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Caucasia: A Tale of Two Carpet Literatures
April 2007

The fourth international conference on Azerbaijan carpets took place in 2007 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris; the first, in 1983 in Baku.  Twenty-four years is a reasonable interval for looking at two streams of rug books which have largely passed by one another in the night.  Each describes the carpet and carpet-like products of Caucasia.  The one, beginning 130 years ago, was written there by those with first-hand knowledge; the other sprang up in the second half of the 20th century from the hands of outsiders.

The Intra-Regional Literature

Since 1877 government reports have described various of Caucasia’s kustar’ activities (40 different home craft products, carpets dominant, and after oil the region’s second largest export).  Publications concerning rugs emerged sporadically until 1903 and covered weaving in Shusha, Daghestan, Kuba, Erivan, Akhalkalak, and Akhaltsyk districts.  Related reports described exhibition, training, planning, and technical assistance undertakings such as the furnishing of design cartoons, yarns, and dyestuffs.  The government’s objective was economic development aimed at augmenting peasant income. 

WWI and ensuing civil war interrupted the kustar’ program, which subsequently resumed under Soviet auspices.  Prior activities continued; principal new elements were the creation of artels, initially cooperative marketing arrangements, subsequently workshops, and the introduction of a fine yarn, low pile, Persianate carpet into Armenia, a sharp change from traditional coarse yarned geometric Kazak/Karabakh rugs.

The first across-the-board review was a book by M. D. Isaev, Kovrove proizvodstvo Zakavkaz’ya, Tiflis, (nowadays Tblisi) 1932.  It organized the various carpet and pileless carpet types by materials, style and district, and identified signature patterns of villages of origin.  This seminal book remains unknown outside Azerbaijan; only its type and district summary appears in English, in Richard E. Wright Research Reports, May, 2004. 

Mainstream additions to the literature were articles by Abdullaeva and Kerimov in the proceedings of the Azerbaijan Academy of Arts and Sciences, together with their ensuing books (L. Kerimov, Azerbaijanskii kover, 1961; N. Abdullaeva, Kovrove iskusstvo Azerbaijana, 1971); subsequent Kerimov works (Vol. II, and Vol. III, 1983); and, one other (K. Alieva, Bezvorsovye kovry Azerbaijana, 1988, de facto Kerimov IV).

These authors understood the weaving culture, particularly its artistic heritage.  Written in Russian and in Azeri, the books are closed to those without necessary language skills.  With one exception, Abdulleva, Azeri publications do not acknowledge the Isaev survey, citing it only two or three times to substantiate a minor detail.  Compartmentalization within the Soviet system and local pride of authorship perhaps explain this omission.  It is the case, however, that the ensuing Azerbaijan typology is the same as Isaev’s, hardly surprising -- what was, was.  It is worth noting that all of the Baku output appears under the rubric “Azerbaijan carpets”, a term which includes the Azarbaijan province of Iran with its large Azeri population; the view from Baku is much broader than that from Europe and America.

Portions of the internal literature belatedly have become available in English, notably via an altered, augmented and much improved English version of Kerimov I by Azade and Zollinger (2001).  In addition, the collective Azeri, Georgian, and Armenian authors of Rugs and Carpets of the Caucasus, 1984, have gotten information out into English which is particularly helpful with respect to previously opaque districts in eastern Georgia and in Armenia.

Nowadays the best descriptions of Azerbaijan carpets are the revamped Kerimov I and R. Tagieva’s Azerbaijan Carpet, n.d, published by UNESCO.  Rugs are accompanied by structural analysis.  Since attributions are correct, their physical characteristics can reliably be linked to districts of origin.  Two relatively recent works (R. and T. Efendiev, Kazak; and I. Koshoridze, Borchalo Carpets) add to the file of materials in English.  Their authors are museum and academy personnel who know what they are talking about.  

The External Literature

Oriental carpets became popular in the West in the late 19th c.  The period 1890 -- 1910 was one of export of millions of carpets soon to be followed by books describing them.  A contemporary comment by a knowledgeable western Asia veteran (H. D. Dwight, Persian Miniatures, 1918) was:

“Whenever we are hard up for amusement…we turn over our rug books…their method…is to sit down with Mr. Mumford [Oriental Carpets, 1900] in one hand and a school geography in the other, dictating until they feel the need of illumination on some point -- when they seek enlightenment from an Armenian pedlar…or from the buyer…who has been three times to Smyrna, Constantinople, Tiflis, and Tabriz.”   

Rugs from Caucasia came into their collecting heyday in Europe and America after WWII; expository books appeared in the ‘60’s, beginning with Schurmann’s Caucasian Carpets, a garbled third hand and possibly illicit knock off of Kerimov I with errors of nomenclature, particularly with respect to pileless carpets, and also districts of origin, as well as a dearth of background information -- no art history, no sense of carpet-making’s economic dimension, particularly the huge early 20th century export market. Subsequent offerings (Bernadot, Tschebul, Lefevre, Boralevi) quite understandably were prisoners of this text and repeated its mistakes, very much a reprise of earlier general rug books’ regurgitation of Mumford.  A major consequence was that the flawed Schurmann lexicon became the received wisdom of the marketplace.  

One notable disconnect of outsiders is the major gaff claiming Shusha as the place of origin of the late 17th/early 18th c. dragon carpets.  This small city -- without doubt the bellwether center of Caucasian carpet-making in the late 19th century -- dates only to 1752 when the city wall was completed. Its nucleus was a citadel built in 1748 by the  Khan of Karabagh (remembering well a punitive military visit by Nadir Shah of Persia).  Previously, nothing other than an Armenian hamlet was in the vicinity. 

Toward the end of the 1970’s the external literature began to connect with reality, for example, J. Housego’s, Tribal Rugs, 1978, notable in that it was based on field work and described rural nomadic and village products of Persian Azarbaijan.  In the 1980’s exhibition catalogues and books with accurate content (names, structural analysis, attributions, ethnicity) began to emerge (Yetkin on dragon rugs, Stone on village production).  Serial publications (HALI, Oriental Rug Review) and some ICOC papers contained articles similarly well grounded.  Latter day books in the same vein are:  (prayer carpets, Kaffel; bags, Wertime; pileless carpets, Wright and Wertime). The set of what can be termed marketplace books -- authors frequently are either dealers or collectors -- continues some of the Schurmann errors (e. g. Burns, Kesheshian) but is dwindling.

Where Matters Stand

In summary, the distortion of the initial Kerimov text inflicted two forms of damage: the one, books which aped Schurmann; the other, the poorly informed vocabulary of the marketplace.  Books which see rugs only as visually attractive collectible objects, however, particularly if color reproductions are good, serve a useful getting acquainted purpose.  For those individuals who wish to go beyond this point and are curious as to who made the rugs, where, when, and why the rugs look the way they do rather than some other way, there now are ample resources.

These, however, by no means reveal the whole story; there is a continuing need for translation of more of the Azerbaijan literature.  Many minor Kerimov publications are unknown; also among the missing are the Isaev, Abdullaeva, and Alieva books, historical mileposts and defining texts.  None presents inordinate translation and publication cost hurdles.

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