Bakshaish Rugs: The Magic of Bakshaish Artistry

By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder

Imagination, Spontaneity, and Balance

This camelhair creation ranks among the most brilliant early Bakshaish works I have ever encountered, unbelievably spontaneous, yet measured and in perfect harmony.

This village in the Azerbaijanian Alborz Mountains is quite similar in size, elevation and terrain to Bakshaish. We have yet to see a published photograph of the village of Bakshaish.

A fascinating phenomenon often happens when I find myself alone with a high-level antique Bakshaish carpet. My eyes move over its surface, stopping to enjoy the nonchalance of an unfinished flower or the profound depth of a color striation as layered as the ancient walls of the Grand Canyon. Inevitably I will start to smile and the same question always forms: “How did they do that?”

The “they” I am referring to are the weavers who inhabited this village in the Northwest Persian region of Azerbaijan at the end of the 18th century and for a hundred years of carpet production after that. That slight time warp engendered a significant, non-classical, unfettered village artistic aesthetic, which produced in room-size knotted textiles a degree of expressiveness that, in my opinion, has never been achieved before or after.

Left: The various sizes and types of loosely ordered flowerheads in this 160-year-old Bakshaish medallion carpet is as mesmerizing as it is inventive. Right: Silk Kashan Medallion Rug, second half of 16th century. Perfectly spaced detailed flowers and leaves float between the centerpiece and corners.

This prodigious and visionary carpet style created or inventively reinterpreted over 20 significant contributions to Persian room-size carpets’ field design and over ten border patterns. Bakshaish’s large-scale, geometric proclivity was revolutionary among Persian rug styles. The independent Bakshaish weavers irreverently brought a tribal sensitivity to the pride and joy of Persia’s classical Safavid rug designs on a grand scale, replacing the adherence to absolute symmetry and curvilinear design with ingenious, geometric spontaneity.  In so doing, they gave birth to a major, if short-lived, artistic tradition that was later eclipsed by the so-called “Revival Period,” in which great numbers of carpets were produced for export.

The proximity of Bakshaish to the city of Tabriz (Persia’s major export center for the first three quarters of the 19th century) was exceedingly fortuitous for its weavers.

These clients’ comfortable sitting room is graced by the glow of patina from their 170-year-old, large-scale Palmette Bakshaish carpet.

In writing about the 19th-century Bakshaish rug-weaving tradition, the information is scant with virtually no thoughtful deduction, visitor journals, or scholarly research either from Eastern or Western sources to draw from. So, I rely for my primary sources on the many relationships with Persian village elders I have had the privilege to know and the countless conversations we had together, and on my vast exposure to antique carpets as a dealer reviewing pieces for my gallery over the past 43 years.

Out of curiosity, I checked my company’s records and discovered the number of 19th century Bakshaishs we have sold since opening our doors in 1980 exceeds 1300 pieces from this tradition. How many more I reviewed and rejected is multiples of that figure. This article is the reflection of my particularly prolific interaction with Bakshaish carpets, as I have been enamored with them since I purchased my first Dragon and Phoenix piece nearly 50 years ago.

A tableau of apple and cypress trees is a common sight in the Bakshaish region of Eastern Azerbaijan.

Left: The Willow tree design was added to Safavid Garden carpet motifs in the 17th century as seen in this Silk Kashan. Right: Kirman carpets broke free of earlier compartmentalized Garden designs to portray naturalistic flowering and fruiting trees.

Situated in the eastern portion of Azerbaijan some 50 miles from the major city of Tabriz, Bakshaish at 5,000 feet was and still is a small village within a cluster of hamlets in a mountainous frontier of fertile meadows, steppe lands, thick forests, and towering elevations. The region stretches north virtually uninhabited for over 200 miles, except for numerous nomadic confederations either passing through or settling to forge migration routes between lower and higher pasturelands. Much like tribal groups, the isolated villagers’ lives were shaped by their commanding surroundings and their reliance on the cycles of nature—daily impressions that inform their carpets.

This luminous, 19th century “Cypress Trees” Bakshaish, combining charming birds and jewel-toned arboreal motifs, exemplifies the style’s joyful and emblematic depiction of a 400-year-old pattern. 11′ 6″ x 15′, Connoisseur-Caliber.

