Oriental Carpets

Milton Cater Oriental Carpets

specialising in old and antique rugs     Since 1974
Oriental Carpets


Essays - Newsletter


Abrash - On Fortuity and Random Colour  Abrash in a Kashan rug

"I tend to reflect that handmade objects....give off a life force, an indefinable resonance, that mechanically produced objects cannot match" Giles Auty, in The Australian.

And Jon Thomson ..." It was an education for me to witness the amazement and disbelief of an educated Persian carpet dealer, recently arrived from Iran, when he saw the price paid at auction for a kazak, a coarsely woven, crude looking village carpet with a bold pattern and strong colours. ‘They (tribal/village rugs) are so coarse and ugly, how can they pay so much money?’ he was genuinely distressed. For him the ideal of beauty and desirability was a rug with a perfectly ordered, detailed pattern, finely worked in evenly balanced colours without any mistakes."




 Abrash in a Kelim

ABRASH - The Persian word has entered English because there was no existing term to explain the abrupt changes in the intensity of colour often seen in good rugs. Abrash is most commonly caused by the weaver using wool from different dye batches or dyed at different times in the vat. Strands dyed towards the end of the process are normally lighter than those dyed at the beginning when the dye has been freshly prepared and is at full strength. This can be an indication of authenticity as it rarely occurs in mass produced rugs, for although they may still be made by hand the very nature of the cost savings of large production runs requires extensive and therefore uniform dyeing.

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Carpet Dyes - The Tale


Alchemy was the dyers’ magic prior to our complete knowledge of chemistry."Today a turquoise from your plain wool, tomorrow pure gold from your old coppers." Englishman Richard Hakluyt belonged to a "Middle Temple" and sent a dyer to Persia in 1579AD with the written instructions..."In Persia you will find carpets of coarse thrummed wool, the best in the world, and excellently coloured: those towns you must repair to, and you must use means to learn all the order of dyeing those thrums, which are so dyed as neither rain, wine nor vinegar can stain."


The Mystery
The vast and glorious kaleidoscope of colour found in oriental carpets came from dyeing traditions now mostly lost, like the nomadic horsemen themselves, cultural victims of the Industrial Revolution and 20th century imperatives. The trail of evidence has been picked up in various areas and disciplines.


The Clues
The published work of Bruggerman and Boehmer identifies dye flora growing today in Turkey and then matches constituents to the colouring compounds in old rugs. Exact recipes, however are more difficult. Scouring old Persian texts has been an interesting if sometimes puzzling source, coming up with descriptions like this:- "Rose Colour: Take ratanjot, a thought of cochineal, madder or Lac colour a very little, add cinnabar and water and soak for 12 hours. Add the wool and steep for 36 hours, boil for 3 hours, then bathe in alum and wash well. Afterwards dry in the shade."


Extenuating Circumstances
Like the colour of wine, regional variations occur even within the same recipes. But each village area and especially each tribe had their own palette. This greatly assists tapetologists detect the origins of particular carpets but does not help to find and reproduce particular dye recipes. Compounding this was the secrecy that protected the dyers guild. Weird and wonderful ingredients and transmutation processes were included to obscure the important steps and preserve the dyers’ standing as a magician in the community.


The Dyes - Traditional Organic

Reds were produced from the roots of the madder bush but a skilled dyer could conjure shades ranging from pale orange to deep purple with the same root. Blues are vat fermented and came mostly from indigo tinctoria although the Afshar and Belouch preferred the Anil and linifolia varieties. Yoghurt and pomegranate produces a bright orange regarded as the true Afghan colour by Afghans themselves but labelled synthetic by dilettantes. With every Mohan, Lal and Baksheesh entering the noble and historic carpet trade misinformation abounds! Both the leaves but especially the sour inedible pith and skin of the pomegranate could produce red through yellow hues by the judicious application of mordants and astringents such as alum, yoghurt, wild citrus, walnut galls, potash and rusted iron water. The mordant was used to fix the colour as well as to change the hue. For instance the West Iranian wild delphinium produces yellow with alum and green with copper sulphate. Most greens, however, were double dyed yellow with blue and most yellows show safflower predominant. The beautiful shades once produced by these dyers were always a complex mixture of plants and minerals.


