CARPETS xv. Caucasian Carpets

The oldest surviving rugs produced in the Caucasus may be a group with representations of dragons and phoenixes in combat. There is, however, no evidence to permit attribution to the Caucasus. A group of carpets from the 18th century does include patterns and motifs that persisted in subsequent productions; they are predominantly long rugs with bold repeat patterns and have been found primarily in mosques in Turkey.



xv. Caucasian Carpets

The oldest surviving rugs produced in the Caucasus may be a group with representations of dragons and phoenixes in combat, a motif that was possibly borrowed from the art of Il-khanid Persia (Ettinghausen, p. 108 and fig. 1; cf. Dimand and Mailey, pp. 265-66 and figs. 227-28). There is, however, no evidence to permit attribution of these rugs to the Caucasus, nor is it possible to trace their designs in other works produced there. A group of carpets from the 12th/18th century does include patterns and motifs that persisted in subsequent productions; they are predominantly long rugs with bold repeat patterns and have been found primarily in mosques in Turkey (see, e.g., Dimand and Mailey, pp. 268-69 and fig. 232; Erdmann, pp. 103-04, 109; Yetkin, II, p. vii).

Russian imperial expansion in the late 13th/19th century opened the Caucasus to the West, and what had been a modest local weaving industry evolved into a major source of exports. The main weaving zone was in the eastern Transcaucasus south of the mountains that bisect the region diagonally (see Figure 1), the area now comprised in the Azerbaijan SSR; it is the homeland of a Turkic population known today as Azeri (see AZERBAIJAN vi. Population and its Occupations and Culture). Other ethnic groups also practiced weaving, some of them in other parts of the Caucasus, but they were of lesser importance. In the 1290s/1870s the imperial Russian government began a sustained program in support of home industry (kustarnaya promyshlennost’). Significant weaving began in 1300/1882-83 (Zedegedzhe, p. 37) at Shusha, a walled town (since 1750) in the mountainous Karabakh (Qarabāḡ) area (Guseĭnov et al., I, p. 339), and the production of this center was thereafter widely accepted throughout the Caucasus as the model for both quality and fashion; many fine silks and embroideries in curvilinear designs were also produced there (Prakov, pp. 32-38). Russian administrators concerned themselves with materials and designs, wages and working conditions, training of weavers, and marketing, though distribution remained in the hands of private merchants. In 1911 there were 200,000 women at the looms (Piralov, 1913b, II, p. 78). By the same time several training centers, a dye works, and a wool-spinning factory had been established, though government support was limited to technical assistance (Obzor, pp. 71-73).

Pile carpets. Caucasian pile carpets had particular appeal to Europeans in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, as they still do today. The typical carpet is made entirely of wool and is small, consisting of a field surrounded by borders (see iv, above), with patterns and colors chosen according to predetermined formulas. The fields are composed either of small motifs in repeat patterns or of a few large units along a central axis. The main border almost always contains a vine scroll, either continuous or disjointed. Many of the motifs woven into Caucasian carpets are very old; they include crosses, stars, S shapes, and tamḡas (tribal insignia). The rugs also reflect village life through representations of animals, utensils, people, and especially plants (Kerimov et al., pp. 17, 19 and no. 51). Although there are variations in some patterns, the weaver’s creativity is most apparent in the minor motifs. The overall effect is that of a strong design tradition based on powerful contrasts and dynamic alternation, hallmarks of a conservative yet vigorous folk art. Some of the patterns (herati, bota; see iv, above) used at Shusha were curvilinear and altogether in the Persian manner.

