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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.

Salon 130: The Kush Motif in Turkmen Ensis

by Louis Dubreuil

The Place of Ensis in Turkmen Rugs

The kush or kuç motif is one of the original designs used exclusively on Turkmen ensis, which are now generally understood to be door rugs for the Turkmen yurt or (the hypothesis that ensi were prayer rugs is no longer generally accepted). The questions of whether ensi were used inside or outside, every day or just for special circumstances, remain open. Some old reports, such as the one cited by MacDonald (TRIBAL RUGS, p. 66) about the Saryks in the Pendjeh oasis, indicate that ensis were outdoor hangings for the kibitkas (Saryk’s yurt).

In central Asian tribal societies, the yurt was the center of family life, the primordial shelter, and its use was regulated by numerous rules. Those rules were based on a strong symbolic system linked with their vision of the cosmos. Failure to follow those rules can have negative feedback on the life of the family and community.

The rules are from pre-Islamic times and were retained after Islam came into those countries. Pre-Islamic beliefs were animist and shamanistic, using many superstitions and prophylactic practices and objects to oppose the “evil eye” and other negative spirits. So, the yurt was protected with numerous devices that were also elements of decoration. As the main production of nomadic peoples in central Asia was sheep, wool is the basis of the yurt covering (felt) and of the different artifacts made by women: utilitary weavings (covers, bags, cradles, bands for the yurt) and prestige weavings (the bridal trousseau, pieces for the bride’s palanquin, trappings for the horses, etc.).

The designs of those artifacts are adapted to their uses, either because the weavings require a special technique (warp faced weavings for the bands that are subjects to longitudinal stress, for example) that is compatible with only certain design elements or because the use requires a particular symbolic vocabulary drawn for prophylactic purposes.

Weaving has two other purposes in nomadic tribal community: it attests to the skill of the women, and the weavings are group markers. The latter may explain the conservatism in the motifs. The natural drift within a tribal group through the transmission from mother to daughter that causes design evolution is very slow in Turkmen groups; there are no major design differences between what are believed to be 17th and 19th century chuvals. When a group is defeated, its specific design disappears even if there are many people left (Salor, for example). This situation has rapidly changed since the middle of the 19th century due to the opening of the occidental market (the introduction of a railway into the Merv area, for example). Skill as a weaver can be also a criterion influencing choice of a wife, although it is likely that marriages were arranged at the clan or family level. And the pressure would have been heavy on the girl's shoulders for being a weaver of whom the clan or family would be proud. This pressure surely increased when weaving rugs became a significant source of income at the time of market evolution.

Weaving dowry pieces was certainly the top of the weaver’s life. In traditional societies, the wedding is the most important point of the family life; it is the insurance of the family continuity, the hope of new opulence, the opportunity of new alliances, the venue for displaying the wealth of the family or clan. But the wedding has also an element of danger: birth could easily turn to death: of the baby or of the mother. Death of the mother has a dramatic impact on the family continuity. This is why dowry pieces were heavily charged with prophylactic power that struggled against the evils that might ruin the family. This is not peculiar to Turkmen; similar processes are common in many societies. But the Turkmen developed trousseau weaving to the level of art.

Moshkova held that Turkmen products traditionally have guls that are group markers (with exceptions; for example, the tauk nuska gul is trans-tribal), and that there are guls for chuvals and guls for main carpets. These theses should be examined under the light of more recent rug studies.

Unlike bags and carpets, ensi never use guls, even when they aren't in the standard hatchli layout. Ensis generally follow a scheme that can be encountered with variations among all the Turkmen groups, although some are not in this standard layout; for example some Yomut ensis or “ikat design” Ersari ensi with overall field design. The standard ensi layout is oriented with a top and a lower part. This is principally due to the door function and the supposed vertical display. The layout is symmetrical with a vertical axis. This axis is generally a kind of pole with an horizontal bar and this cross (hatchli) divides the central field into four parts. In the great majority of ensis, those four panels are decorated with repeated motifs named kush (bird) or insi kush (face to face birds). Yomut ensis do not generally include kush motifs, although some do.

