The Richard E. Wright Research Reports; a Compilation of Notes Concerning the Nature and Origins of Textiles
Reports Table of Contents
Print Version

Turkmen Carpets and Central Asian Art

June 2012

Carpets and carpet-like objects of the Turkmens -- literally, Turks who went missing (specifically, part of the Oghuz) -- are a very late addition to Central Asian textile art. It is possible to be curious about what the relationship of these objects might be to similar items of the past. 

A good notion to bear in mind in this regard is that of the venerable V. V. Stasov: “Central Asian art presents nothing unique, intact, singular.  No, on the contrary, it is a conglomeration of creative activity of varying nationalities: Turks, Iranians, Hindustanis, Arabs, Mongols, and several other tribal groups.” [1] One textile, a silk cover now in the Louvre, bears an inscription which places it in Samanid or Kara-Khanid Mari somewhat before 1000 A. D. [2], and gives a taste of Stasov’s olio.

Iranian-speaking nomads had dominated the Eurasian steppes for 1000 years before the arrival of Turks. [3] Nomads not only raided and conquered but also traded with oasis cities. The pressure from high eastern Asia on sedentary groups initially was from Indo-Europeans, among them the Saka, subsequently followed by the Altaic Turco-Mongol, both peoples with distinctive riding dress and the militarily important invention of the stirrup.

This short sketch consists of anecdotal gleanings from the past. This is the domain of art history; an approach from the perspective of the carpet literature regrettably does not turn up much other than Timurid textile art. There is, however, a long textile history.

The Distant Past

Well preserved due to a dry climate, vividly dyed twill and tapestry-woven textiles from c. 1000 bc employed sophisticated weaving techniques -- weft-facing and brocade -- apparently related to similar objects in Anatolia and the Near East. [4] One decorative theme was stylized images of animals in ornamental fashion.

The weavers seem to have migrated eastward through the steppes from a homeland in Anatolia;[5] some survive as remarkably well-preserved mummies. Many recovered artifacts come from a number of sites in the Uigur Autonomous Area of Chinese Turkestan. The culture was Indo-European.[6] A Soviet author concluded, based on a weak inference, that the Saka then were engaged in pile weaving. [7] Some in the earlier generation of Western rug writers also have asserted that it was nomads who developed the technique of weaving in pile, similarly sans evidence. [8]

Archaeological finds of the turn of the 20th century also suggest the possible eastward spread of textiles with western Asia design. A silk textile fragment with facing animal figures dating from the 3rd century B.C. has been found in western China.[9]

Felts and knotted pile carpets also survive from 400 -- 300 B. C., the carpets, based on dye analysis, apparently from Archamenid Persia. [10]There has been much ink spilled concerning the provenance of the second oldest intact pile carpet, the Pasyrik. Among the more flagrantly chauvinistic assertions of authorship are those of Turkmens and Armenians. The Armenian claim was skewered many years ago: the carpet’s red dye came from a Central Asia insect, not one native to the Arax river basin.[11]Some rug authors have preferred to overlook this inconvenient fact.

Equally without credibility are (in English translation) the somewhat unintelligible ownership assertions by Turkmen carpet authors, such as a) “…[The] Turkmen people did not arrive from any country but lived on [their] native land and were formed as a nation…”; [12] b) alleged ancestral descent from “Massagets” and “Parphians” [sic]; c) Turkmen use of a weaving technique similar to that of the Pasyrik;[13] d) resemblance between ancient pottery motifs and those – bougday hagshy -- on contemporary Turkmen rugs; and, e) “[A] Supposed genetical [sic] connection is quite possible taking into [account] existing hypotheses on the relationship of Scythian nations in particular with nomadic Parphian [sic] groups.” [14] 

Lou-Lan, a Chinese gateway trade city in the Tarim Basin until the period 263-70 A. D. when it was abandoned because of a major change in the course of the Tarim river, was a source of textiles which can be reliably dated by coins and business records. The site was discovered (1900-01) and excavated by Sven Hedin, with subsequent digs by Stein. Both men unearthed old textiles as well as mummies; they understood these people were neither Turkic nor Chinese but could not identify them. The Stein finds are: [15]

1) stuffs consisting of silks, embroidery, tapestry and pile carpets;

2) woollen non-Chinese tapestry work of distinctly Hellenic (Stein's term) character;

3) many patterns and motifs which were Sassanian -- scrolls, rondels, stylized and natural floral images, geometric forms and lozenges.

Stein's excavations at another location of a later period (7th and 8th centuries AD) similarly yielded Sassanian-type textiles. [16] Materials recovered by a 1934 Hedin expedition replicate Stein's. 

