sauj bulagh or mahabad rugs

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Posted by Michael Wendorf on December 29, 1998 at 00:10:42:

Dear Daniel:
Thank you for the interesting topic. I recall each of the rugs you have tried to link together here from photos at different times but had not considered them as a group.
The Sauj Bulagh (Sawj Bulaq) or Mahabad attribution for rugs is a loose one. Mahabad has been an important Kurdish center at least since the 19th century. Most significantly, it served as the capital of a brief Kurdish Republic 1945-46 which comprised only the northern part of Persian Kurdistan with Kurdish as the official language. The so-called Mahabad Republic encompassed Mahabad and the market towns of Bukan, Naqada and Ushnaviya and certain tribal lands controlled by Jalalis in the north, and others by Shikak, Barzanis and Harki among others.
There seems to be some evidence that rugs were at least traded or available there in the 19th-early 20th century. But it is scant and, to my knowledge, undocumented by photos or detailed archival information. Levi's article in Hali 70, if you read the footnotes, traces this information from traveler accounts of rugs with shiny wool and brilliant color. There is no question but that rugs generally fitting that description have come to us and that such rugs are now referred to as Sauj Bulagh rugs. If they were woven in the town, historical evidence suggests the weavers would be Dihbukri, Shikak, Zarza, Mamash, Mangur or Mukri Kurds. As you point out, weaving was long gone by the 50s and Eagleton has suggested Dihbukri as the most likely. Reading David McDowell's A Modern History of the Kurds, I would like to think the Mukri are more likely. Eagleton, when last I asked, was unmoved. Certainly the Mukri seem to have been more dominant in the areas around Sauj Bulagh in the 19th century.
Having hunted for Sauj Bulagh rugs for at least 5 years now, I can confirm that rugs 2, 3, and 4 seem to fit into the catagory of what in my mind is a Sauj Bulagh rug. Rug #1 does not fit. Generally, Sauj Bulagh rugs have a flat back, symmetrical knots, ivory warps and red or coral wefts although I have seen some examples with yellow and even green wefting. Most telling is a corrosive ground, usually brown, that creates an embossed effect when the rug is in otherwise good condition. And the color, these rugs are all about color and the best are painterly in their use of it. Also, they almost all have some ivory in their design and many have the same minor border done on two different ground colors. The knots are very rounded and the wool is very thick staple. Persianate designs predominate. For example, the Herati pattern. This may suggest the rugs were woven by kurds for the local market. The rugs do not seem to be inherently "Kurdish" except for deeply saturated colors, lots of flowers and shiny or glossy wool. If anyone can tell me what a "Kurdish" rug is beyond this, I will be more than grateful.
Of the several minor borders used on these rugs, that found on rug #2 (the Nagel Hali 91 rug) seems to be the most common. You will also find it on the rug in plate 11 of Eagleton's book next to rug #4 (plate 12 of the same book). The major border on rug #2 is also one of 5 or six common borders and seems to be a traditional border at least since I have seen it on rugs running quite a continuum of age. See the Dodds rug. I encounter it most frequently on examples with the so-called tuning fork design of which plate 11 in Eagleton is one example and another is in Levi's article in Hali 70 dated unreasonably early. Mostly these are runners and Skinners has had three or four in the last 5 years - all damaged.
In my experience, the major border on rug #3 is not typical of Sauj Bulagh rugs. It is found, however, on a number of older Kurdish rugs with both persianate and non-persianate designs (for example an old one with memling type guls) that have a somewhat depressed warp and a stiffer handle. In particular, I would like you to focus on the floral border element that appears like an "L" with a bud filled in on this rug. That element appears as both a border and field element in a variety of older Kurdish weavings, probably derived from shrub designs. Several good Jaff bags isolate this element and use it as a simple border repeat to nice effect. The border on rug #4 is a simplified border common to this group and I am not at all certain it is related to the others.
The Dodds rug and the ORAC rugs are also Kurdish to my eye. The Dodds rug does not fit into the Sauj Bulagh type, but the ORAC rug does. As for the Dodds rug, a shattered but otherwise nearly identical rug is in the Sikri collection in New York, another is owned by Textile Conservators in Chicago while an early and beautiful example was auctioned in New York two years ago this month. The ORAC rug does fit the type including its main and minor borders and brownish ground, corrosive as I recall.
I do not think rug #1 fits into the group, though it may be Kurdish. If it has depressed warps, it may fit into the group I referenced with regard to rug #3, but the border is very different. In fact. this border is unknown to me in Kurdish rugs in its drawing although at least two groups of Kurdish rugs have yellow or mustard borders. The first is a group, usually of runners with the mina khani design that carry a floral meander border on yellow. The second is a group of ivory ground rugs with borders copied off Kurdistan garden carpets.
I will also note that red wefts, by itself, adds little to distinguishing carpets from northwestern Persia. The bags in Pic #3 of John Howe's salon on Oops rugs have red wefts and are probably not Kurdish. Moreover, the red in these rugs tends often toward coral or pink or pale red.
If rug #1 is Kurdish, it is an exception. Though I see no good reason to date it to the early 19th century, it could be. It seems more like a great example of the revival type of weaving made in the 2nd half of the 19th century. I also do not understand the connection to Zoroastrian flame design. The color is brilliant, but a tree or simple stylized palmette seems more plausible. Certainly, Kurds were involved in some pretty organized and sophisticated weaving. Look at Alberto Boralevi's fragment collection posted on the Internet and you'll see a beautiful palmette fragment that gives you an idea of what some of these rugs looked like.
On the other hand there is some limited connection between Kurds and Zoroastrianism. Although about 75% of Kurds are Sunni moslems and others are Shi'a there remain sects that may suggest what the pre-islamic religions, including Zoroastrianism which dates back 2600 years in Iran, looked like. I refer to Alevi (or Qizilbash) Kurds, a mixture of pre islamic, zoroastrian, turkoman shamen and shi'a ideas that formed in the 15th century. Do not get too excited, Jim, because the adherents live in Central Anatolia. Others are the Ahlwi Haqq who are not exclusively Kurdish and the Yazidis who are Kurmanji speakers and who live west and east of Mosul in what is today Iraq. At least two old temples with flame altars are in ruins in areas inhabited by Kurds in nw persia. But I draw no conclusion as to any connection with rugs. As an aside I will mention that a rug in my collection with the herati pattern and otherwise fitting the criteria of Sauj Bulagh bears an old sewn label with the words "Persian Mosul" on it. Well, Mosul is not in Persia or has not been for quite some time. But Mosul was a trade center much like Sauj Bulagh. Ultimately, we can only speculate.
Finally, for anyone interested in Kurds there is a nice new website devoted to the topic called "akakurdistan." It is run by Susan Meiselas who wrote a beautiful book called "Kurdistan, In the Shadow of History". This book is available from and is great. David McDowell's book "A Modern History of the Kurds" is also good. You can also try Mehrdad R. Izady's book called "The Kurds, A Concise Handbook."
Thanks again for the images and ideas. Happy New Year.
Michael Wendorf

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