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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.

Star Crossed - Further Thoughts on the Design Sources of Caucasian Rugs

by Sophia Gates

Daniel Deschuyteneer's recent Salon raised some interesting and pointed questions about specific designs, for example the 2-1-2 design in Karachov rugs. He mentioned the Turkic influence on Caucasian design and questions whether there might be others and if so, what these might be. Finally, he raises the question - is there a real Caucasian design, or design pool; or is there only a "style" - a look.

I'm going to concentrate primarily on the issues of outside design influences and the question of whether there's really a "Caucasian" design or if it's merely a matter of "style".

At this point I'd like to thank Pat Weiler and Jane Collins - special friends who have made it possible for me to do some serious reading on the subject - albeit very FAST serious reading! - this is a complicated issue and hopefully I'll be able to make some sense of it!

In Daniel's Salon, Filiberto Boncompagni introduced the Gantzhorn theory that many, if not most, Oriental carpets owe their design, manufacture and iconography to Christian Armenian weavers working in towns, rather than the far more glamorous - and generally accepted theories - that Oriental rug weaving and design is primarily an Islamic art and has its origins both in the cities and villages of the Middle East and Central Asia, and among the nomadic tribes who travel throughout the region.

I was prepared to scoff at Gantzhorn and was preparing a paper to shoot him down when I actually started reading his book.

At that point, two things immediately became apparent: one, he makes an excellent case for his thesis, one which has been generally dismissed by many rug scholars and collectors; and two, he doesn't tell the whole story. The second is perhaps forgivable: Gantzhorn wants to get his point across; and the topic is so rich and so little studied - as art historical subjects go - that we'll be learning and adding to our knowledge for generations to come.

However, before I get into specific instances where I feel Gantzhorn makes a case, and others where I feel the theory is off the mark or incomplete, I'd like to address the question of Caucasian design versus Caucasian style.

Most of us would agree that Caucasian pile rugs both have a distinct "feel" on the one hand; and on the other, can be divided into two distinct types - the more elegant, refined "town" carpets, especially those of the Northeast region - lets call it the "Shirvan" type in order to keep things simple - like the prayer rug pictured above - and the "Kazak" - or wild and wooly "nomadic" or "mountain" type like the one shown below.

They appear to be diametrically opposite in feel: the one, relatively delicate, carefully woven, refined; the other, about as wonky and barbaric a "yawp" as one could wish for in a rug. They're both prayer rugs, though, and I would argue that each could easily be identified as "Caucasian" at first glance.

And right away, this brings up Daniel's question of "style" vs. "design".

I promised Pat I'd include a quote from Yeats in this paper - so, as it's an appropriate moment, here goes:

Oh body swayed to music
Oh brightening glance
How do we know
The dancer from the dance?

Arguments about "style" and "design" frequently come to this point. Some aestheticians and philosophers would argue that they are in fact the same thing. Others - preferring to refer to "form" and "content" - would argue that they are two different things, particularly when dealing with iconography and symbolism. I've come to the conclusion - after many years of wrestling with the problem - that they're both right.

Let's go all the way back to the dragon carpets - a subject about which I know very little. However, as they often seem to form a starting point for the discussion of Caucasian carpets, I'd like to present a few brief thoughts about them:

First, regardless of how one wants to interpret the imagery - the iconography - and regardless of who may have woven them - it's immediately apparent that they present a number of ideas to the eye: an eclectic design pool - dragons, cloudbands, leaf and floral designs, animals - seemingly representing a touch of China here, a taste of Persia there, and so forth - in a certain brilliantly colored, high-key - in the sense of color "value" - high being on the light end as opposed the dark and mysterious, as one would see in Baluches for example; and angular, boldly drawn, geometricized shapes.

I would argue that one can see the roots of a true Caucasian style/design right here, which continues to this day: design/iconographic elements from many sources and with possibly many different symbolic intentions, presented in a light, cheerful color palette, in a bold, angular, folkloric manner. Though to varying degrees, this holds true for the finely drawn Shirvan as well as the wooly Kazak.