It is no wonder the animated interpretation of “The Garden of Paradise” may very possibly be the most beloved of all Bakshaish designs. Known as “Bid Majnun,” this compelling all-over pattern stems from the Safavid Garden rug design fully developed in Khorasan and Kerman in the 17th century. The Garden design usually joins together three trees that represent the experiences in the life of a human being: a flowering or fruiting, deciduous tree evoking the sense that life provides what is needed in abundance; the weeping willow capturing humankind adapting, contemplating and learning from its suffering; and the cypress tree, signifying the posture of humility in all circumstances, the pathway to eternal life. It is a complex, multifaceted design and a favorite of the most adventurous Bakshaish weavers.

Below is a study of the spontaneous handlings of the deciduous tree motif in four Bakshaish carpets (early 19th century to circa 1875) that capture the range of originality this weaving group left behind.

A.) The earliest of the four rugs. Note not only the individualized leaves but the sprinkling of tribal motifs that do not appear in the other three somewhat later rugs. B.) This detail is part of a tree stretching 12-1/2 feet along the length of the field, revealing never-ending invention.

C.) Drama surrounds this tree, caused by sensitive abrash striation in the background. D.) Tall and narrow, this tree is one of six in the field; through all their branches one can see grazing sheep.

Especially in those woven circa 1875 or earlier, Bakshaish Garden carpets offer an extraordinary breadth of fanciful interpretation. Inspired by this pattern’s origins in Persian Court carpets, Bakshaish weavers placed their innate trust in creating folkloric depictions of the same motifs that deftly combined symmetrical and asymmetrical elements. In doing so, they created a panoply of rugs celebrating the Earth’s magical, ever-changing nature.

E.) The Cypress, the Tree of Eternal Life, between which are pairs of birds holding flowers in their becks, evokes a delightful scene. F.) Myriad tiny dots of light imbue the Willow pattern, blanketing the field with a majestic quality.

Large scale allover pattern, 150-year-old room-size Bakshaish Camelhair carpet provides elemental art in this contemporary space.

“How did the Bakshaish weavers create rugs that were so distinctive from all other Persian room-size traditions? I explained my strong conviction that the ornate formal botanical patterns of the 16th and 17th Persian Safavid Court workshops were a jumping-off point for the profoundly reimagined geometrized Bakshaish reinventions. I highlighted four extremely varied interpretations of the classical “Garden of Paradise” motif by the highly expressive Bakshaish artists.

Room-size Persian Bakshaish camelhair carpet, circa 1850.

How did the Bakshaish weavers create such an original and varied aesthetic? I characterize it as such:

  • Having a profound allegiance to an inner canon to never draw the same motif twice in quite the same fashion.
  • Enlarging and either simplifying or elaborating virtually any room-size rug tradition’s medallion or allover field format until it appears as new.
  • Having an emboldened spontaneity expressing the confidence that the overall harmony of a rug cannot be sacrificed.
  • Valuing the profound effects of both radiant and subdued color and the eloquence of shading.

A.) Overall Palmette design, circa 1825, with evocative coloration and dynamic idiosyncrasy. B.) Overall Shrub pattern constantly being reinvented. C.) Virtuoso color combining of cruciform motifs, circa 1875. D.) Center medallion on a filled field, circa 1850, with a multitude of asymmetrically sprinkled symbols.

The artistic legacy of the eccentric Bakshaish tradition is mind-boggling and much broader in scope than that of any other Persian room-size style. Referring to photographs of the 1300-plus 19th century Bakshaishs Claremont has placed in its 43-year history, I identified over a dozen substantially reinvented field treatments from directional graphic patterns such as the Garden and Tree designs to floating large, angular flowerheads sometimes connected by a faint latticework and large enigmatic motifs set in rows hidden by their asymmetry.

An energetic assortment of medallion styles abounds in Bakshaish rugs. These include singular or multiple medallions on unadorned or spaciously covered reserves, niched medallions, transparent medallions, stacked diamond medallions, oval ones, with pendants, without pendants, with and without spandrels (corner pieces), animal skin or boat-shaped motifs. They simply reveled in the challenge of new combinations of elements with each new carpet.  

Persian Bakshaish, 12′ 7″ x 14′, 3rd quarter 19th century, with organically hexagonal medallion and polychromatic Sunburst border pattern.

Left: Verdant countryside in the Bakshaish region of Northwest Persia. Right: Azeri Turkic villagers in silk headdresses.

