving. At the end of 19th century, when the Salors practically stop making carpets, Saryk and Tekke rugs with the very popular "Salor-gel" designs appear in trade markets. ~/~

Turkmen red varies from bright holiday shades to dark cherry and brown colors. These are complemented by designs made with yellow, dark green, blue, dark blue and white colors. The center is framed by dark blue, dark brown and sometimes black colors. The white details of a gel harmonize with the whole coloring of the rug in part because of the natural warm brown color of the wool. The surface of rug brings out the depth and velvety quality of the of the color, which is said to intensify through prolonged use. ~/~

Turkmen Carpet Weaving

Carpet-weaving is one of the most ancient forms of Turkmen applied art. Turkmen woman have traditionally been taught the craft from the early age. The beauty and longevity of Turkmen rugs is rooted the traditions of Turkmen carpet-weaving and the skills of its weavers. Pile carpet-weaving is a complicated and long process in which weavers create complex patterns and designs using the ancient and rudimentary methods of production. The best carpet-weavers create whole compositions and ornamentations on rugs by means of their imagination, memory and new interpretations of traditional patterns. [Source: Ashgabat Rug Plant, turkmens.com ~/~]

The yarn used in Turkmen rugs is taken from the wool of Sarajin sheep, which is valued for ist ability to absorb heat, dyes and scents. The yarn has traditionally been dyed with plant and mineral dyes. One of the strong points of Turkmen rugs is their knot density; from 180 to 400 knots to a square meter. Another is the use of traditional, natural dyes. But perhaps their greatest contributor are the Turkmen women who make them. Their hands create the real masterpieces. Their tradititions are kept alive through the passing of traditions and secrets about designs, techniques, dyes and other things from one generation to the next. ~/~

According to artiesa.com: “Turkmen carpet weaving is linked to the geography and history of this country. The Turkmen people had woven carpets for centuries and they were divided and named after specific tribes. Turkmen tribal groups that lived in the west part of the country: Chodor, Goklen and Yomut; tribes that lived in the east: Tekke, Salor, Saryq; and tribes that lived in the north: Ersari were known for the production of good quality rugs. [Source: artiesa.com <*>]

“All these tribes have woven carpets for floor covering and other purposes and their quality rated from good to excellent. Their main motif that make Turkmen different from other oriental carpet in the gul. With the exception of rugs made by the Ersari tribe, all the others have this geometric motifs that stands for a flower. Guls of different sizes and shapes are combined together. The geometric gul and the red-brown palette are typical elements of Turkmen carpets. <*>

Carpet Making in Turkmenistan

Carpets have traditionally been made in villages by family groups of women who worked in their homes with primitive looms that lie on the floor and just three tools: scissors, a comb and a knife with a hooked blade. Most of the designs are made from memory and have been passed down to each generation from mother to daughter. Men traditionally bought the finest wool they could afford for the women to card and spin and took the wool to the markets where dyers specialized in specific colors like red and indigo.

Describing a Turkmen women at work on their looms, Sabrina and Roland Michaud wrote in National Geographic, “A weaver...knots a strand of wool around a thread of warp, cutting the ends with the sickle-shaped knife. After each row she tamps the line with a heavy comb. Finally, using shears, she clips several inches of shaggy tuft to an even height. The weavers work with every ounce of their energy, burying their joys and sorrows alike in their carpets, forgetting even the baby in its hammock hung above the loom.” They “wield great scissors with which they even the strands of wool...They cut themselves off from their world; they accept their lot with calmness and serenity.” [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, November 1973]

In recent years the demand for Turkmen carpets became so great that men have been recruited to work in large workshops. In the drive to mass produce carpets cheaply, carpet makers have abandoned traditional designs and use chemical dyes.

A six-by-nine-foot carpet typically takes two months to make and earns the weavers several hundred dollars. It takes three months to make a larger wool carpet, a little longer to make a silk one. Small ones are used for prayer rugs. Large one used in the homes.

