By Saul Barodofsky
Folk art is a window into the consciousness of a people. The items nomads made for their personal use thus yield
genuine insight into their cultures and ways of life. Of course, the converse is true as well: Knowledge about
nomadic peoples gleaned from other sources help illuminate the uses and meanings of their textiles.
In this article, I wish to focus on woven bags in the nomadic societies of Western and Central Asia.
About Nomadic Life
Let us begin with some basic background about these nomads. In this part of the world, roughly
from Turkey to the steppes of central Asia, much of the population consists of pastoral nomads or settled people
descended from them. The nomadic way of life is essentially a thing of the past. Mass migrations of hundreds of
thousands of people moving their flocks across vast plains and savannas, once the norm in western and central Asia,
now occur only in isolated pockets. Even these people are on the verge of integration into the much larger sedentary
nearby societies. But this does not mean that nomadic cultural and artistic traditions are relevant only for collectors
and scholars. Even among the sedentary peoples now living in this area, houses and household goods frequently resemble
those of the traditional pastoral nomadic societies from which they arose.
A couple of features of nomadic life are particularly relevant to an understanding of the role
that textiles played. First, wool was the commodity that was most readily available to migratory shepherding peoples.
Second, nomads did not live in a money economy. That is, they did not shop in markets or depend upon others to
make the most of the items with which (and in which) they lived. Instead, they made nearly all of their utilitarian
items themselves; their homes (tents), the bags in which they kept all their possessions, and all the items they
used for decoration, warmth, and comfort. There were a few exceptions to this generality. They usually sought out
specialists to supply their weapons, horse gear, and jewelry, and obtained some items (and sometimes, slaves) by
raiding villages in their territory.
Happily, much nomadic weaving has been preserved. Custom dictated the provision of a dowry with
marriage and donations to mosques. Since nomadic wealth consisted mostly of textiles and animals, the dowry and
the donations generally included textiles. Many of these were preserved and, therefore, can still be found in good
Woven Bags and Their Functions
Nomads used textiles for a wide variety of purposes: clothing and belts, animal trappings, furniture,
and dwellings. Given the migratory nature of nomadic life, it is not at all surprising that many of the items they
made for their own use were containers made out of wool, i.e., woven bags. Seasonal migrations with animals favored
portable furniture and homes rather than the permanent dwellings furnished with massive, inflexible items. And
woven containers were essential for storage and transport.
Southern Caucasian Mafrash Panel
The function of woven bags in the nomadic world bears some resemblance to that of the furniture found in Western
homes. Most furniture in western homes is used either as a container or to provide comfortable support for a person's
body. Like Western furniture, woven bags serve both to store items and to keep them out of view. But had the added
feature of easy transportability.
Crates, wooden boxes, and the like were relatively seldom used for storage and transport. First,
it was awkward to use them in migrations when pack animals carried the loads. Second, they could break if they
fell from an animal. Third, in the high deserts in the part of the world where these peoples lived, wood was not
easy to get, especially wood sawed into boards and the shapes that would be used to fabricate containers and other
kinds of furniture. Instead, the containers or bags were made of textile.
Concealment and the "Evil Eye"
Bags not only served as repositories and containers, they also concealed their contents. This
is a very important function, not widely appreciated in the West. Asian pastoral nomads had a strong belief in
the power of the "evil eye" (a hold-over from Shamanistic times, noted in the Koran). The evil eye refers
to the envy, greed, and ill-will of the person's neighbors and also inhabitants of unseen worlds. The practice
of covering one's possessions, which is a very ancient one in nomadic societies and is virtually universal in western
and central Asia, marks an effort to shield oneself from the evil eye. By keeping them hidden, others will not
be incited to covetousness, nor will the malevolent beings from unseen worlds have their attention directed towards
the owner. Even in the major cities of the region, it is still considered very poor form for a shop owner not to
wrap a purchase to conceal its nature.
Caucasian or Northwest Persian Khorjin Face
Placing important belongings in bags, then, not only affords physical protection for the items, it provides spiritual
protection as well. We might well wonder which is the more important. The significance of amulets in these societies
is that they offer protection from the evil eye -- the envious looks of the unseen. Indeed, the word for amulets
is nazarlik, derived from the Arabic word, nazar, which means "evil eye".
Nomads produced textiles using virtually every technique: flat weaves, pile weaves, felts, embroideries,
appliques, and braided pieces. One way of classifying groups of pastoral nomads is in the techniques they used
to make their textiles. Some were predominantly felt-makers, others mainly used flat weaves, others mostly wove
pile-faced bags (it was only the most "primitive" nomads who used animal skins). This is not to imply
that any group used one technique to the exclusion of others, but it's not difficult to notice, for example, that
Turkoman tribes made most of their bags in pile, Caucasian tribes generally used flat weaves, nomads further east
than Turkmenia tended to use more felts.
Tekke ak-juval. Alternating Pile and Flatweave Bands
In some groups, different techniques were used to make bags for different purposes. In the Taurus mountains above
Fethiye, the nomads make spoon bags and grain bags in soumakh, while Koran bags are usually weft-float brocaded.
The Bakhtiari often used mixed techniques, with most of the bag surface being flat woven and the bottoms, which
are subject to the most abrasion, done in pile.
The End & Beginning
The functions and significance of bags in western and central Asia is relatively unexplored territory,
except for scattered works on saddle bags, pillows, cargo bags, and salt bags. This brief outline is not intended
as the last word on the subject. Rather, I hope that it marks the beginning of a discussion that will lead to a
better understanding of nomadic peoples by those of us who are captivated by their textile art.