Posted by R. John Howe on 08-07-2002 07:27 AM:

The Utility of a Narrowly Defined "Heartland?"

Dear folks -

The issue I want to raise here is addressed to some extent in Michael's initial essay and in John Collin's post in one long thread, but I want to ask it separately and perhaps a bit differently here.

Michael and Eagleton define, with a map that Eagleton provides, a "Kurdish heartland," composed of a northwestern edge of Iran, an area in Eastern Turkey, and small part of Iraq and Syria. I think they do so primarily to delineate a georgraphic area in which they feel the Kurdish weaving tradition has likely been most undisturbed for the longest time.

The questions I want to raise are:

(1) what is the utility of defining traditional Kurdish weaving this narrowly?

(2) are the seeming indicators being used, e.g., weavings that "seem" more "tribal," and the notion that these are likely less "commercially" influenced, really defensible?

(3) isn't it likely that a great deal of Kurdish weaving worthy of inclusion in any "traditional" grouping is being excluded? I think this is part of what John Collins was arguing.

Murray Eiland, Jr. has argued, long ago that the distinction between "commercial" and non-commercial" cannot be drawn with any real accuracy. (The Italians were in Goa in the 14th century. And it seems like Kurds, in even remote areas, had occasionally to "go to town" and were perhaps as the Turkmen have been shown to have been, more dependent on the town than we have thought.)

Similarly, the notion of what can be said to be authentically ("authentic" is another troublesome term) "tribal," resists an agreed-on conception. The presence of goathair and the use of undyed wools may not really gird this notion adequately.

Michael, I was talking to our wise, old friend, Jamshid, yesterday about the notion of a Kurdish "heartland." He smiled and said, "Things are not that neat."


R. John Howe

Posted by Michael Wendorf on 08-07-2002 03:35 PM:


Dear John:

Thanks for your thoughtful post. I think you have asked some important and difficult questions.

The short answer is that Jamshid is definiately correct when he states that things are not that neat. I would go so far as to state they are downright untidy. Kurds are found in many places and exclusively in relatively few. A few examples illustrate: though this point was not raised in the thread concerning weftless transverse soumaks, Catal Huyuk is not in Kurdistan though the weftless transverse soumaks I illustrate in the Salon do originate in the Kurdish heartland. Moreover, my recollection is that one of the most significant battles leading to the influx of tens of thousands of Turks into Anatolia in the tenth century A.D. (as well as a lot of sheep) occurred near Lake Van on the edge of the heartland ( I refer to the Battle of Malazgirt in the Van region of eastern Anatolia in 1071 A.D.; according to Josephine Powell the Oghuz defeat of the Empire of Byzantium resulted in between 350,000 and 600,000 nomads entering Anatolia from Central Asia as well as 7 to 8 million sheep between 1071 and roughly the 13th century). Kurdistan is a geographical area, but it has very little history as a political entity along any lines we would recognize. The heartland defined by Eagleton is only part of Kurdistan - and Kurds are found in many areas outside of Kurdistan.

More to the point, I cannot speak for my mentor Ambassador Eagleton or why he chose to define a Kurdish heartland. I hope that anyone and everyone interested in Kurdish weaving and this issue picks up his book "An Introduction to Kurdish Rugs" and reads it. In my opinion, its greatest value, unlike most rug books, is the text. There is an incredible amount of information in it about the Kurdish people and their weaving tradition. In addition, while the rugs illustrated are often a little disappointing, they illustrate types that are otherwise largely undocumented.