Current nomenclature for Caucasian carpets is a hodgepodge of labels, some substantially correct and others extremely inappropriate. Although tribal and geographic names provide a convenient vocabulary for the more common patterns, many patterns are characteristic of more than one group or locality, and it is preferable therefore to discuss the pile carpets in three generic categories. The Kazakh/Borchaly group, from the western Transcaucasus (including portions of the Azerbaijan, Armenian, and Georgian SSRs), is characterized by spaciousness of design, with geometric motifs widely separated and contrasting strongly in size and color (Plate I; Abdullaeva, pp. 35-36, 37 fig. 9). The yarns are relatively thick, the pile deep and loosely knotted. Relatively few colors were used; reds were favored, and white was frequent. The overall impression is austere. The Kuba/Shirvan (Šīrvān) group from the eastern Transcaucasus, conveys a different feeling (Plate II; Abdullaeva, pp. 26-35, 48-60). The fields are filled with motifs of graduated sizes in varied colors; blue is most common and white understated. The yarns are finely spun and the knotting dense. Such rugs were characteristic of the Kuba and Shemakha districts, as well as northward along the southern Dagestan coast as far as Derbent (Darband) and southward to the Jevat (Javād) and Lenkoran (Lankarān) districts. The highest quality came from Kuba, which was also the area of greatest fidelity to traditional designs and natural dyes. The products of Shemakha, though similar, were less fine. The Ganja/Karabakh group has affinities in weaving with the Kazakh/Borchaly type but with the Kuba/Shirvan group in design (Plate III; Abdullaeva, pp. 36-48). It is thus intermediate in terms of thickness of yarn, intricacy of design, and depth of pile. These rugs were also woven in the eastern Transcaucasus, especially the district of Elizabetpol (formerly Ganja) to the north and those of Shusha, Zangezur (Zangezūr), Jevanshir (Javānšīr), and Kariega (formerly Karabakh) to the south.

Weaving activity remained close to where sheep were raised. Alpine pasturage produced fine, straight wool, whereas a coarser, kinky type came from lower elevations (Piralov, 1925, p. 68; Khatisova, II, p. 266). Raw material thus influenced the finished product to a considerable extent, for intricate designs and close weaves require fine yarns. Natural dyes were the norm, and the colors were prepared by the weavers, except for blue from indigo. Although a synthetic red (fuchsine) was imported into the region in the 1300s/1880s, the use of natural red dyes continued: kermes, madder root, and red sandalwood (see ii, above). A variety of plants provided sources of yellow (see ii, above; Khatisova, loc. cit.). It appears that the reds of the Kuba/Shirvan group were predominantly from madder, whereas those of Karabakh tended not to be.

All three groups include prayer rugs. The meḥrāb (niche) form frequently seems to have been superimposed on a standard pattern, however, and it is possible that many of these rugs were made for export to the West, where prayer rugs were popular. Narrative designs—evocations of stories, scenes, or personages—also occurs in all three groups, but they are infrequently met and were not usually exported.

Carpets without pile (see v, above). The Caucasus also produced many handsome carpets without pile, including palases, which are plain-woven fabrics with narrow horizontal bands of different colors, occasionally patterned by means of supplemental wefts; patterned warp faced strips called jejims, made of narrow strips sewn together; and tapestry-woven gelims with bold geometric motifs, usually on large horizontal bands (for description of weaves, see v, above). All three types are reversible. There are also single-faced carpets in this category: sumaks and zili in various sizes, shapes, and patterns; shaddas, most commonly with camels as motifs; and vernas, consisting of two pieces formed of joined halves then sewn together, with designs of large, stylized dragons/snakes.

Palases and jejimswere made everywhere. The Shemakha district was famous for fine gelims, which were also made throughout Karabakh. Most sumaks came from the Kuba and Kiurin districts, where flat-woven carpets were already famous in the 11th/17th century. Vernas were from Karabakh and zili primarily from Baku and Karabakh. An array of small utilitarian objects also came from Karabakh, for example, mafrašes (bag for light materials), čovals (storage bag, Pers. javāl), ḵorjīns (saddlebag), and jūls (horse cover; see xiv, above), which were characterized by geometric designs and strong colors; these pieces were made in gelim, zili, and sumac techniques.