The Dyes - Imported - A Feminist View

The dye, cochineal, a native of Guatemala, became popular in Europe during the English Georgian period and was imported in vast quantities into Turkey then Persia and later via Russia and India. This bullish trade died overnight, eclipsed by the discovery in Germany of aniline dyes - red, blue, brown and black at first and others later. By the 1870’s these inferior dyes were widespread, appearing in rugs from even the remotest communities like the nomadic Tibetans. Azo dyes were the second generation of imported synthetic dyes, and were, unfortunately, light fast. Bright apricot and orange colours were most popular with the weavers. The advent of synthetic dyes in the East was coupled with advances in weaving technology in Europe (invention of the jacquard loom etc.). Almost overnight tens of thousands of shawl and brocade cloth weavers and fabric printers, all traditional male occupations, became redundant. At the same time the carpet weavers, mostly women, at home, were released from the tyranny of the dyers, and, a more titanic change could not have been forecast - women could use the dyes themselves! Many took on the role of principle breadwinner in many households. This improvement in status continued throughout most of the 20th century. The emergent wealthy Trans-Atlantic middle classes had already deemed oriental carpets the height of fashion. There was public brawling at Liberties’ carpet openings and shady types profiteering among the Virginian plantations. Carpet making revenue in the east rose accordingly.

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The Attitude of Altitude

Two things. First, traditional handmade wool carpets are a function of altitude. Second, the value of most carpets is related to the level of feminine involvement in the weaving process. The first statement may seem self evident as higher, colder altitudes demand the warmth and insulation of wool. A point is reached with rising latitudes where the summer thaw is too short for the warm-fingered time-intensive work required. There is more than meets the eye however with the second statement.

Take a look at the "carpet belt" which stretches across the world from Morocco in the west to China in the east. For instance Morocco has a traditional carpet weaving culture synonymous with the Berber and Arab tribes grazing their flocks in the mountains and high plains. Boys tend the sheep, men prepare the looms, and the women weave. Coastal weaving is of the flat-woven cotton tapestry type carried out in ateliers with flying shuttle looms manned by skilled men. An exception is modern commercial weaving where rugs are hand knotted with an eye on western markets. These are made in similar ateliers regardless of country or tradition. This scenario holds true across the "carpet belt".

The modern countries of Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, the core of the "carpet belt", are almost completely plateaux and mountains. The surrounding countries of Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, the Gulf states, India/Pakistan are mostly under 1000 metres and traditionally produce only flatweaves. The cold northern neighbours, Russia and the "Stans" are mostly at lower altitudes and preferred to make less labour intensive felt rugs. India/Pakistan has a royal carpet weaving culture as opposed to an indigenous grass roots one that stemmed from 700 years of ruling mountain Afghan dynasties.

Distinctive also are materials. Cotton requires broad-acre farming which presupposes flat lowland conditions and is so intensive in it's land use it requires land ownership. Cotton fabric is less insulating and cotton weaving is logically a lowland occupation. By contrast sheep pastures are usually elevated and are mostly lands held in common. Wool production and wool weaving are elevated occupations. This appears to be the case generally but many types of traditional mountain village rugs are part cotton in that they have a cotton warp (the longitudinal base threads). The important connection here is commerce.

Pure wool rug making is basically value-adding to a family's flock of sheep. All materials come from the family or are produced by someone in the wider clan. Cotton is a trade commodity that must be bought or traded by the mountain rug making people to use instead of their own wool. This implies a cash component in the making of a rug, adding a subsequent cash or trade value to the finished product. Cotton therefore is often found to equate with commercialisation of the rug making process.

Look at loom technology and find the number of shafts or "sheds" inversely proportional to the geographic elevation of the loom. Traditionally, knotted pile rugs were made at altitude by family units using simple one shaft looms, while lowlanders produced flatweaves and mass produced rugs. The lowlands are the domain of the fine silk brocades, shawls and other fine clothing fabrics.

