The Four Traditions of Antique Rug Weaving: (1) TRIBAL

By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder

Part One of Four Parts
(Read Part Two: Village; Part Three: Town; Part Four: City)

Qashqai tribal woman on migration surrounded by her family’s flocks.

Above left: Kurdish men in traditional attire still worn today by tribal nomads, circa 1911. Above right: Highly original Bakhtiari “Compartment Rug,” circa 1875. Lower right: Finely woven enigmatic Caucasian Bidjov Shirvan, circa 1850.

Tribal rugs have been woven in the Near East and Central Asia for millennia, and they form one of the earliest and most enduring modes of human expression. The tribal weavers of the Caucasus and the western half of Persia were particularly prolific and artistically inspired. Their antique tribal rugs are prized by modern audiences for their elemental simplicity, exceptional inventiveness, and a timeless mastery of balance and harmony that appears equally fresh and immediate in contemporary settings. 

The various styles of Caucasian and Persian tribal rugs differ enormously. Often featuring geometric patterning drawn with great spontaneity, they reveal the hand of the individual weaver and a tendency toward joyful creativity that is a central part of the worldview of many tribal groups. Whether nomadic or living in yurts in small villages, the tribal weavers were continually immersed in nature, its cycles and dramatic environments. The rugs they wove expressed these powerful influences on the weavers’ everyday lives.

This Sewan Kazak from the high reaches of the Caucasus Mountains, circa 1875, presents Kazak’s renowned use of scale, brilliant colors, and tribal symbols to profound effect.

The rug weaving tradition of the Caucasus Mountains is ancient. In addition to the native people known to have lived there since 5000 BC, a multitude of beleaguered ethnic groups found a safe haven in the folds of this virtually impassable range. Many brought weaving traditions with them. Over time, the rugs they created in their new surroundings became known by their location, such as the elemental Karachov Kazak, the refined Shirvan Baku, or the complex Seichur Kuba. Often living their entire lives without visiting the neighboring community over the next ridge, the Caucasian peoples were largely sedentary. The result was 85 subgroups of Caucasian rugs, identifiable by their patterns, palette and structure.

In contrast, the Persian nomadic experience centered around a twice-annual migration between mountain and lowland pastures. Five tribes—the Qashqai, Afshar, Lurs, Kurdish, and Bakhtiari—and two confederacies—the Khamseh and the Shahsavan–wove a remarkable spectrum of tribal rugs. Each group offered distinctive, lively themes.

Left: Qashqai woman pulling apart gnarled wool to continue making yarn with her drop spindle, a laborious preparation before weaving her rug. Right: 19th century Qashqai kilims, such as this dazzling piece, are remarkably colorful, well-crafted works of nomadic art.

Map showing the various West Persian tribal lands and Caucasian hamlets and villages. Note the topographical differences between the Caucasian and Persian tribal lands shown by the depth of the color green.

Living in small bands with strong kinship and family connections, and sharing a common dialect and spiritual values, each tribal group developed an intense cohesiveness. Their communal way of life reinforced a natural and comfortable alignment of worldview and values. Due to the rugged simplicity and austerity of the tribal environment, rugs were a primary–and often only–mode of artistic expression. The various activities that create an Oriental rug—shearing, washing, carding, spinning, dyeing, and weaving—often were shared among members of the tribe. The finest weavers were especially respected within their community. Some version of the saying “The carpet is a window to the woman’s heart” was understood by all these groups.

Circa 1925 photograph of the Bakhtiari on their semi-annual migration crossing the river Karun, with 50,000 people on rafts or horses and 500,000 animals (the young on rafts, the rest of the flocks swim).

The celebrative spirit of antique Afshar rugs is well-represented in this inventive 150-year-old piece revealing a field of continually changing flowers with stars inside.

The unity of a tribal bond was expressed in compositional formats, color palettes, and distinctive pattern language shared by virtually every weaver of a specific region. This common vocabulary sometimes carried profound symbolic meaning, graphically representing cultural connotations that all members could comprehend. The most talented tribal weavers used these motifs and colors as a starting point from which countless individual creative interpretations developed.