The Lou-Lan tapestry weave was the same as that in Syria and Egypt. [17] Other excavations in northern Mongolia of kurgans (burial chambers) from the same period yielded stuffs similar in design to those of Lou-Lan. [18] Although under Chinese control Lou-Lan was in the territory of Tokharians, an Indo-European people with a language related to Celtic and Italic.[19] Chinese documents noted their presence as late as the 8th century. While it is tempting to wonder whether these people were descendants of the Indo-Europeans of 2000 -- 1000 BC, as some do, [20] such musings are not appropriate here.

The western Asia Sassanian roundel was widespread in Central Asia (where it still appears in 20th century Tibetan rugs) and evidently had surfaced considerably to the west: vide Chaucer's 14th c. reference to fabrics with "Tatar perles". [21]

Medieval Times

The Turkic Uigurs, with connections to Sogdiana, had a role in the development of Central Asian textiles. Uigur rulers were Manichaean, but the populace was largely Bhuddist and Nestorian. [22]

They had submitted to the Mongols and were "the most literate and sophisticated" of Turks in government service. They created a written form (from Sogdian) for the Mongol language and served as tutors and secretaries. [23] The Uigurs continued to be significant even after the loss of empire in 744 A. D., via involvement with the Chinese and the Mongols, until the 13th century. [24]

Uigurs made a silk tapestry, k’o-ssu, for robes, a technique and terminology adopted by 11th century China; it appears that on linguistic grounds (terms Persian or Arabic in origin) the Uigurs learned the technique from Sogdiana. [25] Most Turkic ruling groups had a considerable commercial, cultural, and diplomatic reliance upon Sogdians. [26]

The area’s trade was regional. The ruler of Bukhara may have given 'embroidered' textiles to Tang China (c. 750) [27] and there is some basis for supposing that pile carpets may have been among Tang imports from Persia. [28]

Arab geographies are an important source of information about the textiles of the middle ages. 

From Ya'qubi (891) to Idrisi (1154) authors regularly noted various woven objects and their production sites. Transoxiana was on the fringe of the Arab geographers' world; textile citations having to do with Central Asia are sparse in comparison with those for Western Asia and the Mediterranean. Bukhara, Marv/Mari (Merv), and Khwarzem (Khiva), however, are mentioned often enough. In the middle of the 12th century both Nishapour and Merv made silk and linen textiles while Khwarzem produced linen and woolen articles. [29] 

Yakut (c. 1220) mentions some of the productions of Bukhara City -- fabric, robes, prayer rugs, and, hanging tapestries. This passage has been misread so as to include carpets, an old (1947) mistake soon corrected (1958), stemming from a translation error. [30] This mistake infected some rug writings.  

One insight concerning the extent of medieval textiles production can be seen in the matter of rissala (guilds). Among the 32 involved in making things (rather than the providing of services) were weavers, silk makers, makers of velvet, saddlers, felt rollers, silk dyers, and tanners.  

Even with great care concerning translations and manuscript problems some of the old geographers' statements about textiles remain unclear -- such words as bisat (a large cover), tinfasa (a piled textile), and katifa (a pile rug?). This terminology problem is well recognized. [31]  

A transfer of thousand year old words from a different language into today's carpet lexicon is out of the question; there are those, however, who happily do so. [32] One thought, however, could stand a little probing, one from a Turkmen scholar: “… a study of carpet related words in pre-thirteenth century Turkic texts may be useful for finding out facts about history of Turkmen carpets. Our study shows that some carpet-related terms in pre-thirteenth century Turkic texts have survived in the Turkmen language and some exist with a slight change.” [33] A narrower gap, and in Turkic. The meaning of words, nevertheless, does change.  

The Modern Period

The medieval period was one of political turbulence. A huge but short-lived Mongol empire provided stability similar to that of the Pax Romana. Although the Mongol conquest initially brought commerce and agriculture in Transoxiana to a halt, trade -- which had declined since the 10th century – revived and merchants could travel unmolested from the Mediterranean to China. It is not by chance that it was at this time various merchants, missionaries, and sundry papal envoys made the long trek to Chinese heartland.  

After more turbulence Timurids subsequently became the rulers of Central Asia and overlords of its high style arts. And, as the empire spread westward, a Persian contribution was added. If part of the resulting Timurid artistic amalgam survived ultimately to have some influence on some Turkmen carpets, it perhaps could be looked for in terms of a linkage via the successor Uzbegs.   

[1] Stasov, V. V., Sobranine Sochnineii, Vol II, St. Petersburg, 1894, p. 700.

[2]Frye, Richard N. The History of Bukhara, 1954, p. 81; de Larenaudiere, "Tableau de la Boukharie...", Nouvelles Annales de Voyages, 2nd Series, Vol 1, 1826, p. 124.

[3]Golden, Peter B., An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, 1992, p. 380/381

[4]Barber, Elizabeth Wayland, The Mummies of Urumchi, New York, 1999, Ch. 3, pp. 62--64.