The Azeri, an ancient Turkic people who were the predominant weavers of 19th century Bakshaish rugs, relied on their innate sense of the underlying harmony in everything in the cosmos, informed by their own experience of living close to nature and probably amplified by Sufic cosmology. With their geography and genetic ties closer to the Caucasian peoples than to classical Persian affiliation, Azeris have more exposure to life lived instinctively rather than by preplanning. The carpets shown here lend a glimpse at the idiosyncratic visual art of pre-commercial Bakshaish weaving.

Having sold so many rugs of this genre over the past 43 years, as well as reviewing countless others that I “passed on,” I have come to see that not all Bakshaish carpets offer great artistic distinction. In every carpet-making style, there are highly inspired, adroit weaving teams and those who were not. The finest carpets reveal their weavers’ extraordinary confidence and dexterity, innovating in design and color and never crossing the line into disharmony.

Persian Bakshaish, 11′ 10″ x 13′ 7″ 3rd quarter, 19th century, featuring a rare “Bakshaish blue” field displaying the eloquent range of this cerulean tonality.

The nearest water source to the Bakshaish villages is the Talken Rud or “Bitter River” (dry at summer’s end) with its higher alkalinity that softens the colors usually obtained from natural dyestuffs in a discernible way that cannot otherwise be duplicated.

Although source information about Bakshaish rugs is scant at best, rug scholars do recognize both the superior wool and dyes that distinguish this inspired weaving tradition. Heinrich Jacoby, a German rug expert, wrote in 1949 that Bakshaish rugs could be distinguished from rugs elsewhere in Persia by their “soft coloring,” which he attributed to the local water. Interestingly, the Aji Chai or Talkeh Rud (“Bitter River”) flowing through the Bakshaish area that provides water for the sheep herds and dyebaths is alkaline, containing high mineralization. The commanding mountain in this region, Mount Sabalan, is said to “sit on a major deposit of copper.”

Universally admired for their “soft coloration” partially bequeathed by the water, exemplary Bakshaish rugs have a “transparent” quality to their tonalities, achieved in the dyeing process. Dyeing was done by the red, blue, and green specialists in the village, with subsequent colors produced by the weavers themselves. The 19th century rugs from this tradition reveal an abundant, idiosyncratic use of chromatic irregularity known as “abrash” that added to the depth of their compositions.

Over 170-year-old Bakshaish brilliantly exemplifies this style’s soft colorways and ability to create a depth of field through the abrash technique.

Bakshaish weavers took inspiration from the first rays of sunlight silhouetting mountains like this extinct volcano, Mount Kiamaki in Almdar to the northeast.

Referred to by Jon Thompson in “Oriental Carpets: From the Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia” (1988), as “a vibrato of color [from] innumerable variations of the same shade,” the Bakshaish virtuoso handling of the abrash technique is exciting to see. The strata of “Bakshaish Blues,” often used in borders, is a signature element seen in their carpets, almost always appearing abundantly in the best pieces. Their breathtaking center medallion on an open field rugs often showcase a thrilling diversity of softly shimmering crimsons tones. The 19th century Bakshaish color palette that captures the emotive hues of mountain sunrises and sunsets, crystalline skies, and volcanic lakes plays a major role in this artistic tradition. They palpably create stirring depths of field, tropical warmth Gaugin would relate to, rippling azure pools, the glowing of embers, and from the natural camel hair tonalities, the immediacy of earth.

Left: Bakshaish “Dragon” Rug, sold for $363,200 at Sotheby’s NY 2006 auction. Right: Bakshaish carpet owned by David Rockefeller (estimated at $20,000 – $30,000), sold for $112,500 at Christie’s NY in May 2018, among his art and furnishings in the largest Art Auction ever, earning $835M for 12 charities.

Today the availability of top-tier Bakshaish carpets, rugs, and occasional runners from the 1800s is greatly diminished. Aficionados, both domestic and foreign, started to purchase them throughout the 19th century. Well-known Western admirers included Sigmund Freud and David Rockefeller.

At this point, late 19th century Northwest Persian Herizs and Shahsavans are now sometimes mistaken for Bakshaish, as sellers attempt to represent this eccentric style in their inventories. Thankfully, through a buying network that sources pieces from longtime collectors who we have created relationships with since the beginning of Claremont, we continue to be able to periodically procure 19th century pieces that possess an inimitable folkloric ambiance and soaring originality, while always maintaining the Bakshaish standard of artistic balance and harmony.

