MOSCOW, Sept. 15, 2011 -- Central Asian carpets came to attention of Europeans in the mid-1800s largely as a result of the Russian Empire's expansion into the region.
The expansion took place in a dramatic reversal of the previous order.
For centuries, Russians had lived in the shadows of the Turkic and Mongol empires that dominated Eurasia. From 1223 to 1480, neighboring Tatars held such direct sway over Russia's principalities that Russians call it the time of the "Tatar yoke."
And for centuries more, nomads so regularly raided Russia and Eastern Europe for slaves that the word "slave" itself derives from "Slav" in many European languages.
But gunpowder gradually neutralized the advantages of the horse borne warriors.
As Robert B. Golden notes in his book Central Asia in World History (2011), nomads were no longer able to take cities fortified with canons by the late 1400s. By the mid-1600s, the infantryman's flintlock musket had become a match for the nomad cavalryman's composite bow.
Then it was Russia's turn to expand across the steppes, starting in the mid-1500s under Ivan IV the Terrible. By the time the Russian Empire reached the Silk Road cities of Central Asia in the late 1800s, it is was an unstoppable industrializing power that had helped defeat Napoleon and recently annexed the Caucasus.
Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand fell to the Russian Empire like dominos, captured in 1865, 1867, and 1868, respectively. Above is a picture of the battle for Samarkand.
The cities fell quickly because, by the 1800s Central Asia had declined into an impoverished region of settled and nomadic peoples steeped in tradition. The trans-continental Silk Road trading routes had been undercut by the sea trade and the wealth and vision they once generated were gone.
But some tribes put up a fierce resistance. At the battle of Geok Tepe ("Green Hill" in Turkmen) in 1882, some 25,000 Turkmen held out in a fortress for 23 days against a far better armed Russian force of 6,000. Finally, the walls were mined and the fortress was taken by storm.
Here is a photo of Turkmen soldiers in chain mail and armed with antiquated muskets.
In the wake of Moscow's conquests, the famous red carpets of Central Asia, known in the West but rarely seen in abundance, came flooding onto the Russian market.
One American observer, New York Herald correspondent Januarius MacGahan, witnessed the surrender of the city of Khiva to the Russian Army. He reported that families were forced to sell their carpets and other belongings to traders in order to pay tributes levied upon the defeated tribes:
"The Turcoman carpets, too, were very much in demand, and sold readily, in spite of the high prices demanded for them and of the fact that hundreds had been "looted" in the campaign against the Yomuds. A carpet, four yards long by two wide, brought 4 to 5 (pounds).
"A curious feature of the sale was, that although the Turcomans must have been hard pressed for money to pay the indemnity, they could not be induced to lower their prices a single kopek. They simply named their price, and you might take the article or leave it, as you pleased."
Here is a photo of a Turkmen woman standing on a carpet she has woven before her yurt. The photograph is by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who traveled throughout the Russian Empire in the early 1900s and was a pioneer of color photography.
The Russian conquest of Central Asia came at the height of the scramble by European powers for colonies worldwide and Moscow's occupation of the region followed the model of the times.
Despite the fact the territory was part of the Russian Empire, its peoples were designated "inorodtsy", or aliens. They were subjects but not citizens of Russia.
And unlike other ethnically non-Russian subjects, they could not be drafted into the Imperial Russian army, where they might acquire knowledge of modern warfare and weaponry. That was, perhaps, in memory of the past days of the Tatar yoke.
Of course, there was mass colonization, too, with ethnic Russians moving into the region, particularly to Kazakhstan, starting in the 1890s,.
Still, while Central Asia was treated very much as a colony, Moscow was interested in learning more about both its economic potential and its peoples. So, Russian academic teams fanned out along with colonial administrators.
The work of some of these teams helped lay the foundations of the West's enduring fascination with Central Asian rugs today – both as art and history.
In 1901 and 1902, Samuil Martynovich Dudin, already a well-known amateur specialist in Oriental Art, led two trips to collect materials and photographs for the first Central Asian collection of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. He brought back an enormous number of objects (2,526), including 350 rugs and carpets.
Here is one of Dudin's photographs, showing a bazaar in Central Asia.
