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What Can We Say About the "Engsi?"
by R. John Howe
To what does the word "engsi" refer? Until recently, I thought it meant "door rug,"
and it still likely does, but a little story first.
I was recently working on one of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival demonstration tents, explaining how the Ersari Turkmen rugs were woven in one of the Afghan refugee "back to tradition" rug weaving projects.
At the end of my spiel one day, a tall woman came unto the platform,
identified herself as an Ersari and asked if I knew what that term meant. I
confessed my ignorance. She said, the "er" stands for "husband", the "sari"
part means "yellow", and the implication is that many Ersari have blond or red
hair and blue or green eyes. "My God", I thought, "Kipling was right when he
wrote in one of his stories about encountering tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed
Afghans. He likely ran into some Ersaris." The "traces" of Alexander the Great
are often more prevalent than we remember.
The Ersari lady and I subsequently exchanged some emails, in one of which I apologized for a delay in my response saying that I had my "head down" working on another project. She immediately wrote back saying that "'yengse" means "the back of one's head" and in a later conversation has suggested that the "engsi" was mostly placed on the inside (that is the "back") of the yurt door. Most of us, I think, have been led to believe that the engsi was used to cover the outside of the door of the trellis tents in which the Turkmen lived.
So you can see I've been turned around a bit by this encounter. I've written to Peter Andrews about this lady's assertion and will likely have a response before long. Meanwhile, back to our question: to what does the word "engsi" refer?
Until about 1950, what we now call an "engsi" (especially the Tekke version)
was described in the market as a "Princess Bokara" (probably a ploy
to attempt to label at least some Turkmen tribal weavings so that they could
compete with the other rugs in the decorative market that seemed to have better
A number of earlier rug writers also suggested that the engsi was a kind of prayer rug because it very often had one or more arched design elements toward its top.
In 1980 Robert Pinner and Michael Franses wrote, "The function of the ensi was to cover the outside of the tent door." Amongst most rug scholars after 1980, the "prayer rug" usage was denigrated. And there are a number of engsis without "mirhab" design elements.
But in 1999, Pinner, now writing with Murray Eiland, Jr., said in
It is likely that the ensi was part of the paraphernalia that
accompanied the bride on her traditional wedding caravan. It was placed over
the door of the new tent and then, with the asmalyks and other trappings, put
away after the wedding. This, of course, leaves room for those who like to
speculate that the Tekke and Arabatchi ensis
with their single mirhab, may
have been used later, on the floor as prayer rugs or on the wall as precious
keepsakes or ikons." This appears to open things up a bit again.
How should "engsi" be spelled?
The position of the scholars and the current practice in most rug
publications diverge on this question. When I first began working with Peter
Hoffmeister, the German collector, on the "engsi only" exhibition for ICOC-X,
he was quite insistent that the proper spelling was the one I have been using
here: "engsi." But most rug publications have not adopted this usage and the
spelling you will find most frequently is "ensi."
The scholars' position is based on pronounciation. Peter Andrews wrote me when I asked him about Hoffmeister's insistence, that "engsi" (...a nasalised "n" represented by "ng", but sounding more or less like the "ng" in song). But his explanation has not had much impact on the usage in rug publications which almost all use "ensi."
Some have expressed exasperation about this debate and see it as an instance of misplaced pedantry. Scholars, like Andrews, sorrow about the fact that their serious efforts to get things right are often ignored in the literature.
What evidence to we have of the engsi's use(s)?
We have one picture, a drawing of a Saryk engsi in use on the door opening of a trellis tent, made near Pende, in 1885, by a known artist for The London Illustrated News who was covering the Afghan Boundary Commission.
This is a drawing, not a photo and is in some respects an instance of
"orientalism" in that the scene is acknowledged by the artist to be to some
extent "composed" of human images seen elsewhere, but the picture is seen by
rug scholars as authentic in its depiction of the engsi "in use"on a Saryk tent
But as Pinner and Eiland say, "The evidence does not answer all the questions. The photographs and drawings of Turkmen yurts that we published in the early literature show doors of yurts closed with felt. (ed. - Indeed, there are some in the same issue of The Illustrated London News in which the only picture of a pile engsi in use also appears.) Why, if ensis were regularly exposed to the bright Central Asian sun, did so few show faded colors? Did the seminomadic and the settled Turkmen use ensis in houses? And why, after all, did some ensis look so much like prayer rugs?"
So the question of modal use(s) of the engsi has not been settled satisfactorily.
Who seem to have made them?
It appears that nearly all of the Western Turkmen tribes made versions of the engsi. Tekke engsis seem the most frequent,
and Yomut engsis are among the most varied.
engsis have been identified.