An extraordinary mid-19th century Bakshaish rendition of the Safavid “Harshung” design against a camelhair field featuring this style’s flaming palmettes and drawing filled with momentary inspiration and a spatial freedom.

Small room-size Bakshaish, circa 1825, with multiple overscale camelhair shield motifs floating on an evocative three-dimensional backdrop.

I will now discuss how the weavers’ psychological and emotional makeup informed the tremendous creative dexterity seen in their rugs. The lion’s share of the ancestral weavers had little or no formal education, yet they possessed amazing memories. This faculty was coupled with an extraordinary attunement to the rhythms of the natural world that they depended upon for their survival and that deeply inspired them.

The stories from the tribal and village elders I have had the great privilege to know abound with descriptions of women who briefly saw another rug, a handkerchief, a sketch in a book or on the ground, and proceeded to weave a carpet with an uncanny resemblance to its origin.

The mythologies of many ancient cultures contain stories of powerful birds with characteristics similar to the Phoenix, such as Turkey’s “Konrul” and Persia’s “Simurg,” possibly the inspiration for this exceptionally abstract carpet.

One dear friend who grew up in a remote weaving village would recite countless word-for-word poems from Rumi and other Sufi poets, as well as numerous teaching stories he had heard around the campfire. His visual memory was equally astounding. Once, when he was describing a rug that I had seen but couldn’t quite remember, he began to draw out its design on paper in more and more detail until I finally could recall which rug it was.

The culturally independent Bakshaish weavers recognized that no two things are ever the same, yet they belong to groups by genus and species. The weavers instinctively knew that everything in nature and the universe plays an integral role. They continually found new inspiration by accessing their extraordinary visual acumen to transform whatever moved them in their natural environment into partially abstracted patterns and ever-changing, yet always harmonious hues in their rugs.  

An orchard of flowering cherry trees, such as this one in Eastern Azerbaijan, are often depicted in partially deconstructed fashion in antique Bakshaish carpets.

Nomadic Azeri women making huge pieces of crepe-like bread in an iron pan over a wood fire as part of an annual celebration of the Eastern Azerbaijan tribes’ hunting and equestrian skills.

So many weaving traditions intermingled in the mountain villages of Northwest Persian Azerbaijan: the Armenians of Karabagh to the north; the Karadagh, Afshar, Turkoman, Kurdish, and Shahsavan tribal nomads, displaced Syrians, and the predominantly Azeri weavers of Bakshaish themselves. The rugmakers from the cluster of villages of which Bakshaish was the center also drew inspiration from formal carpets from Tabriz, Khorasan, and Kirman.

Before the eclipse of the 19th century when agents of urban mercantile and export enterprises began dictating the patterns Persian rug makers should use in order to sell their rugs to the Western market, most Bakshaish weavers did not merely replicate the motifs and color combinations of their source material; they reimagined them into something entirely unique, artistically fresh and profoundly evocative of their life experiences.

Extraordinarily conceived and even more astonishingly executed, this 160-year-old Bakshaish features a field pattern that presents an imagined thicket of tropical-size stylized blossoms, leaves and vinery, while rosettes and lightning bolt leaves languidly float on its main border

The Bakshaish weavers were particularly entranced with the effect of undyed camelhair on rug design, using this fiber centrally in a notable amount of their carpets, most frequently as the background of fields, patterned or not, or strikingly as the fully unadorned outermost border of a piece. Experiencing Azerbaijani descendants speak passionately of blonde to mocha-hued camelhair in rugs that we viewed together heightened my receptivity to its significant impact on the emotions and as an artistic tool as central as is crimson, sapphire blue, or sea green.

Modern-day psychologists who study the effect of color agree light brown elicits associations of nurturance, dependability, comfort, and the security of the earth. However, it is our clients’ gravitation to camelhair that convinces me that there is a virtually universal attraction to the fur of these even-toed ungulates. Undyed camelhair’s mesmerizing strata of sand tones connects us subliminally with the security of our earthly home, and by extension, the sanctuaries we create for ourselves.

A circa 1875 Bakshaish Camelhair medallion carpet endows this inviting family room with a striking artistic statement.

Early Bakshaish Camelhair Garden rug on an extensively variegated camelhair field in seldom-found area size dimensions.