General layout of ensis (after Pinner):


There are many questions about the ensi layout and its symbolic interpretations. Some symbols seems to be confirmed by traditional appellations: the lower part with one or two elems is associated with the ground or the earth; the upper part is associated with the sky or the heavens. The ensi could be interpreted as a cosmologic chart, which would also explain why this design is oriented. Some authors have seen evocation of the four cardinal points in the four central part. Others simply see this panel design as the copy of a paneled wood door. In the two lateral main borders, depending of the type, one can also see representations of climbing vines that symbolize ascension from the ground to the sky (in the case of meander design), or an ascending tree form (ashik or tree-ashik), or multi-branched candelabra (gopuz). The design of this latter form could be read as a totemic pole or tree with bird figures on the branches. This is an ambiguous form.

The central pole can be read as a tree of life. All those symbols gathered in a rug make a very coherent picture. If the entrance of a yurt must be heavily charged with symbols and absolutely must not leave the passage to negative strengths and demons, it is not surprising that a special rug is there to protect the yurt and its inhabitants.

The Kush Design

The kush is a complex design, not simple to interpret. Let us see a little typology.

The first category is likely zoomorphic, with well individualized head in profile. It has a triangular shape that can be read as a beak and a curved or angular device on top that can be interpreted as a tuft. This head is at the top of a long neck that is generally oblique. This zoomorphic design justifies the name kush (bird in Turkic language), and it is easily recognizable even by the uninitiated.

Typical “bird’s head” Ersari kush with square hooked device on the head

Salor type with more realistic pen tuft on the head

The motif is generally paired (one or several pairs) but sometimes there is a central pole that makes the design odd (see the fourth design below).

Different modes of combinations on Ersari ensis

Tekke example from an animal tree ensi with meander lateral main borders, named “type O1” (Pinner, Turkoman Studies I)

The second category is also zoomorphic, but the top device  takes a pronged shape with two angular symmetrical branches from a single central pole. The head remains triangular but can become symmetrical. The result is less realistic than the first: there are no animals with that silhouette. Maybe this motif is simply derived from the first one by symmetrical transformation of the top device by  “contamination” from the symmetric traditional kotchak motif. Maybe because in the rug design, generally, people prefer symmetrical to assymmetrical forms. There are some intermediary forms that suggest this genealogy. There can be another explanation: the development of the symmetry of the head device may have come from the other type of kush design (named 02 by Pinner), by a “contamination” process between the two forms (see third type below).

Several examples of the second type on Ersari ensis

The third category is even less zoomorphic. The “head” is square (and sometimes doesn't even exist) and is topped with two symmetrical devices inserted at the lateral corners. Pinner names it “candelabra”.

Tekke example of “candelabra” form, from an animal tree ensi with candelabra main borders

Ersari example of the candelabra form

   Yomut examples


Arabatchi example. The design is negative, drawn in clear color on a dark ground.

The significance and origin of this design is less clear than for types 1 and 2. One can see an abstract rendering of a pair of horns in the symmetrical threadlike hooks, and in this case the design could symbolize sheep. But this interpretation seems unlikely because it appears that the bird head and this type are used in the same part of the fields, with the same display. If we consider rug design to be a coherent language (when weavers still knew it), the “meaning” would be the same and both designs represent symbolic birds. It is also unlikely that this type could be a drift from the double hook bird’s head type 2. First, because the transformation is not evident. Second, because the two types can occur on the same panel of certain ensis. In Pinner's analysis of Tekke animal tree ensis, he shows the similarity between this type of design and the gopuz candelabra in the main lateral borders. He also notes also the relationship to the designs in Saryk ensis, where this form with two square filiform hooks on square “heads” is the rule.