Each of these tribal traditions had a remarkably long lineage. For example, the rugs of Armenian weavers living in the Caucasus garnered praise in the 5th century BC from the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote about their “brilliant colors that will never fade.” The 10th century Arab geographer, Hudud al-‘Alam, emphatically stated that rugs were woven in Fārs (Qashqai territory), and in the 14th century, Moroccan explorer, Ibn Battuta mentioned that a green carpet was spread before him when he visited the Bakhtiari governor. 

Most women from the rug-weaving tribes of Persia wear colorful dresses, but no one surpasses the Qashqais’ petticoats, sometimes numbering over ten! Like their rugs, their attire creates a celebration of color in a barren land (circa 1988).

Left: Kurdish rug, circa 1875, with glorious golden undyed camelhair. Above right: Detail — rare palace-size Kurdish carpet featuring the “Mother and Child” boteh motif. Lower right: An over 150-year-old rug displays the rare Qashqai’s rose-red tonality.

With the advent of the commercial rug-weaving period in the early 20th century, the pressures of market demand and political upheaval led to a degeneration in  tribal design and weaving practices. Notably, chemical dyestuffs were introduced, replacing the natural dye recipes that had spanned millennia, and creative spontaneity was severely dampened.

Left: Famed Caucasian “Eagle Kazak,” nearly 170 years old. Right: Like many of his time, Mark Twain and his wife, Olivia, were inspired to become significant collectors of both tribal and town carpets by Oriental rug exhibits at several US World’s fairs.

Global appreciation of antique tribal rugs leapt from the collecting arena to a worldwide exposure in the 1960s and 70s, when the art of indigenous peoples became valued. Significant inventories of noble tribal rugs regularly began to be seen in major auction houses. Today, the number of rare top-tier examples of 100 to 200-year-old rugs is perceptively diminishing, with late 18th century to early 19th century rugs now being displayed on museum walls with increasing frequency.

A consummate, 150-year-old example of Persian Khamseh tribal weaving, with a striking “cane” field pattern.

Left: 19th century Caucasian Shirvan “Blossom Rug” in contemporary Craftsman home. Right: Segment of the Bakhtiari tribe on migration, a 200-mile, 5-week expedition to their summer pasturelands.

Extremely large antique Bakhtiaris, such as this masterwork, were woven for the powerful tribal chieftains or khans who played a prominent role in 20th century Iranian government.

Qashqai Southwest Persian;
3rd Quarter, 19th Century

Qashqai: Qashqai rugs were woven by members of the Qashqai Confederacy, an ancient nomadic tribe migrating into the Zagros Mountains of the Fars region of Southern Persia. Divided into several clans, each of these tribal subgroups are associated with particular Qashqai rug compositions.  In response to the barren terrain they inhabit, the Qashqai are devoted to surrounding themselves with color. The women wear layers of brilliantly dyed petticoats, especially when migrating! All of their needed trappings for their nomadic life are imbued with rich tonalities and designs.
Qashqai weavers produced rugs known for robust, saturated natural dyes, with deep indigo, ivory and characteristic “Qashqai” red frequently encountered, augmented by a broader range of complementary hues.  The very fine knotting that many Qashqai weavers employed allowed them to use an intensity of ornamentation in their rugs with a great volume of intricately rendered plant, bird and animal forms filling each compositional zone.  Small, randomly placed flourishes are often included in the design. 

To view a selection of antique Qashqai rugs in the gallery, click here.

Afshar, Central Persian 3′ 9″ x 4′ 10″;
3rd Quarter, 19th Century

Afshar: Ashfar is the name of a Persian nomadic tribe of several sub-groups living throughout Iran, the largest and most prominent being those of the Kerman province where this group’s most dexterous weavers have lived since the 14th century.  The pattern language of antique Afshar rugs is wide ranging, from graphic, elemental geometric designs to highly stylized adaptation of classical Persian floral motifs.
The traditional Afshar color palette employs saturated rust and brick reds, glistening royal to midnight indigo blue and highlights of gold, yellow and teal.  Afshar carpets are virtually always found in the area size format. 

To see more of these extraordinary antique Afshar rugs in the gallery, click here.