[5]Barber, ibid., p. 144-45; Mallory,J. P., In Search of the Indo-Europeans, 1989,p. 183.

[6]Mallory, J. P., op. cit., p. 53.

[7]Moshkova, V. G., Carpets of the People[s] of Central Asia, trans. O'Bannon/Amanova-Olsen, 1996, p. 8.

[8]Martin, F. R., A History of Oriental Carpets Before 1800, Vienna, 1908, p. 1; Pope, A. U., Survey of Persian Art, VI, London, 1938/39, p. 2271; and, Erdman, K., Oriental Carpets, trans. C. G. Ellis, London, 1960, p. 15.

[9]The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology, ed. Xiaoneg Yang, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999, Fig. 1, p. 325.

[10]Source Notes in the History of Art, Vol. X, p 4. Summer 1991, Lerner, Judith, "Some So-Called Achaemedid Objects from Pazyryk", p. 12.

[11]Bohmer, H. and Thompson, J., “The Pazyryk Carpet, a Technical Discussion”, Source … Notes in the History of Art, Vol X  No.4, Summer 1991, pp. 30, 33/34.  This issue of Source is concerned entirely with the many aspects of this carpet.  Bohmer and Thompson are thoroughly grounded in these and their introduction presents the gist of the matter quite succinctly.

[12] Meredova, O., abstract of opening presentation, Conference on Turkmen Carpets, Asgabat, May, 1996.

[13]Goundogdiyev, Antiquity of Carpets…” Conference on.., op. cit.,p.18.

[14]Markov, G. E., Carpet-making Art as Source on Ethnogenesis and Social History of Turkmen People, Conference on…, op. cit., p. 7.

[15] Stein, Aurel, Innermost Asia, New Dehli, 1981, Ch. VII, "Remains of Ancient Lou-lan", p. 214 ff., particularly Section IV, "The Textile Relics of L. C.", p. 231, and Section V, "The Decorative Designs of the L. C. Fabrics", p. 235.

[16]Stein, Aurel, ibid., p. 662 ff.

[17] Sylwan, Vivi, Reports from the Scientific Expedition to the North & Western Provinces of China under the Leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin, VII Archaeology 2, (Publication 15), "Woollen Textiles of the Lou-Lan People", Stockholm, 1941, p. 92.

[18]Trevor, Camilla, Excavations in Northern Mongolia (1924--1925), Leningrad, 1932, pp. 11--13.

[19]Barber, Elizabeth Wayland, op. cit., p. 111 ff; Mallory, J. P., op. cit., p. 56 ff.

[20]Barber, Elizabeth Wayland, ibid., p. 166.

[21] Chaucer, G., "The Knight's Tale", vv 2160/61.

[22] Golden, Peter B.,op.cit. p. 174/5.

[23]Manz, Beatrice F., op. cit., p. 27.

[24]Grousset, Rene,The Empires of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, trans. Naomi Walford, 1970, p. 126.

[25]Cammann, Schuyler, "Notes on the Origin of Chinese K'o-ssu Tapestry", Artibus Asiae, Vol. XI, MCMXLVIII, p. 90 ff., p. 109.

[26] Golden, Peter, op. cit., p. 172—175.

[27]Schafer, Edward, The Golden Peaches of Samarcand, Berkeley, 1963, p. 198.

[28]Ebalgazi Baradir Khan, History of the Mongols and Tatars, ed. and trans. Petr. I. Desmaisons, manuscript, Arabic Museum, St. Petersburg, Philo Press reprint, 1970, pp. 337/8.

[29] Ousley, William, The Oriental Geography of Ebn Haukal, (but in fact Istakhri), London, 1800, p. 214, p. 217, p. 244; Pegolotti, Francis Balducci, "Notices of the Land Route to Cathay and of Asiatic Trade", Cathay and the Way Thither, Hakluyt Society, No. 36, 1866, Vol II, p. 280.

[30]Frye, Richard N., The History of Bukhara, Cambridge, Mass., 1954, p. 19--20.

[31]Sergeant, R. B., "Material for a History of Islamic Textiles up to the Mongol Conquest", Ars Islamica, 11-12, 1946; Worrell, William H., "On Certain Arabic Terms for 'Rug'", Ars Islamica, 1, and "More About Arabic Terms for 'Rug'", Ars Islamica, 2; Wiet, Gaston, "Tapis Egyptiens", Arabica, No. 6, 1959.

[32]Pinner, Robert, “The Beshire Carpets of the Bukhana Emirate?”, HALI, Vol unknown, p. 297.

[33] Azemoun, Y. Carpet terminology in Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkic Texts, Conference on.., op. cit., abstracts, p.3.


Return to top Email this article

Reports | Print Version

Copyright © Richard E. Wright,  All Rights Reserved