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Antique Tribal Rugs Transcend the Decorative

By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder

Caucasian Karagashli Shirvan  |  4′ 6″ x 6′ 10″  |  3rd quarter, 19th century High-Collectible  |  SEE HERE

OAKLAND, CA. – To many Westerners, the patterns of antique Near Eastern tribal rugs appear mysterious, even unfathomable. But these colorful geometric artworks are, in fact, windows to a venerable wisdom. Oral histories passed down through countless generations of weavers indicate that the motifs embody guidelines for embracing a harmonious posture toward life.

Among the nomadic tribes of Persia and the Caucasus Mountains, weaving these hand-knotted art pieces was the sacred activity of women. Since time immemorial, in small isolated encampments far from the workshops of Persian cities, grandmothers, wives and daughters — often from the age of five or six — worked on small portable looms for many months, breaking them down and setting them back up frequently. Husbands and sons did their share by shearing the fat-tailed sheep and dyeing the yarns from locally grown or gathered ingredients.

Persian Afshar | 4′ 5″ x 6′ 1″ | circa 1875 | Connoisseur-Caliber | SEE HERE 

New projects often commenced on an auspicious occasion, such as the birth of a child or impending marriage, but only after special prayers were said for the protection and well-being of the weaver’s clan. Rugs already in progress were often resumed the day after a birth, as if to incorporate the spirit of the new being into the matrix of the design. In contrast, no weaving was done during periods of mourning. In this way, death was honored, and time was taken to digest the experience of loss.

Stylized artistic motifs, often inspired by nature, were passed down from generation to generation over millennia. Some of these deeply spiritual symbols can be found on cave walls in Turkmenistan. Today, in the 21st century, these patterns remain compelling and ageless. Their enduring gravitas stems from the fact that the majority of them, far from being merely decorative, embody symbolic attributes their creators deemed essential to a life well lived.

The almond-shaped boteh, for example, an agricultural symbol known by tribal peoples as the “Seed of Life”, may have originally represented a cypress tree before it was taken up as the “paisley” design in India. On a deeper level, it symbolizes a blessing of profound abundance and the idea that anything taking root in fertile soil can grow and thrive. Some descendants of weavers I have been privileged to speak with took the metaphor a step further. The boteh, they say, represents the interconnectedness of life and the cosmos, the idea that everything in the universe stems from a common seed.

Oftentimes, designs were derived from regional or mythical fauna with the hopes of becoming imbued with particular aspects of the animal being represented, much like a form of shamanic tradition. Curling ram’s horns represent power, strength, and fertility, as well as alluding to one of a nomadic people’s most important resources. Birds can symbolize the yearning for freedom and boundlessness or the opportunity to experience a deeper perspective. Depicting gazelles represented not only the desire for a successful hunt but also the dignity and fleetness of foot that tribespeople might hope to attain. The concept of the celestial Dragon is the everpresent heavenly influence on the earthly domain and the fortunes of humanity. It is frequently shown in rugs along with its cosmic counterpart, the Phoenix. 

Caucasian Gendje | 3′ 8″ x 5′ 3″ | Late 19th century | Connoisseur-Caliber | SEE HERE

Tribal grandfather and his grandson, Caucasian Mountains, photograph taken circa 1900.

The rainbow-hued ‘Diamond of Strength,’ which sometimes appears as a medallion within a rug’s field, other times as a protective border or “guard,” serves a similar purpose. It symbolizes the resources that reside deep within each of us; the fortitude and persistence that may arise during times of need and allow us to weather life’s difficulties, as well as to appreciate life’s joys.

In the 1960s, a Caucasus-region weaver related the following story to anthropologists: An elderly man, a resident of the rugged Caucasus Mountains, sets off at a trot every morning on the steep and rugged half-mile climb down to the river produced by the frigid water pouring from the icy glaciers overhead. At the water’s edge, he strips and wades out into the stream. After bathing for some time, he dries himself off, puts on his clothes, and climbs swiftly back up the rugged slope. He is 104 years old. His rigorous daily ritual provided a challenge that was the key to both his vitality and longevity. Perhaps the multifaceted diamond motif in a particular Caucasian rug was placed there to represent the weaver’s own venerable grandfather. Or perhaps the woven ‘Diamonds of Strength’ was placed there as an apotropaic gesture in the hopes that she would embody these virtues throughout her own life.

Persian Bakhtiari “Tree of Life” | 5′ 4″ x 6′ 5″ | Late 19th century | Connoisseur-Caliber | SEE HERE

The boteh, the diamonds, and numerous other patterns signify wisdom that does not become “dated” with the passage of time. Though most of us live complex and technology-filled lives that would appear unfathomable to the ancient Caucasian mountain dwellers, the gift of their knowledge and insights into living in harmony with natural forces remains as relevant today as when the weaver’s own flocks foraged. Their enduring craftsmanship serves to elevate us from feelings of alienation, encouraging us over a sea of time to be more alive and excited about the miraculous world we inhabit.

One might even view these weavings as nonverbal texts that transcend specific languages, cultures and eras. It’s not uncommon for clients to tell us that taking a few moments in the morning to contemplate one of their tribal pieces energizes them for the day ahead.

The finest antique tribal weavings are nothing less than a legacy passed down, vivid woven gifts created by people who lived spartan lives without electricity or motor vehicles in geographies very dissimilar from our own and whose lives were shaped by cultures otherwise lost to history. Put another way, they are irreplaceable cultural artifacts that enrich our homes and overall quality of life. As with all great works of art, we can feel privileged to be nurtured by them daily and pride ourselves on being entrusted with their care for future generations.

Persian Qashqai Kashkuli | 5′ 3″ x 8′ 7″ | Late 19th century | Connoisseur-Caliber | SEE HERE

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