Posted by R. John Howe on 09-08-2002 07:26 AM:

Engsi Primarily Commercial; Prayer Format Older

Dear folks -

Dick Wright, who with John Wertime, suggested in their volume "Caucasian Carpets and Covers," that a lot of the Caucasian rugs collected were in fact rather commercially-driven, externally influenced, products of the "kustar" movement (a sort of small business administration effort during both the Soviet era and the preceding time of the tzars), rather than the more romantically defined, autonomously-produced village and tribal objects that collectors often celebrated.

This is a line that Dick has taken pretty consistently in his writing and he is currently preparing something on the engsi that takes a similar tack. I am not free to share any real particulars because the work is still in progress and he has not drawn firm conclusions, but I think I can share the general thrust of his suspicion.

What do you think of the notion that the tradition of the pile "engsi" format is actually fairly shallow in Turkmen history and that its production was driven primarily by the discovery by the Turkmen ladies that this was a format that could be SOLD? Further, that the Turkmen pieces with a "prayer rug" format, that is, those with arches that do not seem to be engsis, are plausibly an older, more traditional format.

This would explain why we have so little evidence of pile pieces of the engsi format in use on Turkmen tents (they used felt or wooden door coverings), and would also explain why we have so many engsis about.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-08-2002 08:27 AM:

Hi John,

It's an interesting notion, but I'd await some evidence before getting very excited about it. There's nothing novel or implausible about the general idea that pile stuff was usually for special occasions while flatweaves and felts were the materials for everyday utilitarian textiles among the nomadic Turkmen, and for someone to persuasively argue the case for the pair of hypotheses you toss out (that the pile ensi is a latecomer made for commercial purposes exclusively; that the prayer rug is an old Turkmen tradition), there's a lot of pieces that need to be assembled. The two are not mutually exclusive, so either one could be correct or incorrect without impinging on the other.

I'll be interested in seeing what Wright has to say.


Steve Price

Posted by Bob Kent on 09-08-2002 12:33 PM:

Made to Trade?

As a textile tyro, I find the concept of weavings that are refined and "non-commercial" hard to understand. At the time of weaving, something could have been made for use in one's family or made to trade to someone else. Given the skill that I presume was required to produce a ensi, chuval, whatever, could they have been made for own use? (Wouldn't the own-use intention imply that a weaving was one of a few things the weaver ever made, or that the experienced hands that I presume were required wove a pile of ensis for own use?) Perhaps the intent to trade within an isolated group (y' know, for the yurt next door) allows made-to-trade weavings to be seen as more authentic?

I know the pre-1880 Turkmen were feared and terrorized farmers and traders, but does that really preclude the possibility that they made things to trade? (if you look at say pop stars, bad behaviour might be good for business

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-08-2002 03:13 PM:

Bob et al -

There are lots of seeming contradictions in the various pictures we impose on the Turkmen whose weavings we collect.

We tend to romantize them as a kind of "noble savage," although they were nasty neighbors and more dependent on town than we often seem to think. They did, of course, weave many items for their own use, but it is also true that they had to have considerable of interchange with townies in order to maintain their semi-nomadic status.

It is my understanding the the frames of Turkmen tents were for some time built by specialists in towns from whom the Turkmen nomads acquired them.

Similarly, indigo is a "high technology" dye, and was primarily a monopoloy of town-based Jews throughout much of Central Asia, during much of the 19th century at least.

So it is likely that there was enough continuing contact with town so that there might have been fairly early and frequent opportunities to barter, in part, on the basis of Turkmen weavings, whose qualities were widely admired by even casual traveling visitors.

It's not entirely clear to me when such nomad-town interactions began to be serious for the western Turkmen tribes, but it has always been a little scary to me to note that the Venetians were in Goa in the 14th century. That gives some credence to Murray Eiland, Jr.'s claim that the line between "produced for commerce" and "produced for use" weavings is hard to demonstrate.