In other words, I would argue that Caucasian carpets present both a unique style - albeit one which overlaps with certain Kurdish, Azerbaijan and Anatolian rugs - with a certain type of design: a design which draws upon the imagery and iconography of many different groups of people and geographic regions, and presents these ideas in a direct, blocky, graphic and immediate type of form. This is not surprising, considering that the Caucasus, as Daniel points out, has always "been in the path" of expanding (and contracting!) empires; migrants criss-cross the territory; people live there in all sort of conditions, from nomadic mountain camps to sophisticated towns. Many different ethnic groups and religious sects call this region their home. So it isn't surprising that their art reflects the richness of this heritage. Emblematic of the region, however, is the brilliant, inventive, essentially geometric nature of their designs.

At this point I'd like to wrestle with the Gantzhorn question: the impact of the Christian weavers and Christian iconography on Caucasian design.

Once I got the Gantzhorn book and started reading it, I was amazed. I started running around the house looking at the schmatters. All of a sudden I started seeing - CROSSES. Crosses everywhere! Crosses on Turkomans. Crosses on Caucasians! Crosses all over my Berber pieces! AAACCCKKKKKK. Could he be right after all? Could we admirers of Islamic art be surrounding ourselves with Christian iconography? What of the Turkoman weavers? The other nomads?

Gantzhorn proposes that they didn't weave pile rugs at all. He quotes sources recounting Marco Polo's adventures, describing the Turkic nomads as having fine horses, handsome mules, cattle - but no fine pile rugs.

The Jewels of the Desert are conspicuously missing from Marco Polo's dissertation!

Gantzhorn states that people having plenty of cattle, hides, wouldn't need to weave pile rugs anyhow, as they already had what they needed for warmth and comfort. Other oriental rug theorists have proposed that nomads wove pile rugs in an attempt to imitate fur. But, Gantzhorn says, who needs fur when you already have plenty of cowhides?

But what, I asked Marla, about the julkyrs, the gabbehs, the tulus? Berber women's shawls? If those don't look like fur - well - and besides - people LIKE fur. They find it beautiful and warm, even people as rich in polyester as we!

Even people who HAVE fur!

Here's a picture of my Zoe enjoying a nap on a Berber shawl. The long strings form a "fur" on the backside of the textile; the pattern, made in floating weft technique, runs across the "front" - although of course they're completely interchangeable. The "fur" in this case isn't knotted pile. It's created from leaving some of the wefts very long.

And rugs like this most definitely ARE woven by nomads - even to this day! I breathed a sigh of relief when Marla agreed that yes, even cultures who primarily use felt and kilims do make things like tulus and gabbehs. However - she also stated that people who think nomads invented the finely woven oriental carpet haven't visited many nomadic camps - as she indeed has! And once again - has found that pile carpets are in short supply!


This interchange seems to lend support to Gantzhorn's theory that Oriental carpets are primarily a product of Oriental towns. As far as the Christian part goes - well - we tend to forget that the Middle East and Central Asia are not - have never been - monolithically Islamic. After all, Christianity began there. There is a huge tradition of Oriental - Eastern Orthodox - Christianity throughout the region, in Greece, Egypt, Russia - the Caucasus. Of course other religions were born there, flourished there as well: Judaism, Zorastrianism - monotheism in general seems to have developed here. So when one thinks about it - is it so impossible that Christians wove rugs, and that many of them reflect Christian iconography?

Here are some details of a rather unusual "Daghestan" prayer rug. You'll note that the cross shapes abound in this piece - even in the border, which I believe deviates considerably from the usual, although the border coloration is fairly typical; they appear in the prayer arch

And throughout the field, supporting the lattice form that encloses and protects the trees:

It is not difficult to see that this rug may well have been woven by Armenian Christians, and I do not find it difficult to imagine the entire piece as a work of Christian faith.

However - and it's a big, a HUGE, however - there's more to the story.

Most obviously, the cross shape is one of the most natural designs for a weaver to make. Whether a pile weaver or a flatweave weaver (oi) - the geometry of warp and weft lends itself with complete ease to the use of cross shapes as decorations. Plain crosses, diagonally crossed crosses, crosses in negative space - all are relatively easy for weavers to produce and I think it's a stretch to assume that they all are meant to indicate a Christian icon.