It is interesting to note that religious fundamentalism seems to be a function of altitude, or lack of it, calling the lowlands and deserts home while the mountains and the high plains are home to a more conservative adherence to traditions with a more liberal outlook. Look at a map of say, the USA and find that topographically, the "Barble Belt" equates with the "green" areas. Do this with maps of relevant parts of Asia for a similar result.

There are connections between the low country, mass production and religious fundamentalism, and the high country, family weaving and liberalism. Mass production involves working men with jobs outside the family whereas family weaving is done by the women of the house.

Social mores also seem to follow this altitude-specific way of life. Travelling from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the Mountains of Kurdistan or Karabagh one sees more women and fewer veils. Similarly from the Persian Gulf to the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan one sees increasing liberalism, even Sufism, and personal eccentricity and creativeness coming to the fore.

Traditional knotted pile weaving flourished in the freedom of liberal but conservative communities driven by family, community and a complex and nourishing mysticism. Family designs, clan motifs, and talismans are all part of a rich vocabulary that evolved over long periods. Like musical harmonies these designs form colourfields in an endless interplay where rug weaving becomes a form of prayer, of connection with the universal, a humble submission to the will of God, the definition of Islam. It is this that gives the Oriental Carpet true value.

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Bearskins of Oxiana

“The Pamirs are a paradox. They are still being born, still thrusting up at the rate of something like two-an-a-half-inches a year; yet in the very moment of their birth, they are dying, for the ranges to the southeast are rising even faster and each year are blocking off more and more of their inadequate rainfall, converting their already barren slopes to desert. This is one of the bleakest and least-known corners of the world; remote, mysterious, and, at one time, dubbed The Third Pole.” Ian Cameron “Mountains of the Gods”.  I have been successful in finding rare weavings from this area.

“This is definitely going to have an adverse affect on my marriage” I thought as I came across another few of these outrageously hairy weavings. Years ago, when I first started returning home with a Bearskin or two, she-who-must-be-obeyed would coldly sniff and say, “typical”, inferring defective genes but with a kindly beseeching; “can’t you just be normal!” Not that she favoured the silk monstrosities of the time, she was a gel with a usually quite good eye. But The Bearskins of Oxiana are a very different matter, I admit. The Bearskins don’t look like a typical Oriental Carpet as there is a simple or even no pattern, and they are extremely coarsely woven. They are however soft and plush, with a friendly, flexible handle; you just want to roll in one, so immediate is the thrill.

I love these rugs, these archaic, passionately elemental energies, but it wasn’t something I’d thought about telling wife #2, until it was too late. When I returned from points west with a couple of real beauties she acted as if I were a five year old boy bringing home a dried toad. Later, after a couple more acquisitions, she still didn’t really complain, until she found out that I was actually paying for them!

Referring to our 500-odd customers worldwide, she said, “does anyone collect these?” with the emphasis on “anyone”. “Of course, can’t you see?” I said, pointing to the ever-mounting pile of Bearskins; “I do”. The deep-freeze that is home will hopefully thaw when I put The Bearskins of Oxiana on exhibition and sale this year, 2008. The fact that the supply has virtually dried up pleases her immensely. She has that sort of triumphant patience, whispering quietly to friends and acquaintances “he likes bearskins, he does”, as if it is something tawdry; a fifth column with credibility. I never wavered in my love for the Bearskins, and, in fact, I have increased confidence in their artistic importance since more research has been completed, proving me right. And now these historically important textiles begin to bring ever-higher prices. People rightly draw similarities with the paintings of Mark Rothko and the architect Christopher Alexander wrote a decade ago “a foreshadowing of 21st century art”.

These unusual long rugs picked up the Bearskin moniker because it’s what they resemble. When I bought my first one in Kabul, Afghanistan in the 1970’s, the Uzbek merchant called it Djul-y-khir, or skin-of-bear, literally, in Dari, the archaic Persian, the lingua franca of Central Asian merchants.

Who are these weavers and where are they now? The last century, and especially the last two decades have not been kind to these people and they have, as far as researchers can tell, mostly dispersed. But surging political forces have not stopped the interest in these fascinating rugs. Originally all lumped together as Uzbek, it is now fairly conclusive that the plain-striped ones are Arab; a semi nomadic yurt dwelling tribe of Arabs, living like the similarly housed Lakai Uzbeks in the upper reaches of the Amu and Kashka Daryas, where the rivers rise on the western slopes of the Pamirs, in deep Oxiana.