And a related point that goes even further was made by an Indiana University professor and specialist on Central Asia at a Textile Museum convention a few years ago. I cannot at the moment retrieve his name, but I remember him suggesting that most of the Turkmen weavings we collect were likely made by more settled weavers; that nomads are simply too busy to weave much. I have not seen this claim taken up, seriously, but it has a certain face plausibility. Perhaps the Turkmen pieces we collect were woven primarily by fairly well settled Turkmen and some of the better pieces may have been woven for rich Turkmen families by members of less fortunate ones. A different picture than our usual one, I think.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-08-2002 03:32 PM:

Hi John,

I don't find the hypothesis that early (say, prior to 1850) Turkmen produced weavings specifically for trade or sale to be implausible. Some evidence would help convince me that it's the case. Likewise for the more specific hypothesis, that they produced ensis only for that purpose. Likewise for the other specific hypothesis, that they produced prayer rugs for use within their own communities.

Richard Wright is an intelligent guy, and may have very strong evidence or arguments in favor of one or more of these notions. When they are made known to me, I'll make a judgment about them. I hope they'll be the subject of some public discussion, so the pros and cons can be debated - this helps to clarify thoughts and to sharpen the interpretation of the information presented.

Until then, my opinion is that the conventional wisdom is correct. That is, the pile ensi was a not-for-everyday-use item, Turkmen were making them well before the mid-19th century, and prayer rugs were not made by nomadic Turkmen until some time after 1850.


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 09-08-2002 04:02 PM:


The concept that Turkmen rugs were made for sale in the last half of the 19th century parallels the situation with Navaho rugs from the same time period.
The Navaho made "wearing" blankets for themselves and for sale/trade, at least as far back as the early 19th century. They supposedly learned weaving from refugee Pueblo Indians on the run from Spanish invaders, although they say they learned from Spider Woman. The male Pueblo's wove, but the female Navaho are the majority weavers.
These blankets were widely traded by the Navaho to other Native American tribes, as far as the upper midwest Plains Indians, held in high esteem and maintained significant value. When the Navaho were forced to live on reservations, a need for income was satisfied by weaving their blankets for sale.
But it was not until white traders realized that some of these wearing blankets were being used on the floor, and that rugs would sell better than blankets, that the Navaho began weaving rugs instead of blankets. And commercial influences nudged the change from plain stripes to more complex designs. This same kind of market influence may well have been played out in Turkmenistan at about the same time.
It was the coming of the railroad to the Southwest US that spurred greater Navaho rug production due to better access to Eastern Seaboard markets, just as the Trans-Caspian railway spurred greater production of Turkmen rugs marketed to Russia and Europe.
We do have many photographs of people wearing Navaho blankets because they were still used for that purpose by the time cameras were invented, but perhaps the original (tentative?) use of engsi's for doorways had declined by the time photographers began to document Central Asian life in the mid 19th century.

Patrick Weiler

Posted by Steve Price on 09-08-2002 04:38 PM:

Hi Patrick,

John opened this thread with a statement to the effect that Richard Wright has some still undisclosed reason for believing that the ...tradition of the pile "engsi" format is actually fairly shallow in Turkmen history. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that he means that they weren't being made much before 1875 or so, certainly not much before 1850.

That's different than the generally held notion that they were made for internal use until, say, 1850 or 1875, and in very large numbers for export after about 1875, a scenario that sounds pretty much like what you suggest.

Unfortunately, we don't know yet what Wright has to say in support of his ideas, so there seems little point (to me) in debating the correctness of his conclusions.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-08-2002 04:58 PM:

Dear folks -

Steve's probably right that we can't really debate Dick Wright's suspicions until he makes his argument, but we must have some access to some of the indicators he might be looking at.

I met an experienced local collector the day after we had attended Dick's presentation and I asked him what he had "heard." He said that he thought that what was being said was the the Turkmen engsi format likely had no more ethnographic significance than would a Heriz.


R. John Howe

Posted by Stephen Louw on 09-09-2002 05:02 PM:

Isn't part of the problem our loose use of the word, “commercial”? To delineate a purely pre-commercial period strikes me as rather absolute. Surely the history of weaving must also be a history of different types of trade (barter, sale of commodities, etc.) The better weavers sold to those with the means to purchase their goods, the lazy bride to be purchased from her sisters, or traded livestock with a cousin, etc.

