TURKOMANS AND SCHOLARSHIP
We should not be surprised that the regularity and formal organization of the classic Turkoman carpet usually attracts enthusiasts of a tidy and methodical frame of mind.
Turkoman collectors are in many ways a breed apart, driven perhaps more than any other species of rug fanatic to label, categorize, and construct taxonomies for their chosen objects of passion.The idea that rugs may be specifically attributed to tribe and place of origin on the basis of their designs -- which has subsequently proved more illusory than useful -- appeals to their natural sense of order. They are intrigued by the notion that here lies a complex and mysterious field that is subject to intellectual assault. It can be reduced to comprehensible terms and mastered through study. Real Turkoman collectors, often now labeled as Turkomaniacs, are probably more devoted to their books than the rest of us, and their diligent study has been rewarded with a massive literature during the last decades. Probably more has been learned about Turkoman rugs during this time than any other group, although the process seems to have stalled a few years ago.
Dr. Murray L. Eiland, Jr.
Dr. Jon Thompson
Consequently, the time seems ripe for a retrospective look at what has happened during the last 20 years. Many of us have been around long enough to remember the smug and secure feeling of the late '60s, when it appeared as though we had a good grasp of the field based on two solid pieces of on-the-spot literature. The 1908 volume by Bogolubov and the 1922 study by Hartley Clark seemed to cover the salient points, giving us the illusion that we knew something about Turkoman rugs.
The catalog by C. D. Reed for a 1966 Turkoman exhibition at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum provides a good summary of what we knew at the time. A glance at this work, with much information we would now see as in error, reveals little comprehension of the complexity of the problems, nor did it include structural analyses of the rugs included. Indeed, Reed commented at one point that, "the collector of Turkoman rugs, in pursuit of some rare prize, may find himself the sole enthusiast in sight, since not many share his interest..." As we know, this disinterest soon vanished into history, and the edifice of our presumed understanding of the field began to crumble during the next few years. The reasons for this were not hard to identify. The whole rug field was beginning to devote more attention to structure, which ultimately allowed certain groups of Turkoman rugs to be distinguished from others. At the same time access to those regions of the Middle East inhabited by Turkoman tribes improved to the point where Western scholars and traders began to circulate among the Turkoman groups of northeastern Iran and Afghanistan. Russian publications, most prominently the works of V. G. Moshkova, also began to attract a small audience in the West. The combined force of these factors, along with the many new publications the rug renaissance prompted, soon set in motion the wheels of change.
Perhaps the most important stimulus to the Turkoman boom came with Ulrich Schürmann's Central Asian Carpets in 1969. Here we were treated to plates of some of the finest of all Turkoman carpets, along with definite contributions to Turkoman scholarship. Several different types of Ersari rugs were distinguished, with the Beshire placed in a distinct category, and Chub Bash and Kizil Ayak rugs were described as separate entities. An obscure Soviet rug scholar named Moshkova was introduced to a wider audience, along with her ideas on the Turkoman gul.
By applying the Ogurjali label (after a minor Yomud subtribe) to several Yomud rugs Schürmann seems to have made the first move in a game that later became a favorite pastime of the Turkomaniac: associating a known type of rug with an obscure tribal group without sufficient corroborative evidence. Although there is much material in the Schürmann volume we would now see as erroneous, he gave the field an enormous boost, and his concern for such previously unde rappreciated types as the asmalik (3 color plates) did much to direct the attention of the emerging breed of Turkoman enthusiasts. There was still, however, little attention to structure, study of which determined the subsequent breakthroughs of the early '70's.
One key early point in this area, which seemed to have passed with little notice at the time, was May Beattie's observation, in the catalog to a 1971 exhibit of Turkoman artifacts (The Turcoman of Iran), that the asymmetrical knot used on most of the rugs was open to the right rather than to the left, as we find in the vast majority of Persian rugs. The impiications of this quirk, as a diagnostic tool, became apparent several years later.
