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

Carpets in Azerbaijan

April 2009

Here follows a translation of the carpet-making section in M. Kh. Geidarov’s history of medieval Azerbaijan.i   This book was written by a member of the history wing of the Academy of Arts and Sciences rather than the folk art division.

Of note: (1) as is the case with all Baku publications, the book’s title contains the word, Azerbaijan, a geographic term for an area which includes not only the Republic of Azerbaijan but also the Azarbaijan province of northwest Persia, the Azeri population of which was and may still be greater than that of Azerbaijan; (2) the carpet history paragraph of the book notes the various strands of art which landed on the carpets --  Persian, Mongol and Turkic; (3) the interconnectedness of carpet art with that of other media; (4) a mixed social setting -- city and countryside; and (5) the economic role of textiles with respect to taxation, benevolences, and the like.  In brief, this short summary by an historian sets the context, something not noticeable in an Azeri carpet literature (and outside writings which reprocesses this material) which concentrates on the objects, that is, particulars rather than the general.

Now, for Mr. Geidarov.  The translation is kept to the literal; a few spellings of proper nouns and a little punctuation are changed; “Tebriz” remains instead of “Tabriz”, to serve as a reminder of the Azeri world view.

"Carpet Weaving"

Medieval carpet weaving in Azerbaijan has been understood better (mainly from an art history point of view), than other types of handicraft.  There has been a large quantity of published museum research dedicated to the artistic and technical specifics of carpets from Azerbaijan and Iran.  Indeed, these pieces were the main subject of the album with an introductory article by L. Kerimov, published by the Architecture and Art Institute of the Academy of Arts and Science of the Azerbaijan SSR. The pronounced national characteristics of Azerbaijan rugs rescued them from being apprised by foreign specialists as Persian or Iranian rugs, as was the fate of many other types of Azerbaijan handicraft. 

Carpet weaving tools, found on the territory of Mingechaur, as well as remnants of carpets and palasi of the III – VIII centuries A.D., show the population of Azerbaijan  was by then producing these goods in the early medieval ages.  “Hudid al-alem” (10th century), which could even be from the 9th century, describes Khoi and Nakhchivan as cities with a busy trade and a developed handicrafts industry, particularly as concern the large (zilu type [pileless]) and average size (hali type) rugs.  In historical accounts and poetic works of the 12th and early 13th centuries, terms such as zilu, hali, kilim, (pileless rugs), mafrash, palas and others are used often, demonstrating that manufacture was long a part of life of the the Azerbaijan population and the population of neighboring countries. Khagani tells about the extensive popularity of Marand rugs in one of his poems.  An anonymous geographical essay for the early XIII century mentions the city in the east basin of the Kura and Araks [rivers], where good kilims were produced.

The Mongol conquest in the XIII century resulted in a decrease in the number of carpet weavers and in a temporary decline of carpet manufacturing in the cities. A series of socio-economic facts, however, including the expansion of carpet-weaving among nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled populations, the renaissance of urban handicraft, the enrichment of artistic-ornamental decoration of carpets, an abundance of raw materials, and finally the great demand for rug products, prove that carpet weaving was highly developed in the XIII-XV centuries in Azerbaijan.

Carpets and palasi were one of the main elements of indoor decoration in homes and kibitkas [a tax term for domiciles of nomads], caravanserai [inns], palaces, mosques, Sufi tenements (kanegakh), and other public, private, and religious buildings.  Thus, according to Gazan-khan’s “sacrificial order” which dictates “waqf” [benevolence] payments to various organizations of Shanb-i-Gazaniyi, carpets (farsh) are listed first under “supplementary means”, given to High Gumbad, Cathedral Mosque, shafiit, and khanafiit medresssas, khanegakh, shelter for Seyids, observatories, hospitals, library and others.  Farishi – large carpets of several tens of square meters – were used to cover floors in these buildings. 