These Arabs, Islamic Jihad nomads from Arabia, settled in Central Asia in the 8th century, partly converting the locals, who retained flavours of their Buddhist, Shamanist, and Manicheaist practices in their brand of Islam along the way.  They remained culturally distinct, their unique archaic method of weaving even influencing later migrations into the area of Turko/Mongol hordes. In many ways they may have been among the longest surviving culturally distinct groups in the area. Now, are far as we know, they have largely been lost to us, overrun in the last century of the Great Game, the superpower fight for control of Central Asia. Today a scattering of sedentary Central Asian Arabs remain in subsistence farming villages in Kashadarya, in modern Uzbekistan.

The actual Bearskin technique pre-dates the knotted pile technology that we know as the Oriental Carpet of today. Very finely knotted carpets, as fine as the best today were already being made 2500 years ago. That makes the Bearskin technique indeed ancient. A type of antique, now defunct, Tibetan weaving is considered to be an original prototype of the knotted pile rug. It has similarities that place it in a time scale after the Bearskin and before the pile rug of the last couple of millennia. The woven-and-knotted Bearskin technique could be the earliest knotted pile technique, and appeared around or just after knitting and loop pile in the historical development of weaving.

Other thickly woven bedding rugs are the Pashtun Kouchi of Afghanistan, the Tulu of Anatolia, and the Berber sleeping rugs of the Moroccan High Atlas. The Lakai Uzbeks, living in close proximity to these Arabs since circa 14th century made a coarse similar rug with typical Uzbek patterning that is also a Djulkhir or Bearskin.

We are incredibly lucky to have these Bearskins available to us in the early 21st century. After the centuries of war and migration, the conquering armies of Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane, The Bolsheviks, Josef Stalin, and USSR and USA proxy wars in Afghanistan, it is amazing they have survived at all. Survive and flourish they did, for 1300 years; right up to the modern era. Just as the tradition ends we have picked up the last surviving examples of thousands of years of unchanged weaving and for this we are extremely, humbly, thankful.

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The Spirit of Truth - Belouch

To be too sensitive about a statement being true or false in the traditional carpet making lands is to be uncomfortable, out of touch. The most important thing is the spirit behind the statement. Was it meant to be kind and helpful? Yes? Then the facts can be wrong. For instance never ask for directions as the answer is always "straight on". When queried it can change to be either left or right, but is never "I don't know, sorry, can't help".

A Belouch rug can also be a Kurd, a Persian, or even a Mongol! Rugs and Carpets that come under the general banner of Belouch actually represent at least a dozen distinct tribes and numerous sub-groups. These groups have at times presided over their own dynasties but always returned to a life of shifting alliances in the frontier areas between the Persian and Moghul Empires, and the Tartar states to the north. This area roughly equates modern day west, central and south Afghanistan, eastern Iran, western Pakistan and southern Turkmenistan.

A number of the tribes federated in the 19th century. The men of the previous couple of generations had sacked both the Persian and the Moghul Empires, and decided they were better united than fighting each other. They called themselves "Chahar Aimaq", meaning The Four Tribes even though they numbered about ten. This federation comprised groups with different ethnicity, language and religion and became politically redundant by the 20th century.

When researching the Belouch I found an incomprehensible scale of anomalies that showcased my rigid western thinking, and uncovered a cavalier attitude to tribal attribution by the locals. For instance, when did a major part of the Yacoub Khani become the Salar Khani? Answer: When they changed their name. Why the change of name? Was it the murderous tribal politics, affiliations. No. Simply the women made the choice because the clan head was handsome and strong! Obviously these rug makers have little store in our finely wrought attributions.

The Mushwani, desert1 selectively filleted into a separate tribe by western tapetologists were, as an ethnic Pashtun group, unheard of in their supposed homeland. The expression mushwani meant running mouse and was a slang term for the various groups living towards Chuckansur in the south as well as the name of these groups' preferred design.

