The Symbolism of Animals & Birds in Antique Tribal Rugs

Saddled horses, chickens, and human figures cavort on the field of this extremely rare mid-19th-century Bakshaish. Study the golden medallion to reveal two ethereal Dragons and Phoenixes.

In the ultra-technological period in which we live, it is challenging to imagine that even 70 years ago, the tribal peoples who populated the areas from Mesopotamia to the Central Asian steppes spent their lives in remote villages or nomadic encampments without electricity or motor vehicles. They were either shepherds or members of an agrarian society in which the rugs the women wove played a central role in bringing them warmth and comfort and were their primary art form that employed symbols connecting them to their ancestors stretching back 4000 years.

Their lifestyle involved constant interaction with nature, including many different types of animals and birds, some domesticated, many wild. They saw these beasts and fowl as embodying attributes hidden to humans. Many were stronger, faster, could live in the sea or air, and had abilities and senses that the nomad or farmer could only aspire to. This is undoubtedly part of the reason artisans portrayed them at first in metal and woodwork, in ceramics, and finally, by the Iron Age, in their carpets. 

By examining their rugs, one begins to enter into the Qashqai view of the natural world: kaleidoscopic, dynamic, where chickens, flowers, trees, and horses endlessly commingle.

In my early years of business, I had the great fortune to meet a number of tribespeople who grew up in weaving villages and to chat with them about the significance of different species. I say “chat” because approaching the arena of symbols with tribal people demanded sensitivity and respect for the age-old relationship their ancestors had with the woven symbols. Thankfully, I took copious notes.

The myriad animals and birds in tribal rugs are often far from representational, unlike the exquisite life-like drawing in floral Oriental carpet styles. The powerful Caucasian Eagle Kazak motif is a completely deconstructed view of an eagle from above. Birds are often tiny stick figures sprinkled across the field of a rug. The mythological Dragon and Phoenix appears in many genres of antique carpets, symbolizing the masculine and feminine forces of the universe, the pairing of which connote harmony and good fortune. 

Peacocks with flaming tails appear in numerous tribal rugs, examples from the Caucasian Akstafa tradition being the most beautifully drawn, as shown in this circa 1850 piece.

The regal bearing of the peacock and its magnificent plumage deeply inspired the tribespeople, who immortalized the celestial vision it personifies it in their rugs.

With rainbow bodies and hooked feathers, the medallion of this 150-year-old Qashqai rug endearingly evokes the peacock’s colorful display.

Other recognizable bird images include peacocks, most vividly portrayed in Caucasian Akstafa rugs, and have a lineage associated with nobility and abundance. The peacock’s massive, colorful plumes evoke a level of beauty and splendor that is at once heavenly and yet manifests on the earth.  

Flocks of roosters and chickens are seen throughout South Persian Qashqais and Khamsehs. For the tribespeople, chickens tirelessly pecking the ground to dig up food for their chicks is a long-revered impression of support and nurturance. The rooster’s crowing just before dawn acted as a natural alarm clock that pulled the tribespeople out of sleep into light. The benevolence of this shocking daily occurrence was not lost on them, as it is said that The Buddha, Christ, and Mohammed were all born at “cock’s crow.” 

This powerful border design has been given the name of “Eagle’s Head”, revealing the graphic likeness of this bird in profile with rounded head, pointed beak, and magnificent shoulders.

The weavers of the famed Caucasian “Eagle Kazak” rugs depicted highly abstracted renditions of this majestic raptor with wings at full hilt, as seen in this astonishing circa 1850 rug.

Anyone who has witnessed an eagle in flight is awe-struck. Ten species of eagles fly over the rug weaving areas and build their nests in the lofty cliffs of the towering Caucasus, Elbrus and Zagros Mountains and they have been associated with the sun and divine presence since the cradle of civilization. The eagle motif in Karabagh rugs is sometimes likened to a sunburst, and its presence is meant to evoke man’s potential for an all-seeing vision. 

Other rugs depict the horses, camels, dogs, donkeys, and sheep that the tribespeople were surrounded and physically supported by. 

My clients and I always find ourselves delighted upon encountering ceremonially saddled horses in an antique Caucasian rug. Tribeswomen line-drew horses either grazing or saddled, standing tall in dignified postures, with the human rider shown undersized in relationship. With an evolutionary history of 50,000 years, the horses’ speed, grace and endurance have inspired man’s psyche for eons. Rug weaving peoples, sharing a history of expert breeding and horsemanship, enshrine them in their designs in appreciation of their willingness to submit their power to their master. 

The tribal people’s age-old relationship with the horse is part of their DNA. They are often pictured in tribal rugs, with riders upon them, draped with colorful ceremonial trappings, and drawn with clearly observed personalities grazing in a field of flowers.

Wild animals also inspired them. The gazelle’s innate ability to seemingly effortlessly navigate forbidding terrain deeply touched the tribespeople who recognized the daily payment required to live according to natural cycles and phenomena. From early childhood, the tribespeople were exhorted to continually rise above life’s difficulties and to be grateful for the strength of character this built.  

The graceful Persian gazelle, a 6,000-year-old subspecies, is a favorite in antique Caucasian rugs, usually portrayed in groups identifiable from horses by their horns.

Left: Detail of 160-year-old Caucasian Kazak rug with perky gazelles and mysterious green 4 legged creatures. Right: On this Kazak’s spectacular saffron field, a quartet of gazelle appears “decked out” as if in a parade. Note their individualized treatment.

Ten different species of lions roamed the Caucasian and Persian areas. Unchanging respect and adulation of this majestic animal are infused in their cultural histories. Lion images appear most often in 19th-century Bakhtiari and Qashqai tribal rugs, demonstrating that inner strength, balance, courage, and a sense of justice are attributes that all of us can aspire to.

This amazing rug from the Shekarlu tribe of the Qashqai Confederacy includes a pride of friendly lions in its densely populated menagerie, most with small animals on their backs.

A detail from a circa 1800 Bakshaish rug that portrays 14 lions surrounding a Tree of Life. The lion symbol was adopted by the Persian Qatar dynasty, which had a diplomatic and commercial relationship with the Azerbaijan region. This Museum-Level piece may have been woven either as an expression of fealty or on commission from the Shah.