Conversations with Tribal Weavers

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Conversations with Tribal Weavers
Saddled horses, chickens, and human figures cavort on the field of this extremely rare mid-19th century Bakshaish. Study the golden medallion to reveal two ethereal Dragons and Phoenixes.

By Jan David Winitz
Claremont Rug Company

OAKLAND, CA.- In a world dominated by technology and mobile phone apps, it is sometimes challenging to realize that as recently as 70 years ago, the tribal peoples who populated the areas from Mesopotamia to the Central Asian steppes (the Caucasian Mountains) spent their lives in remote villages or nomadic encampments without electricity or motor vehicles.

Primarily shepherds or members of an agrarian society, women in this society wove rugs that played a central role in bringing warmth and comfort. And they were the primary art form that employed symbols, connecting them to their ancestors stretching back 4000 years.

Their lifestyle involved constant interaction with nature, including many different types of animals and birds, some domesticated, many wild. They saw these beasts and fowl as embodying attributes hidden to humans. Many were stronger, faster, could live in the sea or air, and had abilities and senses that the nomad or farmer could only aspire to. This is undoubtedly part of the reason artisans portrayed them first in metal and woodwork, then in ceramics, and, finally, by the Iron Age, in their carpets.

In my early years of business, I had the great fortune to meet tribespeople who grew up in weaving villages and to chat with them about the significance of different species. I say “chat” because approaching the arena of symbols with tribal people demanded sensitivity and respect for the age-old relationship that their ancestors had with the woven symbols. As you can imagine, I took copious notes.

What I learned
The myriad animals and birds in tribal rugs are often far from representational, unlike the exquisite life-like drawing in floral Oriental carpet styles. The powerful Caucasian Eagle Kazak motif is a completely deconstructed view of an eagle from above. Birds are often tiny stick figures sprinkled across the field of a rug. The mythological Dragon and Phoenix appears in many genres of antique carpets, symbolizing the masculine and feminine forces of the universe, the pairing of which connotes harmony and good fortune.

Other recognizable bird images include peacocks, most vividly portrayed in Caucasian Akstafa rugs that have a lineage associated with nobility and abundance. The peacock’s massive, colorful plumes evoke a level of beauty and splendor that is at once heavenly and yet manifests on the earth.

Flocks of roosters and chickens are seen throughout South Persian Qashqais and Khamsehs. For the tribespeople, chickens tirelessly pecking the ground to dig up food for their chicks is a long-revered impression of support and nurturance. The rooster’s crowing just before dawn acted as a natural alarm clock that pulled the tribespeople out of sleep into the light. The benevolence of this “shocking” daily occurrence was not lost on them, as it is said that The Buddha, Christ, and Mohammed were all born at “cock’s crow.”

Anyone who has witnessed an eagle in flight is awe-struck. Ten species of eagles fly over the rug weaving areas and build their nests in the lofty cliffs of the towering Caucasus, Elbrus, and Zagros mountains and they have been associated with the sun and divine presence since the cradle of civilization. The eagle motif in Karabagh rugs is sometimes likened to a sunburst, and its presence is meant to evoke man’s potential for an all-seeing vision.

Other rugs depict the horses, camels, dogs, donkeys, and sheep that the tribespeople were surrounded and physically supported by.

The Grace of Wild Animals Depicted
My clients and I are always delighted when we encounter ceremonially saddled horses in an antique Caucasian rug. Tribeswomen line-drew horses either grazing or saddled, standing tall in dignified postures, with the human rider shown undersized in the relationship. With an evolutionary history of 50,000 years, the speed, grace, and endurance of horses have inspired our psyches for eons. Rug weaving peoples, sharing a history of expert breeding and horsemanship, enshrine them in their designs in appreciation of their willingness to submit their power to their master.

Wild animals also inspired them. The gazelle’s innate ability to seemingly effortlessly navigate forbidding terrain deeply touched the tribespeople who recognized the daily payment required to live according to natural cycles and phenomena. From early childhood, the tribespeople were exhorted to continually rise above life's difficulties and to be grateful for the strength of character this built.

Coincidentally with the number of bird species, also ten different species of lions roamed the Caucasian and Persian areas. Unchanging respect for and adulation of this majestic animal are infused in tribal cultural histories. Lion images appear most often in 19th century Bakhtiari and Qashqai tribal rugs, demonstrating that inner strength, balance, courage, and a sense of justice are attributes that all of us can aspire to.

While technology renders some things to the past, the opposite occurs with antique Oriental rugs: the past brings peace and harmony to the present day with all its benefits. For this, we are grateful to the tribal weavers and the expertise and aesthetic sensitivity they brought to their looms.

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