One explanation of this shape could be that it does not represent only the bird’s head, but the entire silhouette. The rendering is in this case very abstract and the symmetricization has ended in the same shape for the tail and for the head and neck. It could be also a simplified rendering of a two-headed bird. In the two cases the design can be interpreted as birds, viewed from profile, and perched at the top of branches. This design can be closely related with “bird poles” that have been seen in Siberia (see Pinner, The animal tree and the great bird, Turkoman Studies I). The candelabras design could be the representation of such bird poles of high symbolic value.

Two examples of typical Saryk form

One other track could be the one of “letters”. It is known that some symbols found on central Asia weaving, among the descents of the Oguz tribe, are in fact letters that can have meaning that are linked with the peoples. One of the characters found in the Orhun alphabet has a shape very near that of the Saryk hooked symbol described by Pinner in the “candelabras”. This letter is the equivalent of the K, the initial of kush. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but the clues are convergent.

Orhun alphabetic table (after Neriman Gorgunai)

The possible genealogy and the links between the different types of kush can be seen in the figure below.

The fourth category gathers odd forms that can be derived from the others and with rare examples among the bulk of the ensis production. Among those odd forms one can cite some found in the Tekke production or in the Ersari ensis (pronged devices or "crowned" bird’s head with diamond device). One can suspect a contamination with kotchak design.

Non-standard Tekke (left) and Ersari (right) types

Ersari "bird’s head with crown" design

Distribution of Kush Design Among Turkmen Ensis

There is apparently no absolute rule for the distribution of types of kush motif among the Turkmen groups, except for the Saryk with their special models. We might be able to extract rules if we had great numbers of ensis reliably attributed to known groups. But this is not the case and it is not easy because there are still ensis of unknown tribe and tribes without known ensis.

In the work of Robert Pinner ( Turkoman Studies I) about the "animal tree ensis", some typology seems to exist. Tekke ensis with lateral meander borders usually have a kush motif of the zoomorphic profile type 1 or O1 (with simple or double  top device), while Tekke with gopuz candelabra lateral borders have a less zoomorphic candelabra kush (third type and O2).


Left : Tekke animal tree ensi with meander main border panel and zoomorphic kush design    Right : Tekke ensi with ashik tree design and candelabra kush design)     Below : Tekke animal tree ensi with meander and candelabra kush (pictures  after Pinner)

In Tekke ensis with other types of borders, the most frequent kush type is the candelabra. One ensi displayed by Pinner shows the two types of kush in the same panel.

When Yomut ensis have kush motifs, they seem to have only a very simple and filiform shape of the third type and without any “head”.

Yomut ensi with candelabra kush (after Jourdan)

Salor ensis display a very “pure” zoomorphic kush on which the tufted top is quite curvilinear and is more realistic than the square ones.

The Jon Thompson Salor ensi (type B, N°IV)

It is among the Ersari ensis that we can find the most varied typology of the kush motifs. All types except the Saryk are present, but there seems to be a preference for bird’s head rather than candelabras and there are many variations in the way the motifs are displayed (candelabras, W shapes, single or multiple). If we apply the theory that the group which displays the more varied forms of a motif is the inventor, then the Ersaris could be considered as  the originators of the kush motif.

It is also among the Ersaris that we can find a singular interpretation of the kush. In those cases it is not zoomorphic, but has became a flower motif. Perhaps this relates to a more strictly Islamic design that avoids any animal drawing. It can be also related to garden design rugs from Persia (Bakthiari) and Kurdistan.

Two “flower” motifs

Ersari ensi with flower motif panels (from MacDonald, Tribal Rugs, plate 22)

There is another odd ensi of a type that has been discussed on Turkotek, "Uzbek ensi". In this case the kush design becomes more geometric and less zoomorphic. The detail is of a second, similar Uzbek ensi, added to show the Uzbek form of the kush more clearly.

