Guide to Tribal Rugs and Nomadic Rugs

What are Antique Tribal Rugs and Nomadic Carpets?

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Antique Tribal Rugs – One of the most familiar labels applied to Antique oriental rugs and carpets, antique and new alike, is the term “tribal.”  The label evokes a range of associations, most of which suggest something romantically antithetical to our modern western civilized or urban existence.

Tribal rugs were or are presumably made by people in a tribal social organization, very likely nomads dwelling in tents, moving from place to place with the herds of sheep and goats that provided the wool for the rugs. Such rugs are thought to be woven in designs that have been handed down faithfully in tribal tradition with little or no change for generations beyond recall.

We assume that such rugs were woven for the use of their makers as an integral facet of their material culture. There is something untamed and timeless, even atavistic about this conception of rug weaving.  No doubt, such notions are very much a part of the allure of the rugs we call tribal, perhaps as much as the striking beauty of the pieces themselves.

Antique Tribal Rugs by Nazmiyal
Antique Tribal Tinud Rug

But however charming and attractive this conception of the tribal rugs may be, it is hopelessly simplistic and in some ways downright erroneous. The presumption of a tribal social structure underlying this concept is certainly valid.

Many rug producing groups had and still maintain a tribal identity, even in the face of brutal official attempts to suppress it in various parts of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

But the equivalence of such a tribal identity with a nomadic lifestyle or the economy is less clear-cut. Many nomadic groups have settled down in the course of time, not only under governmental duress but also by choice.

Often, nomadic peoples opted to spend the warmer part of the year in encampments while retiring to permanent sedentary homes for the winter months. Yet none of this had any effect on the rugs they wove, at least in terms of design.

But it probably did affect the size of the carpets they produced. Here we have the example of the main carpets woven by the nomadic Salor Turkomans of Central Asia.  Such carpets have long been regarded as the oldest and most authentic Turkoman  carpets.

Antique Tribal Central Aisian Rug by Nazmiyal
Antique Tribal Central Aisian Rug

But in the midst of reconstructing a traditional Turkoman yurt or tent for an exhibition some years back, the curators were rather disturbed to discover that the Salor main carpet they wished to use was so large that it simply would not fit inside the tent.

So was it then a commercial piece made for export? Was it a later piece made after the Turkomans were forced to settle down? Or is it simply that such larger carpets were used by the wealthy Salor in larger, part-time or seasonal sedentary houses modeled on those from the towns and cities of Central Asia and nearby Persia?

Similar affinities to urban Middle Eastern tradition appear when one looks at the design and weaving technique of Turkoman carpets, especially the ones we consider to be particularly early. The recent studies of Jon Thompson and others have shown that many Turkoman designs or motifs come from the repertory of sophisticated Islamic textiles or carpets.

The Turkoman carpets displaying the earliest form of such motifs, those attributed to the eighteenth or seventeenth centuries, turn out to have cotton in their foundations, and/or they have corrosive dyed brown outlines in place of the more standard natural brown wool outlining of Turkoman rugs. They also have a depressed warp structure and tight weave reminiscent of urban rugs rather than nomadic ones.

Nomadic Pazyrzk Carpet from Hermitage Museum by nazmiyal
Nomadic Pazyrzk Carpet from Hermitage Museum

All this evidence converges to suggest that the great refinement of Turkoman design and weaving technique betrays the strong impact of urban rug production from nearby Persia in this early period.

In fact, we can take this all the way back to the famous nomadic carpet from the fourth-century B.C. frozen tombs at Pazyryk in Siberia. The analysis of both the wool, which is that of local sheep, and the red dye, which is Polish lac, suggest a northern, nomadic origin.

But many of the motifs in the rug and the fineness of the weave shows the clear influence of Persian court textiles, examples of which were discovered in the other tombs at Pazyryk. The more closely we look, the more we see that the notion of an essentially autonomous nomadic or tribal rug production separate from urban rug and textile design or technique is, and probably always was, illusory.

Antique Tribal Timuri Baluch Rug by Nazmiyal
Antique Tribal Timuri Baluch Rug

There is no reason to doubt that tribal weavers developed established repertories of patterns and motifs that were handed down from generation to generation as a cultural patrimony. But that does not mean that tribal weavers developed these repertories from scratch or that they did not change over time in response to new ideas from urban cultural centers.

Turkoman rug design continually absorbed ideas from the Persian rugs and textiles they acquired in trade or as booty from raids.

