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"Simurgh and Dragon" Kaitag Embroideries

by Steve Price

The Kaitag and Dargin districts are in a remote, mountainous part of Daghestan ("Land of Mountains"). On the basis of dates on headstones in cemeteries, the population of these districts has probably never exceeded 7,000; at least not during the past several hundred years.

There is a unique kind of embroidery from this region, known in the marketplace simply as Kaitag embroideries. They are worked in silk, mostly by a very distinctive laid and couched technique, and are typically around 3'6" in the longest dimension. A few had appeared on the market before 1985, and were thought to probably be Uzbek because of the exuberant colors and drawing. In 1986, Robert Chenciner discovered their true source and uses, and published an extensive survey of the subject in 1993 (Kaitag: Textile Art from Daghestan).

There has been a strong tendency attribute give these embroideries to the 17th and 18th centuries, but the evidence on which this is based is hardly compelling. Chenciner found that they were treated as family heirlooms in the villages of the region, so great age is at least plausible. He also reported that his interviews with local people indicate that none have been made since the early 20th century.

They fall into three broad categories in terms of their use and the designs. One group was used to wrap and present the bride's dowry; their designs are usually fairly obviously adapted from Ottoman textiles, with floral lattices and roundels. A second group was used during funerals, serving the important cultural practice of covering the face of the deceased as well as being cushion covers for funeral rituals. These generally have designs that are referred to as cosmic maps, presumably representing the pathway to the afterlife. Many include images of horses, one of the modes of transportation to it. The third group were draped over the head of babies' cradles to distract the evil eye and protect the child. Their designs often include sun symbols and various protective zoomorphic images. The so-called "simurgh and dragon" design is probably either within this group, or is a funerary cloth.

The simurgh is a mythical bird common in the legends of people throughout much of Asia. It is generally protective, but fierce, and in some cultures is represented as a winged lion. The dragon is an ancient symbol in east Asia, and this may be the source when it appears on Kaitag embroideries. On the other hand, a St. George cult was brought into Daghestan from neighboring Georgia around 1200 AD.

I estimate that there are probably 300 to 500 specimens of Kaitag embroidery, of which about 25 or 30 are of the simurgh and dragon design. They make a distinctive and readily recognizable group, and for this reason lend themselves nicely to comparative study. Let's begin with what may well be a the best and oldest member of the group. It appeared in Eberhart Herrmann's Asiatische Teppich- und Textilkunst, Band 4 (p. 39).

It illustrates all of the basic features of the group. The arrangement, which is typical, consists of 3 panels, each separated by a narrow vertical band. Each panel contains three red stylized dragons being assaulted by multicolored diving simurghs. The dragons each have one pair of clawed feet, flames emanating from their mouths, a series of dots on most of the body and a large motif in the abdomen. The colors vary very little from one embroidery specimen to another. Chenciner describes the vertical bands that separate the panels as resembling many of the gravestones in the Kaitag and Dargin districts.

This appeared in HALI (#102, p. 60).

Note the similarity of the two pieces, not only in terms of the major motifs, but even in the secondary motifs and their placement. That is, the arrangement of what we would consider to be minor forms or "fillers" does not seem to be random.

The next example is Plate 3 in Chenciner' book.

The familial properties of the group should be pretty obvious by now. Let me finish by presenting the only example of which I am aware that significantly deviates from the others in layout. It appeared in ORIENTAL RUG REVIEW (VOL. 15, No. 2, p. 21).

Instead of three complete panels of simurgh and dragons, it has one complete panel in the center and what appear to be two half-panels on each side. The number of motifs in each of the vertical separators is reduced as well. The colors look dull in the image, but I have seen this piece and it is absolutely spectacular. I believe that it was made somewaht more recently than the others, and that some of the original design and motif detail is lost by what is probably failure of the embroiderer to understand them. Note, for instance, the absence of the abdominal motif in the dragons.

Finally, a late example, probably early 20th century, illustrating fairly extensive lack of understanding of the traditional design. This is Plate 4 in Chenciner's book.

Neither the dragons nor the simurghs look much like those in the older versions, and are stylized (degenerated?) to the point of the dragon being almost unrecognizable and the simurgh entirely so. Placing this piece in the same group as the others rests more on layout and color arrangement than on motif recognition. The vertical separators are reduced to simple vertical lines; they separate the three panels, but if their motifs had any significance, it is gone.

The marketplace is full of hype about Kaitag embroideries, and I hope this little essay will help people recognize that some of them are aesthetically and ethnographically sensational textiles, others are fairly mundane (although the colors on even the dreariest are pretty spectacular - silk does that, you know). I will be interested in learning peoples' reactions to the group presented here from aesthetic standpoints, on viewpoints of the overall corpus of Kaitag embroidery, and on the significance of the motifs in the dragon and simurgh group. At the very least, these are pretty pictures that I hope you will enjoy seeing.