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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Khalyks, Kapunuks and Konfuzion

by Trevor and Margret Steiger White

I wish I had surfed into the Turkotek site for the first time sooner than just a couple of months ago.  I might not have compounded my konfuzion and kosts about khalyks and kapunuks.  I might have learned from John Howe’s 2007 opening gambit that:

Historically, the ‘khalyk’ has been a source of controversy and mystery.

and Margret and I – not being "carpetologists", dealers or collectors, and lacking the knowledge and experience of most Forum members – would not have feverishly pursued a gnawing issue about "our" supposed kapunuk.  Bravely, though, today I risk correcting John’s observation from:

... has been a source ... to ... is still a source ... of controversy and mystery.

I’ll explain.


Margret already had carpets from family and her travels in Anatolia, Afghanistan and Iran; I learned to appreciate them through her.  So, over the years we acquired around 4-5 dozen carpets, rugs, weavings, etc.  Still, we have never collected them.  We’ve never gone out looking for a carpet.  They all found us.  All have a story.  All are in use either on the floors or walls of our 3-bedroom house.  We explored provenances but, until now, never became intense about them.  That would not change their attraction (a rose by any other name is still a rose!).   The trigger for my problem was the birthday present that Margret gave me in 1988.  It came from a much respected and reputed Swiss expert (with a 1953 PhD thesis on Persian carpets) following a family tradition as a carpet dealer (We used him several times before and afterwards).  He certified Margret’s acquisition formally as:

'Ancien' (more than 40 years old), a ‘kapunuk’ decoration for a wedding camel.

And informally that it may originate from the Ersari in Afghanistan.


It is 181cm (71.3 in) wide and 152cm (59.9in) long, coloured burgundy red, black, brick-red, beige/natural, and (not in the weave itself) gold-yellow and orange in the fringes and the trio of six tassels, with no trace of attachment/harnessing points at the corners.  From its size, it could only have originated in a village workshop, not from a nomadic loom.  Its design has very much in common with Stephen Louw’s two-panelled 19th century Ersari shown in Salon 36.  Some ‘errors’ can be found in ours also.  Yet after more than 20 years of musing and perusing, often with a glass of Bordeaux, its foibles are more fascinating than flames in a campfire (I don’t even see perfection in the bathroom mirror!).   My early explorations of provenance in pre-Internet times were superficial - limited to a few coffee-table sized books.  I certainly failed to uncover another ‘three-panelled’ example with such fringing and tasseling.  Last September, after a brief trip to Uzbekistan (where we saw little of interest), and for unknown reasons, I suddenly had a renewed interest in the provenance of some of our pieces.  This was one of them - and just as suddenly I was up to my ears in confusion.  I flooded Amazon with orders for about a dozen books and I ended up with a 15cm high pile of Internet printouts, not to much avail. Young or old, we can all share the 11-12th century experience of Omar Khyam who concluded:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent/Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument/ About it and about; but evermore/Came out by the same door as in I went. (Fitzgerald)

The form itself, with only fringing, without any fringing, with three vertical panels of equal length or with a shorter middle panel or with only two vertical panels was said to be rare.  Again I found no example just like this.  Also, no example with similar colours, design or motifs turned up.  I then was shocked to read that maybe I was looking up the wrong tree.  Maybe this was not a ‘kapunuk’ but a ‘khalyk’, not a wedding camel decoration but a decorative tent-door surround.  Had our respected dealer been wrong in his 1988 assignment?  With or without it being surrounded, was the door the same?   There were more weeks of digging and delving.  Whether khalyk or kapunuk, the general opinion was that they are both uncommon.  Finally, we took the view that our piece is a khalyk.  Our dealer had named it falsely over 20 years ago - understandable seeing the naming confusion that still exists from the many Central Asian languages and dialects, and still the lack of information/documentation on the uses of various pieces either from indigenous people or 100 years of European research.  On the other hand, we are ready to affirm his wedding camel-trapping designation.   During travels over much of the Silk Road (pursuing Buddhist and Islamic culture - never carpets) from China to Jordan, or from Mongolia to Delhi, Kashmir and Karachi, we were always impressed by the ways ancient peoples found simple solutions to complex problems.  For tent access, a firmly framed door in a yurt’s lattice wall is as simple a solution as for a house.  However, anything taller than about 180cm and/or wider than 100-120cm could lead to structural problems.  Although we have spent more than 2 years of our lives under various canvasses throughout the world, we never decorated the narrow entrances.  However, if we did, we would ensure that any lintel and door-jamb decoration did not interfere with access when wearing heavy clothes, large fur hats and/or carrying large loads.  Having a piece 180 cm wide with a third central panel of heavy weave and tasselation hanging down more than 150cm - virtually closing off the entrance - strikes us as particularly no-go - apart from trying to mount it flush with the inner curve of the jurt wall.  It is an assertion, but a piece like ours is not a door surround – not a kapunuk.  


