January 2003

Carpet weaving was an established practice of Shusha City. Indeed, at the turn of the 20th century, it was the stylistic leader of Caucasia. (1) Shusha came into being as a result of a citadel built on a remote mountain by a khan of Karabagh, who had a habit of creating such fortified places, (2) common practice for local rulers on the fringe of empire, especially that of Nadir Shah and unsurprising for a local khan who previously had been expelled by Nadir Shah from a neighboring district. Shusha became a place on the map in 1752 with the completion of its wall. (3) Europeans visiting the area in the 1820's and '30's knew the city's history, described it, and noted its size, 2000 houses circa 1830, and population, predominantly Azeri. (4)

There is a spurious attribution of a class of late17th and early 18th century rugs, the so-called dragon carpets, to Shusha, made a long time ago by Charlie Ellis, in all innocence. Which is the problem; he didn't know the place did not exist at the purported time of manufacture of the rugs. Yet there are real Shusha City rugs; some are extant, somewhat surprisingly, a number at the Glencairn Museum, Bayn Athyn, Pa.. These have been described; dated examples are from the mid-19th century, and one is earlier, 1809. (5) Yet another Shusha City rug showed up recently, at the International Art and Antiques Fair in New York, fall of 2002, in the Galerie Chevalier (Paris) booth.

Illustrations of this rug, which is large, appear hear courtesy of Dominique Chevalier. The standard Herati pattern and accompanying borders bear a clear resemblance to a similar Shusha rug photographed circa 1910, see detail. (6) A pleasure to see this variety of large handsome carpet in good condition. Its identification occurred during the show's vetting process, and it was Posy Benedict who first tumbled as to the type.

Click on images to enlarge.

The dated inscription, see detail, however, is cause for some head scratching, because something is wrong. All is clearly woven, including requisite soft signs, a bit illegible at the end of the cramped word for year, but there. "Navruz" is a transliteration distortion of the Azeri word, novruz, the term for the beginning of the new year at the vernal equinox (nov + ruz = new + day). An old celebration, dating perhaps from Zoroastrian times, widely observed in western Asia and referred to in words with slightly different vowels both in Persian and in Turkish. (7)

The problem is the incompatibility of the clearly rendered date, 1811, combined with a Russian inscription. There were no Russians in Shusha at this time, and would not be for a good while after the ceding of the area to Russia a decade later; Russians, moreover, would not be celebrating events of another culture and calendar. If, however, the date is read either as 1877, or 1871, (but not 1817) everything falls into place -- the rug was intended for an Azeri purchaser in a Russian-speaking milieu. Indeed, the rug looks like a 3rd quarter 19th century product.

The unraveling of the contradiction seemingly must be that either the person who wrote the cartoon to be followed, or the weavers, couldn't differentiate "7" 's from "1" 's. But there is a difficulty with this speculation, for a Russian "7", has a little cross piece on its shaft distinguishing it from a "1". So, either the cartoon was defective, or the weavers (who may or may not have known Arabic numerals where a "7" is quite different -- no corrective there) were careless. Not likely, given their care in rendering the letters.

A nice little mystery. The more likely explanation seems to be that the date was wrongly rendered, probably by the cartoonist, and that the rug was woven in the 1870's.


  1. Prakov, A. V. et al, Russkoe narodnoe isskustvo na vtoroi vserossiiskoi vystavke, Petrograd, 1914, p. 8.
  2. Bournoutian, George A., Tarikh-e Quarabagh, annotated translation, Costa Mesa, 1994, passim, esp. pp. 71/72.
  3. Wertime, John T., and Wright, Richard E., "The Tabriz Hypothesis", Asian Art I, p. 36, note 22.
  4. Keppel, George, Travels, Vol. II, London, 1827, p. 184; Smith, Eli, Researches of the Rev. E. Smith and the Rev. H. G. O. Dwight in Armenia, Vol. I, pp. 279-281.
  5. O'Bannon, George, "A Group of Rugs Attributed to Shusha", Oriental Rug Review, Apl/May 1990, Vol. 10, No. 4, p. 12.
  6. Piralov, A.S., Kratkii ocherk kustarnyk promyslov vystavke, Petrograd, 1914, p. 60.
  7. Information courtesy of Ayten Kazimova, of Baku and Istanbul, who knows these things.