Ownership of rugs indicated wealth.  Tax collectors claimed a large number of them as an agricultural goods duty.  A significant number of those rugs which were collected in excess of established quotas went to mutasarrifs and drivers.  In depicting the cruelty and greed of the Ilkhans’ [last Mongol rulers of northern Persia and southern Caucasia] drivers and robberies by them, before the rule of Gazan-khan, Rashid-ad-Din writes: “The messengers annually under various excuses were taking with them several thousand (zilu [pileless carpets]), bedding, kazans [?], dishes and other possessions of  the inhabitants.”

A significant demand for carpets also presupposes significant manufacturing, as demonstrated by the physical objects as well as written histories.  Thomas Herbert writes that skillful carpet weavers along with other weavers of fabrics lived in the cities, and that the bazaars were full of their products.

According to A. Jenkinson, who visited Azerbaijan in the second half of the XVI century, in general two main kinds of carpets were produced in Shirvan – piled and pileless – gali (khalii in Azeri) and dedjimi, which continued to be manufactured in later periods.  Small rugs (kalicha) were also manufactured, partly for export.  Among goods exported from Azerbaijan to Russia in 1684 there were two, and in 1688 “three Shemakhin carpets”.  Shirvan carpets were widely known and were exported to other cities and countries.  Shirvan carpets from the XVII century have been preserved abroad.  The Victoria and Albert Museum (London) includes the “sumakh” type of Shirvan carpets among other Caucasian carpets.  One of the Shirvan carpets, named “the Kuban”, depicts horseman and camel riders [a typical shadda].  Another carpet has geometrical ornaments.

The XVI-XVII centuries witnessed the advent of manufacturing of silk carpets with silver thread.  The State Hermitage storehouse of carpets of unknown origin which are generally considered Iranian likely contain products of Azerbaijan carpet weavers.  Tebriz carpets of a similar type (with medallion and arabesque from the collection of Ali Ibrahim Pasha, as well as a carpet with zoomopological ornaments from the Metropolitan Museum, and others), embroidered with metallic threads, which were popular in the domestic life of feudal nobles, speak to the high technical skills of Tebriz craftsmen.  Jenkinson reports that in 1562, when he arrived in the summer camp of Abdulla Khan Ustadjulu, beglar-bek of Shirvan, “the entire pavilion floor was covered by rich carpets, and under him was a square carpet, golden and silver threaded”.

Available historical data shows that XVI century carpet weaving was experiencing a special stage of development, both from an aesthetic standpoint as well as in increased production.  The latter was determined mainly by high demand for carpets on the domestic market.  Palaces and pavilions of wealthy people, houses of middle class and even homes of the lowest caste were adorned with carpets.  In the 1570s the Englishman G. Decket wrote from Shirvan: “There is nobody, even among the very poor, who would not sit on a rug, good or bad: the entire house or the entire room in which they sit is covered with rugs”. 

Tavernier noted the high art of fabrics and clothing with gold threads in Azerbaijan and Iran, similarly exhibited in both silk fabrics land carpets.  Silk carpets with golden and silver threads neither darkened nor faded over long periods of time.

A significant collection of Azerbaijani rugs from the medieval period are preserved in museums in New York London, Istanbul, Teheran, Vienna and other cities.  In particular, the Metropolitan Museum is home to Tebriz carpets from the XVI-XVII centuries, as well as “Hodja” (Karabakh) and “Shemakha” (Shirvan) made in the XVII century.  A large collection of Ardebil carpets from the XVI century; this type of Ardebil rug also was present in the XVII century.  Research into the complex designs of these wool and silk rugs from Ardebil of the XVI-XVII centuries shows that these rugs demonstrate the high artistic culture attained by Azerbaijan rug weaving during the period in question. 

