Design has the most to say about the origin of what is commonly known as an Oriental carpet. But the patterns woven into a mysterious tattered, dun-coloured wool rug that has been in my family for as long as I can remember have led to more questions than answers.
My mother purchased the rug in 1969 at a Salvation Army thrift store in East Vancouver. As a long-time social justice activist, she was attracted to the two major central designs in the rug. They looked to her like bombs, and she was attracted to the notion that it may have been made in creative reaction to the war-zone region where it was woven.
This curious design saved it from an uncertain future 40 years ago, and saved it again during a recent “shoveling-out” of the old family cabin. Aside from the two bomb-like figures there are other mysterious pattern features: dark indigo lines of arrows that appear to point in specific directions; an intriguing, restrained use of white as a border highlight; faint yet distinct lines of pattern resembling field rows. The ‘bombs’ themselves are marked by subtle differences, including the fact that they are not the same size.
My general, limited knowledge of handmade area rugs told me at first glance that this was, at the very least, an Oriental rug, due to its pattern of a border surrounding a central field. It was also likely tribal, due to its asymmetrical dimensions — 80 centimetres at one end and 100 at the other — indicating it was made on a small, simple and probably transportable loom. It was also likely an important size to its nomadic makers; at just 170 centimeters in length and an almost brocade-like thickness, this lightweight carpet packs easily. The colourway reflects the largely barren region of the largely nomadic Central Asia, at least prior to 1969. The lack of saturated colours indicated that the wool might have been natural, from animals that would have been important for nomadic peoples such as camel, goats and sheep, or would have been dyed using natural plants or minerals found or traded in the region.
But it is the simple, abstracted geometrical patterning that is the most compelling indicator of its roots in rural Central Asia, as opposed to China, India and Persia where the complexity of those stable cultures is representative in the largely floral, ornate patterning.
Pattern would provide both definitive answers to location, but also more questions about how complex ideas of culture, the physical environment and the mystic can be embedded and encoded in deceptively simple patterns.
My hunch was that this was a prayer rug, and the ‘bombs’ were directional elements contributing to its purpose of orienting the worshiper toward Mecca.
Initial research did confirm that this was not a “war rug”, a highly collectible type that first appeared in the Steppes region of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979.
So are these central features in the field known among collectors as the “main stripe” ships, buildings, fish? Anything resembling the images is at odds with the arid geographic location in which this rug was likely made.
Other than these two confounding images, this particular carpet resembles Turkmen rugs in terms of size and colours, however, the main stripe lacks the typical pattern of rectangular or octagonal ‘guls’ that many believe to be heraldic emblems. Also, its lack of a mihrab, or prayer arch, in the main stripe arguably discounts this as a prayer rug.
The simple abstracted geometrical border design of narrow frames, known as the guard stripe provides structure and focus in the same way that a frame highlights a painting but it is also the most useful part of a carpet’s design in determining place of origin. The border of the rug in question features a number of motifs, from a turret-like pattern, and a linking of triangles that may derive from the Tree of Life that is characteristic of all Oriental rugs including the strictly geometric pattern of Turkmen rugs. Any interruption of the flow of the pattern around the corners would indicate that the rug was copied from another rug or done by memory.
The fact that the dyes in my rug are essentially shades of brown, with navy and white used as outline connects it to the general group of Turkmen rugs, which are traditionally dyed with madder in shades that include browns and brick shades, and the limited use of black or dark brown outlines for to create subtle emphasis.
However, the almost minimalist ground and subdued patterning points to weavers of tribal groups distinct from the Turkmen with whom they are usually associated.
Research also reveals that the Balouch rug, also known as Beluch or Baluchistan, is often described as monotonous and drab. One blue and a small amount of white is typically used in contrast to a range of browns. This is an accurate description of my rug, which locates it within a people, but it is the one specific pattern set of the Balouch that is more intriguing.
The Balouch often incorporates the Tree of Life design, often on a camel ground, like mine. It may be an Engsi, a rug traditionally used as a closure on the tent-like entrance of nomadic dwelling, specifically a Khatchli design. Adding weight to that theory is the typical design of a Khatchli, which is Armenian for ‘cross-like.' A “cruciform paneling” essentially segments the rug main stripe into quarters and includes and “elem” panel at the bottom. The cross-like shape can be seen to mimic the panels in many wooden doors but also suggests a garden, according to one collector I found at a website on Oriental carpets.
This rug does seem to bear traces of the Khatchli layout, although without the elem panel. However, the two main images remain at odds with any examples shown in Khatchli rugs.
It was only after seeing an image posted on an online discussion board of a similar ‘bomb’ that I realized my rug was pictured upside-down. One collector/writer discusses this uncommon design:
“The footed vase design is referred to as Qalem Dani, or pen holder. Because of the protruding leaf forms, Westerners think of an upright holder for a quill or pen. The weavers more likely had in mind the Persian type of long, ovate, papier-mâché or wooden pencil box, richly ornamented with lacquer painting. It graphically shows how a pattern is simplified and then a specific element is extracted to become a major design element.”
The author says he believes the Yacub Khani sub-group of Balouchi weavers, who were not known for making prayer rugs, made the footed vase rug.
The arguments and theories continue, now more likely in online discussion boards dedicated to specific topics under the subject of the Oriental rug.
Three collector/academics at the most prominent non-commercial website for collectors of Oriental rugs I was able to locate weighed in on the rug and gave three different interpretations of the design. One suggested it was an Afghan rug featuring a design reflecting the narrow and pointed headstones of the area:
“The arrow-like devices could represent cypress trees, which have been associated with cemeteries for a very long time, or a fence around a tomb. Afghans and others visit cemeteries on their New Year. Some areas have a tradition of weaving a rug for the funeral and in Turkey many were then donated to the local mosque.”
Another agreed that it was likely not used for a door, also known as an “Engsi”, because it lacked the typical bottom panel design in the pattern. He theorized it was a Balouch floor rug, featuring an old design no longer used but roughly translated as “inkwell,” which may refer to the aforementioned “pen-holder” theory.
Another aficionado attributed the uniqueness of this rug to the possibility that it was a knock-off of another, more valuable rug style, while others on the discussion board suggested rugs with similar ‘emblems’ may be referencing the espaliered trees the weaving cultural groups were known for cultivating.
The lively discussion reveals that although these tribal rug designs appear simple they are difficult to attribute and interpret because of a long history of cultural change in the region. As cities changed hands, so did the redistribution of tribal motifs to the point that the patterns cannot be definitively attributed to a particular group.
The exact meaning of specific patterns may be lost or simply unfathomable to western sensibilities, but their mystery continues to inspire discussion on matters both mundane and supernatural.
Considering the political upheaval and harsh physical environment in which this rug was likely created, it is reassuring that some aspects of tribal culture cannot be accessed, exposed, dissected and explained in definite terms.