More importantly, however, the cross as a symbol is used almost universally, in many cultures, in many media, all over the world. It shows up in painted pottery in America, it's woven into Berber and Navajo blankets. Almost universally, it carries the meanings star/sun/light/protection. It has been argued that Christianity built the symbol(s) of Jesus right into an existing iconography that is both ancient and powerful. This symbolism extends beyond the cruciform to include others that Gantzhorn mentions, including floral/leaf (boteh, lily) symbols of Mary and the ubiquitous trees, which he also assumes have a Christian meaning.

Gantzhorn goes further, to assert that prayer rugs meant for Muslims would show a square shape, representing the Kaaba. This would not be present on the rugs meant for Christians.

And sure enough, our little prayer mat seems to indicate just that: a square superimposed upon a Lesghi-type star - albeit a pretty off-center star! - It wouldn't be hard to argue that this piece was NOT woven by an Armenian Christian, but by a nomadic Muslim, and used for prayer - look at the wear patterns, directly across the "hands", and at the bottom where the knees would go. And lo! Right in the center of the star

The Turkic ram's horns! There's the Turkic influence Daniel mentioned! The 8 pointed star, formed by a cross diagonally crossed by another cross, a symbol of the light-filled cross, a Christian Star! - bearing the square shape of the Kaaba, surrounding the ancient ram's horn motif - perhaps this one goes all the way back, to the ancient Shofar of the Hebrews?

Aren't we seeing into the past? Aren't we actually viewing layers of iconography, from the ancient times represented by the horns, to the square Islamic symbol, back to the Christian star, the whole surrounded by a field of flowers, and a border of stars and crosses and trees?

Speaking of those flowers, of that deep blue field: what of those outside influences - besides the Turkic - about which Daniel has inquired? I believe there are three major design pools, which overlap each other as well as the Caucasian sea into which they flow.

These are:

The Chinese

The nomadic tribes of Southern Persia

and the Kurds

I believe that all three of these weaving groups present design pools completely - or at least originally - non-Christian, and brought with them fresh ideas, all of which can be seen from time to time in Caucasian rugs. And in their turn - perhaps each these groups was influenced by Caucasian weavers!

I believe both art and iconography came west from China, along the Silk Road for one thing, and via the Mongol invaders for the other. Cloudbands, dragons, horses, angular iconographic designs like the one pictured on the Baluch bagface above and the Kurdish dragon, below,

All found their way into the Caucasian design pool, whether directly - as in pieces that might have been inspired from Chinese textiles or porcelains or paintings, or indirectly, through the influence of other weaving groups such as the Turkmen or the Baluch. It might amaze one how many Ebay sellers confuse Baluch and Caucasian rugs - to people used to making attributions it might seem as if they come from different worlds - but perhaps these supposedly ignorant people are sensing this ancient connection?

Even the basic coloration, the red, white and blue of the referenced piece, shows up again and again in Caucasian rugs; it reminds me of nothing so much as Chinese porcelain.

Dragons are ubiquitous in Caucasian art, whether curving sinuously on Dragon carpets, or symbolically and geometrically on dragon silehs, or reduced to little s-forms meaning "God" in Gantzhorn's Christian iconography, they abound in Caucasian art. Phoenixes take angular wing on Turkmen carpets and Anatolian kilims and show up, even more abstractly, as shield or sun or flower forms on Chelaberd and Bijov carpets. And finally, the cloudband/serpent/dragons even form a distinct Caucasian design group of their own.

The tribes of Southern Persia, composed of many ethnic groups and speaking several different languages, nevertheless have created a weaving style recognizable as their own. It has been noted that very few pile carpets exist from this group, which can be comfortably dated to before the early 19th century. Nevertheless, I would guess that they have been weaving gabbehs and naturally, flatweaves, for centuries. How unlikely is it that their bold diamond medallions have directly inspired Caucasian weavers, perhaps via the Shahsavan; and their quirky animals found their way north, and show up dancing around the fields of Caucasian rugs?

Again, I believe this is an entirely different design pool, a completely fresh and natural approach - and one entirely outside the scope either of Christian or Islamic iconography.

Additionally, it has even been argued that the animal-tree idea, found so often in these rugs, has its sources in the bronzes wrought by ancient Sythians.

The Kurdish weavers represent one group who arguably have, although many are nomadic, been weaving pile carpets for a long time and, like the two groups mentioned above, draw upon a design pool originally outside both Christian and Moslem iconography.