There does seem to be a need for some serious work on the 10 million farmers, pastoralists and nomads that lived in Central, West, and NW Afghanistan and Eastern Iran.

What about the term Hazara, one of the largest weaving groups? Or Pashtun, or the local terms for the pure nomadic rugs, Kouchi and Moldau, or even Kowdani? These are never used in the west where selective tribal attributions follow fashion as much as truth. The word belouch in modern Persian can refer to any impoverished person living outside town, a gypsy, or even a beggar.

Belouch, being incorrect in most cases, seems to be the only generally usable term as most people know it refers to attributes such as small size, soft, shiny, geometric, even dark toned and subtle, when it is used.

It is the spirit of kindness that is more important than truth in Central Asia!

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The Taimani

The Taimani are a small tribe located on the western slopes of the central mountain regions of Afghanistan. They belonged to a larger cluster of tribes, the Chahar Aimaq, who are now scattered throughout Afghanistan and Iran. They are named after their presumed founder, Taiman, a Kakar Pushtun who built up a coalition of the Taimani  in the mountains of Ghor around 1650. The Taimani speak a form of Persian called Dari, with some Turkic (Aimaq) vocabulary.

Over the years, the Chahar Aimaq tribes have been moved, split, and combined by various governments. The Taimani are semi-nomads, roaming freely on journeys across the rugged mountain ranges. They inhabit an area that is known for its famous trade routes. Over the centuries, Interaction with various ethnic groups has produced a mixed heritage among the Chahar Aimaq, with many having slightly Mongoloid features. Chahar Aimaq groups were active in defence against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as well as in the subsequent civil war.

At one time, the Taimani (under different names) were a completely nomadic people, in control of a vast empire in pre-Mongol times. Today, however, they are semi-nomadic, travelling only during certain seasons. Due to problems with drought and erosion in the 1950's and 1960's, many of the Taimani nomads became sedentary farmers. They raise wheat, grapes, rice, barley, oats, melons, and vegetables with primitive hoes and wooden plows. Nevertheless, agriculture is still considered only a secondary activity in their culture, and a man's wealth is determined by the size of his sheep flock and the speed of his horses.

The Taimani are dependent on their herds to supply meat, milk, fat, and cheese. The animal skins are also used for making tents. While farming, the Taimani stay in towns and live in brick huts. Their flocks remain in the valleys and eat gathered grain. During the spring and summer months, they wander through the mountains, living in yurts (circular, domed, portable tents).

Taimani society is both patriarchal (male-dominated) and patrilineal (tracing ancestral descent through the males). The nuclear family is the most important unit of society. It usually consists of a man, his parents, his wife or wives, and their children. Once a young girl marries, she is considered part of her husband's immediate family. Ethnic identity among the Taimani is based on family and clan.

The Taimani women may help watch the flocks, but their primary occupation is weaving carpets. Each tribe or town has its own unique pattern, which is passed down from mother to daughter. The women use portable looms to make these fine, wool carpets. When food sources are low, the money earned from the carpet sales may be the only means of survival for the Taimani. The carpets, along with livestock and cash, are also used as marriage payments. Their carpets are extremely rare in today’s very changed world and represent a pre-industrial age where the makers are in touch with the archaic heart at the bottom of us all. Their carpets are often confused with those of the Belouch or the Eastern Kurds. The Taimani are virtually all Sunni (orthodox) Muslims of the Hanafite branch.


I used to buy direct from the Taimani in the market town of Herat in Western Afghanistan, when I would notify them by post of my arrival 3 months in advance, but circumstances today dictate I obtain my Taimani carpets through a couple of Herati runners who bring them down to Peshawar for my delectation. Availability is extremely varied, relying as it does on climatic and social factors affecting these noble hard-working tribes-people.


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Mathematics, Meaning and Mystique

Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to fathom and analyse the utterly beguiling business of simply looking at Oriental Carpets. So much of our emotional lives match the colour-fields that are rugs, fleeting, and ungraspable. Great artists like Cezanne, Mondrian, Klee and Matisse all accepted Islamic art as a teacher to help them translate the infinite variables of visual experience into a two dimensional structure without murdering the magical and we still have beautiful intriguing rugs teaching us. To many Western eyes much of Islamic Art seems obsessed by an almost scientific method of visual analysis. If those repeating-patterned rugs have such an apparent scientific formal rigour then why do they remain so wonderfully elusive and charged with mystery? Not all is left to the vaporous musings of obsessed tapetologists however as there are some technical, objective and logical pointers. Lets look at just the dimensions of rugs, the simple measurements of length and width and discover this simple dry subject is imbued with cosmic form!

