Part I

Turkmen weavings, like the Turkmen themselves, are as little understood today as they were at the end of the last century. It was at that time, circa 1875, the Czarist Russian government finally succeeded in conquering the various groups, known collectively as the Turkmen confederation, who fiercely resisted all efforts to remove them from the area of southwest Russia. This war had lasted for several decades and the Turkmen, like the native Indians of the American southwest, were able to remain victorious against superior military technology and numbers. However, finally when the Russian government allocated tremendously increased resources and manpower (like the government of the United States did against the American Indians) they succeeded. Territorial imperatives were satisfied – at the expense of the total destruction the Turkmen (and as was the case in America, the American Indian) lifestyle, traditions and culture.

In Turkmenistan an unusually interesting historical fact emerged from this conflict. The Russian general, Bogolyubov, who was in charge of the final military campaign became so enamoured of his opponent’s military prowess and their culture that as tribute he collected more than 80 of their weavings and authored the first book describing the Turkmen and their weaving tradition. In a grand ceremony at the end of the war, he presented the collection of weavings to the Czar. Some years later, in 1909, his book "Tapis de l’Asie Centrale" was published in French, and in 1910 in German. Both editions had large color plates of drawings of the weavings from this collection.

Before Bogolyubov decided to memorialize them, Turkmen rugs had already been illustrated in Simakov’s "The Art of Central Asia", published in 1879. Simakov’s effort was more a general book about Central Asian Art but it did include the first illustrations, also drawings, of Turkmen weaving while Bogolyubov’s dealt exclusively with this subject. Both Bogolyubov and Simakov’s books were basically unknown outside of Russia and Turkmen Rugs received scant attention in America until 1922 when Hartley Clark’s "Bokara, Turkoman and Afgan Rugs" was published. Soon thereafter, in 1940 an exhibition was organized in New York City by Amos Thacher, who also authored the catalog. But it was not until 1966 and the Harvard University’s Fogg Museum exhibition and catalog authored by Chris Reed that Turkmen rugs finally achieved greater public attention. Since then there have been a number of other books and exhibitions in America and Europe that have guaranteed Turkmen weavings an important place in the history of the Oriental Carpet and also created a large and widespread group of collectors and researchers.

However, long before these books and exhibitions, several considerably earlier historical accounts described the Turkmen people. They are also mentioned on occasion in the writings of various travelers who passed through this area. Twenty-four individual Turkmen tribes were listed and named by Mahmut Kashghari, the author of the earliest and most comprehensive work on the Turkmen that was written in the 11th century. Two hundred years later Abdu’l-Ghazi Khan, of Khiva, in his Genealogy of the Turkmen also published a list of the numbers and locations of the various Turkmen groups. And in the 17th century, Rashid as-Din, wrote several important accounts dealing with the Turkmen. Unfortunately none of these, or any others that are now known, provide any positive information to answer the question: Which groups of Turkmen made what weavings prior to the end of the 19th century?

This lack of documentation presents insurmountable problems of provenance, especially for the early, historic weavings that are the focus of this exhibition. And while the accepted tribal group names will be used to order these weavings into groups, it should be recognized they might at some point in the future prove to be highly inaccurate for the earliest examples. In fact so little is known at this point about Turkmen weavings that only the direct comparison of examples with similar materials and techniques can generate any objective data.

The following Plate descriptions will utilize this methodology, and combined with new and original interpretations will attempt to answer some of the most intriguing questions that have fascinated the ever growing number of collectors of Turkmen weavings since General Bogolyubov’s time.

Part II

Unlike the previous two exhibitions, featuring flat-woven textiles known as kelim and soumak from Turkey and the Caucasus Mountains, exhibition Three focuses on various cut-pile trappings from Turkmenistan. These weavings, the largest of which are 4 by 6 feet and the smallest 1 by 3 feet, were not made as floor coverings. In fact no ethnographic information, prior to the end of the19th century, is available to positively detail where or why these weavings were made or how and by whom they were used. Again this lack of documentation is especially apparent for the earliest examples. It is very possible, and in this author’s opinion highly probable, that a small group of these were created and used within a very different societal framework and context than that which was present a 100 years ago. Surprisingly, this possibility has not been mentioned nor questioned by any other writer and the presentation and discussion here will be a first.