Dudin's rug collection, which exists intact today, included Uzbek, Kirghiz, Baluch, and Afghan rugs. But most were Turkmen pieces because he considered the Turkmen to be the best carpet weavers in the world. He explained why in his travel notes:
"This quality of Turkmen rugs, in addition to other reasons, can be explained by the fact that all items are used, aside from their practical function, as decoration for the yurts. When put on camels during migrations and wedding ceremonies, they served as publicity for the family, visual evidence of the weavers' skill, the brides and wives.
"It was the competition of the inhabitants of various yurts that created the superb examples of carpet craftsmanship which one admires in one's travel on the Turkmen steppes and in local carpet shops.”
This picture of a Turkmen family seated in its yurt and surrounded by textile items was taken by Prokudin-Gorsky in the early 1900s.
But if Russians appreciated Central Asian carpets and, helped funnel them to Western Europe, the increased interest had a devastating effect on traditional carpet weaving itself.
By 1898, the ancient Silk Road cities were linked by rail to Russia proper via a western line to the Caspian and, by 1906, via a northern line to Orenburg (on modern Russia's Kazakh border). Commercialization of the weaving craft accelerated with the pace of exports.
Rug researcher Richard Wright notes that "from about 1900, functionaries were worrying about weavers' movement away from traditional designs."
To support traditional handicrafts, administrators introduced the "kustar" (or "artisan") program in Central Asia just as elsewhere in the Empire. The program, which distributed traditional designs to weavers and organized promotional exhibitions, was intended to help peasants supplement their livelihood by producing and selling quality handicrafts. But often it had the effect of simply fanning commercialism further.
The decline in quality continued. By 1903, says Wright, official reports were complaining of the "recent use" of synthetic dyes instead of natural ones and of "hasty work." By the end of the first decade of 20th century there were complaints that it was difficult to see sharp outlines in “new” rugs.
Then, far greater threats to tradition arrived.
The Russian Revolution brought communism to Central Asia and the drive to industrialize. Thousands of weavers were "collectivized" into state-run manufactories where, aided by machines, they churned out endless meters of cheap carpeting for public halls across the Soviet Union.
Those weavers who still created carpets at home found their ability to maintain the quality of their work and sell it severely limited. The Soviets' initial maintenance of the kustar program gave way to state neglect, good materials were hard to get, and the free-market was banned.
Here is a rare example of museum-quality weaving in the Soviet era: a portrait carpet of Lenin. It may have been specially commissioned for a meeting hall, mausoleum, or the private villa of a powerful party boss.
Yet if overall the weaving of the once-famous red carpets of Central Asia sank abysmally, there was one saving grace in the story. Ironically, it was the ability of Turkmens who had fled Moscow's control to continue their tradition of fine weaving and even pioneer a return to natural dyes.
As Robert Pinner & Murray L. Eiland, Jr, note in their 1999 book Between the Black Desert and the Red – Turkmen Carpets from the Wiedersperg Collection, "many Turkmen groups migrated to northern Afghanistan for religious reasons" when the Russian Empire conquered Central Asia. And later, "around the time of the Russian revolution there were more tribal movements toward the south."
In northern Afghanistan, the new arrivals joined fellow Turkmen who had been living and weaving there for centuries. Their weavings found their way West via Kabul and, later -- when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and many weavers fled south to Pakistan -- via the rug bazaars of Peshawar.
Today, with the independence of the Central Asian states since 1991, there are hopes that fine carpet weaving will revive, particularly in Turkmenistan. But progress is slow, despite the Turkmen government's opening of a carpet museum in the capital in 1994 and injunctions to producers to return to natural dyes.
Still, there is no reason to doubt a renaissance will come, or to doubt Central Asia's ties to its carpet heritage. By no coincidence, the flag of independent Turkmenistan is also a showcase of the 'guls' most commonly used by the country's five major tribes in their carpet weaving. Those tribes are the Tekke, Yomut, Ersari, Chodor, and Saryk.
(Note: Dudin is quoted in 'Thirty Turkmen Rugs - Masterpieces from the Collection of S. M. Dudin, Part II (Saryk Weavings)' by Elena Tsareva, originally published in Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 11, #1)
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