Perhaps the more useful question is: what sort of commercial pressures existed, and how did these affect design. Were these pressures internal to the "tribe", clan, etc., and thus likely to reflect more closely the artistic ethos of that grouping, or were these pressures exogenous, and less reflective of situational preferences and cultural needs. As trade patterns widen, so too do the influence of other cultures, artistic flavours, etc. At what point did production for the purpose of local-cultural usage (whether by the weaver herself or by someone else in the local-culture) give way to production primarily for the purpose of exchange?

Walter Benjamin's "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" is worth considering here.


Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 09-09-2002 07:15 PM:

High Atlas De Je Vu or Design Migration?

Mr. R. John Howe and all- As soon as our moderator Filiberto has the opportunity to post we shall see a photo of a small flatwoven carpet of contemporary date and Morrocan Arab/Berber provenance which exhibits enough semblance to the basic design latout of the Turkmen Engsi to, I believe, make you pause. Instead of a door, however, the image superimposed upon the garden image is that of window. Yet the symbolic, representational significance of the design is the same, the act of gazing out or through an aperature upon a garden and flora, fauna. Be it either coincidental, copying, or derivitive origin, this rug and the Turkmen engsi share a like design, just as the Turkmen and Arab/Berbers share some common ethnic heritage. If you would all indulge me, I will reiterate a former post, as I think it is directly pertinent to this line of thought. Significance of the Symbolism In the Engsi Carpet Design - Much has been made of the meaning or representitive significance of the design of the Turkmen Engsi, some explanations fanciful and some prosaic,and hopefully this interpretation of the design consists of a judicious admixture of both qualities. My interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the Engsi design proceeds from four points, the first point being the linguistic significance and implifications of the term "Tent Door Rug", the second would represent the illustrious history of the "Garden Carpet" design, a third the traditional interpretation of the Engs design as being that of the garden and/or door design,and a fourth which asserts that the engsi represents a visual and artistic "double entendre"; as such I believe that the engsi format depicts the superimposition of a door or window upon the field of a garden carpet and in turn a symbolic door to or window looking out upon a garden, either heavenly or earthly. I believe that the engsi design is not format specific and could well have seen dual use as an appropriate design for either a tent door or a prayer rug- even as a votive or decoration on festive occasions. -Dave Hunt

Posted by Sophia Gates on 09-09-2002 08:54 PM:


Pat & Steve, I think you both bring up some good points. But it doesn't make sense on the face of it that Turkmen wouldn't have been trading for a long time! Why wouldn't they? They needed things from cities and city people needed their horses, their jewelry and probably their textiles! Would market pressures have had an effect on their work? Sure! Everything is affected by everything else - from tiny sub-atomic particles on up to galaxies and beyond. Even Turkmen rugs!

Steve, as you know I agree with you about ak chuvals being old - some people think not based on the very few that remain, which predate synthetic dyes. However, the designs and the techniques to make them are so well-developed, and they are somewhat fragile, so it makes more sense to me to assume that they were around but simply wore out!

David, lots of times I've thought of windows while looking, particularly, of one of my old Yomud ensis. Not necessarily "gardens" - but at flying things, birds. I don't see why that idea can't be considered quite universal - people are continuously seeking "windows" or doors or gateways into other worlds, other levels of consciousness. And that idea is one reason I think ensis are old. The designs are so unusual, so complex - I'm speaking primarily of the hatchli designs, not the relatively few single field ensis - some people think they mirror something like the Cabbalistic world-tree design, the layers of consciousness, possibly even the idea of chakras.

Stephen et. al., I don't know why people make such a big fuss about the commercial vs. tribal use thing. Indeed, people might well save their very best work for sale - for example, look at the fine, beautiful Quashquai carpets vs. the gabbehs. Why should the word "commercial" be such a perjorative among rug collectors? Rembrandt got paid! Michelangelo got paid! So did the designers of the Parthenon! It's a sort of "art for art's sake" thing, a modern, late Romanticist thing, that says artists should starve in garrets. And - in this age of industrialization - far too often that is indeed the price for being an artist. No wonder craft standards have declined!

