The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.
by Stephen Louw
Turkmen weavings, Louise Mackie famously declared (1), "were woven in a textile saturated society."
Weavings bore the imprint of socio-cultural systems that contemporary (predominately Western) carpet collectors
seek increasingly to understand, and which for many add to their appreciation of the beautiful artworks that were
produced by and for Turkmen peoples. Clearly many of these weavings had particular significance for festive occasions,
including weddings. This Salon asks us to consider in particular the Turkmen wedding, and the various textiles
that are woven as part of this important celebration. In particular, I would like us to consider that elusive term,
used somewhat constructively in the trade, "dowry piece."
The wedding celebration
In a recent article, Robert Pinner (2) provides a useful overview of the literature on the Turkmen wedding celebration. Sadly, as nearly all of the ethnographic research has been done in the second half of the twentieth century, this can offer no more than a rough guide to the type of practices which were pursued in the nineteenth century. Most accounts reviewed by Pinner describe the marriage process as a lengthy ritual, with an oftentimes lengthy time lapse between the acceptance of a marriage proposal and agreement on the price to be paid for the bride – an arrangement between families, designed to meet various material and social objectives – and the final incorporation of the bride into the groom's household. The lapse is divided into a series of stages, each of which seems to offer ritual confirmation of the transfer of the bride into her new family, a transfer of control over the bride from her father to her husband, and the monetary exchanges that eventually permit the joining together of the by now long-suffering bride and her groom.
The wedding ceremony echoes the patriarchal structure of Turkmen society, and is as much a commercial transaction as it is an affiliation of families. The ceremony itself seems to have mirrored an abduction ritual, and one such is summarised by Pinner thus (3): "the members of the groom's immediate family set out to fetch the bride, accompanied by a camel bearing the kejebe (bridal litter). At the bride's camp, the group was offered rice and mutton provided by the father, whilst the women close to the bride gathered around her in the tent, barring the door. It was the task of the women close to the groom to break in and remove the bride by force and place her in the kejebe. Accompanied by two women, she was then taken to the groom's camp where, with her companions, she was placed in a special tent. Throughout this time the men were entertained by the groom's father."
Purpose of dowry
Before we can consider the textiles used as part of the wedding ceremony, it is useful first to consider the purpose of the dowry. Clearly, to a large extent, the dowry consists of a women's (and her families) gift to her husband (and his family). It is indeed likely that because of this the young girl would devote particular attention to the production of any textiles used for the dowry, and that they would often be particularly beautiful and valuable as a result. However, it is important not to romanticise these textiles either. Nineteenth century Turkmen weavings were influenced as much by endogenous cultural practices as they were by the growing pressures of proletarianisation and commercialisation. Marriage was likely to be informed increasingly by material considerations, and the ability of a new bride to supplement the family income with valuable weavings must have added to the assessment of the value of her labour power, which in turn, informed the bridal price.
Helfgott, in his study of the Iranian carpet industry in the nineteenth century (4), provides a fascinating insight into the way in which the proletarianisation of Iranian society dovetailed with patriarchal and authoritarian religious traditions. In Asiabak, it was reported that the introduction of carpet weaving raised the average age at which girls were married from fourteen to between eighteen and nineteen. As young girls spent more time at home acquiring weaving skills, so too did the value of their labour power increase, making it possible for the father to demand a higher bridal price. Similarly, by bringing weaving skills into the household, the new wife was able to supplement the family income. This in turn reinforced polygamy, as men were able to use the marriage contract to obtain cheap labour. Helfgott cites an observer of the carpet industry in Sultanabad in 1890-91, who commented, "The loom belongs to the men, and the weavers are either his wives, daughters, or hired labourers – very seldom the latter; it is more profitable for the loom-owner to marry his weaver than to have a good hand in his employ who might be induced to leave him at any moment." In this context, marriage marked an exchange of women against her future earning power, a practice which is unlikely to have been markedly different in Turkmen weaving areas.
Some ideas for consideration
Against this background, I would like ask what weavings were actually used as part of the wedding ceremony, and, particularly, what weavings made up the dowry. The uses of some weavings are known from photographs, for example, we know that asmalyks were used to decorate the sides of camels in the wedding procession.
Bridal camel in Turkmen wedding procession. The bride is in the "kejebe" atop the camel.
Some patterns, such as the kejebe design, are also commonly associated with the wedding procession. But what
of other weavings like bokche (envelope-shaped bags, possibly used for storing bread), ok bosh (which
may have been used to store personal effects, or less likely, arrows), and many others often sold today as "dowry
pieces." And on what basis might we distinguish between bags woven for a dowry and those used simply for day
to day storage? It would be interesting to hear your opinions on what is likely to have gone into a dowry, how
(if at all) we might distinguish a "dowry piece", and perhaps most interesting of all, to offer some
illustrations of the "best of each type".
To kickstart the discussion, I would like to present two types of textiles for consideration. Firstly, a kapunuk. Typically, these are assumed to have been woven as door surrounds, with the smaller khalyks used to decorate the bridal litter. But, as purely decorative weavings, could they perhaps have been woven by a young girl eager to demonstrate her skill (as well as the value of her labour power to the groom's household)? Or were these woven with a more general purpose, not necessarily connected to the wedding festivities?
This Ersari kapunuk is probably a relatively late nineteenth century weaving, and does not display particular skill in execution. Witness the error in the "rams horns" in the top border, the way in which the bottom layer of "curled leafs" are disconnected from the vine, and the uneven arms. However it has a pleasing vitality, to me anyway.
This Saryk kapunuk, to my mind a "best of type", is on first blush chaotic. However, on
closer inspection there is a carefully planned and complexly executed design, in which the curled leaves in the
stem and arms map out beautifully a sense of space and proportion.
My question is: What function did kapunuks have. Were they, as Moshkova suggests, used to decorate the front of a camel, with the arms hanging down its legs? Or were they simply decorative weavings? Are they likely to have been part of a dowry at all?
This textile is from the Whitworth Art gallery in Manchester, and, according to Jakob Taube and Ignazio Vok
(5), was used as a sheet on the bridal bed, the mihrab implying entry into a place of sanctity, a symbolism
common in Islamic art and architecture.
My question is: Was this the preserve of especially wealthy Turkmen? Such textiles are far less common than other wedding-related textiles. Did this have particular religious significance, or was it perhaps used for important male leaders? Indeed, is the Taube/Vok account of this wedding suzani convincing?
And finally, in the spirit of Valentine's day, let us turn our attention to the wedding arrangements and ceremony. What did these involve? And why?
1. Louise Mackie and Jon Thompson, eds., Turkmen: Tribal Carpets and Traditions (Washington, D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1980), p.15.
2. Robert Pinner, "The Turkmen wedding," HALI 100:104-7.
3. Pinner, op cit, p.104
4. Leonard Helfgott, Ties That Bind: A Social History of the Iranian Carpet (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), p. 229 and passim.
5. HALI 107 (1999), p.100.