That said, I can discuss and try to defend my reasons for describing and using a Kurdish heartland in attempting to open a discussion of traditional Kurdish weaving. I think that our understanding and appreciation of Kurdish rugs generally and their place in the history of weaving is minimal, mine included. I also believe that there are a number of prejudices that have served to perpetuate and exacerbate this situation. These prejudices include a tendency to think of Kurdish rugs, as I have written before, as Bijars, Sennahs ands Kolyai Kurds. So much so that these rugs tend to dominate most discussions of Kurdish rugs even though I believe each type has a distinctive structure that can be shown to be a structure that is not traditional to Kurds weaving outside a commercial or workshop environment. Of course I am not deriding any of these rugs or products. Far from it. Each of these rugs is and has been an important commercial product playing a substantial role in the decorative rug market. There is nothing wrong with any of these rugs or with acknowledging that they were perhaps or probably made by Kurds as long as we understand what they are, why they were made etc. We might even consider them a sort of culmination of a weaving tradition.

Similarly, there is nothing wrong with Kurdish rugs interpreting Persianate designs arising from Safavid dynasty period. However, one trend among dealers and collectors has been to dwell on Kurdish rugs with naive renderings of Persianate designs, designs that have no more than a 300 year history, and call them Proto-Kurdish. The use of this term suggests that any Kurdish weaving tradition springs from this influence. I believe this mischaracterizes Kurdish weaving as well as the tradition which, at a minimum, is much larger and broader than this. I believe it also exemplifies a prejudice in favor of knotted pile and village/city rugs when at its core the tradition is, in my opinion, more likely to have its origins in simple, flatwoven techniques.

The utility then of my use of the Kurdish heartland is as a response to some of these trends and prejudices, as an effort to frame discussion and focus our attention on some areas that have barely been examined. In addition, it roughly corresponds to areas where Kurds have tended to live traditionally or in some isolation longer than some other areas and where the Kurdish weaving tradition had its greatest incubation. It is a term of convenience.

The indicators you refer to are among the indicators that I think evidence a long standing tradition. Are they defensible? I leave that for you and everyone else to judge. Perhaps what separates my concept of tradition and traditional is what separates me from friends like John Collins. I have shied away from using words like authentic and authenticity. In fact, I do not think either appears in the Salon. My use of these words has been in response to John and others who have used these words and would have me and you believe that Bijars, Sennahs and Kolyais are the authentic Kurdish rugs and weaves. This in turns suggests that the Kurdish weaving tradition arises from and is expressed through these weavings. To be redundant, I do not think this is accurate. I think these weaves reflect the ability of Kurds to adapt to and adopt designs, structures and techniques in response to commercial incentives and I also believe that the ease with which this was done with a fine resulting product is further evidence that Kurds had a long weaving tradition already in place when these pressures arose, no big deal to respond when weaving is part of your heritage and part of what you do.

Finally, I have also tried not to dwell on the "tribal" distinction. My focus again is the tradition and its origins. I well know that there are many gray areas in trying to place a particular weaving in a tribal as opposed to a village or another definition. We are unlikely to have any meaningful agreement (as you write) concerning our conception of tribal - it is a bit of a moving target at best and I am not much interested in trying to persuade you that a particular rug falls one place or another. However, I do think there are some notions or indicators that gird or may gird our notion of a long tradition - these indicators are, I have tried to argue, roughly consistent with a plausible or inferential understanding of the very history of weaving from the simplest techniques and weavings to the culmination of this tradition in beautiful Persianate inspired Bijars. I think these indicators are found in weavings woven in the so-called Kurdish heartland most commonly, but not exclusively, and, for lack of a better word, in a more tribal environment within this heartland. The real point, however, is trying to expand the picture and notion of what Kurdish weaving is, what it embodies at the core and not just at the extremes.

I hope this responds to some of your questions and clarifies what I have tried to do in framing the discussion of a Kurdish weaving tradition as I have come to see and interpret it.

Best, Michael

Posted by R. John Howe on 08-07-2002 09:54 PM:

Hi Michael -

Thanks for this fulsome response.

I quite agree that you did not use the word "authentic." I mentioned it myself in my post as another troublesome term.

And I don't intend really to debate your use of the notion of a "Kurdish heartland." My post was intended primarily to encourage you elaborate on ths aspect of your argument as you have done here.


R. John Howe