Collecting & Connoisseurship

The Life-Affirming Symbology in Antique Caucasian Rugs

Published in Carpet Collector Magazine, Germany

by Jan David Winitz, founder and president of Claremont Rug Company

Part One
The life-affirming “Running Water” design often appears between the outer border and the field tone
of earlier Caucasian rugs, such as this nearly 200-year-old “Carnation” Seichur Kuba.

Having bought my first Oriental rug while still a teenager and opening my gallery in 1980 at age 25, I have passionately studied antique rugs as a collector, an art dealer and a lover of beauty. Over the years, antique Caucasian rugs have come to take a central place in my heart and mind.

In this two-part article, I will explain what various symbols used in Caucasian rugs may have signified to their makers. I draw as one of my primary sources Ian Bennett’s pathfinding book “Oriental Rugs: Caucasian” (1981) that identified 85 subgroups of these rugs, all sharing the symbolic motifs that the primarily female weavers incorporated into their designs. I also believe I occupy a unique position to comment on this rich symbology, as over a three-decade period, I was privileged to have many in-depth conversations with elderly tribespeople who were the descendants of the weavers.

Caucasian Bordjalou Kazak Antique Rug
Above: Shepherd herding his flock into the summer high pastures of the Caucasus Mountains.
A series of individually rendered ram’s horn devices adorn the field of this Caucasian Perpedil, circa 1875.

The weavers of the towering Caucasus Mountains lived in extremely harsh conditions, whether they were part of a nomadic or agrarian culture. I believe that it was this challenging lifestyle that inspired them to portray the elements of the natural world and their inner significance so often in their rugs.

The tribespeople appreciated whatever provided sustenance and considered it sacred. One oft-used motif in borders of Caucasian rugs is “Running Water,” which acknowledges its preciousness in their lives, literally begetting and sustaining life. The “Running Water” motif was also symbolic of the possibility of inner purification.

Above: Stylized “Ram’s Horn” motif in field of an over 150-year-old Bidjov Shirvan surrounded by sun symbols and pinwheels.
Ovis Orientalis or the Armenian Mouflon of the Caucasus, still can be seen roaming the slopes.

The weavers found a particular resonance with the “Wheel of Life” design, which for them represented the ever-changing, cyclical aspect of nature. This ancient mandala reminded the tribespeople that life events and the struggles that they bring are temporary. They believed that going through them willingly builds the strength to deal with difficulty and helps one to gain the wisdom to handle any situation appropriately.

Throughout the Near East, various tribal groups found inspiration in animals and birds, appreciating the qualities they demonstrated. Providing sustenance, labor, and wool to the nomads and farmers, animals and birds also took on a profound spiritual and cultural meaning. Interacting with them daily throughout their lives, over centuries, the tribespeople developed a symbology that celebrated each species’ characteristics.

Caucasian Bordjalou Kazak Antique Rug
Above: Persian gazelles are known to have existed as early as the 4th century BC.
Gazelle motifs sitting on top of peacocks are depicted in a Caucasian Shirvan, circa 1875.

Sheep afforded warmth and comfort from the clothing and rugs made with their wool. Rug-making in itself was considered a sacred activity for the weavers; the wool and dyes they gathered from nature were transformed into items of beauty manifesting their unique artistic vision.

Since time immemorial, ram’s horns have been revered as a symbol of the power of imagination and inspiration, and of the energy to act from these attributes. The “Ram’s Horn” motif is found throughout the rugs of the different Caucasian sub-groups as a major or minor element in the design, having an enigmatic, energizing effect wherever it appears. In many cultures, a ram’s horn played a seminal role of summoning people together, another essential association for these people.

Above: The “Wheel of Life” symbol revealing a diamond with hooked edges evoking the cyclical nature
of man’s life is repeated three times in this expressive Bordjalou Kazak.
Above: Roosters and peacocks decorate this section of the field of the circa 1850 Cloudband Kazak.

The tribespeople saw in the gazelle an innate ability to seemingly effortlessly navigate rugged terrain. The gazelle often appears in Caucasian rugs, representing that the virtues of strength and agility are needed to overcome harsh environments. It inspired the tribespeople for millennia to meet challenging situations with lightness and inherent nobility. Almost always added in rugs as charming secondary motifs, it contributes grace and dignity to the background of the design.

A major symbol throughout many ancient cultures, peacocks are associated with spirituality and integrity. Among the Caucasian weavers, they were a reminder of the natural beauty and the presence of beneficence in their lives. This bird’s iridescent plumes represented an overwhelming beauty at once earthly and heavenly. The tribal people recognized the external wealth of the natural world and a corresponding inner richness that one could cultivate.

Caucasian Bordjalou Kazak Antique Rug
Above: A 170-year-old, rare camelhair Akstafa rug with elemental peacocks and numerous enigmatic symbols.
To them a mythical and mystical bird, the Caucasian tribal weavers graphically emphasized the peacock’s radiant energy.

The birds and animal motifs, as with all the symbols in antique Caucasian tribal rugs, were integral not only to a rug’s pattern as a whole, but to what the weaver wished to express. During all of my conversations with the tribal elders, I was told nearly every element in tribal rug design was both artistic and inspirational in nature. I will explore additional symbolic motifs in Part Two.

Part Two
Sunset on main Caucasian ridge, Svaneti, Georgia.

