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Carpets of Central Asia

by George O'Bannon

This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review

Central Asia, noted as the most glorious and dangerous part of the Silk Road, is home to Samarqand, jewel of Tamerlane's empire; Bukhara, cultural crossroads and center of trade; Tashkent, capitol of Uzbekistan and Russia's control point in the heart of Asia for a century; and Ashgabat, home of the Tekke Turkmens, feared raiders of caravans bound for Persia.

Today all of these places are important cultural and political centers in the recently independent states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Both countries are renowned as producers of oriental carpets, known primarily by the name 'Bukhara'.
They acquired this name because Bukhara was the main trading center and place from which they began their journey to western markets. In recent years, oriental carpet specialists have labelled them according to the ethnic groups who wove them. The largest producers of rugs have been the Turkmens who are located mainly in Turkmenistan. In Uzbekistan, the principal weavers are Uzbeks, Kirgyz, Arabs, Karakalpaks and some Turkmen.

Figure 1. Uzbek Julkhirs, Samarqand Region, beg. 20th c., 300 x 127cm (9'10" x 4'2"), UAM KP8443, acquired by 1929 expedition

Turkmen rugs are the best known. The others are rarely mentioned in the rug literature and are known only to a few scholars and collectors. While few Uzbek, Arab, Kirgyz, and Karakalpak rugs are found in western collections, there are numerous museums in Central Asia with many examples of them. The major museum collections are in Tashkent, Samarqand, and Ashgabat. There are smaller museums with collections devoted to local weaving groups such as the Karakalpaks in Nukus and Chimbey, Karakalpakia. One of the most famous scholars of these weavings was Valentina G. Moshkova. She died in 1954 after publishing only a few articles based on 25 years of research, in the field, on the weavings of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. After her death her colleagues published a book based primarily on her papers and research. That book, Carpets of the People of Central Asia, published in 1970, is the most important book on the weavings of Central Asia.

Figure 2. Salor Turkmen Kapunyk, beg. 19th c., 129 x 37cm (4'3" x 1'3") top, 122 x 30cm (4' x 1') sides, UAM KP11907, acquired from Moshkova heirs

I have been working on a translation of this book and travelled to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan recently to photograph rugs in the museum collections studied by Moshkova, as illustrations for the English edition. Most of the illustrations in the original edition were black and white photographs, which gave no idea of the quality of the rugs or the collections. I travelled first to Tashkent, Samarqand, and Bukhara in Uzbekistan in October, 1 995, and then Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in February, 1996. I was surprised at the quality of the material in these collections. They have remained virtually unknown outside the small group of curators and museums personnel of these countries. Most of the rugs are in storage and are rarely studied even by specialists. Less than a handful of Europeans have seen any of this material and only a few have been published in more recent Turkmen and Uzbek publications.

Figure 3. Karakalpak Karshin, end 19th c., 115 x 35cm (3'8" x 1'1"), DAM 97-l

The Museums of Uzbekistan
In comprehensiveness and quality, the best collection of Turkmen, Uzbek, Kirgyz, Arab, and Karakalpak rugs are to be found in the Museum of Art in Tashkent. This is the principal museum of the country and contains not only weavings and textiles but other important cultural artifacts relating to Uzbekistan. At the present it has the largest number of rugs, suzanis, ikats, and printed cloth on exhibition. However, its focus is on the products of the principal ethnic groups of Uzbekistan, so Turkmen rugs and textiles are not included in these permanent exhibitions. Its Turkmen rugs have only been shown on special occasions.ts collections are strong in Uzbek and Kirgyz weavings. Of particular interest are julkhirs rugs, which are virtually unknown in the West. There are also several rugs, including at least six Turkmen rugs, that belonged to Moshkova and were purchased from her heirs. These are some of the finest
examples of Turkmen weaving in this or any other collection. They include rare Salor and Arabachi Turkmen rugs.

