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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

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 Patrick Weiler

In the lingering light of these late spring days, with the drudgery of the day and your duties done, you can casually contemplate and carefully compare the curious complexities of the carpets in your collection.

Take a few moments to explore the intricacies and similarities of a couple of pairs of small utilitarian bag faces below:

This Baluch balisht is 16" wide by 30-1/2" long (with 25" length of pile weave). It is asymmetrically knotted, inclining to the left, at 9 horizontal by 10 vertical knots per inch (90 per square inch). The warp is Z2S white wool, moderately depressed, and there are two weft shots of dark brown wool per row of knots. The edges were overcast when the back was removed.

The flat-woven section at the top (Marla, Help!) consists of: Two strand twining of red and faded purple to stabilize the bag face at the top (and the bottom, added when the weaving was prepared for sale, as the purple color has faded and the other colors have not); a section of plain weave, then three rows of two color, two span twining alternating red-brown, blue-white and red-brown; more plain weave with a strip of white weft substitution patterning; a closure strip bordered above and below by two-color twining and consisting of two-color twining interspersed with black goat hair closure braids which are attached by 1-1/2" of four span twining on the front of the bag and loose on the back of the balisht; another section of plain weave with a strip of white weft substitution; one more row of two span twining. The bottom is the same as the top but without the closure row and with only one strip of white weft substitution..

Colors, 13, include: camel ground, red, pink (along only the fourth branch from the bottom), dark blue, light blue, aquamarine, dark brown, light brown, maroon, black, white, apricot and yellow (only in the diamond at the base of the tree).

Contrary to the appearance of the balisht, the pile is slanted upwards. This is sometimes said to be used on one face of a pair of khorjin bags woven together, but I did not know that balishts were woven in pairs together. Is this a common feature of balishts? Could this be a rare heinous two-faced balisht with both faces in pile?

I acquired this balisht from an antiques dealer. It was in a display case under a baseball bat autographed by Ken Griffey, Jr. I suspect that the bat was not really an antique and it was just a bit more expensive than the balisht, so I bought the balisht.

A few comments: It is a tree of life design. The main border is an undulating leaf design (see Boucher, plate 32), spaciously woven. The outer border appears to be a variegated plain brown, but it is not. It has a design that is so subtly colored as to be nearly invisible. It is only at the very bottom of this border that the alternating colors are apricot and dark brown for one section. The apricot part of the design then becomes very dark brown-black against the nearly-as-dark brown of the border. It is strange that the weaver would weave a design that was almost unreadable. Could it be like a whispered prayer? It is a border design I am not familiar with and appears to be a letter or symbol in mirror image on either side of the rug.

The field design of branches with flowers is related to more common tree of life design Baluch rugs such as those in plates 1, 2, 24, 31, 32, 38, 39 and the balisht in plate 49 of Boucher's seminal book, Baluch Woven Treasures. However, in this balisht it has become geometricized into quartered diamonds. This is an unusual interpretation of the traditional design. There is a simplified branch/tree design on a prayer rug in Belouch Prayer Rugs, by Michael Craycraft and Anne Halley, plate 20. It does not include diamonds, but only stunted branches (Was there a drought when that rug was woven?).

Now, let us compare this with another more traditional and probably older balisht.

This weaving also has a pile section of 25" by 16" and, thankfully, (Marla, this one will be a lot easier) there is no remaining flatweave. It, too, is asymmetrically knotted, inclining to the left, almost half again finer at 10 horizontal by 13 vertical knots for 130 knots per square inch. It has only eight colors compared to 13 for the previous balisht: camel ground, red, corroded brown, blue, corroded black, white, dark red and yellow. The warp is a considerably finer white or brown-and-white Z2S wool and is flat rather than depressed. The weft is also very fine, with two shots of dark brown wool per row of knots.

The field design of this delicate balisht also consists of a tree of life, but with the more familiar angular leaf at the end of each branch. The camel ground color is almost shimmering compared to the previous example. The contrasting reds and the corroded browns almost jump out at you. There are numerous "s" and "x" shapes and curiously cornered boxes scattered about the field. There are bird-like features at the bottom of the field and miniature tree of life features at each side of the top of the field; almost as if this were a mini-prayer rug with implied spandrels at the top.

The previous example does have small diamonds and a few smaller devices interspersed in the field, but not nearly as many nor as fine. The borders consist of what is left of an outer light brown and a dark red triangle outlined in blue border and what is probably an identical-but-complete inner border, with a middle border of multi-colored flowers on a deep blue ground. This border almost looks like a flower border in a garden with a tall tree inside, reminiscent of Mughal realistic flower weavings. Notice that the tree of life consists of the auspicious seven segments (six branches and a top segment).

There was a similar balisht shown at the recent ACOR exhibit, but with ten branches instead of the seven shown here. This tended to give it a more crowded, flat topped appearance, as though a tall person was trying to fit inside a short doorway.

These two Baluch bags have a related design, but seem to be different in age, construction, wool and colors. The one with more colors seems younger. The field design looks a generation removed from the older weaving. Is it because they were woven by completely different tribes, or were they woven by the same tribe but years apart? Are there any suggestions where or by whom these were woven?

The next set of weavings is a familiar type from southwestern Iran. The first is similar to some shown in Tribal Rugs, by Jenny Housego. Plates 76 and 112 are said to be Khamsa.