Similarly, the highly prized main carpets of the Timuri Baluch tribe are typified by a design of palmettes clearly derived from classical Persian prototypes of no earlier than the seventeenth century. As modern people we may be charmed by the idea that tribal rugs have designs that go back unaltered to the dawn of time.

But the reality is that many of their designs are three or four hundred years old at best, and that they came to acquire their familiar tribal appearance slowly with subtle changes from mother to daughter over the centuries.

As for the idea that tribal pieces were also made primarily for local domestic consumption rather than commercial export like urban rugs, there too, the case is oversimplified or overstated. Clearly tent bands, wall bags, and wedding trappings etc. were made for local internal consumption.

But that never precluded the possibility of selling pieces when and if it proved beneficial to do so. One could always take a piece to the market in town to raise some cash. It is also clear that rugs were woven in village tribal or nomadic settings just to be sold, and that the weaver strove to produce or adapt what she knew would for one reason or another be salable. Nor is it likely that this only happened in a “commercial” period after the nomadic or tribal way of life began to decline.

Modern research has shown that from ancient times nomads have always maintained complex commercial relations with the neighboring settled urban communities. The notion of a pre-commercial period is a fantasy of the romantic collector. Rugs were always translatable into wealth, and every nomadic or village weaver knew this as she labored at her loom.

So tribal rugs could be made for commercial purposes. They could be made for non-nomadic settings. They have designs and weaving techniques that were adapted relatively recently from urban commercial workshop rugs rather than drawing exclusively or primarily on some timeless repertory going back to the Stone Age.

Well, if so then what is it that distinguishes the sort of rug we call tribal from the ones made in the cities? Above all it would seem to reside in the style of such rugs, in their concept of form and design.

All the rugs we dub tribal display a high level of abstraction. They tend to manifest an abstract geometric style of drawing or graphic articulation and a strongly geometric sense of overall design structure. That is not to say that the motifs they utilize are purely abstract, but rather that they render the various floral and animal forms they depict though a vision of abstract stylization.

Because of this it is sometimes difficult to recognize the borrowed Persian or Islamic motifs that inspired the tribal designs. But therein lies the distinctive power of the tribal weaver her capacity not only to absorb sophisticated ideas from exotic sources, but also to transform and internalize them, to make them into something strikingly new and exciting, and to pass this transformative power on to succeeding generations of weavers. That is the essence of the tribal rug tradition.

Antique Tribal and Nomadic Rugs

Tribal and Nomadic Rugs – The term “nomadic” is often encountered in the rug world to distinguish weavings that were produced by the nomadic peoples of Central and Western Asia as opposed to the woven productions of urban centers. This distinction operates on multiple levels.

Initially it simply identifies weavings that were produced by wandering, tent-dwelling peoples with a nomadic lifestyle, economy, and social organization, as opposed to those living in settled town or urban circumstances.

But this involves much more than social distinctions. Nomadic weavings were functionally different than their urban counterparts. Both utilized rugs as interior furnishings, but while urban rugs are overwhelmingly floor coverings and less frequently cushions, nomadic rugs served a much greater range of needs, functioning as woven doors, structural tent reinforcements, horse and camel trappings, and storage containers of variable size and purpose.

In the world of nomads, rugs served as protection and insulation against the elements. Though highly decorative and aesthetic, nomadic rugs were literally part of the apparatus of survival.

Rugs were therefore a far more widespread and integral feature of nomadic life than they were in the urban sphere, where they remained more an element of luxury and décor, much as they still are in the West today. Consequently the typology and development of rug weaving among nomads was far more complex and varied than it was in cities, towns, and villages.

Many scholars are in fact convinced that rug weaving was initially invented and developed by nomadic peoples, who then transmitted it to urban cultures in the course of time. The more culturally integral nature of rug weaving in the nomadic sphere also suggests that there rug designs had a greater significance and cultural function there than they did among urban peoples. Nomadic designs were cultural symbols such as tribal or clan emblems, and therefore they changed and developed slowly as highly traditional crafts.

In the urban or village milieu designs were primarily decorative and more subject to changes in taste and market demand, which explains their greater variation and constant evolution of new patterns and types. All this helps to explain why nomadic weavings hold a privileged place among collectors not only for their technical quality and original designs, but above all for their cultural authenticity.

See also: The Nomadic Origins of Oriental Rugs

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