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Western Ersari Chuval
Archaic period

Unlike the first 5 Plates this example’s attribution is not as easy to determine but the archaic quality of its materials and design, are. Wool with that characteristic rich patina and extremely saturated dyes hallmark it as being the product of a nomadic group whose animals spent their time in the steppe or mountains and whose weavers knew dyers capable of achieving such wondrous colors. The tiny areas of insect dyed silk highlights, also found in the previous example, imply trading contacts only available to a small number of weaving groups.

Compare the previous Plate with this example but note a complete row of göls is missing, as are most of the side borders and most probably an additional decorated upper elem that appears on some chuval. Although both have a 12 major göl layout with rare crosses in the centers, this example’s are far less stylized and have a greater level of articulation and complexity, also shown in the minor göls. Also notice how they both have similar border designs, elem and secondary göls as well. The mechanics behind the design relationship these two chuval share are not possible to determine but that said the following might just provide some insight into this connection.

The Ersari originally inhabited several locations in western Turkmenistan and began to move eastward beginning in the mid-16th century. This migration lasted over a rather long period of time and it is known certain groups settled in a number of areas for different periods of time before finally settling in and around the city of Khiva. This migratory trail began at the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea. Unlike other migrations of Turkmen groups, the Ersari move eastward was somewhat documented and in general it was quite different from the less organized transformation other Turkmen groups underwent in their change from nomad to settled agriculturist.

This chuval is a rare example of Ersari weaving done in the west, most probably in the environs of Balkhan Mountains prior to this particular weaving group moving eastward. It has many of the features, wool quality and coloration, found in the weavings of the Salor and Tekke who also frequented this populated corner of north-west Turkmenistan. Though highly speculative at this point, it is possible the weaving group responsible for this archaic period chuval came into contact with the Arabatchi group who subsequently produced Plate Five. The crosses in the centers of the major göls are important clues to this relationship and perhaps someday they will lead to a more positive identification.

Both the göls of this chuval are highly sophisticated and one particular minor one (fig.30) is not only different from the rest but also totally unknown in any other Turkmen weaving. It appears to represent of some type insect with big bug eyes and four widely spread legs, the asymmetric drawing with such a deliberate depiction of head and lower body makes this interpretation difficult to discount.

This unique icon does, nonetheless, share the basic form of the other far more complex secondary göls, known as chemche, and were it not for the head and eyes, might be considered as just a simplified version of the others. The chemche are the most widely used minor göl as they frequently appear in the chuvals, other smaller bags and also less frequently on the larger main carpets, of almost every Turkmen group.

Recently an interesting and well thought out paper was presented at a European conference which speculated a simple very basic ornament made by placing two crosses at a 45 degree angle to each other was the source design for the chemche. This argument was based on several early Persian miniatures where this type of secondary elements appeared. The author theorized the chemche, and in essence all Turkmen design iconography, followed a progression from simple to complex.

This concept may be applicable in some instances, however, when archaic examples like this chuval do appear they display complex and highly articulated designs and not simple ones. The answer to the question of whether the chemche was derived from a mother of all designs, like two crosses placed at a 45 degree angle to each other, is maybe. But trying to trace from where, how and when the chemche entered Turkmen weaving culture does not lend itself to such a blanket and mathematical scheme.

Locating the sources of individual designs and patterns is one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of Turkmen studies and even though these efforts frequently involve speculation, they are nonetheless quite important when accompanied by carefully chosen supporting documentation. It is in this context many of the ideas which have been and will be presented in this text have been developed. And while the following is far more speculative than the rest, it is at the least an interesting insight to the possible source of the chemche.

Mithraism and Zoroastrianism were ancient religions that incorporated aspects of even earlier concepts and rituals from the cult of the shaman into their more highly codified religious systems. Neither was as political nor militaristic as either Christianity or Islam, however, both were organized enough to gain fairly widespread followings in areas of the Near East and southern Central Asia. Again the extreme paucity of archaic Turkmen cultural history and cult reference prevents any sure understanding of the influences these religions might have drawn from or exerted on the shaman cult of the Turkmen.

But it is obvious both these religions share important ritual practices and belief concepts found in documented shaman practices of other more northern Central-Asian groups. And quite possibly because of this relationship evidence gleaned from religious texts, recorded practices and related objects can help to explain and illuminate the cult of the Turkmen shaman and any influence these religions had on Turkmen weaving culture.

For instance, initiates in the cult of Mithra were required to pass through an elaborate ritual with an ascending order of seven grades that were symbolic reference to stages of the soul’s ascent through the heavens. Each of these levels was associated with a specific animal protector or guardian and other non-animistic symbols as well. Similarly, Central-Asian shaman had spirit guides represented as animals and they, too, possessed a collection of symbolic objects imbued with supernatural powers. And some of the Central Asian groups believed the universe had seven layers.

Interestingly enough in the Mithraian initiation, the fourth grade’s guardian was the Lion and the associated symbols were the fire-shovel, Egyptian rattle and the thunderbolt(fig.29). The Lion has strong associations to fire, as the astrological sign of the Sun, and the fire-shovel needs no explanation. Both of these, the Lion and fire-shovel, provide a neat connection to practices of the shaman focused around fire and also the ritualistic worship of fire embodied in the Turkmen cult of the hearth. The rattle symbol likewise has spiritual connection, it was associated with Egyptian mystery cults and by inference with the shaman’s rattle and drum.

Seen within this framework of initiation, ascendancy, fire and mystery, the thunderbolt symbol assumes a significant connection to Central-Asian shamanism and its striking visual similarity to the chemche might provide a design source. The thunderbolt image(fig.29a) shown here is from a shrine tile floor mosaic that illustrated all the seven stages of initiation. This shrine was just one of a group of fourteen such sanctuaries dedicated to Mithra built outside Rome, Italy at the ancient port of Ostia.

The thunderbolt also appears in the same form in other contexts associated with Mithra, particularly as an amulet hung around the neck on statues of men with lion-heads whose bodies are always depicted encircled by large serpents. Again these representations are connected to Central-Asian ritual, as the shaman’s coat almost always had snakes and other amulets hung on it.

Speculation on the source of the chemche aside, the unique insect icon-göl from this example does appear to have been the archetypal model for those in the bottom row of Plate Five(fig.30a). Those two chemche, which are cut in half by the minor border, have a remarkably similar lepidopteran drawing style. Notice how they are different from the others, with their heads and spidery appendages, as well as those appearing on any other chuval or Turkmen weaving. This similarity, the rare green color, plus the silk highlights do create an intriguing puzzle: What connection was responsible for the rather mysterious relationship these two very diverse weavings share? With the application of forensic testing and collection of new ethnographic information, the enigmatic relationship weavings like these shared may be soon be further clarified.


Fig.29 Floor tile mosaic from Ostia showing three icons
Fig.29a Thunderbolt icon from fig. 29
Fig.30 Insect minor göl Plate Six
Fig.30a Minor göl from Plate
Fig.A Detail of Plate Six

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