2023 April-May Analysis

Carpets of the Caucasus – a look at the region’s rich textile weaving history

With a history as rich and complex as the region itself, the time-honored tradition of carpet weaving spans the whole of the Caucasus – from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Turkey, Iran, and beyond. Investor.ge explores the growing popularity of these carpets in Georgia, as well as the history and artistic inspiration behind these pieces – and modern efforts to revive them.

Maybe it reflects the hectic growth in Tbilisi apartment numbers and the sharp rise in new residents, but it is hard to miss the increase in carpet shops around Tbilisi, their colorful wares spilling out onto pavements and squares. Tbilisi’s Old Town, especially, seems to be reviving its ancient role as a carpet trading center, though sadly not from the historic locations of the splendid but long disappeared caravanserais.

It may come as a surprise to shoppers discovering the provenance of the carpets on display, antique as well as new, to find out how few have been made by Georgians. The carpets are still produced by weavers in locations which have been for hundreds of years the main sources but, as of old, the carpets in Tbilisi come from the whole Caucasus region – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Turkey, Iran and from even further distances. Only a few of the weavers have ever been from Georgian tribes, although many weavers, Azeri, Armenian, and Kurdish, resided in villages within the country’s borders. Now most carpets on display in Georgia are imported, though notable efforts are being made in Kakheti, in particular, to revive local production.

Qazax rug. Retails for $8,500 on New York dealer Nazmiyala Rugs website.

Another startling fact is how many different carpets have been made in the Caucasus – various forms of piled carpets and flat woven kilims, in different colors, patterns, yarns, depth of pile, makers, dates, purpose, and so on. Identifying them is a major challenge. Even the august international textile authority, the Textile Society of America, says so: “A key problem in dealing with textile arts of the Caucasus, however, as rich and diverse as they are, is that one is rarely, if ever, able to attribute a particular group of carpets or textiles to a particular group of people who made them.”

So experts try to match a carpet with an “anchor” one, for which the provenance is proven, to arrive at possible identities. Marketplace lore and details of pattern are also deployed in fixing dates and locations. The written and photographic records of pre-revolutionary Russia are commonly used to provide witness, state Richard Wright and John Wertime in their book, Caucasian Carpets and Covers – the weaving culture.

Borchalo carpet made by women in Marneuli. (Photo by Tata Shoshiashvili, OC Media)

Georgia’s carpet culture

With such a diverse choice and long history, Caucasian carpets inevitably provide scholars with copious opportunities for theories. One, offered by Wright and Wertime, was that the utilitarian flat-woven rugs (a Georgian specialism) “many of them spectacularly graphic and colorful, are the true traditional products of Caucasia’s weaving culture.”

Tbilisi carpet shops used to number five or six, but that has at least doubled. Probably most well-known, and certainly most conspicuous, is “Origin Carpets – the Caucasian Carpets Gallery” at the end of Erekle II St., just next to the Sioni church. Owned by Manana Aranea and run by Patima, the shop has old and new carpets and kilims from all over the wider Caucasus region, Turkey, Afghanistan and even North Africa. Prices range widely, of course, depending on the carpet’s rarity. Attractive carpets (not antique ones, but certainly not straight off a production line) can be bought for several hundred dollars.

Carpet propaganda began in the 1920s. These theme rugs became a popularity of the Soviet Union.

However, at the other end of the scale and in international markets and auction rooms, the highly collectible and sought after small 19th century Qazax rugs (this name is given to rugs made in villages in western Azerbaijan and in a number of towns and villages in northern Armenia and the adjacent southern part of Georgia) sell for $5,000 – $60,000 and more. An indication of top end prices can be seen on the website of New York dealer Nazmiyala Rugs.

Pile carpets have dominated the market historically, but in recent years, flat-weave kilims have become very popular. Describing Georgian rugs, Manana Aranea says: “For Georgian carpet-rugs, the tradition of kilim weaving is more widespread here. Carpets were also woven though in limited quantities in Tusheti, Pankisi, Kakheti, Kartli and Pshav-Khevsureti.”

Higher quality and larger numbers of pile carpets were made by women in the villages of Marneuli (Borchalo) region (Karachop, Lambalo, Borchalo, Lori-Bambak) and the Akhaltsikhe region where Armenians displaced from Turkey were living. “The patterns of those carpets seemed to be influenced by Armenian traditional ornaments,” she says.

Karabagh carpets were known for their floral designs.

Caucasian carpets – a complex history

The history of carpets in the Caucasus reflects the complex history and ethnic mosaic of the region itself and goes back millennia. Much has not changed, with the carpets woven mainly by women in villages near where the sheep are raised. Compared to earlier history, much more is known of the last two hundred years during which time the pastoral story was transformed. Production was ramped at the turn of the nineteenth century when Russia sought to build a commercial industry in the Caucasus to raise living standards (and discourage revolutions). That took what had been a modest local activity to one that by 1911 employed 200,000 women at the looms and, due to the good Russian rail links, exported rugs to Europe as well as Russia, and then on to the U.S. This industrialization collapsed in World War I but was revived in the 1920s. However, the industry has diminished since the end of the USSR and the expansion of Iran’s carpet production.

Historically, over 350 different tribes resided in the Caucasus, to a great extent in the mountains – many of them nomadic and all with their individual weaving and textile traditions. The Turkic population have been the main weavers, according to an Encyclopedia Iranica section: “The main weaving zone was in the eastern Transcaucasus, south of the mountains that bisect the region diagonally – the area that comprised the Azerbaijan SSR; it is the homeland of a Turkic population known today as Azeri.” However, other scholars point to the importance of Armenia.

