TBILISI, Sept. 19, 2009 -- In the 19th century, the West discovered one of the world’s great mother lodes of carpets: the Caucasus.
It was a late discovery as far as Caucasian carpets themselves were concerned. They had been there for millennia and debate rages today over whether some of them appear in Renaissance paintings.
But for home-owners of the mid 1800s – when western interest in carpets as furnishings was at its height – Caucasian carpets were a discovery not unlike finding a new planet.
What made the discovery so extraordinary was both the immense variety of Caucasian carpets and the fact that, previously, the region had been seemed so remote to most Europeans that it was well off their mental map.
It was not that people did not know how to locate the Caucasus -- the mountainous land between the Black and Caspian Seas that is home to Christian Armenians and Georgians, Muslim Azeris and many other peoples.
It was just that over the preceding centuries the region had become exclusively the backyard of two great Eastern powers.
The Caucasus was fought over by the Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persia throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. And it was only the fact that local Christian nobles and Muslim emirs managed to retain some independence while swearing allegiance to their powerful neighbors that they avoided being swallowed by them.
In distant Europe, that meant most people thought of the Caucasus in terms of Turkey and Persia, without realizing the region had its own unique artistic traditions.
But by the 18th century, things began changing dramatically.
Russia was moving south and, by the mid 19th century, had annexed the entire region. And suddenly, the Caucasus was not part of the East but part of the world’s biggest European empire.
The carpets that began flowing west via Russia were Kubas and Shirvans, from cities of the same names near the Caspian Sea, in present-day northeast Azerbaijan. This is a Shirvan from the end of the 19th century.
Here is an antique Shirvan carpet. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
The carpets caused a sensation because their finely drawn ornamental features perfectly matched Europeans’ decorating tastes at that time.
To many Europeans, they appeared to be a welcome new variety of Persian carpets, which had similar high-knot densities and delicate ornamentation. Persian carpets were already so popular that European importers for some time had been investing in looms in northwestern Persia to try to satisfy Western demand.
But, in fact, the Caucasian carpets had a totally distinct weaving tradition behind them. And that tradition – of which Europeans were now just seeing the tip of the iceberg – contained a variety of styles that was nothing short of incredible given the relatively small size of the Caucasus region.
How wide is the range of Caucasian designs? Here is a Kazak rug from several hundred kilometers west of the Caspian, in an area roughly where the borders of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan meet today. Instead of ornamentation, its emphasis is on geometry and graphic design.
The boldness of the Kazaks' patterns and colors did not conform to the mainstream decorating tastes of the 19th century, and there was originally little European interest in them. But a hundred years later, when Western rug tastes shifted from decorative to abstract designs in the 1960s and 70s, collectors would rediscover them with a passion.
Where does the huge variety in Caucasian carpets come from?
The answer is in the region’s incredibly dense mix of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. Some of its peoples long pre-date the earliest recorded history, while others arrived later in wave after wave of invaders.
The constant waves of new invasions might have leveled the pre-existing cultures in a region less mountainous than the Caucasus. But the Caucasus chain is the highest in Eurasia apart from Himalayas, and is honeycombed with hidden and isolated valleys that serve as refuges.
Here is a photo of a small Georgian village today that gives some idea of the terrain.
Still, if hidden valleys suggest that groups could be so insulated that their culture existed separately from others, this was never the case in the Caucasus anymore than in the Alps.
Instead, overlying the individual cultures, a shared regional culture developed across the mountains. And in carpet weaving, the shared culture became so strong it often was impossible to know by which people a specific carpet was made.
In the Transcaucasus – the area on the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountain chain -- the principal population groups are Azeri, Georgian, Armenian, Kurdish, and Persian-speaking Talish.
Caucasian carpet expert Zdenka Klimtova writes in her 2006 book ‘Caucasian Rugs’ that all of these peoples in the 1800s and early 1900s were involved to a greater or lesser extent in weaving rugs and kilims.
The Azris, Kurds, and Talish wove both for home and commercial use. Klimtova notes that "most of the commercially produced rugs are assumed to have been created in the homes of Muslim Azeri Turks, who constitute the majority population of today's Azerbaijan."
Here is a photo, circa 1910, of a master weavers’ studio in the Kuba district, in present-day Azerbaijan.
By contrast, Kilmtova says, the Georgian and Armenian women wove almost exclusively for home use, with the Geogians weaving almost exclusively kilims.
This picture is of an Armenian woman surrounded by textiles in the late 19th century.
In the North Caucasus – on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains -- there are still more population groups, too many to list. Among them, the peoples of present-day Daghestan were and are the best-known weavers.
What all the Caucasian weavers shared in common was a preference for bold colors and a love of abstractions rich in symbolism.
Their use of abstractions to represent both plants and animals is something that distinguishes their work from both the Turkish and Persian weaving traditions.
Whereas Turkish weavers will sometimes depict carnations, tulips or apple blossoms faithfully enough that they can be recognized as real plants, the abstractions on Caucasian rugs bear no relations to specific flowers.
And whereas Persian carpets often feature fully recognizable lions or fairy-tale beasts, the animals that appear in Caucasus carpets are only zoomorphic shapes.
In fact, the Caucasian weavers’ abstractions of animals are so complete, that zoomorphic forms even can appear on Muslim prayer rugs, a thing never seen in other Islamic areas.
The weaving style of this mountainous region has still other striking characteristics, particularly a love of sharp contrasts.
