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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.

Mini-Salon 29: War Rugs from Afghanistan

by Philip Loftus

Just next to the Madrassah of Sultan Barbays in the Hussein district of Cairo there used to be an old stone prison (18th c. or earlier) which had been converted into workshops to supply the surrounding tourist dives. On an outside wall said to have been built with blocks from the pyramids, holes the size of bathroom cabinets had been chipped out of the stone and shelves and glass doors inserted. Hassan's Perfume Shop was one such kiosk, plus a tiny former cell upstairs. There amidst the sounds of hammering and the comings and goings of the delivery boys you were treated to mint tea, ubble-bubble if you were in the market for some, and a small collection of war rugs from Afghanistan. This was the early 1980's and war rugs were a novelty. Hassan's was the only place in the city that stocked them. I used to parachute into Hussein once in a while on one of my rug buying missions, stop in at Hassan's for tea and the latest jokes about the regime - Hassan was an activist of sorts. Many of my non-ruggie friends bought his rugs for the helicopters and the AK47's but I never bothered and recently it has started to feel like a mistake. 

The rug/balischt pictured below, which is an attempt to correct my mistake, is probably from the same time period as Hassan's place, long gone now, as is the prison and, tragically, Hassan himself, who died in a ferryboat fire on Lake Nasser in 1984. But I never saw anything this ruggish in his shop. The connection with older Baluch pieces is obvious. The kilim back is continuous with the pile front. Although it cannot be a prayer rug it does look a bit like one. Size is 170 cm x 70cm . I haven't checked yet, but I assume the knots are assymetrical open left. The border looks to be alternate T54's fitted with Saggar ATG missiles, and Hind M21 attack helicopters. In between, maybe a MIG 17 with a split tail-plane and an IL76 troop transport which wings along the lower border with it's engine pods and a thicker area for troops behind. There are also a couple of teapots and cups - for mint tea.

After Hassan's closed and his widow went back to live in Upper Egypt, I lost track of war rugs completely. Now I'm starting to rate them; longevity, the detail the weavers have incorporated in the different weapons and the fact that a lot is known and documented about them, a refreshing change from the 'story is free' lore one has to wade through with antique rugs. 

Compared to Dobag and revival rugs, war rugs do seem oddly mainstream. According to an Oriental Rug Review article it was once thought that they had originated with Soviet soldiers ordering them from local weavers as a memento of their time in Afghanistan. It's not clear why any Russian soldier would have wanted to remind himself of Afghanistan. As it happens, that turned out to be apocryphal. The nice thing about that story is that it was checkable. The nice thing about it being untrue is that with the war rug, for a short time anyway, the weaver has an intimate connection with the thing she portrays.

The famous 3 tank rug "circa 1988 is by a Turkman weaver" maybe post Soviet withdrawal, based on the the raised barrels. Or, the elevated guns may simply be a function of the size of the rug. Note the desert camoflage on the barrels.


(Courtesy of Martha Cooper)

Since the arrival of Western troops in Afghanistan, the majority of the rugs have become generic souvenirs for the soldiers so much so that you have to wonder if the weavers aren't getting a subsidy from the US National Rifle Association.

By contrast here is an earlier piece with a classic design; a Soviet BDM troop carrier, flanked by AK47's and grenades. A foot patrol skirts a border interspersed with Markarov pistols.

(Courtesy of Rachel Armstrong)

Inevitably with the passage of time and a more settled life in Pakistan some weavers have turned to more peaceful subjects, either to distance themselves from the mass production or perhaps because the old motifs come easily to their fingers. The newer designs have started to merge with the traditional ones; grenade and helicopter to boteh; tank to cartouche.

(Both rugs courtesy of Rachel Armstrong)

How long will it take for creeper, tendril and sprays of flowers to wrap themselves around all the military hardware left behind by the departing Soviet and ISAF forces? Once the last western soldier leaves Afghanistan in 2015, it can only accelerate.


An Apache nestles wheel-deep in the encircling undergrowth.

Two Hip 8 troop carrying transports in flight. Note the way the rotors are shown rotating.
Soviet era. (Courtesy of Ron O'Callaghan)

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