Tebriz was the biggest center of rug weaving.  Tebriz rugs were revered in international markets as long ago as the X century, although rug weaving in Tebriz began to truly flourish in the XIV-XVII centuries.  The Victoria and Albert Museum collection includes a carpet woven by Tebriz master weavers in 1539 which measures 56 square meters.   The rug bears the name of its craftsman – Maksud Kashani.  He was apparently a well-known carpet master of that time.  Beautiful ornamentation on the carpet bespeaks high artistic and weaving skills.  Medallions, excellent floral and zoomorphic ornaments on the light blue background, high knot density (380 per square inch) – all point to this being one of  the masterpieces of medieval craft.

Azerbaijan carpets are distinguished in an ornamental sense by their wide variety of color tones, harmony of color range and compositional-decorative elements of design; the variety, freshness and durability of colors of Azerbaijan carpets were achieved by the skillful use of natural colorants – madder, cochineal, pomegranate skin, oak bark and leaves, nut gall (mazu), etc.  The most common artistic and ornamental motifs in medieval Azerbaijan rug weaving included the geometric, floral, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic.  These motifs developed and were enriched over the course of the medieval period.  For example, with the formation of the Mongol empire in the XIII cenury, the presence of Chinese motifs in artistic design in handicrafts of Azerbaijan and Iran began to increase.  This influence was particularly noticeable in the rug weaving of the Sefevids period.  In the XIII-XIV centuries Azerbaijan carpet weaving was significantly enriched by the inflow, especially into Tebriz, of craftsmen from various eastern cities, including Kerman, Kashan, Isfahan, and others.

Although artistic techniques and coloration of Azerbaijan rugs of the XVI-XVII centuries had much in common, they also had quite distinct regional variations due to feudal boundaries or weak economic and cultural ties among different regions.  Interestingly, the types of rugs correspond to geographical zones: 1) Kuba-Shirvan, 2) Gandja-Kazak, 3) Karzbakh, and 4) Tebriz. In turn, each of these types of rugs is divided into several groups and subgroups.  For instance, L. Kerimov divides Tebriz rugs into two groups: 1) Tebriz rugs per se with their famous piled carpets – “tebriz”, “bakhshayesh”, karadja” “gerevan”, and others; and 2) Ardebil rugs –“ardebil”, “sheikhsefi”, “shah-abbas”, and others.

Carpet weaving was also developed in other cities and regions of Azerbaijan.  The Victoria and Albert Museum collection includes carpets classified as “Caucasian”, that belong to the XVII and later centuries.  Among them are the famous shirvan carpets of the “sumakh” type.  Carpet weaving on the whole was the most popular type of craft, not only in cities but also in villages.  Chardin noted that carpet weavers in villages were paying in carpets for the use of the shah’s lands.  Almost each Azerbaijani woman knew the carpet weaving arts.  Epigraphic remains – tombstones in form of a toolchest (sunduk) of the XVI century, found in the Lachinsku region (Azerbaijan SSR), and in the village Urud of Sisian region (Armenian SSR), also tell about the extent of carpet weaving in Azerbaijan villages.  These memorial statuaries depict female carpet weavers at work, looms, and instruments.  Traditions of carpet weaving in Azerbaijani families remained strong almost through the XIX – early XX centuries.

Ethnographic data of the early XX century for both Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijan bear witness that even in the era of cheap mass production, carpet weaving continued to be the main secondary (and often the primary) business of inhabitants in most villages.  In Iranian Azarbaijan the main types of activities in the villages are grain-growing and livestock agriculture (sometimes both).  Here at the same time, production of striped pileless rugs (dedjim), big (hali), small (khalche), colorful and ornamental napless carpets with slits (kilim), palases, wool socks, etc. were also developed as a result of inflow of craftsmen, especially from Tebriz.

i Geidarov , M. Kh. , Goroda i gorodskoe remeslo azerbaidzhana XIII – XVII v.v.,Baku, 1982, pp.178 – 183.  The text is festooned with footnotes, not of interest here; some are to Persian literature, some to well-known travel accounts.

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