The Afshari Tribal Rugs

Shah Ismael, the founder of the Sefavi dynasty, although born in Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan, was not of Turkish race. He was a descendant of Safi-ud-din the pious founder of a religious order of dervishes, who claimed descent from the Prophet himself. His father and grandfather, too, were religious men and noted warriors. It was due to the distinction of family that at the age of thirteen he became the accepted leader of seven Turkish tribes of Azerbaijan. Without the 70000 lancers provided by these tribes it is doubtful if Ismael would ever have been crowned Shah of all Persian in Tabriz.

The prestige acquired by Ismael, who was at the same time the founder of a national dynasty and of a national religion, and his martial spirit, enabled him to keep his turbulent henchmen in order. But during the long reign of his successor, Shah Tahmasp, quarrels between the rival chiefs became incessant, and revolts were common. Tahmasp determined, therefore, to give the tribes a lesson in accordance with tan accepted practice of the time he transported a large section of the Afshars, the most turbulent of the seven tribes, to the distant province of Kerman. There they reside to this day, a Turkish-speaking, semi-nomadic people, surrounded by a population alien in race and speech.

The Afshars of Kerman province consists of two main divisions, the Afsharis proper and the Buchakchis (meaning a knife maker or knife dealer). There is no record of the exile of the latter tribe, or are there any ethnic or linguistic differences between the two. Presumable, therefore, the Buchakchis separated from the main body after the migration took place. Both are regarded in the province as Afshars. The Afshars proper totalled about 4000 families, the Buchakchis 2000 in the 1940s. There is another Turkish tribe, the Shuli, which is apparently not regarded as belonging to either of these two divisions. The Shuli live about 25 miles south of Saidabad, close to the Bandar Abbas road.

Both of the above divisions are nomads. Both spend the long summers in their black-tented encampments on the western slopes of a high belt of country, which extends for 150 miles in a Southeasterly direction from a line running southwest of Rafsanjan almost to the Kerman-Bam road. The belt has an average width of about 40 miles. The Buchakchis tribes camp in the northwest part of it and the Afshars in the southeastern part. From November to March they retire southwards to the warmer foothills and the plains. The principal trading centre of the Buchakchis is Saidabad (Sirjan) and have the Afshars, Baft. But the nomads prefer to barter their rugs against tea, sugar, cotton cloth, needles, thread and other commodities, which the travelling hucksters bring to their encampments, rather than to sell them to the crafty dallals of the bazaars of Saidabad and Baft.

The so called Afshari rugs are no longer an exclusive product of the nomad Afshar tribes; for weaving is now general among the Persian villages of the area as well.

The only thing that distinguishes between the village rugs and the nomadic ones is that the nomads being of Turkish decent weave the Turkish knot and the villagers the Persian knot. However, centuries of intermarriages between the villages and nomads means that the Persian knot has crept into the nomads weaving as well.

The Afshar tribe are shepherds, so that the wool for their rugs presents no problem for them. The villagers own a few sheep as well and if they need more wool they supplement it by a purchase from the nomads.

Formerly the nomadic Afshars and Buchakchis used nothing but wool for warps and wefts for their rugs. With the increase in prices of wool in the 1930s many of them were finding it profitable to sell the wool and buy cotton, a product of the neighbourhood, for the purpose. Few of the Afshari rugs woven in the30s have woollen warps and wefts and the villagers use nothing else but cotton.

The dyeing of the blues and greens; dark, medium and light; with indigo is a complicated process. Formerly the nomads made use of a native variety of the indigo plant, which grows in the region of Bam. But its use entailed the preliminary extraction of the dye from the plant; a laborious process; which has been abandoned. Imported indigo is used instead. Some of the tribes have their own dyers; but the problem is more usually solved by recourse to the dyer of a nearby village, or of an important centre like Saidabad or Baft. The dying of madder (which is the only dyestuff used for the reds by nomads and villagers alike) is a less complicated process and is usually carried out by the weaver herself. The rest of the colours are dyed with the common dyestuffs of Persia; walnut husks, pomegranate rinds, vine leaves, weld, henna (for the orange) and straw for the light yellows. The operation is easy and is invariably carried out by the weavers, both in tent and in cottage. Thus, the dyes in the Afshari rugs are excellent. The plague of aniline or synthetic dyes had not penetrated the area by 1940s.

The weaving is done on horizontal looms. Afshari rugs are generally single wefted. The designs are unlike any of the other of Persian tribal or village weaves. Many of their designs are original and striking. Like all the tribal rugs of Persian they are woven in straight lines. One of the cleverest, if not the most refined, of their creations is the morgi or Hen design. The weavers of the south seem to enjoy making a pattern out of representations of the domestic fowl, for the same motive appears quite frequently in the tribal rugs of Fars as well. Their medallion patterns on plain or partly covered grounds are superior to those of the tribal or village rugs of Persia; but their adaptations of some of the floral or vase patterns of Kerman are not so happy.

Before the war there were abut 25000 pieces woven annually, whereas in 1948 the figure was less than quarter of that. This was again due to closure of the European markets and rise in price of wool.

However, after the revolution the production started increasing and by the 1990s they production was at its highest, which lowered the quality as well. However, the natural dye and handspun wool weaving revival that increased in pace in the middle 1990s extended to this area as well and there were some notable wonderful productions coming from this area albeit small in volume.