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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.

Why are bags made by northwest Persian tribes so different from those made by the Turkmen? by Steve Price

The Turkmen territory is just east of the Caspian Sea; northwestern Iran and the Caucasus is across the water, 150 to 200 miles away. There has been boat travel across that body of water for centuries, so the Turkmen and the peoples on the opposite side are not truly isolated from one another.

For convenience, I will refer to northwestern Iran and the Caucasus as "northwest Persia". In fact, northwestern Iran was part of Azerbaijan not so terribly long ago, and the traditional capital of Azerbaijan is the Iranian city of Tabriz. The Turkmen have a long history of pastoral nomadism, as do the tribal peoples of northwest Persia. That is, both groups raised sheep and migrated seasonally between summer and winter pastures, bringing entire households (house and all) with them. The major household furnishings in both cases were items woven from wool. The division of labor between genders was the same in both groups, and the women were the weavers. As in most of the world (including Europe and the USA until about 500 years ago), the art is primarily in the form of useful craft items. For the people we're considering, those items were the weavings made by the women.

Both groups live in similar environments, mostly high desert. In view of this and all the other similarities, we might expect their arts and crafts to be not very different. They had the same problems, and might be expected to have had the same solutions. Household goods are basically solutions to problems, so we might expect the utilitarian weavings of the two groups to have a lot in common.

Surprisingly, they differ in almost every imaginable way.

Here are two images that will illustrate these differences (please forgive the color reproduction; I'm getting better at it, but not there yet). The upper one is a Tekke juval face, the lower is a face from a northwest Persian cargo bag.. The Turkmen piece is predominantly red, as is typical (nearly universal) in Turkmen bags and rugs. The northwest Persian piece has a rather broad range of colors, more or less balanced. That's typical, too.

The Tekke piece has the typical Turkmen layout: a field of repeating guls framed by a border, with some undecorated space around the border and a skirt below it. The guls sort of disappear beneath the border, giving the impression that the border is a window through which an infinitely repeating pattern is being viewed. This seems to be an important element of Turkmen weavings. The northwest Persian piece, on the other hand, is essentially a series of horizontal borders with no field and no space around them. This is typical of tribal weavings from that area.

The Tekke piece, like most Turkmen bags (at least, the ones that have made it into western collections), is done in pile. The northwest Persian bag, like the vast majority of them, is done in flatweave; soumak brocading in this case.

But there are differences between the utilitarian textiles of the two regions that are even more fundamental than the layouts, palettes, and weaving techniques. Here is a list of the most common kinds of Turkmen bags: Juvals, the large, deep, envelope-like bags. Torbas, fairly large, not very deep, envelope-like bags. Mafrash, small envelope-like bags. Spoon and spindle bags, similar in size to mafrash but open at a narrow end ("portrait format"). Khorjin, the saddlebag type, although whether the Turkmen produced these prior to, say, 1850 or 1875 is still uncertain (I believe that they did so, but this may not be your test of truth). This is the basic Turkmen repertoire of containers for household use.

Northwest Persian tribal peoples, on the other hand, seem not to have made large numbers of anything quite like any of those except khorjin. But they did produce a lot of salt bags and the box-like cargo bags (also, confusingly, referred to as mafrash). Neither of these occurs in Turkmen weaving (I have seen one Turkmen salt bag, clearly a 20th century product).

What are we to make of this? Why should people who have had contact with each other for centuries, live in similar environments and have essentially identical lifestyles, use such different utilitarian items and have such different aesthetics? Perhaps it is of no more significance than language differences existing across a narrow river (a fairly common situation in the world), or the fact that traditional eating utensils differ so dramatically between eastern Asia and the west. On the other hand, it may be of no less significance either.

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