More surprises were to follow.  In November, a ‘kapunuk’ for sale surfaced – from a British vendor offering carpets alongside a wide range of antiquities.  Ho, ho! (I thought), maybe kapunuks are not so rare!  Stunned by the image he showed, I contacted him, received some further information and, because I had a few UK pounds that were sinking into a black hole of worthlessness, I purchased the piece.  Apart from books, CDs and motorcycle parts, this was the first time ever I had bought anything blind.  The vendor’s image below explains my impetuousness.

It is 170 cm (67 in) wide, 140 cm (55 in) high, coloured middle brown, brick-red, black, with white-beige, orange-red, golden-yellow fillers.  There are vestigial fixing tags at the upper corners.  Importantly, though, the identity of its design with ‘our’ 1988 piece is astonishing – as never seen before in two pieces.  Form and motifs are the same.  The width is slightly less and this new piece has the additional 18 black and white Z-spun fringes, with the inner 16 knotted in 8 pairs.  As an additional ‘refinement the pom-pom tassels are threaded together with what appears to be original yarn – so that each trio of 9 tassels can only move as one – preventing any easy brushing aside.   With the piece in my hands I could email the vendor about its provenance, naming and dimensions.  From his ‘experience’, he wrote, it dates from the 1970s/80s, perhaps made by Ersari.  He did not go into my ‘khalyk/kapunuk’ question.  However, as to the size (for a door surround), he did raise the valid point that objects copied for a commercial market may be altered.  Here, you only have to look at outsized ‘decorative’ copies of the likes of Western spinning wheels, medieval kitchen tools, old Swiss cheese-making objects to see that this happens all over.  Such replicas have no function - only form.   So, what a coincidence!  Again our ‘researches’ re-designated this also as a khalyk. So, we now have two khalyks acquired 20 years apart which, apart from colour and minor differences in form and design, are identical.  They must have come from the same source, maybe the same loom, and perhaps the same weavers.  The 1988 one sourced in Switzerland was then reckoned to be more than 40 years old.  The 2009 one had made its way to the northern UK, but today is judged to be no more than 40 years old. 


I don’t have any particular questions to ask - only to ask my peers what they think about this … and about our thinking.  Is it the ultimate in coincidence that two rare objects end up on our walls? Or, to use a Swiss saying in respect to these academic debates, is the soup is not eaten so hot as it is cooked?  Our thinking has been guided by our (biological) research experience and by Sherlock Holmes' assertion to Dr. Watson that when one had ruled out the impossible, what remained, however improbable, was the truth!  So, there are still a couple of other thoughts.  Someone mentioned the work of Tamara Dragadze (Kinship and Marriage in the Soviet Union, ISBN 0-7100-0995-X).  I checked out what she reports about wedding ceremonies of Turkmen workers – or those which at that time had survived Sovietization.  To quote:  

In the past, the Turkmens went to get the bride on camels and horses.  The strongest camel was chosen for the bride and on its saddle they built a so-called ‘kezhebe’ ( a type of palanquin) … decorated with various materials.  Nowadays they go … in trucks and taxis … Often two or three trucks and dozens of cars take part.  These are richly decorated in the traditional way.  For example, the scarves … used to decorate the wedding camels are hung from the radiator of the car in which the bride is to travel (‘duebashtyk’); a carpet-bag (‘due khalyk) usually hangs from the side of the car and dozens of silk and woollen scarves are fastened to it.  The trucks are often covered with rugs, mats and sheepskins.  The cars are decorated with silk scarves and beautiful materials which are called of old ‘at gulak).   There are some differences … for example, in Western Turkmenia, girls and young men hold a richly sewn curtain – again called a ‘kezhebe’ - over the car in which the bride sits.  This can be traced back to the ancient custom of conveying the bride in a palanquin (‘kezhebe’) attached to the saddle of a camel.  


My first thought runs so:  There must have been a first time when a wedding group broke tradition with new-fangled motor transport rather than the old-fangled camel.  Available decoration, however, would be the traditional stuff; khalyks, asmalyks – also with traditional dimensions.  I have seen some formidable camels in my time, but I don’t think they would match up with a 1930s Russian truck.  So, as the ex-camel stuff needed replacement, maybe dimensions were modified so that the decorative form was adapted to vehicles and a function - such as breasting a camel or curtaining a kezhebe – was lost.  Just a thought, though I’m even less of an anthropologist than carpetologist.   A second thought addresses the many attempts to determine the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin - all the discussions about linguistic changes, spelling, usage, and the like.  The quote above gives a golden example of how confusion can arise in the minds of non-locals.  Traditionally, a bride was in a camel-borne, curtained litter/palanquin called a kezhebe.  Later generations decorated the carriage (car) of a bride with a curtain - but this curtain, according to Dragadze, was now named a kezhebe.  Maybe locals had no problem with this shift - but Westerners couldn’t follow it.  Perhaps non-Westerners would misunderstand aspects of our carriage/car terminology - wondering where to find the feathers, buttons and bows, even elephants with our bonnets or hoods, wings, boots or trunks!