In 1969 McCoy Jones began a series of exhibitions sponsored by the Washington (later International) Hajji Babas. The first show focused on Ersari weavings, and it was accompanied by a small catalog without plates. Perhaps the growth of interest in Turkoman rugs can be surmised by a comparison of catalogs for these exhibits, as by 1976 (for a Yomud show), they had become fully illustrated and well bound.
Siawosch Azadi, in 1970, published a catalog to a major Turkoman exhibition in Hamburg, which circulated widely enough to stimulate further interest. (Later this work was revised and published with better plates by Simon Crosby.) Azadi's dating, which described one Tekke main carpet as 18th century or earlier and another as from the first half of the 18th century, has been questioned by many, but it helped create an atmosphere in which the Turkoman rug could be taken more seriously as a venerable and ancient art form.
During the same year as Azadi's exhibit, McCoy Jones staged his second show, this time on "Rugs of the Yomud Tribes," which included several McMullan pieces and some of McCoy's excellent Yomuds. His 1973 exhibit covered tribal rugs of Afghanistan and included in the catalog a translation of a 1964 Dietrich Wegner article that became quite influential.
In January of 1973 a Turkoman exhibit, organized by my brother and me, opened in Berkeley. The catalog was more useful in raising questions than in providing answers, as it became clear to me at the time that the old custom of differentiating between Tekke and Salor rugs on the basis of the guls seemed hopelessly inadequate. We did feel pleased to be able to display four Chodor rugs in different designs, including a tauk noshka. It seems almost shocking to reflect back now and recall that only rugs with the typical ertmen gul were then usually labeled as Chodors, although the peculiar structural and color characteristics should have made it clear that many other designs were also used. (The 1966 Fogg exhibit had labeled a Chodor tauk noshka as a Saryq rug.)
Later in the same year Jon Thompson's edition of the earlier Bogolubov work appeared, introducing the now fabled S-group. On the basis primarily of structure, particularly Persian knots open to the left (a follow-up on the Beattie observation), Thompson convincingly constructed a group which included main carpets with a characteristic gul, large jollars often with wide expanses of silk, and a number of smaller jollars in various designs. At the time he refrained from labeling the group with the name Salor, but several years later indicated that sufficient reason has developed to permit its use.
Altogether this was a fine piece of cautious scholarship that has stood up well, although to my mind, at least, the actual equation of S-group equals Salor is still weak. I seem to be a minority of one on this issue, however, as the labels in auction catalogs, rug books and in this Journal have clearly shifted so that now the rugs are pretty consistently labled as Salors. They also soon became the hottest item on the auction circuit, often bringing more money per square inch than the finest 6th century Safavid or Ottoman carpet.
Perhaps the real significance of Thompson's work here, however, was the clear demonstration that careful attention to finer points of structure could pay large dividends, and here were several notable subsequent attempts to score similar coups.
The next contribution came from another type of information, that gathered directly from the field. In 1974 George O'Bannon's book, The Turkoman Carpet, presented on-the-spot information about Turkoman weaves, with the first extensive coverage of the kind of information being gathered by a small group of Americans and Europeans who began studying the rugs of Afghanistan during the late '60s. Coherent books on Turkoman rugs could be written up to this time by Westerners who had never seen a real Turkoman, but O'Bannon's extended stay in Afghanistan allowed him to give an update as to what was being woven by contemporary Turkoman peoples, and he gave the first clear accounts of rugs produced by such groups as the Chob Bash and Charshango. He also provided a new perspective for such previously used terms as Beshiri and Kizil Ayak.
Unfortunately the field work begun by several Westerners in Afghanistan has been curtailed by the current war, and this is all the more to be regretted because it dealt with just the area that the early Russian writers, including Bogolubov, could not investigate. Indeed, despite several ethnographic studies of Afghanistan, there are still many questions about the relationships of the various tribes and subtribes in Afghanistan. Are such groups as the Beshiri, Chob Bash, and Kizil Ayak subtribes of a larger group termed Ersari, or are they just as separate as, for example, Tekkes and Yomuds? This whole area did not get quite the attention it deserved during the Turkoman boom.
