Engsi are perhaps the most intriguing trapping made by the Turkmen. To date all the literature dealing with their ethnographic history and weavings has described the engsi as a door-rug. Supposedly hung in the doorway of the yurt, the engsi’s main function was to keep the cold winter wind and summer heat from entering the Turkmen dwelling. However, there is no evidence of any engsi being used in this manner prior to the end of the 19th century when this idea was first popularized. No drawings or descriptions in any travel accounts or letters before that time exist to place an engsi in the doorway of any yurt.
Recently several authors have suggested engsi were only used during the marriage ceremony and while this might possibly describe a post-Islamic period function, it does not explain their historic use. The question still arises : How did this attribution and function become attached to these weavings?
In all cultures, whether sophisticated or primitive, objects decorated with important iconographic designs and sacred symbols were always reserved for religious/cult ceremony or highly important socio/political occasion. They were not used everyday nor were they part of normal daily life. Bearing this fact in mind, it would then seem highly implausible for the engsi, the most complex and iconographic weaving made by the Turkmen, to have been used as a normal covering for a frequently entered doorway.
In the next two Plate descriptions some of the icons found on archaic engsi and their connections to ancient and even prehistoric objects and mythology will be discussed. These explanations and the remainder of this preface will place the engsi in an entirely new perspective and present what this author believes to be the proper historical framework necessary to understand these weavings and to answer this question.
In the 10th century the first Turkmen were converted to Islam and during the next 800 years the Islamic religion became the primary religion of many more groups. Some of these converts were already settled peoples and others surely became so afterwards, as their conversion was motivated by political as well as by religious reasons. Settled Turkmen were much more easily controlled and organized into the useable military units their new Islamic leaders required.
There has always been a division between settled and nomadic groups, see the archaeological prehistory of Turkmenistan that has been included with this exhibition, and the differences in these respective lifestyles are very germane to the function of the engsi and to the study of Turkmen weaving in general.
During this time period, circa1000-1800 A.D., other Turkmen groups remained in outlying areas and continued to follow a nomadic lifestyle. Little is known about the religious/cult practices these groups held, however, it is highly probable they were similar to the culturally and genetically related nomads living in neighboring southern Siberia. Extensive documentation exists to show these Turkic groups, like the Yakut, Kirgis and Tuva, followed pantheistic and animistic worship centered around the cult of the shaman. These Siberian nomads had similar clan-based societies, spoke a Turkotartar dialect and maintained other cultural affinities, like the worship of the hearth. This evidence overwhelmingly supports the probability the Turkmen also maintained similar religious/cult practices to theirs and the belief weavings, especially archaic period engsi, were a part of that cult is based on that assumption. A distinct set of designs associated with the cult of the shaman and intrinsic to those engsi have led to and support this connection.
The shaman was the intermediary between man and the world beyond and this cult respected and worshiped his ability to do so. He communicated directly with the gods on behalf of ordinary individuals through his ancestor shaman and special animal spirit guides. At all stages of existence, from birth to death, his connections, power and knowledge were indispensable. These Turkmen engsi clearly express an iconography related to this spiritual environment and display symbols derived from the cult of the shaman, from related mythology and the supernatural.
The shaman’s powers and connection to the world beyond separated him from the group and the shaman’s yurt must have been a sacred, special place. It is only fitting his yurt entrance had a covering decorated with sacred symbols. The engsi was the shaman’s curtain separating his world of spirit from the ordinary. This context not only explains the original use and purpose of engsi but also how the engsi became known as door-rugs and, in post-archaic times, became portal coverings.
As the remaining, non-Islamic nomadic groups were absorbed into the settled populations, so too were their cult icons and weaving styles. It is highly believable an important and sacred iconography would be the first co-opted by the settled groups who had become familiar with its original function and power. Eventually it was restated as the pattern for a purely decorative accessory by later weavers who had completely lost touch with the cultural context the engsi once maintained. And as the archaic nomadic lifestyle became practiced by fewer and fewer Turkmen and their shaman were replaced by a monotheistic god based religion, the original sacred cult status of these weavings became obliterated, just as their lifestyle would soon become.