The Allure of Antique Persian Camelhair Carpets
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
Primarily woven in the villages and encampments of Northwest Persian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, 19th and turn-of-the 20th-century rugs and runners using undyed camelhair have always had an enthusiastic following among our clients, who find myriad uses for them in their homes. Many place them in gallery halls or great rooms, as their neutral hues and often more sparse patterns provide an effective counterbalance to the large-scale designs and multi-colored palette of many contemporary paintings. Also, Camelhair’s color spectrum, a surprisingly wide range of earth-tones from blonde to tan, wheat, walnut, and even chocolate brown, effectively lightens and adds distinction to smaller areas or hallways. As remarkably little can be found about Camelhair rugs in the rug literature, for this article, I am relying primarily on the many interviews with the various tribal elders I was connected to while they were still alive and my experience of working with the rugs themselves over the past almost half-century. I find the best of these rugs extraordinarily intriguing artistically, as the use of this undyed natural fiber amplifies the weavers’ folk-art expression.
Camelhair rugs stem mainly from the villages of Bakshaish, Serab, and Malayer and the weavers of the immense Kurdistan province, including the rugs from the town of Bijar. Weavers from many other Persian and Caucasian styles also occasionally created rugs with precious undyed camelhair. I will delineate some of the distinctive attributes of the major camelhair weaving groups below.
Top-level 19th-century Bakshaish camelhair carpets are awe-inspiring and incredibly inventive, and just like their all-wool counterparts, are quite hard to find and widely sought after. The oldest ones offer the most spontaneous and elemental rug designs and the softest color palettes. From this group, those woven before 1870 most often evoke a decidedly tribal context with shield, dragon, and unusual tree patterns. In the fourth quarter of the 19th-century, designs became somewhat more stylized and botanical, with more saturated palettes of color. One of the most memorable Bakshaish formats presents a grand, intentionally asymmetrical central medallion and broad, startling mid-tone blue-toned corner pieces that often contain dragon motifs. Spellbinding camelhair fields with “Tree of Life” or “Garden of Paradise” allover designs are desirable among collectors.
The natural light to rich browns of camelhair combined with Bakshaish’s renowned spontaneously drawn artistry conveys an emotional stratum that is innately familiar and, at the same time, have a “never seen before” quality. Camelhair has this effect in general but seems especially suited to the Bakshaish tradition. One can still find Bakshaish camelhair rugs in area sizes, corridor or runner shapes, room size, or even oversize in quite limited numbers.
South of Heriz and a bustling carpet market center for all the tribal and village weavings being created in the 19th century in this pocket of Azerbaijan, Serab claims a prominent place in camelhair rug creation. It is the only weaving tradition that used camelhair more often than sheep’s wool for their rugs. The Serab rugmakers’ particular contribution is the use of camelhair and undyed ivory sheep’s wool to create stunning understated field patterns, much like damask, in a great variety of designs, imbuing a geometric elegance to their weavings. Upon this intricately woven and mesmerizing background, most often single or multiple diamond-shaped medallions float, evoking a sense of quiet grandeur. Serabs are often extraordinarily finely knotted for rugs with geometric designs. For these reasons, our clients choose Serabs as companions in combination with more formal carpets, especially where a runner or gallery carpet is needed. As most town and city weaving centers virtually never wove runners and corridor carpets, elegant Serabs are the natural choice for halls and passageways.
Celebrating the seemingly endless tonal variations of camelhair, antique Serab rugs and runners are often framed with a wide guard stripe in unadorned camelhair, displaying this fiber’s constant striation of tonalities. In some cases, these areas would reflect the tribal notion of “sprinkling,” where tiny motifs playfully dot the expansive borders. Serab artisans wove a preponderance of the inspired corridor carpets (i.e., rugs longer than twice their widths, known in the field as “kelegis”), as well as somewhat narrow room sizes. Interestingly, they also occasionally wove sumptuous oversizes and palace-sizes.
A Bit of History
Camels changed the course of history by the 8th-century B.C. As the historian, S. Frederick Starr, writes in “Lost Enlightenment,” the camel replaced the wheel and the ox-drawn cart in Central Asia. Finding the two-humped Bactrian camel superior to the Dromedary, merchants of the period discovered this animal’s capacity to carry up to 500 pound of goods. As camels are significantly stronger and adaptable to a broader range of climate conditions, they were considerably more valuable than horses. Caravans owned by wealthy merchants could transport the equivalent of a 10-12 car freight train with a mere 1000 camels. Soon the Central Asian desert, traversed by hundreds then thousands of caravans, became the site of the wealthiest cities in the world for several hundred years.
