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The Weavings of the Lors and Bakhtiyaris: A Fifteen Year Retrospective

by John T. Wertime

Originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 12, #2

Pastoral nomads in Persia. Photo Courtesy, Iranonline.com

The opportunities to learn about and collect tribal weaving that existed in Persia and especially its capital, Tehran in the late 1960s and early 1970s were as exhilarating as they were unparalleled. A strong international demand for tribal material brought dealers and collectors from far and wide into a fast moving market that was cordial to the outsider and congenial to doing business. This situation led to the tapping of tribal groups still in possession of large quantities of authentic indigenous weavings. Those of us who resided in Tehran had the opportunity to see textiles from all over the country and to keep abreast of the market through daily visits to the uptown, more Europeanized shops of Ferdowsi Avenue, as well as through periodic forays into a vast rug emporium, the Tehran bazaar, located in the southern part of the city. By a happy coincidence, there were a handful of Persians and foreigners in Tehran at the time who had more than a passing interest in tribal weaving. This included Parviz Tanavoli, Cyrus Parham, Jenny Housego, Amedeo de Franchis, and myself, all of whom became active in theTehran Rug Society, founded in the fall of 1973, and who reinforced each other's collecting instincts and desire for knowledge about this art. Each of us had his or her own particular areas of concentration, albeit with a certain amount of overlap. The natural competition that rose among us was mitigated by an abundance of collectible material and our willingness to share knowledge, extend encouragement, and to make an occasional trade.

Plate 1. Bedding bag, Bakhtiyari, 20th century. Size: 2' high x 3'10" long x 2' wide. Structure: weft-faced plain weave patterned in certain areas by extra weft wrapping. Courtesy of James Opie Oriental Rugs, Inc.

The first project the Tehran Rug Society Undertook was an exhibition entitled "Tribal Animal Covers from Iran" held at the Iran-America Society in the spring of 1975. Only 600 copies of the accompanying catalog were printed and it quickly sold out. Most areas of the country were represented in the 32 animal covers exhibited and published, including those of the Lors and Bakhtiyaris.

These closely related Persian-speaking tribes, whose homeland is the remote and rugged Zagros Mountains and adjacent lowlands of western Persia, were among the various groups supplying significant numbers of older
weavings to the marketplace in the early 1970s. Some of the principal agents of the influx of this Lori and Bakhtiyari material were men from a gypsy community living in homes the late Shah built for them on the southernmost outskirts of Tehran, where settlement ended and the desert began. Driving large motorcycles, these men made their way to the mountainside camps of the Lors and Bakhtiyaris to buy up as many of their weavings as they could. With them loaded on their bikes, they then headed for major provincial markets of Persia or to Tehran. From time to time, I witnessed these men offering their goods to shopkeepers.

Plate 2. Bedding bag, Bakhtiyari or Lori (Fars Province), 19th century. Size: side 24 1/2" x 53'; end 23"x27"; bottom 21"x32". Structure: symmetrical knot, 8Vx7H = 56 per square inch. Warps wool, ivory and some light brown). Ground wefts: wool (yellow, medium blue, light orange), Collection of Shelly Wishchusen Treece.

The large majority of the pieces they brought in were flat-woven, and most of them were bags, particularly the very large khorjins . Until this time, the occasional example we had seen on the market with its pile panel at the bottom, unusual white square on the back and other unfamiliar motifs was a great mystery. Seeing these and other types of Lori and Bakhtiyari weavings in large quantities and varying qualities and ages provided the opporttmity to learn something about their origin. These experiences soon helped dispel the mystery surrounding them.

As de Franchis and I encountered and collected more and more of these weavings, we began to discuss the possibility of doing an exhibition and catalog devoted to them. In addition to the interesting nature of the material at hand and the newness of it to the rug collecting community, it had the added appeal of overlapping with a project the Tehran Rug Society had discussed but never carried out. This was to be an exhibition devoted to weavings of the Varamin area, southeast of Tehran, where segments of many tribal groups, including Lors and Bakhtiyaris, had been relocated in earlier times.

Parviz Tanavoli had come to share our enthusiasm for the Lori and Bakhtiyari material we were collecting. He personally advanced the money needed to purchase paper for the catalog to the second and last Tehran Rug Society exhibition, "Lori and Bakhtiyari Flatweaves," which came to fruition at the Iran-America Society in March of 1976. Twelve hundred copies of the catalog were printed. Shortly before this time, de Franchis, an Italian diplomat returned to a new assignment in Rome. Some five months later I left Tehran for the Washington, D.C. area. In the 15 years that have elapsed since the publication of Lori and Bakhtiyari Flatweaves , I have become aware of only one flat-woven textile type that de Franchis and I had not seen or recognized as being a Lori or Bakhtiyari product -- the mowj or multipurpose cover woven by Lors and Bakhtiyaris in a balanced twill weave composed of two widths sewn together along their sides. These covers, which Parviz Tanavoli has recently discribed1were all attributed by local sources in the past to the neighboring Qashqa'is, who also produced a large number of them in their own right.

Migration of the Baktiari tribe, western Persia. Photo Courtesy of Iranonline.com

My own familiarity with pile rugs of these tribes has been furthered by twopublications since I left Persia: Raoul E. ("Mike") Tschebull's article "Antique Lori Pile Weavings,"2 in 1978, and James Opie's book Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia in 1981. Opie's work plus my own observation of the market and reading of the literature on Oriental rugs lead me to believe that the nomadic Bakhtiyati tribes produced few pile rugs. Unlike those of the Lors, most of the pile rugs that carry a Bakhtiyari label seem to have been considerably influenced by sedentary peoples and tastes. One wonders if the extremely rugged terrain traversed by the Bakhtiyaris on their trek between summer and winter quarters was not a deterrent to the weaving of heavy pile rugs, as well as to the use of camels.