In any case I too await this New Information concerning engsis.

Posted by Bob Kent on 09-09-2002 11:47 PM:


sophia: yes, the noncommercial v. commercial issue is both hard to evaluate and extra-aesthetic, seems overblown. people might also be more ready to apply the 'noncommercial' label to obects that seem more wild or exotic to us.

Posted by Stephen Louw on 09-10-2002 04:22 AM:

Sophia -- Re: your point, "I don't know why people make such a big fuss about the commercial vs. tribal use thing." I think the distinction between tribal (whatever that means) and commercial is absolutely meaningless. One term refers (misleadingly, in my view) to a type of social arrangement, the other to a motivation for production. They are not comparable at all.

My point was a) to accept that production has always involved production for some sort of exchange, whether this be by barter or formalized trade; and b) to distinguish between different types of exchange-based production. It seems meaningful, in my view, to distinguish an artifact which has, or so we believe, a largely endogenous cultural significance, e.g. an Turkmen asmalyk or perhaps even an ensgi, which could quite easily have been produced in response to “local” demand; from a product produced purely for the purpose of exchange with "outsiders", for example, some of the fin de siecle Bidjar's produced for European traders. These latter adapted local weaving patterns in a specifically commercial way. Alternatively, the pressures to adapt patters may have come from inside the weaving culture, either as tastes change (slowly), or, perhaps, as a result of the whims and fancies of court patrons, e.g. with Mughal period rugs. In these latter, design was completely separate from execution.

I am certainly not suggesting any type is better or worse, only that an understanding of the motivation for production might help us appreciate the rug better. I would bet my bottom dollar that not even the most snobbish collector would turn their nose on a carpet woven specifically to please Shah Jahan, on the basis of its obviously Iranian trade influences.


Stephen Louw

Posted by Steve Price on 09-10-2002 06:03 AM:

Hi People,

The commercial vs. made-for-local-use issue is, obviously, not an aesthetic matter, and there's no reason why anyone should try to make it one. Despite their loud protestations when anyone suggests it, collectors aren't just collectors of beautiful objects, they are collectors of categories of things that include some beautiful objects. A collector of tribal textiles doesn't collect every beautiful object he runs across, or even every beautiful textile he runs across. He collects tribal textiles for reasons that include aesthetic considerations, but there are a number of other factors. For example, many collectors of tribal arts enjoy the vicarious experience of participating somehow (even if very crudely and inaccurately, although there are some who believe they approach doing it fully) in a foreign, exotic culture.

That being the case, why is it surprising if he bases his evaluation of an item on the likelihood that it was used within and reflects the cultural values of the society in which it was made, rather than the preferences of some culture external to it? And why is this a source of distress to anyone else?


Steve Price

Posted by Bob Kent on 09-10-2002 07:27 AM:


Collectors respond to extra-aesthetic things such as rarity and attributions of production for in-group use or production without extra-group influences. The influence of extra-aesthetic factors doesn't surprise me, some categories of collecting (coins) are largely about scarcity. But I am bit leery about accepting attributions of production for in-group use and/or without external influence because these things seem to be hard to establish and potential fodder for hype (I am very cheap!).

Also, I hope I don't come across as a scold (I am a new collector and trying to understand people as much as things), but I assume that collectors become interested in issues of production for local use or without market influences only after they're hooked by aesthetics ... aesthetics - > study - > attributions? ...
(I like these Kurdish rugs or this or that design, I'll read about those people.) Who studies the people who made stuff we can't stand? If the stuff -- and perhaps even the makers! -- seems wild on face value (like say Jafs or Quchon Kurd rugs or engsis), people might be more ready to make the attributions. And its cooler to put on the wall - 'this was made in the mountains/ desert/ by the isolated/ feared and they used it to.' Seems a bit over the top sometimes, maybe better and safer just to give the makers their due for creating the wonderful aesthetic thing that hooks people in the first place!