Firstly, you may have wandered into a rug shop and suggested a square or even a round rug only to be looked at askance. As if you were asking why is sugar sweet? The pleasing proportions of The Golden Rectangle have dictated rug dimensions for centuries. The Golden Rectangle, The Golden Mean, or as it is sometimes called The Golden Ratio, is not a new concept. It has an aesthetic force that has been recognized for thousands of years. The Golden Rectangle is one where the ratio of the length of the larger side to the smaller side is equal to that of the sum of the two sides to the larger side. If we assume that the smaller side has a length of one, then the formula for the length for the larger side is X = (X + 1) over X. The only positive solution for this equation is about 1.61, or as some quite nearly put it at “about one and two-thirds”, or even more loosely “two is to three”.

A rectangle of this proportion has generally been considered to be most pleasing to the eye, neither too thin nor too square. It has been used as the basic format for countless paintings and buildings in both Western and Islamic cultures, from the awe-inspiring classical carpets and buildings of antiquity to the works of Rembrandt and modern advertising. Why do most traditional rugs follow these proportions? For instance; 100x60cms or 200x125cms or 3x2m etc. The answer is The Golden Mean.  



Now secondly if we look at the mathematical series discovered in the 16th Century Universities of Herat and Samarkand and brought to the west by the Italian Fibonacci we see a relationship with rug sizes reflecting the Golden Mean.  The Fibonacci series is made by adding the two previous numbers to get the next; ie. 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55 and so on. In fact any two adjacent numbers in this series will read like the inventory in The Rug Shop. 2x3, 3x5, 8x5, 13x8 and the near 6x4, 9x6, 12x9 and so on. Just choose your system of measurement, centimetres feet and so on, to fit.

The Fibonacci Series is a formula used to create a spiral and that is what the mathematicians in Central Asia were indeed doing, attempting to define the nature of Allah by investigating the natural world. They came up with the Series by measuring the spirals in nature such as the arrangement of seeds on the face of the sunflower.

Now for the non-scientific. The majority of traditional weavers and designers of Oriental Carpets and Rugs will all have some idea of the possibility of an extra force exerted by the rug and will compose towards that end: The rug as a metaphysical tool. Whether she is an illiterate tribeswoman in a remote black tent or an educated master designer employed by the Sultan the metaphor remains. This is expressed in English by terms like power centre, whirlpool, vortex, etc, meaning a sort of axis between the netherworld and the enlightened sky around which all revolves and a certain “life-force” or “regenerative entropy” fluctuates. The dance of Shiva, the Shaman’s dance, the whirling of the Dervishes, these ideas are as old as The Golden Rectangle and should be seen to be inseparable with the movement of the seasons, human reproduction, and night and day in the mind of the rug weaver.

”There is increasing evidence from neuroscience,” Oliver Sachs wrote recently, “for the extraordinarily rich interconnectedness and interactions of the sensory areas of the brain, and the difficulty, therefore, of saying that anything is purely visual or purely auditory or purely anything.” Sachs describes “ the enormous act of analysis and synthesis, the dozens of subsystems involved in the subjectively simple act of seeing.” He writes “at the level of the imagination there is a continual struggle for concepts and form and meaning. At this level one can no longer say of one’s mental landscapes what is visual, what is auditory, what is image, what is language, what is intellectual, what is emotional, they are all fused together.”

More on this is in an earlier article in these pages entitled “Synasthesia” archived on the web at:#Synasthesia.

In fact The Golden Mean, The Fibonacci Series, and the simple dimensions of a apparently coarse tribal rug are inseperable, and part of a long arcane and magic continuum, about which we have a lot to learn and from which we have much to learn.