While the Lors of Fars are well known for their gabbehs, only recently have the Bakhtiyaris been identified as weavers of such rugs.My wife and l had the good fortune to own the first gabbeh from this tribe ever published.3 It came to us from Parviz Tanavoli, who discussed these rugs in his contribution to Gabbeh: The Georges D. Bornet Collection, Part 2 .
Another new book on the gabbeh by Hamid Sadeghi and Karin Hawkes, Gabbehs: Stammesteppiche der Bergnomaden am Zagros , includes a number of old Bakhtiyari examples. Despite their bulky appearance, these soft, supple, blanket-like rugs are not especially heavy due to the multiple ground wefts between rows of pile "knots".

Recently I have become aware of another type of nomadic Lori and Bakhtiyati weaving - the pile bedding bag. The more common flat-woven kind from these tribes is seen in Lori and Bakhtiyari Flatweaves (pl. 26A) as well as in Plate 1 here. It shares the peculiar shape and large dimensions of the Qashqa'i bedding bag4 with its triangular flap at the top of both end panels, as well as thick leather handles and leather trim and fastening straps. In structure and pattern, however, the typical Lori and Bakhtiyari flat-woven bedding bag differs dramatically from Qashqa'i example. Lori and Bakhtiyari versions of this type have undyed cotton or wool weft-faced plain weave grounds, patterned by endless knots and a profusion of animal heads (some with eyes and horns). These decorative elements are applied by extra weft wrapping.

The complete pile bedding bag from the Bakhtiyaris or Lors of Fars illustrated in Plate 2 shares features with flat-woven Lori/Bakhtiyari and Qashqa'i versions of this type. Like the flat-woven Lori/Bakhtiyari examples cited above, the bottom panel is elaborately decorated. These decorative elements include bands with chevrons or diagonal stripes in double interlocked tapestry weave, alternating with narrow stripes of small rosettes in another flatwoven structure. In my opinion the occurrance of double interlocked tapestry weave, which seems to be peculiar to the Lori and Bakhtiyari weaving tradition in Persia, is significant for ascertaining provenance. The brilliant yellow, green, and blues also point to a Lori or Bakhtiyari nomadic origin. Small botehs, commonly found on their gelims , are a feature of this enormous pile bag as well. Somewhat smaller are two panels, presumably from bedding bags. One is Bakhtiyari (Plate 3) and one is Lori from Fars (Plate 4). The former has a dynamism seldom equaled in Persian tribal weaving and powerfully conveys a sense of the wild natural beauty that the Bakhtiyaris experience daily. Soft and lustrous wool that is gabbeh-like in texture, is dyed in vivid colors, including the Bakhtiyari madder pink discussed by Sarah B. Sheril at the 1983 International Conference on Oriental Carpets in London. Interestingly, the brownish gray in this piece appears to be undyed wool.

It features a cruciform motif in a lozenge seen on Lori pile rugs as well as in extra-weft wrapping on bags. The main border of diagonal stripes with a small filler motif is also a familiar one from Lori pile and flat-woven textiles. The colors also point to a Lori provenance, probably in Fars Province.

Plate 3. Bedding bag side panel (?), Bakhtiyari, 19th century. 21"x39," Structure: symmetrical knot, 6Vx8H = 48 per square inch. Warps: wool (predominately dark brown). Ground wefts: wool (dark brown), 2. Collection of Donald and Virginia

Could these panels have come from something other than a bedding bag? One might imagine that they were originally the pile panel from one pouch of a large flatwoven khorjin The problem with this proposal is the peculiar shape of the pile panel on the bags of the Bakhtiyaris and Lors of Fars, which are indented in the middle, as numerous examples attest. However, the large khorjins from the Lors of Loristan and the tribes in the Varamin region do have straight panels. Neither of these pieces seems to be a Varamin or Loristan product in color or weave, and neither shows wear in the places where the complete older khorjins do. Perhaps these panels originally were the face of a wide and shallow bag similar to what the Turkmen used. But the only evidence for such a woven type that I am aware of is plate 26B in Lori and Bakhtiyari Flatweaves , which is the sole example with which I am familiar.

What other new Lori and Bakhtiyari woven types await discovery or proper identification? Parviz Tanavoli tells me he has found a
type of bag called tashen by the Bakhtiyaris that has gabbeh-like patterns and features. This will be published soon. Who knows what else will emerge from these fascinating groups indigenous to the remote Zagros region of western Persia? Judging from the experience of the past 15 years, other surprises are still in store for the rug collecting community.

1. Parviz Tanavoli, "Waves from the Zagros," HALI 52, August, 1990, pp. 108-111.

2. Raoul Tschebulls "Antique Lori Pile Weaving," HALI , Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 37-39.

3. See "Editor's Choice" , HALI, 34, 1987, p. 102.

4. See Jenny Housego, Tribal Rugs, London 1978, p.131

Plate 4. Bedding bag side panel (?), Lori, (Fars Province)19th century. 21"x37," Structure: asymmetrical knot, 11Vx8H = 88 per square inch. Warps: wool (ivory, brown, and ivory and brown mixed). Ground wefts: wool (brown, some ivory), 2. Sides: outer warp bundle attached and wrapped by interlacing ground wefts. Collection of Raoul E. Tschebull

Copyright 1992 by John Wertime. Original text and photographs appeared in Oriental Rug Review, December/January, 1992.
With thanks to
Oriental Rug Review, Ron O'Callaghan and John Wertime for permission to reproduce this article here.