They bring a design pool of flaming palmettes, sun and shadow, glorious flowers on fields of gold. Their stars are the morning star, the stars of midnight. Their palmettes may represent Buddhist lotus blossoms or The Burning Bush, or even stand as symbols of the Zorastrian sun. Their bagfaces speak to me of brilliant days and icy nights; they smell like the smoke of campfires. The cruciforms on their medallions feel to me like people dancing triumphantly on the mountaintops. They weave fields of stars in flight or eyes on birds, in all the colors that nature can provide - in their bold, joyous, geometric glory, they often form so tight a knot with Caucasian rugs even experts have trouble telling them apart.

But I think their sources are very different, very wild and very old, and I cannot claim to understand what those are. Perhaps they are simply celebrations of the bounty of nature herself.

There's another factor at work in these rugs, and that's the original iconography of the forms so often seen in Caucasian rugs: stars, crosses, dragons and serpents, diamonds and birds.

I would argue that the old meanings are still being woven by weavers who are anything but Christian, with an iconography that dates back to ancient times, although probably not in the Caucasus. But - that even if the crosses and other symbols were woven by Christians, even if by devout Muslims, deep in the human psyche they are still understood, on some level, with their ancient meanings intact.

I believe we can accept that we may have a Christian influence on Caucasian design. But what of the crescent moon forms visible on the surface of this cross form, so similar to one of the forms drawn in Gantzhorn's book?

For many years, I've been thinking and reading a great deal about women's issues. These have been brought to everyone's attention by the war in Afghanistan. Recently, however, my reading has gone in a different direction, back to the ancient religions, social structures, and art of North Africa, North America, and Asia Minor.

Some historians theorize that the monotheists who have flourished in the Middle East, may actually have swept down upon an essentially matriarchal and agricultural society from outside the region, from the north in approximately 3,000 bce. These were male dominated, patriarchal pastoralists - nomadic or semi-nomadic people who depend upon animal husbandry - and include the ancient Semitic people - Hebrews among them - and they altered or virtually eradicated, by Mohammed's time, the matriarchies and the goddesses who were their deities.

Occasionally, however, we still see remnants of these ancient goddesses and their symbols: Isis, The Queen of the Heavens, Astarte, Ishtar, Hecabe, Diana - they've been subsumed into Mary, the Panagaia - great mother; Mary, the Immaculata - eternal virgin. Yet their symbols continue to appear. . .

The crescent moon, often associated with Hecabe, Diana, and Isis, is here superimposed upon the cross form. Perhaps it represents a remnant of those ancient beliefs in a mother-goddess? The "S" forms in the field

that Gantzhorn says mean "God" may in fact still carry their ancient meanings: rain dragon, serpent, goddess, woman. Who's to say that this rug wasn't woven by a devotee of The Goddess? The small subversive acts of women in a domineering patriarchal world: the schools of ROWA in Taliban Afghanistan; the cryptic poetry of Bedouin women, singing to each other of forbidden loves and heartaches they dare not speak aloud - who's to say that women didn't weave their hopes and dreams and heartfelt beliefs into their rugs?

The main thing, which has troubled me about certain theories concerning Turkmen and other Oriental rug iconography, has been their overwhelmingly male nature. Arrows, mushrooms, and signs supposedly drawn in the sand by MALE shamans celebrating male deeds such as war and hunting - well. As I've written before, one of the joys of symbol-art is its ability to carry many meanings within one "glyph". But - just perhaps - the guls ARE flowers; they're eggs; the hunting birds curling up inside them are babies. The trees aren't arrows - they're TREES, sheltering, protective, and cool. Those aren't drawn bows - they're lady spiders, weaving!

On the other side of the Caucasian world we find the kilim weavers and their cryptic designs, their horns and trees and, yes, Goddesses. I haven't addressed these separately as source material because, like the horns on the little Kazak, they're generally considered to be Turkic in origin. And, the whole Goddess thing became such a huge controversy - we hardly ever hear of it anymore. But like the Gantzhorn theory - I wouldn't dismiss it altogether!

Finally, although I generally agree with Marla's down-to-earth theories about the source of weaving designs in warp and weft, I believe that since so many of these symbols appear in other media, such as painted pottery and petroglyphs, it may be a question of the chicken and the egg: was the design woven first and then acquire "meanings", or did the symbol have a meaning that needed to be woven?

