<---previous article

'Baluch' Rugs in the Victoria & Albert Museum

by Robert Pittenger

Original text & photos appeared in HALI 73 © 1994

The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, holds a small group of so-called 'Baluch' tribal rugs from eastern Persia and adjacent areas of Afghanistan, some with relatively early accession dates. This is not a collection of outstanding overall aesthetic merit, but there are several pieces of demonstrable age and beauty. More importantly, however, it offers the possibility of beginning a much-needed process of documentation of an ever more popular type of tribal weaving, whereas most previous contributions to the field have served mainly to emphasize the gaps in our knowledge of their time and place of origin.

The term 'Baluch' is in quotation marks because recent research suggests that many or even most of these rugs may not have been made by Baluch peoples. The anthropologist Dr. Alfred Janata has suggested that the rugs woven by the semi-nomads of Khorasan in the area surrounding and south of Herat in Afghanistan and Mashad in Iran were often not woven by Baluchis, but by adjoining non-Baluch tribes and sub-tribes such as Timuris, Taimanis, Jamshidis, Firuzkuhis and others.

Research on specific sub-tribes, dates and locations of rugs production, has been hampered by an almost complete lack of
written accounts from the 19th century, when the best rugs were made. Dr. Dietrich Wegner, who practiced medicine in the Khorasan rug-weaving areas during the 1950s, published the major source article attributing early 20th century rug types to specific sub-tribes, on the basis of design. Many tribal affiliations and locations have changed since 1850, so that the attribution of mid 19th century rugs must still rely on educated guesses. Work on 'Baluch' rug structure, which may eventually solve some of the problems, is just beginning. Thus for the time being we must use some less-than-ideal appellations in quotation marks.

Figure 1. 'Timuri' Prayer Rug, 1. 37m x 1.73 (4'6" x 5'8"), inv. no. IS.1690-1883

The V&A Collection

There are eleven 'Baluch'-type rugs and bag faces on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum at present (and at least two more in storage). Current efforts by the Department of Textiles to re-catalogue its non-European collection may give us hope that a few more may be unearthed from the museum's vast stores, located both on and off site.

The earliest 'Baluch' acquisitions came to the then South Kensington Museum in the last century along with acquisitions

of Turkoman pieces. The history of these acquisitions has been well documented by Donald King. The 'Baluch' pieces in the collection, though not as early nor as extensive as the Turkoman group, still deserve more attention than they have received. Three of the groups have early accession dates, which may aid in dating similar pieces. Others are interesting examples of their types, which raise still- unanswered questions.

Figure 2. 'Baluch' bag face, (one of a pair), 0.86m x 0.76m (2'10" x 2'6"), inv.no. 853-1876

The earliest acquisition, which entered the museum in 1876, was a detached pair of Baluch bag faces (2). They had been bought the previous year in Tehran by Major Robert Murdoch Smith, then Director of the Persian Telegraph Department; Murdoch Smith had made a detailed catalogue for the museum of a year period by Jules Richard, a French Orientalist and translator to the Shah. The museum bought the complete collection, which included ceramics and metalwork as well as t extiles, and Smith was given a free hand to purchase for the museum while he was in Persia.

The pair together constitutes a very good example of one of the standard types of bag, with a white-grounded border rarely used in any other type of weaving. Its accession date makes it one of the few documented 'Baluch' pieces for which a secure date before the last quarter of the 19th century is certain

Figure 3. 'Timuri' carpet, 1.52 x 2.49m (5'0" x 8'2'), inv.no. T.172-1937

A Timuri prayer rug (1) in excellent condition was acquired in 1883 by Smith from the Tehran British Legation member and Islamicist Sidney Churchill. It fits well into the small group of the earliest of the blue-grounded prayer rugs, but is probably late in the group. The oldest examples, such as apiece illustrated by David Black and Clive Loveless (which surely must be earlier than the date they gave it!), have a squarer format and different borders. The design of octagonal stars in the flat-woven ends is seldom seen, and is quite striking here. The field pattern of overlapping octagons is also rare in prayer rugs, although common in bag faces. With its knot count of some 1, 400/dm2 (90/in2), the V&A prayer rug stands between coarser examples which I think Timuri, and those with higher knot counts, from some other tribal group. Timuri rugs use a colour scheme of two or three blues with reds or oranges, while other pieces rely more on browns and blues. Attributions to either Baluchis or Timuris, however, must be regarded as provisional. In the absence of positive proof, we might just as well put 'Timuri' in quotes too.

'Timuri' prayer rugs of this type, and related examples with flowerlike 'shrubs' in the field, are structurally very close the trade as 'Dokhtor-i-Ghazi', the name given to the hypothetical but non-existent Baluchi sub-tribe near Heart. Who actually made these 'Dokhtor' rugs in one of the burning Baluchophile questions which must be answered soon.

