Qashqai Weavers, Spirited Nomads
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
Just as the first rays of the morning sun appear over the mountaintop, a lone figure standing on a rise overlooking the valley below slowly raises a long trumpet-like instrument to his lips. As the surnay player issues forth an extended, high-pitched blast, the encampment is instantaneously alive with activity. Simultaneously, the entire community pulls its tent stakes, and with a succession of loud thuds, what had been a city of black goat hair shelters disappears.
Less than an hour later, the entire city is on the move. Camels and donkeys grunt in protest against heavy packs carrying the folded tents, clattering cookware, and woven bags bulging with personal belongings. Out of a side of a saddlebag draped over a packhorse peer a baby goat and a small dog wedged in side-by-side. Strapped high atop a limbering cow is a wooden cage carrying three squawking hens. Young men yell and sing and swear as before them a thousand sheep slow, stop to graze, and are then persuaded to move on again. A baying donkey carries a small girl, her long colorful skirt flowing down the flanks of the animal. On her back is her infant brother. Finding the rhythm of movement, the procession, stretching over a mile long, slowly climbs up the mountainside out of the valley.
Twice each year over the past three-and-a-half centuries, this migratory scene has been reenacted by numerous clans of the Qashqai (pronounced Ghash-gha-ee) nomads, throughout the Zagros Mountains of southern Persia. At any given moment over the next ten weeks, over a hundred thousand people and one million and a half animals will creep through desolate mountain passes or across high alpine meadows on their three hundred mile trek to their winter pasturelands near the Persian Gulf.
Weavers of highly desired Persian tribal rugs, the Qashqai people possess a history and culture rich in both struggle and inspiration. It is the combination of these two elements which give their antique rugs their unusual sense of spontaneity and aliveness.
Although the Qashqai have never recorded their history in writing, they have passed it down through story and song for nearly a thousand years. In their legends, they claim to have come from Chinese Turkestan, sweeping across Afghanistan into Persia on the vanguard of the armies of Ghengis Khan. Once in Persia, the Qashqai chose to live in the mountainous region of Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus, far to the north of their present southern Persian location. Early in the 16th century, the Qashqai relocated to the Fars province, their habitat over the past 400 years, probably under the subjugation of Shah Isma’il, who wanted to create a human buffer against the Portuguese, threatening his Persian Gulf shore.
For the most part, a group of loosely related Turkic tribes, the actual tie between the numerous Qashqai subtribes was political in nature. Around the year 1600, under the command of Shah Abbas, Jani Agha Qashqai took on the task of bringing order to the various Qashqai groups. To achieve this, he formed the Qashqai Confederacy, an elaborate structure that survived far into the 20th century in the face of over 300 years of almost continual political upheaval in Persia.
Part of the Confederacy’s long-term stability was due to its willingness to assimilate neighboring peoples of varying ethnic origins. It provided a melting pot that embraced groups of Kurdish, Lor, Afshar, and Arab heritage. Each of these peoples had a significant effect on Qashqai rug weaving.
In actuality, the Qashqai Confederacy comprised a highly structured nation-within-a-nation. At its highest level, it was traditionally governed by “il Kahn,” a direct descendant of the family who founded it. The six major tribes (or “tava’ef”) of the Qashqai Confederacy were divided into numerous clans of several thousand families each, called “tireha.” To add organization on the community level, the Qashqai political system was further divided into herding units of 100 families, each led by a “Kadkhoda.” Finally, a “rish safid,” meaning “white beard of wisdom,” was in charge of the welfare of a group of a few households. This high level of social organization was quite unusual among the nomadic groups of southern Persia. In contrast, the Basseri, one of the neighboring Khamseh tribes, had no organization on a broader spectrum than the isolated encampment.
A strong sense of community still exists between the Qashqai people on the local level. Writing of their extended stay with the Qashqai people, American couple Jean and Franc Shor tell of an unfortunate shepherd named Kalish who lost his entire flock of over 100 sheep in a freak snowstorm. The Kadkhoda of the 100-family unit to which Kalish belonged immediately called an emergency meeting, to which each family brought a ram or ewe to help Kalish. As the Shors were told – “This is our way of life. We all share good and bad fortune. No Qashqai household is ever left destitute.”