Arab Khamseh
4ft 10in x 6ft 7in
Circa 1875

Khamseh: Khamseh refers to rugs from a 19th-century confederation of five smaller tribes of different genealogies living in southern Persia. These tribes brought numerous rug patterns and field designs with them from Turkic, Turkoman and native Persian traditions, creating a spectrum of rug styles that included central medallions, overscale boteh and field patterns of repeated flowers.
The Arab tribe, residents of the Fars province since the 7th century and where they still live today, is associated with the “murgi” or chicken motif that is ingeniously repeated over the field of their carpets.  Khamseh weavers are also skilled at recreating a few Qashqai patterns such as the “cane” and cabbage rose motifs.  Like other nomadic weavings from the mountainous Fars region, the ornamentation is often continually varied, and augmented by naturally dyed hues of a saturated intensity. Many 19th century examples are noted for the use of unusually high-quality, lustrous wool in their construction. Arab Khamseh rugs employ the finest knotting, sharpness of design and greatest use of detail work of any rugs in this genre. 

To view a diverse gallery of beautiful Arab Khamseh antique rugs, click here.

Shirvan Long Rug,
4′ 3″ x 9′ 5″, circa 1899

Shirvan: Shirvan rugs are associated with the Shirvan district, located in the eastern portion of the Caucasus Mountains, close to the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Shirvans are the most finely crafted of antique Caucasian rugs, using a wool warp and cotton weft. This allowed their weavers to create striking all-over patterns of intricately detailed, crisply drawn flowers, animals and polygonal motifs.
Always retaining an overall aesthetic balance, the best Shirvans use some of the varied and creative of all oriental rug patterns. They employed both motifs traditional to their district and “borrowed” patterns from neighboring areas of the Caucasus, which they combined and reinterpreted in a refreshing, compelling manner, often with an unusually nuanced use of color. 

To browse a selection of exquisite antique Shirvan carpets in the gallery, click here.

Fachralo Kazak
4ft 11in x 6ft 3in
3rd Quarter, 19th Century

Kazak: Kazak tribal rugs were woven by both nomadic and village dwelling tribespeople in the highest regions of the Caucasus. The best 19th century Kazaks are characterized by their high-quality dyes and breadth of color palette.  They are loosely knotted, often with thicker, wooly pile that enhances their powerful, rugged atmosphere.
Paired with their traditional, deeply saturated palettes of primary colors, the elemental, often spacious designs of Kazak rugs assume a bold, graphic quality. The genre includes a large number of regional substyles, including Karachov, Lori Pambak and Sewan, that are easily recognizable due to distinctive, often symbolic design elements traditionally incorporated into each group’s weavings.

See which of these rare, enrapturing antique Kazak rugs are available here.

Kurdish Bijar (Bidjar)
Northwest Persian
4′ 4″ x 7′ 6″; Circa 1910

Karabagh: Karabagh carpets issue from a mountainous border region inhabited since the 17th century by people of varying religious and cultural backgrounds. Many Karabagh rugs were created by Armenian weavers who employed ancient Christian symbolic motifs into their patterns. For instance, the prized “Eagle Kazak” design, also known as Chelaberd Karabagh, whose sunburst medallions are often interpreted to symbolize Christ and his twelve apostles.
Other design styles, such as the equally famed “Cloudband Kazak” (Chonzoresk Karabagh), bring Far Eastern dragon imageries into this cohesive blend of influences. Karabagh rugs often use saturated earthy colors, spontaneous drawing and deconstructed animal motifs, which is frequently included in tribal Kurdish weaving. A specialized group incorporates lush florid designs influenced by the Russian Georgian style.

To browse a selection of exquisite antique Karabagh carpets in the gallery, click here.

Southern Caucasian
3ft 10in x 7ft 6in
Circa 1875

Gendje: Gendje rugs are associated with the market town of the same name, through which Caucasian carpets from diverse neighboring areas of Kazak, Karabagh, Shirvan and Baku passed during the 19th century. The most recognizable Gendje design style consists of a field of broad diagonal stripes containing small abstracted flowers.
Gendje weavers were often inspired by patterns and motifs from each of these surrounding traditions, particularly Kazak, reproducing them in the finer weave that is synonymous with this region. Runner dimensions, rare in many other styles, were frequently produced and are strongly associated with this region. 

To view a selection of antique Gendje rugs in the gallery, click here.

