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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.

Reproductive and Sexual Themes on Warp-Faced Iranian Bands

by Fred Mushkat

Figure 1: Qashqa’i, 19th C.


When I became interested in the rugs and trappings of nomadic pastoralists, I was especially drawn to anthropomorphic iconography. Images of men on horseback, couples holding hands, and other similar primitive images are known to nearly everyone who has an interest in the field. As I narrowed my focus to the textiles of tribal Iran, I began finding designs which I felt may suggest reproductive or sexual themes. It is these animal and human figures which are the basis for this discussion. Although this Salon will focus on the iconography in flat woven warp-faced bands, there are also numerous examples on other weavings, including bags and pile rugs. Hopefully, this introduction to a rather delicate subject will stimulate a new discussion in the otherwise chaste field of Near Eastern textile studies.


In previous Salons, discussions have taken place regarding the issue of whether the Koran forbids representation of human figures on textiles. I will not go into the various arguments here; suffice it to say that court artisans and city dwellers may have felt different cultural pressures than nomads about what images to put on textiles.

Figure 2. Anatolian kilim, elibelinde motif

There have been limited discussions in the literature regarding sexual themes, and many of those have been severely questioned by other scholars. The most famous discussion in the literature to date is the “Mother Goddess” theory. In the study of near eastern textiles, the texts presenting these theories, The Goddess from Anatolia, Eskenazi, 1989, created one of the greatest controversies of the past decade. These theories are based upon archeological evidence which disintegrated before the eyes of the archeologist who made no photographic record, and relied upon drawings made twenty years later to support his theory. The basic tenet of the theory is that motifs found on wall paintings in çatal Hüyük (C. 7200-6200 B.C.) resemble designs on Anatolian kilims made nine thousand years later. Central to the argument is a figure known as elibelinde, which the architects of the Mother Goddess theory claim is a woman goddess with raised arms and spread legs, often giving birth. Furthermore, many of the commonly seen kilim designs are believed to be gender specific, and suggest other aspects of reproduction. Not only is the hard science suspect, but the interpretations of the imagery require a significant leap of faith.

To many observers, the elibelinde figures resemble a human form, but what was the intended meaning? In HALI 67, there was a letter suggesting that the mother goddess image was not a woman. John E. Day wrote that the elibelinde figure is a simplified version of a male figure with “magnificent masculine characteristics.” He further opines that the word elibelinde is in fact “ala-bey lende,” and that the word lende is really meant to be lenduha. The Turkish translation for ala-bey-lenduha is roughly “enormous highest chief (or prince).” Eberhardt Herrmann suggested in HALI 68, page 87, that elibelinde is not Turkish for “hands on hips,” but Kurdish for “great god” or “great bird.” For those readers unfamiliar with the elibelinde motif, please see figure 2.

The second entry into the area of this discussion is the text by John M. Douglass, The Lost Language: Value and Symbolism in Oriental Rugs, (1990). In his text, Dr. Douglass asserts that many common design elements are representative of female anatomy, and are indicators of the recommended position for sexual intercourse. Such ubiquitous images as guls, hexagonal forms, and garden designs are included in this group of symbols. Unfortunately, there is no deductive reasoning applied to the arguments in the text, which once again, seem to require an act of faith. Consequently, his text was not well accepted by mainstream students of rug studies, and in a review by Jill Tilden (HALI 56, page 144), the book was characterized as being “ahead of all rival acts of publishing eccentricity for many years to come.”

Human Forms

Figure 1 is a detail from a Qashqa’i band, showing what appear to be two human figures, toe to toe. Although they are little more than stick figures, there seems to be an attention to detail regarding the genitalia. One figure has three small lines between the legs, with an elongated line in the middle. The opposite figure has two lines of equal length between the legs. This appears to be an attempt to draw a man and woman, with the proximity and positioning of the couple suggesting sexual intercourse.

I have discussed this premise with a number of individuals; some have strongly disagreed with the concept that the imagery has any sexual content. They argued that such iconography would result in the weaver being put to death, as this would be tantamount to blasphemy. Some viewers believe that the extra lines between the legs were most likely a mistake.

After I wrote an article on warp-faced bands (HALI 84), I received a photograph from a collector in Great Britain, shown in figure 3. The photograph is from a Qashqa’i band, which I estimate to be early 20th century. The similarity to figure 1 is unmistakable. I believe that a seemingly unique image on a Qashqa’i band may be a fluke, but two similar examples from the same group suggest a design tradition. Other than these examples, I know of no similar imagery on any other textile from Iran or the Near East.

Figure 3. Qashqa'i band, 20th C.

In a tribal group, it is unlikely that an image like figure 1 would be placed carelessly on an otherwise well made band with a structure suggesting a higher than average skill of the weaver. Although the concept of a dowry rug or other textile is overused by dealers and collectors alike, it makes sense that this image appeared on bands made for a new married couple to remind them of the importance of procreation, the first step in creating the next generation of tribesmen and tribeswomen.

Figure 4. Shahsevan, Azerbaijan, 19th C.

Figure 4 is a detail from a Shahsevan tent or pack animal band. Perhaps the weaver had an extraordinarily beautiful umbilicus, and displayed it proudly on her band. It is pure speculation what the imagery meant to the weaver, but perhaps the small object in the abdomen of this human figure represents an unborn child. In a similar vein, could the figure represent a newborn child with an umbilical cord which has not yet detached?

Figure 5. Qashqa’i 19th C.

Figure 6. Fars, 19th C; Figure 7. Qashqa'i, 19th C.

Figure 8 shows a female figure from a Fars region pack animal band. Although it is certainly subject to debate, it appears that the woman is shown with exposed breasts. If so, perhaps the purpose of the image is not of a lascivious nature, but to stress the importance of a crucial aspect of survival of the newborn child, namely breast feeding.

Figure 8. Fars, 19th C.

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