An Uzbek julkhirs rug, published in color in Moshkova, is presently on exhibit. The julkhirs is a coarsely woven rug with a long pile, 1" or more in length. The word julkhirs translates as"bearskin" which they resemble because of the long pile. They are woven differently than most rugs. They consist of 2, 3, 4, or 5 stripes woven separately and then sewn together to created the finished rug. They may or may not have borders. The julkhirs was made strictly for home use and were never intended for sale into the rug market. For this reason, they remained largely unknown. Moshkova was one of the first writers to describe them and their techniques of manufacture. The pattern of this particular rug is derived from the patterning of ikats, a silk fabric woven in many cities of Central Asia. Fig 1.

Figure 4. Arab Kiz Gilyam, 19th c., Kashkadarya Area, Jeitun village, 209 x 119cm (5'11"x4'), SM KP303

Of the pieces belonging to Moshkova, the most outstanding is a Salor kapunyk or door surround. Salor rugs are among the rarest and most prized of all Turkmen rugs. There are not more than a dozen Salor kapunyks known in the world. They are normally attributed to the first half of the 19th c. The kapunyk is a type of weaving made mostly by Turkmens to hang on the inside of the yurt entrance. This example is in near perfect condition and one of the best examples known. The drawing of the patterns, spacing between the elements, and color placement are near perfection. Fig. 2. Second in importance in Tashkent, and perhaps largest in number of items in its collection, is the Museum of the History of the Uzbek People. This is mainly an historical museum, and there are not as many weavings on exhibition. The collection is valuable mainly as a study collection as the rugs are not in as good condition as those at the Museum of Art. They were collected primarily as documentary evidence by the carpet expeditions from 1929 to 1952.

Figure 5. Turkmen Uzbek rug, Nurata Area, 1860-1880, 327 x 137cm (7'9" x 4'6), acquired 1930, SM KP 2261

The third museum in Tashkent with a carpet collection is the Decorative Arts Museum. This museum, located in an old dacha of a Russian aristocrat, is interesting architecturally as well. The collection parallels that of the Museum of Art, but it has continued to collect arts and crafts produced by local people up to today. The objects on display are not only old but contemporary and show the development of styles and patterns from the 19th c. to the present.

An area of emphasis in this collection are Karakalpak arts. Of the pile weavings, a karshin or small utilitarian weaving is an excellent example of Karakalpak weaving. The Karakalpaks, who live near the Aral Sea, have been strongly influenced in their rug arts by the Turkmen who have lived among them for many years. This small rug has gols which bear a strong resemblance to those of the Turkmen, but the colors, drawing of the patterns, and materials identify it as Karakalpak.

The principal museum in Samarqand is officially known as the Museum of the History and Culture of the People of Uzbekistan or simply the Samarqand Museum. The collection rivals those of Tashkent. Until recently only a small part of the collection was on exhibition. But in the past two years, a major exhibition area has been devoted to the arts and crafts of all the people of Uzbekistan. At the present time one gallery is devoted to all the crafts produced:weavings, textiles, woodwork, jewelry, metalwork, and other small items. This is followed by galleries devoted to ikats and suzanis, carpets, and the costumes of the various people. Additional galleries are being planned for the future. Many of the rugs published by Moshkova were located in this collection. All of the weaving groups are well represented.

Figure 6. Ersari Turkmen Mosque Prayer Saph (2 fragments), 14.2 x 3m (24'4" x 9'10"), acquired about 1985

Of particular note are weavings of the Arabs of the Kashkadarya Region who were noted for their flatweaves. One of the most prized of the Arab weavings was the kiz BilYaln, or bride's rug. These rugs were traditionaly woven for a dowry and exhibited the bride's mastery of several flatweave techniques. This rug is smaller than most kiz giyams and is woven in a technique call soumak. Fig. 4.

