The Allure of Antique Persian Camelhair Carpets

By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder

Antique Camelhair Carpets in Contemporary Interior Design

Two antique Camelhair rugs (Serab in foreground, Malayer in main space) glow in sunny home.

Camel head relief detail from Persepolis ruins in southern Persia built by Darius I of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 BC).

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.

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

Left: Very occasionally a weaver from a tradition that did not use camelhair would explore working with it, exemplified by this refined Caucasian Shirvan Snowflake rug. Right: Two Bakshaish Camelhair carpets create a stirring ambiance in this in collectors’ master bedroom.

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.

Glistening Bakshaish Camelhair “Garden Carpet”, 7′ 3″ x 9′, circa 1875, reveals tremendous individual detailing in the overall blossom pattern.

Left: Rare Bakshaish runner with sparsely patterned camelhair border distinguishes this passageway. Right: A fanciful, inventive Bakshaish Camelhair “Garden of Paradise” rug is a truly minimalist work of art.

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.

ntique Camelhair rug in grand entryway

Antique Serab Camelhair kelegi sits at foot of grand staircase in custom-built home.


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.

Antique Serab Camelhair runner enhances two large modern paintings.

Virtuoso weaving skill created the one-of-a-kind overall patterning in this oversize Serab Camelhair, 10′ 10″ x 16′ 3″, circa 1875.

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.

Left: Two Serab Camelhair runners end to end unify the nearby art. Right: Camels shed their coats during a 6-8 week moulting season every spring, including about 5 pounds of undercoat fleece used for camelhair carpets.

Highly refined Serab Camelhair, 8’ x 12’, circa 1875 with classical multi-medallion on a delicate latticework field design.

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.

Antique Bakshaish Camelhair provides the foundation for this art collector’s personal space.

Kurdish nomads on migration with their camels carrying all their belongings covered with flatwoven kilims made partially with camelhair.

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.

Malayer Camelhair corridor carpet completes this client’s light-filled contemporary entryway.

Left: Camels have been used as transport animals for over 3000 years. Persia was one of the first areas where they were domesticated. Right: Very rare Camelhair Qashqai Kashkuli, 3′ 6″ x 5′ 10″, circa 1850.

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.

High-Collectible Bijar Camelhair “Garden of Paradise,” circa 1850.

Left: Client’s home features beautifully designed Malayer kelegi in the passageway and a Tree of Life Bakshaish under the dining table. Right: Kurdish nomadic women wear colorful dresses and hats with decorations around the face that enhances their appearance.

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.

A stately Bijar Camelhair carpet with a center medallion on an unadorned field creates a majestic atmosphere for this private haven.

Left: Detail of whimsical yet elegant Kurdish Camelhair, 4′ 8″ x 8′ 10″, circa 1900. Right: After the camel sheds its coat of hair and fleece, the many naturally occurring gradations of tonalities of its wool need to be separated out and sorted.

Kurdish Camelhair tribal mat-size rug, 3′ 10″ x 4′ 10″, circa 1875, exemplifying this naïve spirited weaving style.

Left: Kurdish Camelhair village rug with playful botehs and beautiful dyework, especially the turquoise green hue, 3rd quarter, 19th century. Right: Early photograph of 19th century Kurdish man with hunting musket, vest, wide-legged pants, and turban.


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.

Antique Malayer Camelhair carpet in rare large room-size format is the perfect foundation for this client’s contemporary dining room.

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.

Left: Finely woven, 160-year-old area size Malayer rug with a blonde camelhair base and overscale Herati design, 4’ 8” x 6’ 6”. Right: The centuries-old village of Hawraman, in Kermanshah province of Persian Kurdistan.

This palace-size Malayer Camelhair, 11′ 6″ x 20′ 7″, circa 1875, attests to both the Kurdish and Persian City influences on its visual repertoire.

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.  

View Antique Camelhair Rugs Now Available Here.

Existing for over 3.5 million years, today’s camel is connected to a smaller prehistoric predecessor, that evolved into an animal uniquely suited for desert peoples and transcontinental frontier commerce.