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Exploring the Traditions of Antique Oriental Rug Weaving


October 9, 2020

By Jan David Winitz
President and Founder, Claremont Rug Company


Caucasus Mountains small village
A small village in the higher elevations of the Caucasus Mountains, characteristic of the environment in which the intrepid weavers of this major tribal style lived, some of them hosting as few as 30 families.
The term antique Oriental rug encompasses a broad spectrum of weaving techniques practiced for centuries throughout what we have come to call the Middle East (effectively the Near East and Central Asia) woven at least a century ago. To better understand this inspiring and influential art form, I will over the next several weeks explore the various styles, their antecedents and the influences that impacted their design.

For those interested in antique Oriental rugs, it is best to understand that there are four essential forms:

• Tribal
• Village
• Town
• City

In this installment, I will examine the Tribal and Village weaving styles.

Tribal rugs have been woven for millennia, forming 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 work well in contemporary settings.

The styles 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, tribal weavers were continually immersed in nature, its cycles, and dramatic environments. The rugs they wove expressed influences of the weavers’ everyday lives.

The rug weaving tradition of the Caucasus Mountains is ancient. In addition to the native people known to be resident since 5000 BC, a multitude of beleaguered ethnic groups found safe haven in this virtually impassable range that occupies modern day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Many brought weaving traditions. The rugs they created in their new surroundings over time became known by their location, such as elemental Karachov Kazak, refined Shirvan Baku, and complex Seichur Kuba. The Caucasian peoples were largely sedentary. They often lived their entire lives without visiting the neighboring community over the next ridge. 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.

The unity of the tribal bond was expressed in shared compositional formats, color palettes, and distinctive pattern language 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.

Tribal traditions had a remarkably long lineage. As early as the fifth century BC, the rugs of Armenian weavers living in the Caucasus were praised by the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that 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 rug was spread before him when he visited the Bakhtiari governor.

Global appreciation of antique tribal rugs leapt from the collecting arena to a world-wide 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. On the proprietary Claremont Antique Rug Pyramid, Tribal rugs are found in Tier 3 (Connoisseur) and Tier 4 (High Decorative).
oversize Serapi carpet in home
A spectacular oversize Serapi, with a spacious design and soft mid-tones, partially the result of the high content of copper in their local water, that contributed to these rugs’ extraordinarily radiant blues.