And do we still see anything of The Goddess?

A few matriarchies still survive, among them the Berber and Tuareg of North Africa and the Hopi of North America. The Dineh - the Navajo, are matrilineal if not outright matriarchal - land stays with the woman's family and the husband moves in with the wife's family. These groups, interestingly, are still active and highly productive in the ancient arts of weaving and potmaking and jewelry manufacture; and although they are under extreme stress from modern times, Christianity, Islam, and Arabism, their art flourishes still.

Right away, we can see that the iconography of these Berber pieces differs considerably from what we've been looking at so far. Serpents, no longer shy little "s" forms, wriggle potently across the field. The stars are open blossoms, their petals wide open to the rain. The dominant forms are diamonds - eyes - even the "cross" forms are dominated by eyes.

Eyes - and the weavings they appear on - have amuletic power. The weavings themselves are gigantic amulets of protection. They aren't "meant" to have power; to the weavers and their families, they DO have power. These women have POWER! And these pieces, although they are essentially contemporary - all of the pictures are of 20th century shawls and blankets, continue to exhibit in their iconography and form absolutely traditional and ancient symbols and the beliefs that accompany them. It occurs to me that the Kurdish pieces - the Jaf bags - might have a similar meaning. They are not just random, abstract diamonds. Similarly, one finds eye-diamonds in Caucasian pieces - even in the cross-filled, possibly Christian-made, Shirvan prayer rug!

And speaking of crosses - here are some pictures of crosses from a High Atlas blanket:

Notice that the crosses appear inside of diamonds: in this context, they carry their original meaning of protection. They indicate protection against the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye is considered to be the source of much human misery - it stands for bad wishes, envy, sabotage. . .

And notice the square forms - are these symbols of the Kaaba, as on our Kazak?

The anthropologist and Anasazi scholar, J.R. Cunkle, has published several theories on the meaning of this symbol. The checkerboard design, which shows up so frequently in Caucasian rugs among others, is thought to have meant "milky way" to the Anasazi. Of course they weren't weavers primarily - they were potters and painters - but the design had great significance to them, considering how often it appears in their work. Is it so unlikely that the Caucasian weavers, or the Kurds, or the Anatolians, many of whom traveled and navigated by the position of stars, would have the same meaning?

Similarly, the square with the dot inside can mean: fertile field. I believe forms inside of forms can also mean "pregnancy" or "fertility", of animals or of women. So - are we so certain that this little form on our star-lattice rug

indicates the Islamic Kaaba?

Finally, lets look at some Tuareg and Berber jewelry, which illustrate graphically the appearance of rug symbols in other media:

Here we have a set of Tuareg gris-gris - amulets, magic. Lo - we have a field swirling around a round form - an eye, an egg? And - here are two "Southern Crosses". These are hardly Christian! The Tuareg are Muslim, although I've read, due to their matriarchal structure and free, powerful women, they are regarded as sinful, perhaps even hopeless, by more "orthodox" Muslims!

These crosses do have several meanings though - they stand for The Four Directions; for honor, righteousness, respect. They are passed on from the Tuareg father to his sons, in the hope that they will remind them to be good men.

So perhaps - their meaning isn't so far from the Christian meaning after all?

And finally

we have a pair of Berber "khamsehs" - the word means five - for the fingers of the hand. You'll see the first bears the Star of David - one of the ancient symbols in this ancient part of the world. Some writers have interpreted this star as two pyramids superimposed, the one atop the other - again, an ancient symbol of great power. The second

bears the ubiquitous eye of protection.

The hand is a symbol dating back at least to ancient Egypt, probably well beyond that; and its iconography connotes both power and protection, on the temporal plane as well as the spiritual. The hand works, it creates, it guides, it protects.

And where do we see it again - but right here, on our little Kazak prayer rug!

And so - we find we've gone in a complete circle - our possibly Christian-made, Islamic prayer rug bears hands, full of magic and power. Hands that are still worn on necklaces in ancient matriarchies adorn the prayer rugs of cultures that have destroyed and replaced them, who prayed to a different God.

(Or perhaps, she guards her children still . . .)

Sophia Gates