Daghestan Northeast Caucasian
3ft 10in x 5ft 3in
Circa 1850

Daghestan: Daghestan rugs refer to tribal weavings associated with the northernmost rug producing regions of the Caucasus mountains. The district encompasses some of the most rugged and isolated portions of the Caucasus, as well as lowland plains near the town of Derbent and bordering the Caspian Sea.
Carpets have been woven in this region from ancient times, with substantial production existing from the 17th century to the 19th century.  The Daghestan region is known particularly for the production of finely-knotted prayer rugs of excellent construction. Beneath a prominent angular arch motif the finest Daghestan prayer rugs feature elaborate lattice works of intricately drawn, joyfully colored wildflowers. 

To see more of these extraordinary antique Daghestan rugs in the gallery, click here.

Zejwa Kuba
4ft 9in x 6ft 10in
Late 19th Century

Kuba: Kuba is a tribal rug style produced in and around the town of Kuba, located in the eastern Caucasus Mountains. The region is bordered by major rug production centers of Daghestan to the north and Shirvan and Baku to the south. This proximity to a variety of significant Caucasian
weaving centers permitted antique Kuba weavings to incorporate motifs and artistic influences from their neighbors, while retaining their own distinct style. Antique Kuba carpets are frequently distinguished by their intricate designs, with a fine knotting and a closely clipped pile that adds clarity to the rugs’ often dense compositions. The best pieces before advent of the commercial period in the early 20th century reveal a mastery of natural dyes, with an extensive range of clear, sometimes exotic colors. 

To view a diverse gallery of beautiful antique rugs from the region of Kuba, click here.

“Garden Compartment Carpet”
Central Persian;
7′ 0″ x 11′ 1″ Circa 1900

Bakhtiari: Bakhtiari rugs were woven by a nomadic tribespeople from the Zagros mountains, and prior to 1930 were created solely for use by the Bakhtiari people or for commissions within Persia. Traditionally, the Bakhtiari only produced geometric patterns, but influences from surrounding weaving centers with a tradition of floral patterns gave rise to a distinctive, stylized geometric floral that is unique to the Bakhtiari. Amongst these, the “Garden Compartment” rugs and “Guli Farang” patterned rugs from 19th century Bakhtiari weavers are some of the most sought after today.
Carpets produced by this group are well known for the extremely high quality of materials used, with rugs being woven of highly durable lanolin-rich wool, and the exuberant color palette favored by Bakhtiari weavers. The Bakhtiari were exceptionally adept with natural dyes, and high-end Bakhtiari rugs display an astonishing range of colors and color artistry, making virtuoso Bakhtiari rugs bold showpieces that are always in high demand. 

To browse a selection of exquisite antique Bakhtiari carpets in the gallery, click here.

5ft 3in x 6ft 10in
Circa 1900

Northwest: Northwest refers to a diverse grouping of antique rugs that share characteristics and patterns from Heriz, the Caucasus and the myriad tribal groups of Azerbaijan. Their patterns are difficult to isolate: Northwest carpets tend to be geometric, but are also often simplified, more elemental versions of Heriz carpets.
Starkly geometric designs, highly reminiscent of Caucasian tribal rug styles, also appear.  Runners and area sizes predominate in this style.  Northwest carpets tend to be thicker in construction, with a cotton foundation.  

See which of these rare, enrapturing antique Northwest rugs are available here, in the gallery.

4ft 5in x 6ft 10in
Circa 1900

Shahsavan: The Shahsavan Confederation included eight rug weaving tribes from Anatolia, Syria, Karabagh, and Turkmen that were given rights of entrance in 16th century Persia in exchange for protection on the west boundary from the Ottoman empire. Settling in the northern Azerbaijan region their rugs where eagerly purchased throughout the 19th century in the busy market of Miheneh. For reasons unknown as yet to scholars, their pile carpet production ended abruptly around the turn of the 20th century although their kelims continued to be sought out.  Shahsevan rugs from the 19th century are rare.
The finest pieces were richly colored with a wide palette of hues, offering a soft handle and tight knotting.  Their designs reflected compelling geometric-based themes of alluring beauty without any whiff of commercial influence. So few Shahsavan pile rugs remain, it is impossible to identify characteristic patterns. A full range of tribal trappings, including kelims, cradles, rifle bags and saddlebags made as flatweaves and sometimes embroidered in the soumac tradition can be found, however.

To browse a selection of exquisite antique Shahsavan carpets in the gallery, click here.

See Our Entire Antique Tribal Rug Selection HERE

Read More About Specific Caucasian and Tribal Rugs HERE

(Read Part Two: Village; Part Three: Town; Part Four: City)