Birds as Strong Symbols in Central Asia

The kush design seems to have been a more or less realistic representation of a symbolized bird. Birds have important symbolic meanings linked to death and to the travel of the soul of the deceased persons. It is also a natural link between the earth and the sky, and is known to have great importance in shamanistic beliefs. For those reasons, there are many bird representations in rugs and weavings: Balouch, Persian (see Opie’s Tribal Rugs) and Turkmen (bird asmalyks, for example). The birds that are represented in those weavings are generally recognizable: poultry, hens and cocks in rural Persian weavings (to symbolize the desire of wealth), peacocks (three appendices on the head, great tail), eagles (heavy hooked beaks, claws). They can also be mythical animals like two headed eagles or phoenix.

For years my question was, is it possible to identify the species of bird that could have been the model for the kush? It should have a head crowned by a pen tuft, a long neck and a long beak, and would be native to central Asia. This latter condition eliminates the roadrunner (Geococcys californianus).

Cranes (Grus grus and Grus virgo) are among the central Asian birds that would make good candidates, for several reasons.


Hash grey crane(Grus grus) with gathered birds in the foreground; Gathered kush on Ersari ensi

 Numidy lady (Grus virgo)

Mating ritual dance

Dancing kush on a Salor ensi

First, their natural geometry and “black pen design” make a good model for the kush (see upper pictures and drawings).

Second, their postures are very graphic and are often face to face during mating displays. Similar graphic compositions occur in kush motifs in ensis, including gathering in large groups.

Third, cranes are important in central Asia and in Asian mythology: they are remarkably big birds, they fly at incredible altitudes and distances, they are monogamous, with the same partner throughout life. All these reasons give cranes importance in beliefs and in shamanistic practices. Shamans were believed to transform themselves into cranes for their extracorporeal journeys.

The Role of the Sufis in Turkmen Religious Practices

The common religion of central Asian Turkmen was Islam, but not in the traditional form. Their Islam was supported by Sufi communities, and Sufis were the direct successors of shamans (kam-ozan) in central Asia, from whom they retained some beliefs and practices that survived under Islam (typical synchretism). This is the origin of the “holy tribes” or övlat. Here is the Wikipedia article about the övlat:

Islam came to the Turkmen primarily through the activities of Sufi shaykhs rather than through the mosque and the "high" written tradition of sedentary culture. These shaykhs were holy men critical in the process of reconciling Islamic beliefs with pre-Islamic belief systems; they often were adopted as "patron saints" of particular clans or tribal groups, thereby becoming their "founders." Reformulation of communal identity around such figures accounts for one of the highly localized developments of Islamic practice in Turkmenistan.
Integrated within the Turkmen tribal structure is the "holy" tribe called övlat . Ethnographers consider the övlat, of which six are active, as a revitalized form of the ancestor cult injected with Sufism. According to their genealogies, each tribe descends from the Prophet Muhammad through one of the Four Caliphs. Because of their belief in the sacred origin and spiritual powers of the övlat representatives, Turkmen accord these tribes a special, holy status. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the övlat tribes became dispersed in small, compact groups in Turkmenistan. They attended and conferred blessings on all important communal and life-cycle events, and also acted as mediators between clans and tribes. The institution of the övlat retains some authority today. Many of the Turkmen who are revered for their spiritual powers trace their lineage to an övlat, and it is not uncommon, especially in rural areas, for such individuals to be present at life-cycle and other communal celebrations.

One of the mystical Sufi practices is the crane dance semah (cf., paper of Thierry Zarcone in Journal of the History of Sufism). And the ash grey crane, turna, holds a great place in the baba mythology as can be seen in the Vilâyetnàme (relation of the Holy men life; cf., Irène Mélikoff in Sur les Traces du Soufisme Turc ", Editions Isis Istanbul). Sufis are also known to have been prominent in some Turkmen areas, and the Pendeh oasis had a large Sufi community.

For all of those reasons, there were probably links between the shamanic roots of the Turkmen peoples, Sufism as the Islamic inheritor of the animist ancient religion, and the special drawing of the ensis and of the kush design as an evocation of the turna (crane).