It is difficult to identify the exact point at which the works of V.G. Moshkova began to make a mark on the Turkoman landscape. Her paper reprinted in a 1948 German journal was quoted by Schürmann, and her major work, Carpets of the Peoples of Central Asia, appeared some years after her death in 1970. By the mid '70s, translations of the German article and several key chapters of the book were circulating in xerox form in this country. McCoy Jones underwrote some of this translation, and apparently translations also circulated in England. Beginning in April, 1983, this journal began publishing the first complete English translation of Moshkova, completing it in December, 1984.
The immediately appealing thing about Moshkova is that she had first-hand knowledge of Turkoman and other weaving tribes in the Soviet Union, beginning in the '20s, and she had a creative frame of mind that managed to reveal information in such a manner as to make even the most trivial and simple geometric ornament writhe with hidden meaning. Perhaps she would have made a wonderful rug dealer. The guls, of course, were more than flowers, becoming tribal emblems of such importance that unsuccessful tribes not only lost the right to weave their own designs, but were forced to weave the guls of others. She mentioned virtually nothing about structural details of the carpets she described, but based complex identification on elements of design. Consequently there are a number of obvious and major errors in the book, particularly in the captions to photographs, and, in my opinion, this should have alerted the reader that other material might be faulty as well.
But Moshkova attracted a special type of following, and soon we began to hear a whole new vocabulary of Turkoman rugs, in which the most obscure ornament had a name. To her the carpet seemed to be central in the Turkoman consciousness, as if the women existed for little other purpose than to express themselves on the loom. (When HALI first appeared in 1978, the Moshkova lexicon got a major boost, as did the whole Turkoman field.)
An apparent Yomud bag labelled Saryq by Moshkova. "...there are a number of obvious and major errors in the book, particularly in the captions to the photographs, and in my opinion, this should have alerted the reader that other material might be faulty as well."
The next major development seems Moshkova-related and appeared in an auction catalog from Lefevre and Partners in 1977. There Thompson followed up his S-group breakthrough with another new label and group. These rugs were attached to an obscure tribe called the Arabatchi, which had been mentioned in passing by Bogolubov, and who were described by Moshkova as using the tauk noshka gul on their main carpets. Beginning with such a main carpet, of a type not readily identifiable to another tribe, Thompson demonstrated how other pieces, including a type of engsi, were related on structural and color grounds. The existence of the group seemed clear enough, although not so firm as the S-group, but the Arabatchi label has not been so firm. Moshkova's comments about the tribe are not above reproach, as she contributed the highly dubious suggestion that Arabatchi designs are ancestral to those of other tribes.
With the Arabatchi in particular, the market witnessed the full flowering of a phenomenon that had been growing within the Turkoman boom. If a rug had a special label, it suddenly became more desirable. For some reason this soon became clear with the Arabatchi, whose rugs had never attracted attention for their beauty. It is no coincidence that news of their existence was announced in an auction catalog.
In 1978 the Werner Loges book appeared, which did not introduce novel material but seemed to ratify such new material as the Arabatchi label. Turkomania seemed to dominate the auction houses, and ever higher prices were commanded by the new champion, the S-group.
1980 was a busy year for the Turkoman enthusiast, with the appearance of a beautifully illustrated Turkoman book by Peter Hoffmeister, the long awaited Turkoman Studies I, edited by Robert Pinner and Michael Franses, and the International Conference on Oriental Carpets in Washington that focused upon Turkoman matters. While the first book was basically non-controversial and did not include significant new ideas, Turkoman Studies I introduced much material from the Soviet literature that was previously little known in the West, including another translation of the early Moshkova paper.
Among the wealth of intriguing material, it also presented a paper by Pinner and Franses that related the rugs found in two early 15th century Herat miniature paintings to contemporary Turkoman nomadic rugs. To me it seems more likely that the later Turkoman carpet may have been based on urban Timurid carpets, particularly since the designs of these pieces may be traced back to much earlier Sassanian and Chinese textiles. The level of Turkoman enthusiasm in 1980, however, did not allow much room for a contrary view.