By and large the Turkmen generations of the mid-19th century and later were, in most senses, living very different lives from their grandfathers and earlier generations. Many of the smaller clans or groups had become extinct after being absorbed by the larger, more powerful groups. Others, to avoid inter-tribal conflict or the ever-increasing military pressure from the Russian government, left their traditional lands in western Turkmenistan and migrated east and south. These were very different from the geographic and environmental conditions they moved into. In response to these two factors, subjugation and migration most if not all Turkmen groups, except those living in the extreme southeastern most regions, settled in larger camps and villages, became agriculturists and gave up their former nomadic lifestyles.

It is this difference, settled vs. nomadic, as much as any other, which must be considered in trying to understand the Turkmen who wove these historic, cut-pile masterpieces. The wool and animal hair used for weaving and the dyestuffs and water used to create color are the best indications for determining which weavings were produced by these different lifestyles. Some of these differences are readily apparent in even the most cursory comparison of a rare early example with later weavings of the same type. The Museum’s planned forensic testing program can provide scientific substantiation for this theory and establish the positive data necessary to scientifically profile the circumstances of a weaving’s production.

Of course this effort will not be able to identify which group was responsible or reveal why it was made. But answering the question of where the materials were produced will not only detail the lifestyle followed by the weaver but also help us to imagine the circumstances in which the weaving was meant to be used.

For the nomad, these trappings were an essential component of life and lifestyle: The nomad wove to live.

Living in often in harsh and uninviting geographical conditions required housing that was both portable and suitable for many different climatic conditions. The circular covered tent the Turkmen called a yurt<fig.1> admirably met all these criteria. Made of two easily assembled and portable wooden lattices fit together to form the sides and top sections and covered with a heavy layer of felt, the yurt provided all the room necessary for the family unit. The hearth, always located in the center directly under the circular roof opening, was used not only for cooking but also for warmth and light.

The nomadic Turkmen also required a kit of extremely limited, portable and functional goods and the trappings known as chuval, torba and mafrash admirably fulfilled those criteria. Each of these weavings, which vary in size from 1 by 3 feet to 2 by 4 feet, originally had a integrated flat-woven back and were sewn together at both sides creating a container or bag with an opening at the top. They are believed to have been used for all types of domestic possessions from personal to cooking and eating. However, it is possible some of the historic archaic examples, which were decorated with far more complex and highly articulated designs then those found on later period weavings, were not made for domestic use and were used for and as part of special ceremony or ritual. And while there is no documentation to detail their religious/cult ceremonies it is impossible to believe the Turkmen had none and that weavings such as these were not included.

Fortunately there is another type of trapping, the engsi, which highlights this possibility. The engsi, usually 4 by 6 feet, is thought to have been used as an entrance cover for the yurt. But unlike the designs found on almost all chuval, torba and mafrash, or even those found on the aforementioned early and highly articulated examples, all pre-conquest period engsi display unusually complex patterns. And the oldest examples, from the archaic period, have preserved the most potent design iconography found on any known type of Turkmen weaving.

The analyses of their uniquely complex symbolic character, which are included in the descriptions of Plates One to Four, will provide the best available means to support this author’s contention that some weavings were made for religious/cult and not domestic use. And although this approach is innovative and highly speculative, it just might place some rare historic examples into their correct ethnographic context.


Part III

The Turkmen weaving tradition is believed to have begun more than 1000 years ago and the oldest known cut-pile weaving, the Pazyryk <fig.2> carpet was discovered in neighboring southwest Siberia. This amazing woven survivor was found in a frozen subterranean burial tomb, called a kurgan, and is dated circa 800-500BC. Unfortunately neither the structure nor the design of this carpet relates to any known Turkmen weaving. However the presence of several other objects in this tomb, which are believed to have come from Turkmenistan, has led some researchers to theorize the Pazyryk was, in fact, made there and then taken north and east into Siberia. Regardless of where this carpet was produced, its relationship to the Turkmen weaving tradition may eventually be identified and for now it supports the contention of many experts that cut-pile weaving was first attempted and developed in this general area.