Richard E. Wright and John T. Wertime describe it well in their book ‘Caucasian Carpets and Covers’ (1995):
“Another major quality is contrast, created in numerous ways: the juxtaposition of certain colors (for example blue and yellow), the use of white (both as highlight and background), and abrupt changes in scale, that is, substantial size differences between adjacent motifs. The heart of Caucasian art is contrast in color and form, linked to brilliance of color.”
The origins of this artistic tradition are lost in time, but it is not hard to imagine they come from living in the mountains themselves, with their strong contrasts of altitude, light, and nature.
As Wright and Wertime put it, “Villagers and nomads of all ethnic origins shared a common world; they drew from the same design reservoir and portrayed the world as they saw it.”
This picture is of a Georgian woman standing upon a kilim. The picture was taken by the Russian traveler and photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii at the turn-of-the-last-century.
The Western traders of 19th century who first brought Caucasian carpets into department stores in London, Paris, New York and elsewhere did not even try to distinguish between the multiple designs of the carpets or the many peoples of the Caucasus who wove them.
They simply gave all eastern Caucasian carpets a common brand name: “Daghestans.”
That was a nothing more than the name of one region where the importers knew many Caucasian carpets could be purchased. Specifically, the purchase point was the ancient walled port city of Derbent, in Daghestan, on the Caspian Sea. It was a prominent export station for goods of all kinds from the Caucasus northward to Russia.
But, in fact, the carpets sold in Derbent came from a much wider region, including Kuba, the biggest commercial weaving center in the Caucasus at the time.
Still, the traders’ practice of giving Caucasian carpets all-encompassing generic names that lumped together dozens of styles continued for many years.
Another brand name, used as late as 1900, was “Genje.” It, too, is just the name of a trading center, now called Ganja, in western Azerbaijan. The bazaar of the town, photographed circa 1910-11 is shown here.
John Kimberly Mumford, a rug expert writing in 1900, described the use of “Genje” as a brand name this way:
“In Constantinople, as in the American market, miscellaneous bales of rugs, all measuring between three and five feet in width, and six and eight feet in length, are jobbed under the name of Ghenghis, or, as the bills of lading have it, ‘Guendje.’ They are made up of the odds and ends of Shirvan, Karabaghs, Mosul and other secondary fabrics of the Caucasian class which usually come from Elizavetpol, the old Armeno-Persian name for which was Gandja.” (Quoted in Ralph Kaffel’s 1998 book ‘Caucasian Prayer Rugs.’)
Such use of fanciful brand names went on for decades because the European importers themselves rarely traveled to the region. They even more rarely had any direct contact with the weavers, who often were in remote villages.
Nevertheless, with time, the Western traders eventually did become familiar with the nomenclature used by local rug merchants. And that became the basis for the European market's beginning to distinguish between the Caucasian rugs' many styles and origins.
The local rug merchants whose terms Western traders eventually adopted were located in Tiflis (today Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia), which was a major collection point for Caucasus carpets moving west through Russia’s Black Sea ports.
Here is a photo of rug shop in Tiflis at the turn-of-the-last-century.
The Tiflis dealers divided the carpets of the Transcaucasus – the source of the vast majority of exported carpets -- into three broad categories.
Western region: Kazak and Ganja rugs with bold geometric patterns, thick wool, and high piles.
Eastern region: Kuba, Baku, and Shirvan rugs with minute motifs, fine wool, and low piles.
Southern region: Karabagh, Moghan and Talish rugs.
There was an underlying genius to the system, because these categories to some extent mirror the different climates of the Transcaucasus region.
The west has a harsh climate where thick carpets are desirable for insulation from the cold ground. The thick yarn and long piles needed for that, in turn, allow only the weaving of large and rectilinear geometric motifs.
The east has milder climate, particularly along the Caspian Sea, allowing carpets to be more decorative. The weavers could use thinner yarn, and that allows a higher knot density and more intricate designs.
And the system has another bit of genius, because it implicitly recognizes the often subtle influences of neighboring cultures upon the designs.
The southwest weavings, with their powerful geometry echo, to a greater or lesser degree, the distinctly geometric patterns of Ottoman rugs dating from the 15th and 16th C in neighboring Anatolia. An example is the Kazak Karachop design, shown here, which is reminiscent of Large Pattern Holbein carpets.
By contrast, the northeast weavings with their detailed ornamentation show the influence of Tabriz, the great weaving capital of the Azeri Turk area of northwest Persia.
That same ornamental influence can be seen in the weavings of Karabagh, in the south. There, where rugs were woven by Armenians, Azeris, and Kurds, the designs are more ornate, frequently have floral motifs, and are more decorative than in other parts of the Caucasus. The picture below is an example.
But if the Tiflis merchants’ nomenclature gave a good framework for identifying the large categories, and even many sub-styles, of Caucasian weaving, it still was filled with large groupings of rugs under single place names that tell little about who wove what and when. Sorting out those details is the task of modern researchers and it remains an imposing one.
It is fascinating to think how many millennia of mountain life stand behind the designs and for how long – despite so many conquests and upheavals in the region – the weaving tradition remained distinctly its own.
In fact, the biggest challenge to the tradition did not come until the 19th century, just as Europe was discovering Caucasian carpets and beginning to understand their uniqueness.
The challenge was from Russia, the region’s third major neighboring power after Turkey and Iran and a country which, until then, had exerted almost no influence upon the region’s culture at all.
The occupation of the Caucasus by imperial Russia and subsequent life under the Soviet Union would drive the Caucasus’ carpet culture close to extinction. But how that happened is another story. (For more read: Russia And The History Of Caucasian Carpets.)
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