In Part One, I addressed various symbolic motifs in the Caucasian rugs from the Second Golden Age of Oriental Rug Weaving (ca. 1800 to ca. 1910) and how they reflect the philosophy of the tribal culture from which they stem. In this installment, based on innumerable conversations I had over a 35-year period with descendants of the tribal weavers, I explore three archetypal motifs relating to the depth of character that can be gained by overcoming adversity in life.

In tribal rugs, every element has significance, as exemplified in “The Mountain” symbol appearing
in the reciprocal red and ivory zigzag secondary borders of this Karachov Kazak
(5’ 8”  x 7’ 2”, 3rd quarter, 19th century).
To view this rug,
click here.

One commonly employed symbol, “The Mountain,” is represented in a sharp zigzag line often in the rug’s guard border. The Mountain depicts not only the towering peaks that surrounded their villages or encampments, but the power and stability of the earth and the need to climb up both literally and figuratively in order to see things more clearly. The weavers believed by developing an inner wisdom that the attribute of constancy represented by The Mountain could be available within oneself.

Another symbolic motif used in Caucasian rug guard borders was translated by those I interviewed as “Climbing Strength,” illustrated by a repeating hook design that resembles a breaking wave. Commonly referred to as “Running Dog” by Western scholars, the descendants of the weavers I talked to offered a more esoteric interpretation of this wave-like pattern. “Climbing Strength” to these mountain people referred to their mutual experience of hardiness developed by interacting with the formidable terrain and its inner equivalent, obtained by repeatedly overcoming life’s continual challenges. It was held that eventually, one could gain sufficient inner resilience to meet difficulty from a willing, even joyous posture.

In their native language, tribal people call the design at the very top of this 200-year-old Bidjov Shirvan rug
(3’ 7” x 5’ 5”) by a word that translates as “Climbing Strength.”
To view this rug, click here.

The eight-pointed “Star of Wisdom,” seen throughout Caucasian rugs depicts man’s potential to develop understanding. The Caucasian tribespeople lived an elemental lifestyle with minimal possessions. They believed that wisdom obtained through overcoming the many challenges of daily activities was one’s greatest possession.

The most accomplished antique Caucasian rugs reflect both the dexterity and integrity of their weavers and the cultural tradition of the region. The harsh physical environment of the Caucasus Mountains and their awe-inspiring beauty inspired the most talented weavers to create rugs that depict many important aspects of tribal cosmology in a profound and often whimsical fashion. Close examination reveals that their weavings are replete with enigmatic designs whose deceptive simplicity reveals great philosophical depth.

“The Star of Wisdom” is the signature motif of Caucasian Lesghi rugs, but was adopted by weavers
from numerous other tribes who were also inspired by its powerful impact. 160-year old Lesghi, 3’ 7” x 6’ 10”.
To view this rug, click here.

Now I will explore how the pattern language and color palettes of Caucasian rugs are an expression of the weavers’ belief in an underlying harmony and unity in nature and in the cosmos

“There is nothing in this world, but is a symbol of something in that other world.”

-Al-Ghazali, 11th century Sufi philosopher

My talks with the tribespeoples’ descendants indicate that as well as the significance of the individual motifs I have discussed earlier, there is a yet deeper, all-embracing symbolic statement in the most authentic antique Caucasian rugs. Though rug symbology has long been a “taboo” subject, due to the acknowledged difficulty in corroborating specific ancient meaning through the mists of time, it seems safe to conclude that tribal carpets were not produced entirely ex nihilo. Rather, they reflect the worldview of the peoples who created them.

This Karaghasli Kuba, 3’ 3” x 4’ 11″, 3rd quarter, 19th century, vividly demonstrates
the philosophy of ”Unity in Multiplicity“ in Caucasian Rugs.
To view this rug, click here.

As James D. Burns observed in his “The Caucasus: Traditions in Weaving” (1987), because rugs were virtually the only art form they created, they naturally concentrated cultural and religious significance. In their striking geometries, there is an interplay between design and color that offers profound visual commentary on an underlying balance and harmony that the tribespeople felt to exist in all of nature and in the cosmos.

Out of necessity, nomadic and tribal lifestyles produced an infinitely more intimate relationship with the natural environment than we can even imagine. Working on small, portable looms under the endless skies of the rugged Caucasus Mountains, weavers directly experienced the impact of epic cycles of nature and sought to make sense of immutable cosmic forces.

Another staggering expression of the tribal weavers’ deep-held sense
of the effusiveness of life in all its multitudinous forms
is this Caucasian Baku, 3’ 8” x 10’ 7”, circa 1875.
To view this rug, 
click here.

The most sensitive artists strove to capture these natural principles in their rugs, viewed through the dualistic lens of their cultural experience and physical geography. The weavers depended on balanced, harmonic relationships with other members of their tribe for their survival. Through immersion in the rhythms of the natural world, they embraced the concept of “Unity in Multiplicity” inherent in the philosophies of the Eastern World.

In the finest rugs, staggering amounts of “information” are presented without the sense of being busy. Each motif and color shift has its integral place in the composition. Just as in the ecosystems of nature, the smallest element has a vital part to play in the unified whole. This adherence to an overall balance and harmony is the symbolic trademark of a great Caucasian rug.

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Jan David Winitz, President and Founder of Claremont Rug Company in Oakland, CA, has built a global reputation among carpet collectors and connoisseurs since he founded the company at age 25 in 1980.