A later version of the so-called Dokhtor-i-Ghazi design (8) was acquired in 1922, at the same time as several other pieces in the V&A collection. It diverges far from the group prototype.
The field pattern is more open, with the 'blossoms' not tightly packed as in the prototype 'Dokhtors.' The dark browns and the elaborate lower flatweave suggest an origin far south of the Heart, perhaps between Shindand and Sistan. The leaf-shapes used in the squandrels are not common. Although very dark, brooding and somber, with thick and glossy pile, this rug is one of the best examples of the later type of 'Dokhtor' rugs.

A larger carpet is a fairly good example of the type generally attributed to the Yaqub-khani Timuris (3), but without much proof. Earlier examples have a rather more elaborate field pattern alternating large ragged medallions with other floral medallions, also used in western Persian and Karabagh 'Harshang' rugs. This extremely popular design is derived from 16th-17th century Kerman 'Vase' carpets. A good example of the 'flaming' medallion can be seen in the Charles Grant Ellis' Philadelphia catalogue, and it can also be found in a Persian silk textile of about 1450. These 'Timuri' rugs can be as large as three by four metres, and nearly always have a blue ground and the 'crab' border.

Figure 4. 'Chahar Aimaq' soumakh bag face, 0.69m x 0.71m (2'3" x 2'4"), inv.no. T.105-1922

A very attractive bag face has a field pattern of flower heads within a diamond lattice, similar to a group of rather early rugs from the Turbat-I Haidari area of northeast Persia. This bag, however, is symmetrically knotted. This shows how much work is still to be done in sorting out 'Baluch' rugs: the two groups known to have used symmetrical knot are the Kurds (northwest of Mashad) and the Bahluris, mostly from the Qainat area, far south of Mashad. Both usually use designs and colours that are quite different from the more typically 'Baluch' palette in this bag face. Weavings of various groups in the Turbat-i Haidari area (Jamshidis, Hazaras, Kizil-Bashes) have yet to be identified among those woven with asymmetrical knots opening to the left (also many open to the right!). Unfortunately Dr. Wegner did not include knot types in his studies.

Figure 5. 'Baluch' bag face, 0.76m x 0.96m (2'6" x 3'2"), inv.no. T.204-1922.

Of the two camel-ground prayer rugs illustrated by Jenny Housego in 1978, one is in the reference collection while the other (7) is not presently on display. Both are still provisionally attributable to Baluch sub-tribes, though a Hazara or Jamshidi origin much also be considered.

The collection also includes two other bag faces, perhaps a detached pair, with a design similar to the Murdoch Smith pair
but with different borders,(5) and another in soumakh technique (4) which could be attributed to any of the various Chahar Aimaq tribes east of Herat.

Rounding out the collection are two respectable long red-and-blue rugs. The first of these, with mina khani lattices deign (6), was illustrated by Housego. It is a later version of the well-known early 'fragment' illustrated by Black & Loveless and by Ian Bennett. The other rug has an all-over tile pattern of simplified khaf guls and squares.

Figure 6. 'Baluch' long rug, 1.02 x 2.06, )3'4" x 6'9") inv.no.T.193-1922

As more 'Baluch' rugs are published and examined some of those which have asymmetrical knots open to the left are beginning to fall into groupings based on various elements in addition to field design, such as particular types of wool and colours, slightly different knot counts and weaving patterns, and styles of flatwoven end finishes. The more difficult step, to associate particular groups of rugs with known sub-tribes of the period 1830-1900, may best be delayed until later, when many further groupings of rugs have been published.

Figure 7. 'Baluch' prayer rug, 1.14m x 1.65m (3'9 x 5'5"), inv.no. T.75-1969

There is an Underground station near Sotheby's in London where the train stops at a slightly hazardous distance from the platform; a recorded announcement warns: “Mind the Gap!” This could be taken up as the marching song of 'Baluch' studies, for the gap between rug groupings and the identity and location of 19th century weavers may prove very difficult to reconcile on a firm scholarly basis. But many structural studies remain to be done, and these may contribute much to clarifying the situation.

Figure 8
. 'Dokhtor-i-Ghazi' prayer rug, 0.91m x 1.40m (3'0" x 4'7"), inv.no.T194-1922

Original text & photos appeared in HALI 73 © 1994 All text by Robert Pittenger © 1994
No parts of this text or any photo may be re-produced, transmitted or copied by electronic means or otherwise without permission from the Robert Pittenger or myself.
I would like to thank the publishers of HALI for granting permission to reproduce this article .