When the first Turkmen Rugs arrived in Western Europe in the mid-to-late 1800s, nobody knew much about where they came from.
They came through the Russian Empire and bore an exotic name: Bokhara carpets. But apart from the fact Bokhara (today Bukhara in Uzbekistan) was a legendary city on the Silk Road, the name gave no hints of the rugs’ origins. This name was given because that was the collection point for these rugs.
Another name commonly used in Victorian England for the carpets told even less: “Gentlemen’s Carpets.” They were called that because they particularly appealed to men as furnishings for dens and studies.
The Turkmen who sent their carpets to the bazaar inhabit a vast expanse of arid land between the Amu Darya river and the Caspian Sea that mostly is made up of the Kara Kum Desert, or “Black Sand” Desert. Today, much of that land is the country of Turkmenistan, but there are also populations of Turkmen living across the borders of Iran and Afghanistan.
Traditionally, the Turkmen were both a nomadic and settled people, largely depending on how much water was available. They wove everything needed for a nomadic lifestyle but also wove many of the same items when residing in towns and villages.
When the Turkmen arrived in the region is uncertain, but they were part of a vast migration of Turkic peoples who moved into the Caspian area, northern Iran and Anatolia around 1,000 AD. Their language belongs to the same family of languages – Oghuz Turk – as those spoken in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and by the Turkic tribes of Iran.
The traditional red colour palette seems limited, however, the effects achieved are both striking and subtle. And part of the reason is that the colours heighten, rather than compete with, the carpets’ decorative pattern of mysterious tribal “guls.”
The guls, the Persian and Turkmen word for flower, are usually octagonal forms that are quartered and placed in rows. Often a large gul will alternate with a subsidiary one, as in this photo of guls in a main carpet woven by the Tekke tribe.
Just what the Turkmen guls represent is not certain.
According to the Turkmen themselves, they symbolize birds or parts of birds. But the way some guls are used more than others by different Turkmen tribes has long created a debate among Western rug experts over whether they also serve as identifying totems for the tribes that weave them.
Often, Turkmen carpets include both large guls and subsidiary guls arranged in an endless repeat pattern. The arrangement creates an optical illusion in which the eye connects the large guls into one pattern of compartments and the small guls into another, so the two patterns appear to be overlying.
The double-compartment pattern may be another fascinating link between Turkmen carpets and the ancient Silk Road trading routes. The design, using various kinds of elements, has been found across the ancient world, from Chinese textiles to ceiling drawings in Egyptian tombs.
Today, Turkmen carpets are well known to rug collectors and the early generic names like “Bokhara” are less and less used. But finding a new way to name them has proved difficult because, unlike most rugs, they cannot be reliably named after specific geographical regions where they were woven.
Turkmen tribes were historically so mobile — claiming and abandoning territories as their neighbor’s lost or gained strength — that it makes more sense to name the carpets after the tribes which wove them rather than the tribe’s location at the time.
The effects of the Turkmen’s mobility can be seen in some of the tribes’ rugs. The guls of the Yomut (or Yomud) tribe which had long contact with Persia (and which mostly lives in northeastern Iran today) are believed to show adaptations of complex Persian floral forms.
Over the centuries, as more and more Tukmen moved from nomadism to settled life, the carpets of the tribes which settled underwent more changes than those which stayed nomadic.
One of the earliest tribes to settle appears to have been the Chodor. The designs of main their carpets more varied than those of the other tribes and use more colors.
In the case of many nomadic groups elsewhere in the world, settling has meant a loss of weaving traditions.
But in the Turkmen case, settled women maintained their weaving traditions as a way to supplement their family income. Over time the volume of rugs they produced far outpaced those woven by their nomadic sisters.
Thus the rugs of the Saryk, which remained nomadic longer than any other Turkmen tribe, until the end of the 19th century, are considerably rarer than those of other groups.
Another tribe whose rugs are rare is the Salor – but for a different reason. The Salor, long considered among the oldest of the Turkmen tribes, disappeared at some time in the 19th century, leaving behind their weavings as their only legacy.
At what point the weavings of settled Turkmen tribe turned into a major regional business sensitive to the changing tastes of buyers is unclear.
But by the time the traditional red rugs came to the attention of Western enthusiasts, there was already production of another class of Turkmen carpets – not traditional at all – which were aimed at the sophisticated tastes of urban centers such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and far beyond.
These rugs were the so-called “Beshir” carpets, named not after a tribe but one of the towns where they were woven along the Amu Darya river, which flows between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Exactly who wove the Beshir carpets is unclear, because historically these towns were home to a mixed population of Turkmens from different tribes and even indigenous Iranian people who pre-dated the Turkic conquest of Central Asia.
But if Beshir carpets show how Turkmen weavers could adapt to market tastes, the more remarkable thing about Turkmen carpets overall remains how much they have remained true to tradition over the centuries.
An example among many are the carpets woven the Ersari tribe, which has been mostly sedentary since 17th c. Their large carpets are too big for a yurt, so they were clearly made for urban buyers, but their designs stayed traditional.
Traditionally, Turkmen weavers not only produced main carpets for the floors of yurts but also carpet-like hangings to cover the yurt doorway (ensi), bags of different types and sizes for storage and transport (chuvals and torbas), decorative trappings used in wedding rituals (azmylik), tent bands and tent pole covers. Many of these smaller weavings show more variations in design than do the carpets.
Perhaps due to this variety, Turkmen weavings of all kinds are today highly popular with collectors. According to Pinner and Eiland, there are more Turkmen weavings in private rug collections in the US and Germany – the two countries with the largest number of private rug collections in the world — than rugs from anywhere else.
That’s a long way for Turkmen rugs to have traveled from the days when they were simply all lumped together on Western markets as Red Rugs, Bokharas, or Gentlemen’s Carpets.
And it is a tribute to the weavers’ skills that today their work has not just put the Turkmen people on the world’s art map, but even the names of their own individual tribes.