This first rug is more like plate 112. It has the same border, central medallion, similar shape and field design. You will find another similar bag in James Opie's Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia, on page 109 where it is attributed to Khamseh Basiri. The interesting central medallion is familiar from Turkish tile prototypes and architectural designs and is seen in many other weavings including Fachralo Kazaks.

The structure of this weaving consists of a dark brown Z2S warp, moderately depressed, with two shots of weft that change in sections from dark to light brown. There are 10 horizontal by 10 vertical symmetrical knots per inch. You can see the variation in weft coloration in this photo of the back:

The 11 colors range from very dark blue to mid blue to very light blue, red to dark red, blue-green, black, white, yellow, orange-red and dark brown. The edges were overcast with black wool after the bag was dismembered. The ends are retained by a later-applied cotton whip stitch. The serrated leaf field design almost seems as though the viewer is looking into the open jaws of a shark!

You will find a similar device in James Opie's, Tribal Rugs, on page 144, a detail of plate 8.16. It is ascribed to the Bakhtiyari. You will also find, on page 202, a Khamseh in plate 11.11 with an identical outer border and a field that is similarly outlined with a sort of half-latch-hook medallion quite common to these bags. Mr. Opie describes this border as a "confronting animal" motif as seen in many Iranian weavings, from Khamseh to Baluch.

Another example may be found in Woven Gardens, by Black and Loveless, in plate 44. It is described as Basseri. This example has the field of the above bag and the border I will show on the next comparison bag below.

In a certain evening twilight one can make out, in the white negative space interdigitating the animals of the border, an "S" shape. I can sell you a pair of special X-ray glasses that may help in this pursuit. I must disclaim that some more sensitive individuals among us, perhaps more attuned to the subtle inner workings of the long-dead weavers of the past, are more readily able to discern this sort of "hidden" motif. There is another close-up of this border in James Opie's, Tribal Rugs on page 208, detail of plate 11.18.

This serrated leaf/Herati/sharks-jaw design seems to resemble diamond shaped motifs in many other rugs:

The above photo shows a common Tekke ensi motif with a serrated-leaf surround. I think that the similarity is just that, and not a derivation. There are so many diamond shapes in rugs that to attempt a linkage would bring on delirium. As they say in the movies: "Please stop me before it's too late!"

This brings me to the comparison piece to the original Khamseh bag face:

It has the familiar serrated leaf field design, although without a central medallion. The format is more "landscape" than "portrait". The pile is longer, the wool "darker" and the texture softer. The warp is very dark brown with a few lighter strands and it is flat. There are two shots of the same dark brown weft between rows of symmetric knots. The pile is twice as long, at a quarter of an inch, compared to the previous piece. There are 8 horizontal by 10 vertical knots per inch. The 11 colors include two blues, two greens, two reds, black, white, gold, brown and beige. There is a similar weaving in Tribal Rugs, Treasures of the Black Tent, by Brian MacDonald, on page 124, plate 84, described as Afshar. The serrated leaf designs in that bag face are multi-colored as opposed to white here. Brian describes this as a "Herati" pattern, "representing fish swimming around water-lilies".

In my example, the fish appear dead, as the "eyes" are crosses and they give the fish a zonked-out appearance.
Back to James Opie's Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia, a beautiful rug with this design is shown on page 177, listed also as Afshar. It, however, has white warps.

The border in my example is the popular meandering vine and flower found in many rugs from all over Iran and elsewhere. It gives the weaving a formal look. The origin of this weaving is not assured, as the very dark warps do not conclusively indicate an Afshar weaving. I am more inclined to follow Opie's Khamseh attribution, due to the lack of warp depression and less stiff handle. Perhaps the second weaving is more Arab-Khamseh and the first more likely Basseri. The minor border of "dice" design is familiar from some Luri work, as seen in this long rug, which also incorporates an unusual version of the serrated leaf; as a jump rope and as an umbrella over water-pipe smokers. Perhaps it is meant to be the proverbial dark cloud that seems to have followed many of the Lurs wherever they travelled.

The only accurate conclusion I can state is that the spelling of many of these words has changed considerably over the years. Balouch, Belouch, Baseri, Basseri, Khamsa, Khamseh. It is a pleasant diversion to have the chance to observe and compare two similar weavings, with similar designs, and to speculate, interpolate, extrapolate, cogitate and meditate upon them.

It is now time to pull on your embroidered Uzbek slippers, wrap yourself in your silk ikat chapan, fill the bowl of your water pipe, put your feet up on your kilim-covered ottoman and immerse yourself in your rugs. So, as the twilight fades, it is off to dreamland, with swirling fish, confronting animals, meandering vines and sharp-toothed sharks. Pleasant dreams.


Woven Structures, A Guide to Oriental Rug and Textile Analysis, Marla Mallett, Christopher Publications
Baluch Woven Treasures, Jeff W. Boucher, Laurence King Publishing
Belouch Prayer Rugs, Michael Craycraft and Anne Halley, Adraskand, Dennis Anderson Photography/Publishing Division
Tribal Rugs, James Opie, Tolstoy Press
Tribal Rugs, Treasures of the Black Tent, Brian W. MacDonald, Antique Collectors' Club
Woven Gardens, Nomad and Village Rugs of the Fars Province of Southern Persia, David Black/Clive Loveless, David Black Oriental Carpets
Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia, James Opie, James Opie Oriental Rugs, Inc