MORE THAN CRAFT
On 12 December 2019, at its 14th session in the Colombian capital of Bogota, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage unanimously approved Turkmenistan's application for inscribing the traditional Turkmen carpet weaving on the prestigious UNESCO list. According to the ensuing communiqu on this subject, the art of making hand-woven carpets is widely integrated into the social and cultural life of Turkmens and considered a sign of cultural identity and unity of the nation. Relevant skills and knowledge are passed from one family member to another and the people maintained the viability of this tradition.
Turkmen carpets were an expensive commodity throughout the Great Silk Road for a long time. They adorned palaces of Asian and European monarchs. Nowadays, they are priceless exhibits in the world largest museums, capturing the attention of tourists and art historians. Upholding the legacy of the past eras and creative work of many generations, carpets never cease to amaze the connoisseurs with their unique expressiveness, austere beauty of the ornament and harmony of color combinations.
At the same time, Turkmen carpets became famous not only for their decorative qualities, subtle illustration of stylized images and clear geometric compositions. The highest quality of execution is perhaps their main characteristic. The technical excellence of weaving and artistic taste of Turkmen craftswomen elevate carpets and rugs to the rank of high art. In other words, this is by no means a craft product for domestic needs, but an aesthetic expression of the national soul.
The coat of arms and flag of modern Turkmenistan are decorated with carpet ornaments. Such graphic embodiment of the idea of the unity of the Turkmen people also clearly exemplifies the reverent attitude of Turkmens to their national art. Turkmenistan established Day of Turkmen Carpet in 1992 as a sign of admiration for the skills of carpet weavers, and it has since been celebrated annually on the last Sunday of May. Two years later, a spacious modern building of the Turkmen Carpet Museum was erected in Ashgabat. This is a true treasure house that keeps thousands of the best carpets of the past centuries and our time.
A few years ago, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov wrote a book titled "The Living Legend", in which he invites readers to take a fresh look at the art of Turkmen carpet weaving, its philosophical and "cosmic" foundations and origins of the national identity in general.
Indeed, rooted in the distant past, carpet weaving of Turkmens is closely connected with the history of the people, their way of life, national traditions and climatic conditions. According to the famous ethnographer, academician Ata Dzhikiev, the tradition of carpet weaving makes it possible to establish a family relationship between the ancient and modern population of Turkmenistan. Famous archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi has long proved that the patterns of modern Turkmen carpets largely resemble the drawings on ceramic dishes of the third millennium BC. In the valley of the Sumbar River, bronze carpet knives were discovered during the excavations of Parkhai Depe settlement dating back to the end of the second millennium BC.
According to St. Petersburg's archaeologist Igor Khlopin who made this discovery, these findings "let us not only date the appearance of carpet ornaments back to the depths of millennia but also trace as deeply the roots of the Turkmen people in their original territory... Modern carpet weavers use exactly the same but naturally an iron knife (keser) for the only operation, i.e. cutting the carpet pile... Based on this, we can say that the origins of carpet weaving go even deeper, perhaps to the time of the developed and late Eneolithic..." And recent studies at Gonur Depe prove that the population of ancient Margiana also practiced pile weaving.
Many scientists also believe that the oldest of the existing pile carpets dating the 4th century BC, discovered 70 years ago in one of the burial mounds in Altai, was made by the Turkmen ancestors, although disputes about its origin and affiliation have still not subsided. Yet, it is really very similar to the Turkmen ones by its composition.
Turkmen carpets are mentioned in the medieval Arabic and Persian literature. According to geographer of the tenth century al-Mukaddasi, "good carpets were made in the upper Garirud and Murghab." The 13th-century Italian merchant and traveler, Marco Polo, noted the high quality of carpet weaving of the Asia Minor: "You should know that they make the finest and most beautiful carpets in the world, as well as excellent rich fabrics of red and other colors." Images of the medieval Turkmen carpets, which were undoubtedly made from life, can be found in paintings by Italian masters of the 14th century Renaissance, such as "Madonna" by Lippo Memmy, "Betrothal of Mary" by Nicolo di Buonacorso and other works.
Russian ethnographer Samuel Dudin, who visited Turkmenistan at the beginning of the 20th century, considered the Turkmen carpets to be the most ancient and emphasized the obvious difference in the style of Turkmen and Persian rugs, different placement of a loom, different style of weaving and finishing material, different tonality and higher technique of the works testifying to the fact that the carpet craft of Turkmens is just as old, if not older, as the Persian, and it developed completely independently.
Contemporary scientists believe that favorable climatic conditions, the availability of a raw material base (farming of goats, sheep, camels, silkworm breeding, cotton growing) and excellent labor resources, namely capable female hands, were the main factors that contributed to the emergence and development of carpet weaving among Turkmens. Sheep wool was the main raw material. Studying the history of carpet weaving of the XV-XIX centuries, Ata Dzhikiev concluded that it was highly developed among the semi-nomadic Salyr, Saryk, Teke, Yomud, Ersary and Chovdur group of tribes.