Uzbek and Karakalpak rugs are also well represented. One of the most interesting was published in Moshkova as a representative weaving of the Turkmen Uzbeks in the vicinity of Nurata, a town to the north of Samarqand. Apparently, this Uzbek group were originally Turkmen who merged with the Uzbeks a century or more earlier. Their rugs have very archaic gols with more clearly drawn animal and bird forms than most Turkmen rugs. Their rugs are believed to show an important and early developmental stage of the Turkmen gol. Fig. 5 The Samarqand Museum appears to take a broader cultural view of its role than some others as all ethnic groups are represented in the exhibits, including the Turkmens. Although unknown to Moshkova, one of the most beautiful and important carpets in Uzbekistan is on display in a little visited museum in Bukhara.
It is the Magaki Attari Mosque Carpet Museum located near the Bazaar of the Hatmakers, where many people begin a tour of the city. This carpet consists of two fragments of what was once a mosque prayer carpet, or saph, on which many people could pray. According to the curator of the museum, the carpet was woven in 1874 on the order of Emir Sayed Muzaffar ad-Din Bahadur Khan for the Bala Hauz Mosque.

IThe Bala Hauz Mosque, Bukhara
This mosque was opposite the entrance to the Ark, the Emirs residence, and the public mosque he attended. It was woven by 20 Turkmen and Uzbek weavers and took approximately 1 year. Assuming that the original carpet consisted of 3 rows of 15 prayer spaces per row, it would have accommodated 45 people. Only a few related individual prayer rugs of this type are known. It is estimated that the rug was originally 10 meters long and 5 meters wide. During the Communist takeover of Bukhara in 1920, the rug was cut into pieces by the people of Bukhara. These are the only two pieces presently known to have survived. Fig. 6. Other museums in Bukhara that contain rugs and textiles are the Ark Museum and the Palace of the Last Emir. Because of time limitations and the fact that they were not studied by Moshkova, I did not see and photograph rugs in these collections.

Figure 7. Tekke Ig Salyk, size, early 19th century.

Figure 8. Yomud Asmalyk, TMA K2422

The Museums of Turkmenistan
The museum collections of Turkmenistan are justifiably famous and were intensively studied by Moshkova. Prior to the earthquake of 1948, when Ashgabat was totally destroyed, there were several rug collections, the largest being those of the Museum of Art and the Carpet Factory Museum. They were the best documented rug collections in Central Asia. As a result of the earthquake, most of these records were lost, and the provenence data collected by Moshkova and other researchers no longer exists. The collections of several museums were then consolidated into the two museums.

Since independence, these two collections have been combined into a new National Museum of Carpets, which is located in a newly renovated building in the center of Ashgabat. This museum exhibits approximately 100 carpets primarily of contemporary weavings. Included among these is the largest Turkmen carpet ever woven. It was woven as a gift, and intended to be a curtain, for the Bolshoi Theater. However, it was too heavy for this purpose and was returned to the people of Turkmenistan. There are only a few old rugs among those on display. The majority of the older rugs are in storage and under the control of the Museum of History.

This collection is almost entirely Turkmen rugs. Only a few Baluch rugs were noted. One of the most interesting rugs was a small piece that was originally an ig salyk, a small rectangular bag intended to hold objects such as spindles or spoons. No

other piece with this exact pattern is known. The pattern appears to be a pile version of an embroidery pattern found on the collars or lapels of a woman's cape called a chirpy. The borderless concept is most unusual. Fig 7.

A few rugs and textiles are still displayed in one gallery of the Museum of Art. One of these is a Yomud asmalyk published by Moshkova. The asmalyk is a five or seven sided weaving used to decorate the bridal camel. They were woven in pairs and hung on each side of the camel beneath the bride's litter. This asmalyk is unusual in showing a wedding caravan in the top area. It shows the bride's camel, including an asmalyk, surrounded by men on horseback, camels, and dogs. It should be noted that the large animals are accompanied by baby ones, which implies the desire that the marriage will be productive. Fig. 8

The museums of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan contain a rich heritage of weaving from the people of Central Asia. No where else in the world can one see such important permanent exhibitions and collections of these weavings. Many changes have been made since independence in how the museums exhibit these weavings. Hopefuliy, they will continue to exhibit more and more of these historical treasures in their museums.

With thanks to Oriental Rug Review, Ron O'Callaghan and Murray Eiland for permission to reproduce this review here