Another striking attribute of Bakshaish rugs is the scale and diversity of their borders, in which a panoply of at least 15 distinctive patterns can be found. Bakshaish weavers clearly had a unique sense of the border design as less of a framing and more an extension of a carpet’s overall artistic impact. For example, their most beloved Oakleaf and Rosette Meander is always interpreted afresh, its simple elements sized, spaced, and colored to echo the field’s ambiance and design. Drawing from a tremendous panoply of reinvented or, in some cases, entirely original borders and field motifs, Bakshaish weavers created the astonishing array of never-seen-before compositions. 

Four of the many more signature Bakshaish border treatments include related dramatic Flower Face (A) and Sunburst (D) motifs, both of which feature large sun-like orbs, and two of the oldest designs from this tradition: Daffodil meander (B) and Oakleaf and Rosette meander.

A crowning example of this visionary aptitude is in the various ways they captured the millennia-old Dragon and Phoenix motif. Through trade relations along the Silk Route, carpet designers of the early Persian Safavid Court were exposed to Chinese art and began depicting their representations of Yin and Yang, symbolizing the universal feminine and masculine principles. The weavers of the Caucasus Mountains integrated the Dragon into pile and later Soumak (supplemental weft) weavings. Through a turn-of-the-19th-century Dragon and Phoenix Bakshaish carpet we placed 25 years ago, we can surmise approximately when the powerful symbology arrived into the Bakshaish weaving enclave.

Left: The Persians were deeply enamored with China’s Dragon and Phoenix motif as seen in the medallion of this 17th century Persian Kashan carpet. Right: Wucal “Dragon and Phoenix” porcelain dish from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644.)

The Chinese paired the phoenix and dragon as ferocious supernatural swirling Yin and Yang creatures. The Dragon (Yang) represented the explosive creative and controlling universal power. The Phoenix (Yin) derives her complementary stature from her embodiment of what the Chinese called Virtue — that which cannot harm either a single insect or a blade of grass. By visualizing these diametrically opposed energies in their extremes, they express the primordial forces of existence.

Bakshaish weavers transformed the Dragon and Phoenix symbolism to convey a different aspect of the cosmos. Deconstructing these mythical figures, over time, they merged them into a single motif. The dragon’s body became so stylized only an undulating form with obvious scales remained. The phoenix became a small, usually ivory, figure that virtually blended into the body of the dragon. In Bakshaish rugs, these two universal forces are always depicted as existing in perfect harmony.

Left: This circa 1800 piece, the earliest we have seen the Dragon and Phoenix motif in a Bakshaish rug, depicts a rather friendly version of the scaly creatures seemingly in conversation with auburn-toned Phoenix heads. Right: A detail of a 17th century Caucasian Dragon rug from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection shows two powerful, ivory serpentine bodies writhing with explosive creative power, similar to Chinese depictions.

Not much has changed since the time when 19th century Bakshaish rugs were woven. Looking similar to the terrain in this recent photograph, trails and a few pitted roads were all that connected the myriad small weaving villages. Today, there is in addition 2 narrow highways in a 400 square mile area.

Seen from our study of a great many carpets, this new rendition of the Bakshaish Dragon and Phoenix motif was more in keeping with their cosmology. The landscape of Dragon carpets became divided into celestial and earthly zones. The celestial region, a large one-layered center medallion, is populated with at least four dragon and phoenix forms, signifying their omnipresent energy. While placing the Yin and Yang symbols at the cosmological core of their carpets, Bakshaish weavers introduced flowers, shrubs, animals, and sometimes a human figure to represent earthly existence outside the medallion and spandrels, evoking the totality of the seen and unseen world. These carpets are a vivid depiction of the central adage of the Eastern world — “As above, so below.”

Viewing a top-tier Bakshaish, whether it is a 12×20 piece created by a weaving team over 1-1/2 years or more or an extremely rarely found 4×6 knotted by a single weaver, the best pieces are utterly mesmerizing, unfettered expressions. With no early traveler notes or sketches to rely on and little scholarly study to date, these rugs leave many questions in the academic mind. But all that is needed is for one to witness the undiluted, emotional fluency of the carpets themselves to recognize their artistic contribution.

The medallion of this early 19th century Bakshaish from my own collection depicts a quartet of Dragon and Phoenix motifs, while the spandrels show the earthly plane as a meadow floor, replete with two spiders.

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