Geography and Cultural Background of Turkmen Carpets

Turkmen carpets don’t have to necessarily come from Turkmenistan. They can come from other others where Turkmen live such as Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and Syria. They can also come from anywhere in Turkestan (Central Asia plus Xinjiang in western China), particularly West Turkestan. According to bukhara-carpets.com: “West Turkestan is an area of some 700,000 square kilometers with the Caspian Sea to the west, the Mangyshlak Peninsula to the northeast and the Kapet-Dagh Mountains and the outskirts of the Hindukush forming a semicircle to the south. West of what since 1924 has been the border of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkmenistan are Afghanistan and the Iranian province of Khorassan. At the eastern side is the huge Chinese province of Xinjiang (Sinkiang). Usually referred to in the context of weaving literature as East Turkestan. Thus viewed in simple geographic terms, it is easier to understand the nature of this Eurasian basin, part of the ancient world's dry belt. [Source: bukhara-carpets.com +++]

“To the western side of the region is the Karakum desert and to the east, between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers, is the Kyzylkum desert. To the south” is Uzbekistan, embracing “the important trading centers of Bukhara and Samarkand. The latter having been a major post along the ancient Silk Road, which ran from China through East Turkestan and on westwards, via Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Mary (Merv) in Turkmenistan and Khorasan. Many different ethnic groups have occupied this region for millennia and among those associated with weaving, in addition to the Turkmen's themselves, are the Uzbeks, Karakalpaks and Kyrgyz.” +++

“The history, genealogy, beliefs and way of life of the Turkmen steppe peoples are all of great importance to their art. Turkmen rugs, therefore, with their distinctive palettes, motifs and compositions, are not merely examples of a strange and exotic 'folk' art but represent a highly complex and historically continuous culture. This strong historical continuity was made possible by the innate conservatism of Western and Central Asian tribal cultures and, most importantly, by their nomadic, or semi-nomadic, way of life. The Turkmen's (who belong to a Western Turkic language group - unlike any other Central Asian peoples) have thus been able to maintain and develop their own special culture. +++

“Because the majority were nomads or semi-nomads, hardly any written sources exist to indicate the background of the Turkmen other than their oral histories, literature and remants of their traditional lifestyle. The Turkmen's were divided into tribes, the number of which it is now hard to estimate; the tribes themselves were further sub-divided into various kinship groups and individual families, much like the large tribal confederations in Iran, many of which are also wholly or in part of Turkic origin. The Turkmen family lived in a distinctive tent, called a yurt, which could be erected and dismantled within a few hours. The base of a yurt was a lattice-like construction made of willow with a domed roof and covered in felt.Horses were the key to a tribe's power, and served as their major status symbol. The principal source of its wealth was its sheep which provided wool, milk and, on festive occasions, meat. The task of looking after the flocks, as well as weaving, fell to women. Other raw materials for weaving, although to a much lesser extent, were obtained from camels and goats.” +++

History of Turkmen Carpets

The world’s oldest carpet — the 4th century B.C. "Pazyryk rug" — was found in the Altay mountains not so far from present-day Turkmenistan. It has some major similarities with modern Turkmen carpets. In the 12th chapter of “The Travels of Marco Polo”, which relates to the Italian traveler journey in Iran and Central Asia in the 13th century, Marco Polo said: "The finest and the most beautiful carpets are made here and rich fabric of red and other colors are woven here." This was one of the first mentions of Oriental carpets by Western sources but it seems plausible they were around much longer than this. Turkmen carpets were featured in European Renaissance paintings such as "St John Altarpiece" by Hans Memling, which features an archaic Turkmen Salyr (Chuval) Gol thought perhaps produced by the Turkmen weavers in Anatolia (Turkey). In "Still Life" by the same artist, one the most archaic Turkmen gols — "Memling Gol" — is depicted. [Source: turkmencarpets-online.com]

Carpet products such as chuvals (storage bags), khorjuns (saddle-bags) and torbas (tent bags) were used by Turkmen nomads to transport clothing, tents and household goods on camels and horses when they moved their camps. There were also featured wedding procession and given as wedding gifts. All these items had symbols and patterns unique to each tribe which are still used today. The major Turkmen tribes are Teke (Tekke), Yomut (Yomud), Arsary (Ersary), Chowdur (Choudur), Saryk (Saryq), Salyr (Salor).