Posted by Steve Price on 09-10-2002 09:52 AM:

Hi Bob,

You're 100% right about the difficulty of determining whether some tribal artifact was produced for local use or for export, and it's certainly a major source of hype and fraud. I don't think it's likely to change, though.

So, what's a boy to do? First, get as much education as you can, being as critical as possible of the reliability of every source. Second, beware of the hype. The number of poseurs out there is amazing, and those who believe them because they really think they can outwit the predators are their lawful prey.

One thing: I think your diagram of the progression of a collector from aesthetic attraction to study to attribution is inaccurate. For one thing, the progression isn't unidirectional for most collectors. For another, many collectors don't begin with the aesthetic, they learn the aesthetic after exposure to a culture or cultural artifact. This sometimes is very casual, sometimes accidental. It often comes from a trip to the location of another culture, sometimes from buying some curio at a yard sale, and so forth.


Steve Price

Posted by Bob Kent on 09-10-2002 10:24 AM:

study - > aesthetic attraction?

steve: I just spent six weeks in Hungary, and I love the food, music, history, hell, I even tried to study Hungarian . But I'd only buy or study a Hungarian cultural thing that I liked, found attractive aesthetically - Bartok yes, rug no! Why would people buy the first thing, or bother to learn about a type of object without that first aesthetic pull?

I think we also differ on the value we see from learning the aesthetic, I see it as a mixed bag. Seeing many old/new, crowded/spacious, etc., examples is great, but to me, these things sometimes seem to be reduced to rules of thumb (for example, old = good; crowded designs = bad; any chemical dye = bad, unusual = good). I often agree with these things (I found your yomut chuval thing along these things very good), but sometimes I don't. (I stare at a Jaf on the wall: Egad, it's not old! not rare! has a chemical dye! to my eye it's beautiful, I don't give a damn.). When ideas about aesthetics have people looking at the back of a rug to see if they like it...

Posted by Steve Price on 09-10-2002 10:32 AM:

Hi Bob,

I guess there are collectors who look at those factors as aesthetic, but I think most look at them as determinants of whether the piece is within their collector purview and, if so, whether it is worth fairly serious dough or not. If it has synthetic dyes and/or other signs of being young, the monetary value isn't high even if the aesthetic value is.

As for the first purchase of some cultural object, sometimes it's done because the object is interesting. Not necessarily beautiful, just interesting. Curio shops were not in the business of selling things that were necessarily beautiful, but that were odd within the local context.

People collect all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. Aesthetics is hardly ever the only reason, and sometimes it isn't even among them.


Steve Price

Posted by Bob Kent on 09-10-2002 10:51 AM:

different sort of curio

fun discussion. a rug or bagface is probably a different versus other stuff in curio shops - relatively expensive, pain to carry, conspicuous on floor or wall. still hard for me to magine people buying one without some aesthetic appreciation.

sure, knowledge of age, dyes, etc., isn't truly aesthetic, but I think it can prejudice aesthetic appreciation in a way that is not so different from the way some people might be biased by info that a rug is silk or has a lot of knots.

see ya

Posted by Steve Price on 09-10-2002 01:11 PM:

Hi Bob,

There's no question about it - those things do influence aesthetic appreciation. It's irrational, but we're talking about collecting, which is not a rational activity.

There is probably no category of artifacts that doesn't have collectors who lust after it: beer cans, matchbooks, hubcaps, airline barf bags, you name it. And get any collector of any of these things to show you his collection and you'll discover that he is enthusiastic about certain pieces. Sometimes he thinks those are beautiful but often he sees them as especially interesting for some other reason.

In the final analysis, why should I care if someone's collecting preferences aren't the same as mine? It's just a different manifestation of what is probably the same mental illness. Certainly, there's no basis for thinking my neurosis is morally superior to his. I sort of think mine (antique ethnographic textiles and African tribal arts) are intellectually superior to most, but I'd have a hard time defending that position.


Steve Price