Carpets and carpet products that were part of the nomadic life of Turkmens had the most important decorative and applied value, as they were almost the main decoration of the yurt and also played an important role in the household. They served as cases for dishes, large woolen duffel bags for storing clothes and household utensils. In addition, a family earned a lot by selling them. Men grazed their cattle, made wool, prepared yarn and dyes from natural ingredients. And girls got used to carpet weaving since their early childhood. Sitting next to their mothers, five to six year-old girls learned to spin and then draw patterns and tie complex knots.
Carpet weaving was considered mandatory for every girl. As future brides, girls had to participate in carpet making that were intended for them as a dowry. When a girl got married, such a dowry was an indicator of her skill and a real asset. The better a young woman mastered the art of carpet weaving, the greater authority she enjoyed.
In the old days, Turkmens made carpets only for household and domestic trade. Only a small portion of them was sold at the bazaars of neighboring countries: Iran, Afghanistan and the Bukhara Khanate. After joining Russia and following the penetration of Russian capital into Turkmenistan, special financial resources were invested in the development of carpet production. There emerged factory yarn, aniline dyes and wooden horizontal looms. Salesmen and commission agents appeared in Ashgabat, Merv and other cities of Transcaspia, who bought carpets both for the domestic Russian market and for exports abroad to Vienna, Paris, Berlin, London.
At the end of the 19th century, carpet making techniques were extremely simple. A horizontal carpet machine was made by carpet-makers themselves. They had to work on their hunker, in a bent position. Since a loom had to cover the entire length of the carpet and occupied a large area, it was usually installed under a canopy near a yurt. Carpets were normally made during the warm season. Naturally, not only climate affected the quality of work. Some natural dyes brought with caravans from Bukhara, India, Persia were expensive and rarely used. The time-consuming process of wool dyeing was often entrusted to dyers, who from the late 19th century started replacing vegetable dyes with aniline dyes, giving them preference because of their cheapness and a less complicated dyeing process.
However, the Russian administration became alarmed with the Turkmen carpet quality degradation influenced by the market, and the authorities began providing support to Turkmen carpet weaving. The Central State Archive of Turkmenistan has documents on how funds were allocated to arrange storage facilities for large quantities of wool and dyes. This allowed the population to borrow the necessary material. However, in the years leading up to World War I, carpet production started declining. This is evidenced by the appeals of Zakaspian officials to Tsar Nicholas II, in which they expressed hope that "the carpet weaving of Turkmenistan that won the glory of centuries would liven up, develop and shine with new colors."
The head of the Trans-Caspian region in 1898-1901, General Andrei Bogolyubov, built a rich collection of Turkmen carpets with the assistance of his subordinates and, using the funds allocated to him personally by the emperor, published a magnificent two-volume large-format album with color illustrations. He also established a warehouse for wool and plant dyes and organized annual carpet exhibitions, awarding prizes to the owners of the best pieces. In 1900, Bogolyubov's carpet collection was exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris, while Russian carpet exhibitions held at the beginning of the last century contributed to their popularity and relative growth in carpet weaving.
The supply of carpet weavers with vegetable dyes and wool on preferential terms and provision of bonuses for the best craftswomen also contributed to the preservation of this art. The exhibitions aroused interest in improving carpet making and the practice of bonuses incentivized competition among carpet weavers. This resulted in the appearance of better quality carpet pieces at exhibitions.
The First World War, followed by the Revolution and the Civil War, led to the great reduction in carpet production. The demand for carpets for export decreased, the supply of imported dyes stopped, less carpets were made for home use. In addition, many original drawings were lost and most of the carpets became homogeneous. Smugglers who exported carpets purchased before war to Persia were almost the only buyers at that difficult time. A large number of valuable carpets, bought at negligible price, were exported during the English intervention.
In Soviet times, as in other industries, cooperation was introduced to carpet weaving. There were established carpet artels that looked for expressive means to embody a new world outlook through the use of the traditional ornament and techniques. In this process, great importance was attached to a special carpet laboratory at the Research Institute of the Art Industry in Ashgabat and experimental art workshops. Under the influence of the new ideology, there appeared plot carpets, real wool paintings, carpet portraits and even embossed carpets. However, the giant carpets that are currently exhibited at the Ashgabat museum remain the most impressive creation of the craftswomen in the 20th century. One of them, occupying an area of 301 square meters, was included in the Guinness World Records Book in 2001.
Finally, one cannot fail to note the enormous contribution to the study and promotion of Turkmen carpets made in the past century by such specialists as Valentina Moshkova, Galina Saurova, Jovza Shakhberdyeva, Ata Dzhikiev, George O'Bannon and many more of their colleagues in different countries who fell in love with Turkmen carpets.
Now, thanks to the active support of the head of state and efforts of hundreds of national experts, the national art of carpet weaving is experiencing its second birth. This is evidenced by hundreds of unique carpets recreated from ancient models, reproducing ancient and traditional ornaments to the smallest detail. They are distinguished by the perfect technique of execution, the highest density of knots and brightness of colors. Turkmen carpets still adorn not only almost every house in their country of origin but spread out literally around the world, and the art of their manufacture is now rightfully recognized as an integral part of the intangible cultural heritage of mankind.