Kizikian carpet weaving at Pesvebi Studio in Kakheti. Photo by Georgia Today.

The Caucasus People points out that brisk demand for carpets across the whole region would have been generated for insulation and well as to decorate the otherwise austere dwellings, be they yurts, tents, caves, village houses, or palaces, and to reflect religious beliefs. So the Caucasus, with plentiful materials available like hemp, wool, and silk and dyes being in good supply, was an excellent location. “Regardless of where the items were produced, they became the subject of flourishing trade and were, according to Arabic references, exported to all parts of the world by numerous caravans. The same was true of the weavers themselves – the whole manufacturing quarter would often be relocated by shahs and sultans.”

Clues to where weaving took place historically are the names of the most well-known styles, as described by merchants Nazmyal in New York: “Chief areas of origin were Kuba, Dagestan, Sharan, Talish and Baku in the East, and Gadjah, Kazak (thought to derived from Cossack), and Karabagh in the southwest.”

Music for the eyes

Californian specialist carpet merchant, Claremont Rug Company, comments: ”The weavings of the numerous Caucasian tribal groups enjoy a universal popularity among collectors of antique Oriental rugs today. Both the thick-pile carpets from the most mountainous regions of Kazak, Karabagh and Gendje, and the thinner, more closely shorn Kubas, Shirvans, and Daghestans, from the lower slopes descending toward the Caspian Sea, are equally enchanting.” These are the last remnants of an ancient weaving tradition which has now all but vanished.

“What is most striking about an antique Caucasian rug is its daring use of color. Balance of color is achieved here not by shading, but rather through contrast. The predominant reds, blues, greens and yellows would seem clashing to the mind; yet in actuality, the unerring confidence of the Caucasian craftsmen created color combinations so harmonious that they have been marveled at and studied by Western artists for centuries.”

“Music for the eyes”is the description given to the carpets of the Caucasus in one Belgian exhibition catalog. Due to the Caucasus’s proximity to that major source of international textile trade, the Silk Road, its rug makers were influenced by every rug-making tradition from Egypt to China. The Caucasian tribespeople, working small, portable looms, took the designs of more sophisticated antique tribal rug weaving cultures. “By transforming these designs into simple geometrical proportions, they have brought to them a new freshness and spontaneity,” says Claremont.

However, carpet production has always been flexible in choice of designs, responding to the prevailing markets. Dealers have been bemused by early 1930s carpets, when production shifted from homes to organized workshops. Carpet Production of the Transcaucasus by MD Isaev at the Scientific Research Institute, Caucasus Academy of Science in Tbilisi, states that seeking sales, low cost materials were used; the weavers’ traditional creativity diminished and “Theme Rugs” were introduced. These offered “portraits of Lenin and Stalin and views of the Baku oil fields…”

Collectors, however, now want the traditional rugs, states The Caucasus People, a catalog written for a major Belgian exhibition. Highest prices go for those that have “retained their original character in methods of weaving, color palettes and pattern.”

Rather than the 19th Century innovations brought in by the Russians, collectors prefer rugs influenced by Shah Abbas who ruled the Caucasus in 1586-1628 when it was part of one of the greatest Iranian empires, the Safavids. A rug connoisseur, he did much to develop pile carpet weaving in Azerbaijan, summoning thousands of peasant girls to learn pile weaving and new patterns of Iranian origin. Or the Karabagh rugs, with their roses and other floral motifs. As The Caucasus People explains, “this came about because rug weavers from Karabagh were invited to the court in the 16th century to teach French manufacturers pile weaving, and were inspired to use floral patterns on their return home.” Karabagh girls chose these floral patterns in the 20th century when making flat-weave rugs as part of their dowries.

At ReWoven, Azeri weavers are reviving the making of the famous Borchalou and Karachop carpets. Photo by ReWoven.

Georgian weavers revive textile traditions

Tradition is also preferred in the current rug-making renaissance in Georgia – projects in Kakheti run under Clusters 4 Development with EU and German government funding are reviving Kizikian carpet and Tushetian feltwork production. These are only possible because in 2005, at Zemo Alvani, the father of Dito Arindauli, founded Georgia’s first wool processing facility in modern memory.

Dito has continued the business, now processing Tusheti wool single-handedly to provide pure-wool yarns. His factory processes between 30,000 and 35,000 tons of wool every year, all sourced from Tush shepherds.

Using its wool are weavers at the Tusheti Crafts Workshop Mzemoe, where a group of local women are making felt wall hangings and other products. Further into Kakheti is Pesvebi Art Studio in Dedoplistskaro which is reviving traditional Kizikian carpet weaving. Eight women work with Pesvebi, and as the director, Nino Bakhutashvili, explains: “The products created here are distinguished by density of weaving, the color and high artistic level of the composition of the ornaments. The workshop is the only one in Georgia,which has considerable experience in dyeing with natural dye.”

At the ReWoven project in the Kartli and Kakheti villages of Kosalri and Yourmuganlo, Azeri weavers are reviving the making of the famous Borchalou and Karachop carpets. These can be made to order, every rug being handmade by a woman in her home, and every knot tied with hand-spun, naturally dyed wool.

Nomads and villagers in the Caucasus have always used their resources of time and materials to produce textiles with which to furbish their lives and to trade for items they could not produce. In Georgia, as can be seen by the latest weaving projects, rug making and textile art continues to reflect the strengths commented on by Wright and Werkman: “While Caucasian textile art was a traditional one, part of the tradition was a receptivity to ideas from the outside.”