The last question I raise about the ensi is how such an accomplished design suddenly appeared among all of a weaving people, the Turkmen?

Generally, traditional designs evolve through by long drifting of drawings. We have examples of very old Turkmen weavings that are suspected to have been made several centuries ago (generally chuvals). But there is no known prototype or ancestor for the ensi; it seems to have arisen from nothing. There are no ensis in old paintings, contrary to many other types of rugs (Anatolian animal carpets, Lotto and Memling rugs, for example). The special design of ensi would have attracted the attention of traders and painters if they had encountered it. This suggests a relatively recent (16th to 18th century) and intentional origin and construction.

Standard ensi might have been invented by a Sufi community or övlat. Perhaps an isan designed the ensi prototype (maybe from an engraved wood panel) for pedagogic purposes: explanation of the cosmos and the spiritual life using well known symbols directly inherited from shamanic roots (among them the dancing paired cranes). This could have taken place before the Esari/Salor split, the group that who made the more realistic zoomorphic kush. There are instances of rug designs invented by a man. One is the Zahir Shahi design, by Afghan king Zahir Shah. The Tekke and Yomut could have copied the ensi model but with a progressive drift of the design with simplification and modification into the candelabra kush motif in Yomut ensis, in which we can hardly recognize a bird. The melding of different tribal aesthetics and the influence of certain groups (Saryk, for example) may explain the two types of kush motifs and as well as its specificity in certain tribes or groups. It is also possible that the classical ensi replaced door rugs that existed before its invention, perhaps with gul design or ram’s horn, or that it replaced felt door hangings. The indiscutable fact is that the use of standard ensi seems to have been limited to the “classical” Turkmen tribes. For example, there are no known Belouch ensis (perhaps Belouch did not use yurts, but had "black tents").

Other central Asian non-Turkmen peoples used other types of door rugs, as this Kirghiz example (after Tzareva, plate 140).

If this replacement was not complete among the Turkmen main tribes, it could explain the other door rug types among the Ersari (ikat design) ,the Yomut, and the Arabatchi.

Allover field design on an Ersari ensi (after Jourdan)

“Ikat” allover field design on an Ersari ensi (after Jourdan)

Yomut ensi with four panels without kush motif (after Jourdan)

Allover field design on a Yomut ensi (after Jourdan)

This Sufi story among the Turkmen tribes makes me wonder why the presence of the övlat among the Turkmen tribes has not drawn more attention from rug scholars, making them search for the influence of such important persons on rug making. Did their wives weave rugs? If they did, were those rugs special? If they didn't, did the Turkmen make special rugs for them? This could be a good path for the “animal tree” ensis origin and also for animal tree asmalyks that could have been made for övlat.


This essay is largely speculative, but is not totally based on “wind”. The links between Sufis in central Asia and pre-existent shamanism are well established, the strong symbolic meaning of birds and cranes is established for both Sufis and shamans, the graphic interpretation of the crane silhouette as the prototype of the zoomorphic kush design is likely. The rest is an intellectual construction that gives me great pleasure as a “rug reverie”. In my reverie I see that there were beautiful and majestic Sufi ceremonies in the Salor khan’s , closed by a beautiful ensi designed especially for this purpose.



Robert Pinner and Michael Frances: Turkoman Studies I, Humanities Press
James Opie: Tribal Rugs
Neriman Gögünay: Oguz damgalari ve göktürk harflerinin el sanatlarimizdaki izleri
Brian W. MacDonald: Tribal Rugs, Treasures of the Black Tent
Elena Tzareva: Central Asia and Kazakhstan Rugs
Uwe Jourdan: Oriental Rugs, Vol V: Turkoman


Wikipedia: article about Turkmen religion
Thierry Zarcone: Journal of the History of the Sufism
Irene Melikoff: Sur les traces du soufisme Turk
Bertrand Bouchet: Tribus d’autrefois, kolkhozes d’aujourd’hui (Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée, 1991)

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