This supportive interrelatedness extended into the Qashqai rug-weaving process. Sitting on their long horizontal looms set up in close proximity, a half dozen women often worked at the same time. As their fingers tied an endless array of tiny knots, they talked, laughed and sang together. A woman would work on her own rug for a period of time, move over to the loom of her neighbor, and then to that of yet another friend, before returning to her own weaving.
At the same time, another group of women scoured the nearby countryside, gathering mountain herbs, barks, and berries for their collective dyebath to create a wide range of exquisite jewel tones and perky accent colors. This continual interchange of creative energy, along with the deep spirit of harmony shared by a people engaging together in repetitive physical activities, undoubtedly was a key element in Qashqai rug weaving prowess.
This milieu resulted in many of the finest rugs of the lowlands and mountains of Southern Persia, an area also populated by Afshar, Khamseh, Luri tribespeople, all of whom were prolific weavers during the 1800s and well into the 1900s. Qashqai wool is often the most lanolin-rich, in great part due to the Qashqai tribe’s dominance of the migration route. This resulted in their possessing the richest grassy pastures, while other tribal groups were left to drier areas on which to graze their flocks. Their knotting is quite tight, which brings emphasis to their rugs’ larger motifs and defines every unique, tiny element in the packed fields. In their overall look and ambiance, their rugs exuded their weavers’ energetic, even indomitable, approach to life, with one or more large elements often commanding a field densely populated with small figurative designs of flora and fauna. James Opie, a leading scholar on these rugs wrote that there was an ongoing friendly rivalry between the weavers as to who could fill their fields most densely.
Antique Qashqai rugs differ in a few ways from the other bastion of the tribal carpet-making—the Caucasian tradition. Whereas the weavers of the towering Caucasus Range were generally limited to the high-altitude meadows and lower pastures in the same fold of one mountain, tens of thousands of Qashqai nomads travelled over 300 miles twice yearly and interacted with villages and towns along the way. The contemplative, symbolic designs of the 85 subgroups of the Caucasian pantheon fits the isolation of their surroundings. The constantly moving, interacting, obstacle-overcoming nature of the Qashqai lifestyle inspired rugs reflecting an observant, celebrative posture toward the physical world.
The approach to design of the two weaving groups is also dissimilar. Over hundreds of years, weavers in each fold in the Caucasian mountain range worked with the designs of their regional tradition. The village of Chelaberd created the Eagle Kazak pattern while the weavers of Seichur contributed the St. Johns Cross design, giving each weaver the freedom and the challenge to reinvent the major pattern for which their area was known. In the case of the Qashqai tribes whose exposure to other cultural influences was infinitely greater, they produced many more field patterns, most of which adhered to the aesthetic of using two scales of designs together, one of which is overarching, the other teeming with diminutive human and naturalistic figures.
These larger Qashqai designs are diamond-based, which are either long or wide in shape, outlined with latch hooks or niched in a slightly more decorative manner. The fields prodigiously contain geometrically drawn trees, flowerheads, and shrubs, chickens, peacocks, gazelles, deer, dogs, lions and birds. (The Qashqai love of their animals is well-chronicled, and they often depict them comically, revealing their sense of comradery.) Employing these two scales of patterning captures the Qashqai innate sense of the natural order, giving every smallest form a place in the cosmos of their rugs, while the medallions, like the sun or suns, emanate protection and nurturance.
A secondary category of Qashqai carpets contains overall field patterns, some with striped “canes” either in vertical columns or in zigzags, other with repeating botehs (a paisley-like motif), the Herati pattern of repeating small diamonds surrounded by curling leaves, and the directional, city-influenced millefleur design. In these rugs, that almost defy comprehension of the artistic commitment needed to create them, the Qashqai’s extraordinary weaving skill and pinpoint knotting are on display.
As woven diaries of both the artist’s personal and cultural experience, Qashqai weavings vividly formulate an ability to enthusiastically say “yes” to the most demanding of circumstances. The Qashqai carpet continues to hold a special place in the world of oriental rugs, as it expresses a superlative level of craftsmanship, creative inspiration and cultural significance. And it is no wonder, when two elements remain central in Qashqai culture – “il rah,” the tribal road, and their joyous weaving. As the Qashqai say – “Where I am is my carpet. Where my carpet and I am is my home.”
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