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Synasthesia - A Design Genesis

When the Sufi Master Abdul Qadir began teaching, the jealous scholars of the city sent him a full glass of water, implying that there was no room for yet another learned man. Abdul Qadir placed a rose petal on top of the water without spilling a drop and sent it back, saying "Whoever among you can hear these flowers, can hear his Lord Almighty.”


"a vigorous experience produces a dilation of perception"


Synasthesia is a condition in which a stimulus in one sensory modality automatically triggers a perceptual experience in another.

Research suggests that tribal peoples such as the indigenous Australians and nomadic peoples of Iran have a much higher rate of synasthesia than found in modern western societies. Just as some important western artists had the condition it is postulated that at least some of the great artists who developed the original designs and wove the best carpets and kelims were synasthetes.

Hearing colours and seeing sounds is apparently the result of the brain being active and creative and emotional rather than the static, passive reciever-and-filter of tradition. Some scientists hypothesise that synasthetes may be further along the evolutionary road and that periods of minor synasthesia may be common.

For the illiterate, emotional nomadic weaver, the story of a carpet is a totality of experience as well as a narrative. It is a combination of the motifs and colours and intensity of passion that produces a connection with the carpet and implies a synasthetic response.

Before this age of mass production and economic imperialism, where the market drives the production, an Oriental Carpet was a statement of the weaver’s personality and pedigree. It was also a vehicle for strong magical totemic tools. It follows that her emotional relationship with her weavings would have been highly charged. That a vigorous experience produces a dilation of perception and allows a development of unusually creative parts of the mind is the next stage of the riddle.

Did these guls, these achiqs, these trees of life have multiple meanings beyond metaphor? Some people see water when they see a good old rug. Others simply see glossy wool. Some nomadic Belouch music relates both to life passages and two dimensional designs relevant to the seasons and weather. This cross disciplinary research shows that oriental carpet scholarship may be entering a new phase.

Maybe the last word should go to the tribal Elder in Bruce Chatwin‘s “Songlines“. He impressed Chatwin for when given a brand new vehicle by the authorities, he drove it into the desert and upturned it for protection from the sun.

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Waqf in Central Asiamosquesunset

Much is made in the West of the presence of Christians in Central Asia and their influence on the culture of carpet designs. The reality that seems to be emerging is that these groups were very small in comparison to the local population and were being either completely ignored or just tolerated and as such should be considered insignificant to the rug enthusiast. Generational changes in scholarship are humorous when one views collectors turgidly seeing Christian crosses in every gul. The clarity of hindsight and a greater wealth of information however has it’s own responsibility. Although there were Abbeys of Nestorian monks from early Christian times and whole villages following the teachings of Mani, called Manichaeists, current scholarship points away from the idea that they had any lasting influence on the pervading Muslim culture. In fact most weavers were only nominally Islamic with local sects of unorthodox Sufism being more important. Buddhism was a great early influence. Some experts point to pre-Buddhist Tibet as a crucible of the weaving culture with Buddhist Tibet having a great design input right through to the 19th century.

It is now accepted that minority Islamic groups such as the Naqshabandi and Qaderi Sufis have had an influence far beyond their numbers. We do know that since Seljuk times Naqshabandi networks have been a barely underground political force of some importance and intriguers and political commentators ignore them at their peril but in terms of their affect on the weaving culture one turns to the recent research into the Muslim practice of Waqf. This deeply embedded custom is where a hereditary line would be responsible for the upkeep of local shrines, ruins or indeed any building or chaman of historical or cultural importance. In a highly convoluted form of modern branding the hereditary caretakers would accept sponsorship payments from tribal Khans, effectively selling the rights to be associated with the shrine. The profits may often support charities for the disadvantaged. Great honour and social acceptance went to the tribal group associated with the Waqf. The Waqf would also provide an essential diplomatic connection with the settled peoples and respect would be gained by dialogue. The great Khans developed their Waqf before any period of military expansion.

The Fosters Melbourne Cup as a Central Asian idea! Only, to better match the Central Asian Waqf one would have The National Trust selling the rights to specific buildings as well as having powerful local families self-aggrandise by judicious maintenance. God knows how expensive the upkeep of an old building could be and the noise one could make about it! Occasionally other powerful families with nomadic connections could prove they were better caretakers and by doing it cheaper would have more largesse to spread around the settled community and thus wrest control of the shrine and it‘s profits. It all sounds very modern, does it not!