According to bukhara-carpets.com: “The earliest researchers into the Turkmen's and their weaving culture started from the assumption that the Turkmen had always been nomads and therefore the historical roots of their weaving were to he found in nomadic traditions. That the art of knotting grew out of the practical necessities of a nomadic way of life appears to he a convincing hypothesis. Mobility was an important requirement of this lifestyle and all the nomad's personal property had to he, as far as possible. Light, easily transportable and made from readily available raw materials, the most important of which was the wool from their own flocks of sheep. Piled carpets provided protection from the cold underfoot - in these climates, freezing temperatures seep up from the ground at night - and could also he used as covers and blankets. [Source: bukhara-carpets.com +++]

“However, the general opinion today is that although nomads unquestionably played an important part in the development of pile weaving, they may not actually have invented it. In the nomadic environment, it was easier to make felts and fiat-weaves. Felting, indeed, is probably among the oldest of textile techniques. No loom is needed and items can he made in a comparatively short time. By contrast, the production of a knotted carpet can take several months, and thus it is hardly a technique suitable for a nomadic way of life. Whenever carpets are depicted in early art, whether Eastern or Western, they are associated with power and wealth, both religious and secular. From such evidence, it would seem that for a long time pile weavings were the preserve of the upper echelons of the societies, which made or imported them. It is therefore more likely that they were produced by settled communities rather than by semi-nomadic ones. The manufacture of rugs by knotting woolen threads on to a net-like ground structure was probably derived from flat-weave techniques. The development from a continuous flat-weave such as sumak, through such loose pileping as the loop-pile technique to the final refinement of 'knotting' seems logical. It was not only geography and climate, which forced many of the inhabitants of Central Asia into a nomadic way of life. There was also the constant plundering and pillaging which went on between neighboring groups, the fight for good grazing lands at different times of the year, the struggle to secure access to water supplies and the constant internecine battles between the Turkmen's themselves.” +++

Although the art of carpet making is ancient, it became truly popular only in the second half of the 19th century. Before that rugs were produced for almost exclusively nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkmen population. At that time the Turkmen people had no contacts with Europeans. Carpet production began as a commerical, money-making venture, when the first carpet exhibitions were held in Vienna and Berlin. Viewers were stunned by the original beauty of the carpets and demand and markets for them grew.

Turkmen Bags and Wall Hangings

Turkmen weaving skills are also displayed in traditional nomadic travel and storage gear such as chuvals (storage bags), khorjuns (saddle-bags), torbas (tent bags) and mafrash (bedding bags) and household articles such as ensi (carpet doorhanging). Ensi are medium-size rectangular rugs, used as a wall hanging or door decoration, with clear-cut composition of the upper and lower sides. Ther lower band is usually wider than the upper sides. Ornamental patterns of ensi differ from the patterns of floor-coverings. [Source: turkmencarpets-online.com]

According to weavingartmuseum.org: “Chuval, torba and mafrash were types of trappings we would now refer to as storage bags. Produced by all Turkmen weaving groups, these terms are the names used to describe their different sizes. Generally the chuval were the largest and it seems the oldest and most important but a cluster of torbas were even larger than the biggest chuval. The mafrash were always small and most of them were made in the pre-conquest and colonial periods, older ones being much less common than chuval and torba. [Source: weavingartmuseum.org |::|]

“The chuval are usually slightly larger than two feet by four feet and were always made in pairs. Originally all three sizes had an integrally flat-woven back panel which was sewn up at the sides to create a top opening. Invariably they all have major and minor göls layouts but occasionally torba and mafrash have non-göl and all-over pattern designs, whereas chuval even more rarely depart from that format. |::|

“Surprisingly most archaic and later examples of chuval use the same rather nondescript major göl shape but of course the archaic examples exhibit a higher level of design delineation, articulation, and color combination. The use of any other major göl is uncommon but it does occur and likewise the appearance of tertiary elements is also occasionally seen. It is, however, the minor göls that exhibit the most amount of variation and are often the focal point of these weavings. |::|

“Their differences, as well as those in the designs of the interiors of the chuval major göls, raises the question as to whether they were done as emblematic identification for specific weaving groups. Several of the descriptions accompanying the eight chuval chosen for exhibition address this topic and suggest new ways of looking at these minor göls as well as the interior designs of the major ones. This and the publication of these chuval are both presented here for the first time.” |::|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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