KHOTAN, East Turkestan; Dec. 4, 2010 -- In the center of the Asian continent is one of the world's most isolated places.
It is a huge region – larger than Western Europe – and has a millennia-old carpet weaving tradition. Yet even today it is little known in the West because it is so remote.
The place is known historically as East Turkestan and, today, comprises China's eastern-most province, Xinjiang.
From any direction, East Turkestan is hard to reach.
Its heartland, the Tarim Basin, is ringed on three sides -- north, west and south -- by mountain peaks up to 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) high, or about half again the height of Europe's Mont Blanc. That walls it off from Central Asia, Pakistan, and Tibet.
On the fourth side, a vast desert cuts it off from China proper to the east.
But over the millennia, this remote place attracted waves of settlers from all directions. And it was the pivot point of the Silk Roads, where the route from China branched south to India, north to Central Asia, and west to Persia, Anatolia, and Europe.
The history of fused cultures can clearly be seen in East Turkestan's rugs and is what makes them both so fascinating and sui generis.
One example is the rug from the town of Khotan shown at the top of this article. At first glance, it looks vaguely Islamic, vaguely Chinese, and vaguely Indian. In fact, it is all three.
Here is a map of the Tarim Basin, showing Khotan (here spelled Ho-t'ien) at the center of the Tarim Basin's southern edge.
Khotan and all the other major towns of the region are oases fed by mountain rivers that disappear into the Taklamakan desert at the basin's center.
Appreciating East Turkestan's carpets means peeling back layers of history, perhaps to about 1,500 to 1,000 BC. That is when historians believe the earliest agrarian settlers began penetrating into East Turkestan which, at the time, was dominated by Turkic nomads.
The settlers were Indo-Europeans who were members of the same peoples of greater Persia whose wars with the Turkic nomads are chronicled in Persia's epic poem, the Shahnameh. They lived in the oasis towns and adopted Buddhism from India while the nomads roamed over the mountain slopes.
Here is a picture of another Khotan carpet. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
The medallions are called Ay Gul, or "moon" motif, and are arranged in a pattern reminiscent of the three lotus seats on which Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas is represented in temple art. The border recalls nomadic felt carpet traditions.
Just when weaving began in East Turkestan is unknown. But Western archaeologists have dated the earliest pile carpet fragments found in the Tarim Basin to about the third century AD. The fragments were found at Buddhist sites excavated by Sir Aurel Stein in Niya, an oasis east of Khotan, around 1900.
During their history, the Buddhist oasis towns would be repeatedly overrun by powerful Turkic nomadic confederations, notably the Hsiung-nu (or Xiongnu) in the second century BC. But the nomads were content to levy tribute without changing the towns' culture or their role as middlemen for the Silk Roads.
Similarly, China, which increasingly dominated the oasis states from the second to fourth centuries BC, had no interest at that time in colonizing or in spreading Chinese culture to them, unlike today.
Instead, the Chinese were interested in maintaining garrisons to guard their Silk Road trade and assure their own imports of jade, which the mountain rivers bring down to the Tarim Basin. Whenever the rival Tibetan Empire displaced the Chinese, it too left the oasis states largely independent.
The first real changes came about with the waves of Turkic conquests which began in the ninth century as huge new confederations of nomads mobilized for the westward migrations that would change the face of Eurasia.
As the Turkic tribes adopted Islam, they also forced the conversion of the Buddhist oases, imposed their language, and created East Turkestan as we know it now.
But if the conquests and later settling of the region by the Turks, and definitively by the Uigur Turks, brought new religious and cultural influences, it did not mean the end of the old artistic ones.
Rug expert Hans Bidder writes in his landmark book Carpets from Eastern Turkestan (1964):
"Iconoclastic Islam which spread into the oases from middle of the 10th century was indeed able to subdue the religious art of Buddhism, but the new faith proved incapable of gaining any hold upon individual arts and crafts which had their roots in the traditional customs and economic existence of the oases.
"The old carpet weaving craft in Khotan, for example, whose precious fund of designs had been influenced by ten centuries of Indo-Grecian art, freely continued its own path of natural development."
Here is another Khotan carpet, this one in a "coffered gul" pattern.
Bidder writes that "the coffered gul design, so characteristic of Khotan, dates back to either the Gandhara-Buddhism period, or to an even earlier epoch." (Gandhara, stretching from Kabul to Peshawar, reached its height under Buddhist kings from the 1st to 5th centuries AD.)
He observes that the rosettes in the coffer boxes may be a floral "Khotan modification of a Turkoman Gul," while the border – with its curious multi-colored disintegrating design is Indian-influenced.
Another major influence in the design of many East Turkestan rugs was undoubtedly the patterns on Chinese silks that passed up and down the trade routes.
East Turkestan's carpet trade flourished through the middle ages and into the early modern era as the courts of Turkic rulers patronized the carpet workrooms of the oases. The carpets also found markets in India, Persia and Central Asia as part of the Silk Road trade and absorbed new influences from them in exchange.
But when China occupied the whole of East Turkmenistan in the 1750s, things changed radically. The Chinese court had little interest in pile carpets beyond receiving them as diplomatic gifts and Chinese homes made no use of them at all.
Worse, East Turkestan's incorporation into China cut its economic connections with the west. Commercial weavers who previously imported dyes from India were cut off both from their supplies and their best route for connecting to the fast growing rug market of 19th century Europe.
Here is a photo of one of the most common East Turkestan patterns. It is a carpet woven in Yarkand with a pomegranate-vase design. This and other designs were also woven in the best known of the oasis towns, Kashgar.
Those carpets from East Turkestan which did make their way west usually did so via the mountains into the Russian Empire and on to Central Asia's great carpet market in Samarkand.
By the time they reached Europe, they were generically – along with other Central Asian rugs – termed "Samarkands" and their identity was lost.
Similarly, if they went to Europe via oriental arts dealers in Beijing, they were called Kanju after one of the provinces they passed through on their way to the Chinese capital. That name, too, told nothing of their real origin.
Today, after decades of an isolated and then re-opened communist China, the weaving industry of East Turkestan is so weak that it offers little for carpet enthusiasts.
Commercial workshops are as likely to produce knock-offs of Persian carpets as copies of the region's own designs. If traditional carpets are woven for home use in any numbers, they are rarely seen or remarked upon by travelers.
But the fact that weaving still exists at all in a place so long forgotten by the world's carpet markets is something of a miracle.
Considering how many millennia and changes East Turkestan's weaving culture has already survived, it would be wrong to count it out now.
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Khotan Rugs: Samuel's Antique Rug Gallery
Khotan Rugs: Doris Leslie Blau's 'Samarkand' Gallery