The Turkmen made several different types of weavings from the wool and hair of their sheep and goats. The simplest, most common and utilitarian was felt, which actually was not woven but made of beaten down animal fibers. It was used not only to cover the floor and wooden lattice that formed the walls and ceiling of their round portable yurts but in a much thinner form was also used for clothing. Undecorated plain flat-weaving of solid color or striped designs (sometimes with added brocaded designs) were also produced while patterned slit-tapestry or kelim, the oldest form of patterned, were, it seems, only rarely made. The lack of any early Turkmen kelim is not surprising, as weavings with slits (separations at each color join) had no utilitarian function: they did not fit the nomadic lifestyle. The veritable profusion of late 19th century examples was the result of the overwhelming numbers of Turkmen settling in villages and adopting a lifestyle which allowed them to possess weavings that were strictly decorative and no longer had utilitarian value. Once again illustrating this historic change and the differences between the weaving styles of the nomad and the settled.

Lastly, the most time consuming and costly to produce was cut-pile and this was the technique used to make all the examples in this exhibition. This technique was technologically more complicated, but not necessarily more difficult than kelim or soumak. More commonly known as knotted pile or carpet weave, cut-pile weavings were created by tying individual knots onto a structural foundation of warp and weft that is made as the knot tying progresses. The two ends of each knot create the pattern dot by dot as in a mosaic.

Examination of the technical differences in a weaving, known as structural analysis, has provided the best criteria to divide Turkmen weavings for discussion and provenance. It has proven to be far more accurate provenance system than the older method, which was based on the use of design and pattern. In fact, structural analysis is the most significant contribution made to rug studies in the last fifty years. And until detailed forensic research and new ethnographic investigation will be applied to these weavings, structural analysis will remain the benchmark system used to separate Turkmen weavings into groups. These groupings and the names, which have been suggested and reformulated over the past 100 years, are now a very accepted, but speculative, part of Turkmen studies.

Today, an impressive and comprehensive bibliography of books and articles on this subject exists, with hundreds of published Turkmen weavings available for comparison. And although there are only a very small number of early historic examples, it is nonetheless possible to separate an even smaller number of these woven within the confines of an nomadic lifestyle from those produced by settled weavers. For now observable differences in materials and dyeing, which are explained in the following Plate descriptions, are the only available criteria but eventually scientific means will emerge to more accurately identify these weavings.

A few of these, Plates One, Two, Six and Eight and Ten belong to the handful of examples this author feels were produced by nomads during the archaic period of weaving. And although no connections to ancient cult/religious practices can at this time be definitively proven, their rich iconographic vocabulary is still able to communicate across the empty spaces of the centuries separating them from our new millennium.

Part IV

Turkmen weavings are very different than those from the other neighboring areas of the Near East – ie. Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus. The color palettes and design iconography associated with the knotted-pile and for that matter also the flat-weaves, from these other regions are far more varied and diverse. The reasons for this are many but basically the geographic and environmental conditions in southwest Turkmenistan did not provide the natural materials needed to create dyes of such varied hues. In addition, the rigid social system, which controlled the weaver’s choice of design and pattern, did not allow for the individual creativity that seems to have been far more prevalent in these other weaving cultures. Also this area was geographically more isolated and the introduction of foreign, non-Turkmen design influence, until the later part of the 19th century, was limited.

These factors protected the Turkmen weaving tradition and, remarkably, it managed to remain quite intact until the middle of the 19th century. After then, new and revolutionary forces - the introduction of synthetic dyes, foreign inspired designs and the socio-economic influences referred to above – irreparably began to change not only the way weavings looked but also how and even why they were made.

But it was long before 1850 that examples like those illustrated in this exhibition were produced, their now nameless and unknown creators living and weaving only within the context of a traditional cultural heritage. This was definitely not the framework under which all later Turkmen weaving were manufactured. Early, historic Turkmen weavings have physical characteristics – materials, dyes and designs- which equal if not surpass those present in these other weaving areas and unlike later examples are far from boring or dull. But it is their almost mathematical rhythm and mysteriously archaic character, which sets them apart and has propelled them into the forefront of rug collecting.

Note: Most, if not all, of the examples illustrated here have serious condition problems, which seems to be endemic to all such early trappings. Their damaged condition, while perhaps difficult for the uninitiated to overlook, must be put into context - it has resulted from both the use they underwent in their original environment and the unfortunate misuse as floor covering they were subjected to in the completely foreign environments many ended up in. However, like other ancient artifacts and artwork, their beauty and importance is not diminished by what is missing but rather heightened by what remains.



by Jack Cassin


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