Certainly recent knowledge of the Waqf shows it provided a deep connection between the nomadic pastoralists and the settled farming and small business populace. We can now forget the idea of never-ending antagonism depicting the nomads as noble and insular, pillaging at will with the decrepit farmers cowering behind their garden rakes. Was this Hollywood cowboy reality? “Oh the farmer and the cowman should be friends” goes the 1950’s musical Oklahoma!

It is still too early to attribute actual specific abstract designs but the weight of knowledge is heading in that direction. The Turkoman practice of making outsize Wazirat carpets (with plain centres to the guls) for local government buildings is part of Waqf. Imagine appearing in court in a property dispute and having your own coat of arms on the floor of the court! There are depictions of the ruins of Persepolis in late South Persian weavings. Various shrines appear in Kurdish and Bakhtiari carpets. The Timurid minarets and the Jome Masjid of Herat are woven into Chahar Aimaq rugs. Even the conservative Turkomans wove realistic depictions. The Sulaymanli Mashad Shrine pardahs and the Jangal Arouq prayer rugs are examples. These designs are well known simply because they are realistic and obviously representational. But it is in the understanding of the carpet lands’ sense of metaphor that is important. Take the motifs ak su, running water, and gol-i-badam, the almond flower. It is generally posited when woven they were not disassociated single thoughts but would have been a metaphor for something like spring, sex and marriage. Indeed the very reason for going to the shrine would most probably be fertility, or health of a family member. The power of the Naqshabandi Sufis and the Waqf in the minds of the weavers would have these motifs refer to specific places and specific events. The blessing by the Sufi and the running water at the shrine and the almond flowers in the cloister would have a strong appeal to the nomadic weaver as a connection to the shrine experience. Later on weavers would just refer to these motifs without knowing their specific geographical Waqf reference. For instance the triangular motif called mushka is woven into a carpet to reflect a blessing from the Sufi. This blessing is traditionally written on paper and placed inside the talismanic amulet, which is either textile or metal . The carpet design then becomes a reflection of a real event and a specific motif that started from a fixed place subsequently becomes a design continuum, a motif used over and over. This is a new addition to the origins of design.

DESERT ROSE will report more on the difficult Central Asian idea of Waqf and it’s relevance to the art of the Oriental Carpet as the research proceeds. Meanwhile browse the web to Look at a thoroughly modern Waqf at

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Designs and Motifs - Mir and Mushka

The designs such as Mir and Mushka transcend simple folk art. The tribal and village women who used to weave these motifs believed they had the power to protect and transform their world. They were the open sesame, the abracadabra talismans of the traditional world and probably represent 2000 plus year old Shamanic beliefs kept alive in the female realm. The voodoo of Central Asia was one of witches' spells where every rock could hold a malignancy, every change in the weather a meaning, every bird a spying sorceress. A malevolent and frightening world from which the weaver protected her family.

The Mushka desert2is an amulet, a charm to protect against the evil Djinns, witchcraft spells, and the evil eye. It can be made from cloth and contain a prayer written on paper sewn inside. This is then worn attached to clothing and may even be put on a favourite horse or donkey. The triangular or V shape itself holds the protective powers and can be seen on many traditional old rugs, sometimes in the simplified form of three convergent lines.desert3

The mir-i-boteh, desert4or simply boteh, is called the mango in Hindustani India because it's shape resembles the fruit. Made famous by the Paisley shawl in Europe, the boteh's Persian origins have been under review by rug scholars.

In the country patois of old Persian, mir means everlasting, and boteh means a flower in the botanical sense. It is a metaphor for infinite time. The everlasting flower is not a flower but a seed pod and the shoot from the top is just that, a new shoot, representing life, and because of life, death.

In new or city Persian mir is the respectful term for a royal personage and boteh means a type of firewood. The top of the cypress tree is the required shape and it also fulfills the sense of immortality. Cypress trees are planted to signify a cemetery from a distance.

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