In hues from blonde to chocolate brown, undyed camel hair imbues an immediate earthy quality to a rug’s aesthetic, that speaks, I believe, to a subliminal part of us that yearns for connection to the natural world. To this day, Camelhair rugs have escaped proper appreciation of their contribution to the panoply of antique Oriental carpets, because they were a minor part of the oeuvre of a small number of weaving centers.
Camels in Kurdish Material Culture
The tribal people are quite enamored of camels whether they wove with their wool or not. In some cultures, camels were symbolic of wealth and happiness — wealth for tribal people being of a very practical nature. A Bactrian (double-humped) camel can carry 450 pounds for over 30 miles a day, and can go without water for a week, losing up to 30% of its body weight in the process. A family’s flocks of sheep and goats in a drought year may starve to death, but the camels will survive.
In appreciation of their camels, Kurdish tribespeople fashion harnesses draped with elaborate tassels for them. The Turkoman tribe have a special peaked weaving called the “asmalyk” that follows the contours of the one-humped camel, a pair of which are woven by a bride for her camel ride in her wedding procession. The Southwest Persian Qashqai know each of their camels individually, and also very occasionally used their undyed wool as the base color for their rugs.
A camel’s coat, shed each spring, weighs about 25 lbs. The undercoat’s fleecy wool has been compared to cashmere but is as strong as wool. Since the 17th century it has been used in camelhair coats, and much longer for rugs. The long strands of a camel’s overcoat also provided the material for nomads’ black tents. Today it is an important element in industrial fabrics for machine beltings and press cloths. In fact, camelhair is a commodity to be invested in.
The Kurdish are a massive, widespread tribal weaving group and some of their subtribes used camel hair in addition to wool in their carpets. They were woven on the Town, Village, and Tribal levels. Kurdish Camelhair rugs have a spacious, relaxed quality about them, their designs often presenting large areas of this natural warm brown wool. Diamonds or hexagons are major devices, although they draw beautifully expressive allover fields of boteh, the sprig-and-flower motif that is associated principally with Kurdish carpets, and a rare Garden of Paradise format. Color palettes tend to be wide and soft- to mid-toned; the presence of remarkably stable and various yellow dyes is another indicator of Kurdish work. In neutral hues, often unpredictable and unabashedly uncomplicated, especially those rugs from tribal variety, Kurdish Camelhair pieces slip easily into many spots in the Western home.
The most formal, finely woven Kurdish Camelhair carpets were woven in the alpine market town of Bijar, situated 270 miles southeast of Tabriz. The town of Bijar and the surrounding countryside are populated mainly by Kurds, whose artistic sense and culture is clearly seen in the region’s grand antique carpets. Bijar Camelhair rugs often present grand visual presentations, with majestic medallions featuring broad anchor or rosette pendants extending at either end. Most often, the medallion sits on a wide expanse of undyed camel hair that is completely unadorned except for the texture created by a delicate abrash of the natural camel color. They were woven on a sturdy wool foundation, creating a particularly heavy, incredibly durable fabric.
The large village of Malayer 150 miles south of Bijar and its surrounding smaller neighbors was the final major Camelhair carpet weaving enclave. Throughout the 1800s, it was known for its exceptionally finely woven carpets. Although the all-wool carpets from Malayer are often imbued with adaptations of Persian formal design characteristics, their camelhair work is geometric and reflect tribal aesthetics.
Like Serab, Malayer rugs offer muted damask-like patterns formed from camel hair on undyed ivory sheep’s wool underlying larger chromatic motifs. Of all Camelhair rugs, Malayers are typically the most soft-toned and subdued. Until the last two decades of the 19th century, dark blue was employed sparingly, creating a panoply of subtly impactful, delicate drawn pieces in all shapes and lengths, including occasional palace-sizes.
One of my favorite parts of a charming indie-style documentary called “The Story of the Weeping Camel” chronicled a nomad family living near the Gobi desert. One day the mother needed some rope, so she asked her husband to bring her some camelhair. He grabbed a long knife and went outside to where their camel was tethered and neatly wacked off a hank of its long hair which he handed over to her. This scene was just backstory to the main events, but I was struck how integrated the luxurious fiber was in the tribal peoples’ lives.
Living with Camelhair rugs affords us the enjoyment of the exotic material close up, how it reflects the sun’s rays, how varied are the shadings, how earthy is its ambiance, and how easily it assimilates into a décor.