Exploring the Traditions of Antique Oriental Rug Weaving
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Exploring the Traditions of Antique Oriental Rug Weaving
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.

By Jan David Winitz, President & founder of Claremont Rug Company

OAKLAND, CA.- 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).


Over three millennia, Oriental rug-weaving became a central craft and art form of countless peoples living in Persia and the Caucasus. Among the most inventive of village rugs were those woven in the mountains to the northeast of the city of Tabriz in Persian Azerbaijan.

Because there is precious little documentation specific to the activities of this region in the 1700s and 1800s, exactly how this artistic milieu arose is shrouded in mystery. Yet, the rugs I have been privileged to collect and present to clients over four decades clearly speak for themselves. Their weavers demonstrated a singular confidence in spontaneous inspiration at the loom, coupled with exquisitely dyed tonalities akin to Impressionist paintings.

The mountain village of Heriz was the hub of this artistic explosion. Starting early in the 19th century, this humble, backcountry village at an elevation of 4500 feet, produced exquisite, densely knotted silk rugs that to this day fetch significant winning bids at auction. While the scholars that I have spoken with have shrugged their shoulders as to how this came to pass, it is clear that there was great weaving prowess already in place. During the 18th century, Turks from the west and Armenians from the north moved into the area for political reasons. Both came from long-established weaving traditions that were village-based, unlike the multitude of nomadic peoples who also frequented the area.

From what can be pieced together, the Heriz silk rug weaving venture stopped as abruptly as it started. However, the production of larger geometric wool carpets, usually with dominant center medallions, known as Heriz, Ahar or Gorevan and the famed Serapis with their spacious, graphic patterns, vibrantly continued well into the 20th century.

Bakshaish, a smaller nearby village and surrounding hamlets, began as early as 1800 or before making enigmatic room size carpets, some with asymmetrically positioned center medallions and others with elaborate all-over patterns. These rugs were often either ethereal or earthy in coloration and captured an uncanny sense of movement not seen often in other styles.

Later Bakshaish rugs, woven in the 19th century, exemplify the native penchant for experimentation, the call to personal expression and spontaneity. These settled pastoral weavers borrowed from the tribal tradition a dynamic roster of geometric shapes, along with the artistic technique of abrash (intentional color striation). Bakshaish was one of the few villages that produced larger room size to oversize carpets.

In the 19th century, there were literally thousands of rug-weaving villages in the Caucasus range, the country of Persia, and the Azerbaijanian corridor that lay between. Often, they had been populated for centuries. Living in breathtaking natural settings, their inhabitants attuned their lives to a simple agrarian routine dictated by the rhythm of the seasons. While the artistry of tribal rugs could be said to be simultaneously powerful and introspective, many village rugs are observant of nature’s delicate changes and celebrate its boundless beauty. This is often expressed through the use of harmonious, shifting colors that is greatly valued by connoisseurs.

Often 19th century village rugs were created for the use and enjoyment of the weaver’s family and as gifts for special occasions. Surplus weavings were sold in the local market where an eager clientele was composed of international visitors, agents of the ruling family, and non-weaving households. Individual artistic nuances and insights were enthusiastically appreciated.

Other than the Heriz region, village weavings were typically created in the area size up to 5×7, runners and keleges (gallery carpets two to three times longer than their width) formats. Village men, highly skilled in natural dyeing, created family recipes that were guarded as intellectual property for generations.

The names of these folk-art rugs indicated either their tribal association, the village or province where they were created. From Northwest Persian Azerbaijan also came multi-medallioned Karajas, Serabs (often using undyed camel hair), more elemental Kurdish and Shahsavan rugs, and many others from small villages whose names have been lost over time and those whose rugs are simply called “Northwest.” In Central and South Persia, a few village rug styles are generally known, such as Malayer, Tafresh, Veramin, Lillihan, and Niriz. From the Caucasus Mountains, the Kazak rugs are often known by their village names, whereas the rest of the styles reflect their province’s name, such as Lesghi or Shirvan.

Late in the 19th century, many village weavers became part of a cottage industry initiated by merchants from Tabriz. At first, the weavers were supplied with wool to make carpets of their own invention, but by the 1910s, control over the weaving process tightened and the design pool narrowed to accommodate the taste of the burgeoning international market. Today, although the best 19th century examples have become extremely difficult to find, there remain available a variety of village rugs that are respectable representatives of this tradition, rife with spontaneity and sensitive color combinations, that flourished over thousands of years.

In the next installment, I will delve into the equally fascinating history and artistic legacy of Town and City Rugs.

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