The mountain peoples of the northern Caucasus produced felts and woven fabrics, as well as a few carpets. Gelīms (Georgian pardaghy) from the north central Caucasus are similar in design to those of the Transcaucasus but with a predilection for black. The relatively few carpets from Dagestan in the northeastern Caucasus are called dums (Kumik) or davagins(Avar).

Kurds living in the southwestern Caucasus (in the provinces of Kars and Yerevan) generally wove carpets without pile. The dominant type, whose name is rendered as yamany in Russian, has a repeat design of diamond-shaped lozenges. Kurds also wave the most elegant reed mats in the region, rendered as chiik in Russian. The Armenians of the Zangezur district wave for the marketplace, but otherwise Armenian weaving was generally for home use. Many Armenians rugs are inscribed, a charming detail and a likely indication that they were not for export.

World War I and subsequent civil war interrupted the Caucasian weaving industry, which began to recover in the late 1920s (Adamov, p. 22). The standard repertory of both pile and flat-woven carpets continued, and weaving was still done at home (Isaev, pp. 136-42). Dyeing was entirely performed by specialists, though the materials used were essentially the same as before World War I (Piralov, 1925, pp. 69-70). In the early 1930s production shifted to organized workshops. Although the quality of the weaving improved, designs were simplified, and the creativity of the individual weaver diminished. The use of synthetic dyes became widespread, and cotton became the predominant fiber for structural elements (warp and weft). “Theme” rugs with portraits of Lenin and Stalin and views of the Baku oil fields began to appear. New products, called Armenian and Georgian Kazakhs and Shirvans, were introduced, blurring the traditional combinations of materials and designs.

Contemporary weavers in the Azerbaijan SSR employ many old motifs and patterns, while adding much that is new. The curvilinear style, always part of the artistic tradition of the region, has come more strongly to the fore. The palette rarely involves bright, pure color, and the élan of the vintage rugs is gone. The Caucasian carpet boom at the turn of the century (cf. xi, above) stands as the high-water mark of village folk art of the Caucasus.



N. Abdullaeva, Kovrovoe iskusstvo Azerbaĭdzhana, Baku, 1971.

A. K. Adamov, Sovetskie kovry i ikh èksport, Moscow and Leningrad, 1934.

M. S. Dimand and J. Mailey, Oriental Rugs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973.

K. Erdmann, Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets, ed. H. Erdmann and tr. M. H. Beattie and H. Herzog, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970.

R. Ettinghausen, “Ḳālī,” in EI1 , Suppl., pp. 106-11.

I. A. Guseĭnov et al., eds., Istoriya Azerbaĭdzhana, 3 vols., Baku, 1958.

M. D. Isaev, Kovrovoe proizvodstvo Zakavkaz’ya, Tbilisi, 1932.

L. Kerimov et al., Rugs and Carpets from the Caucasus. The Russian Collections, tr. A. Shkarovsky-Raffé, Harmondsworth, Eng., 1984.

K. Khatisova, “Kustarnye promysly zakavkazskago kraya,” Otchëty i issledovaniya po kustarnoĭ promyshlennosti v Rossii II, 1894.

Obzor pravitel’stvennago sodeĭstviya kustarnoĭ promyshlennosti, St. Petersburg, 1913.

A. S. Piralov, Kustarnaya promyshlennost’ Rossii II, St. Petersburg, 1913.

Idem, “Kustarnaya promyshlennost’ Zakavkaz’ya,” Vestnik promyslovoĭ kooperatsii, 1925.

A. V. Prakov, Russkoe narodnoe iskusstvo na vtoroĭ vserossiĭskoĭ kustarnoĭ vystavke, Petrograd, 1914.

S. Yetkin, Early Caucasian Carpets in Turkey, 2 vols., London, 1978.

Ya. Zedegedzhe, Sbornik materialov dlya opisaniya mestnosteĭ i plemën Kavkaza, XI, Tbilisi, 1890.

(Richard E. Wright)

Originally Published: December 15, 1990

Last Updated: December 15, 1990

This article is available in print.
Vol.V, Fasc. 1, pp. 1-5