Not long after Turkoman Studies I came along, the rug world focused on the 1980 I.C.O.C. in Washington, which, in retrospect, seems to represent the high point of mythical, creative Turkomania. The featured debut at the convention was the appearance of Türkmen, edited by Jon Thompson and Louise Mackie. The Thompson contributions, in my opinion, exemplified both the best and worst of recent scholarship. On the positive side was his calling attention to a rug in the Ballard collection which had been previously published but which had been generally overlooked. This fascinating piece, which easily could date to the 18th century, displays figures transitional between the palmettes we find in such Persian designs as the Harshang and such guls of later Turkoman pieces as the kepse. Indeed, here was proof positive of the origin of at least one Turkoman gul from a Persian floral design in the not-too-distant past. This came at a time when some enthusiasts were insisting that these guls were tribal emblems. (At the same 1980 conference, I presented a paper showing, I believe, that the "spread-eagle" gul was also descended from Persian palmettes.)
The other side of Thompson's work came with yet another attempt to identify a new group on the basis primarily of structural details. The Imreli label was never convincing, so far as I was concerned, as even the four rugs so designated in the exhibit seemed more dissimilar than similar, and surely there was nothing even remotely connecting them with the Imreli. How much less cautious this was than the original S-group formulation.
The counter-attack seemed to begin in an innocuous looking catalog to an exhibit called Tribal Visions in Novato, California. Published in December, 1980, just two months after the Washington convention, the catalog addressed itself, in an article by Michael David, to the "birth of a new mythology," and was current enough to address the Thompson/ Mackie opus. Within months I heard McCoy Jones, who detested the catalog, describe it as "infamous, notorious throughout the world."
The David article began by attacking some Moshkova derived concepts, particularly the "living gul / dead gul" thesis, the notion that the word "gol" is of entirely different origin from the word for flower, and that tribes subjugated by others lose the right to weave their own gul but must weave that of the victorious tribe. The support for all of these notions was never solid, but they had become part of the current Turkoman theology of the same people who began to use the local Turkoman terms for the most inconspicuous border stripes.
The real vitriol, however, was directed at Thompson's Imreli label, which David described as a "half-developed schema," pointing out that the four examples in the catalog did not match the proposed Imreli criteria. He also criticized, for cogent reasons, Thompson's attempt to resurrect the Bokhara label for the rugs more commonly known as Beshiri.
A paper of mine in the same catalog also argued, with illustrations that are, at least to me, convincing, that a number of common Turkoman border stripes were descended from the types of Kufic borders depicted on the rugs in Timurid miniatures.
The clash of opinion described here seemed healthy to me in that it represented a new openness in rug studies. Formerly, arguments on rug subjects had been rather cold affairs that never really came to life in print. The arrival of HALI made available a forum for expressing new ideas, but it soon became immersed in the Turkoman orthodoxy. With the appearance of Oriental Rug Review, however, there was at last a format in which both sides of a given issue could be represented.
Indeed, this new journal contributed a piece in its January, 1982, issue, "Whither Turkomania?" by Lawrence Kearney that brought laughter as well as some enlightenment. It made the serious point that rugs with new labels, particularly the Arabatchi label, were just as dreary and uninspired as ever, despite their new provenance. (He also referred to Turkoman enthusiasts as Anal Retentives.) Up until that time the prices of Arabatchi pieces seemed to be escalating, but this piece of "Emperor's New Clothes" journalism seemed to have cooled it.
A few months after the Washington conference, in October of 1981, the market reached a similarly stratospheric level. At Sotheby's in New York an unusual asmalik, which would probably not have approached $5,000 a decade before, sold for the staggering sum of $44,000 plus a 10% buyer's fee. Obviously the new blend of fact and fantasy had some true believers, who might not be willing to die for the cause but would certainly spend to support it. (Some observers of the trade believe that this particular auction represented a general high point in rug prices before the several year doldrums that are only recently being dispelled.)
Lot 175 at Sotheby's October 30 - 31, 1981 sale. Deemed by the house a "rare and important Yomud azmalyk," it was thought by someone on the floor to be Saryq. That person backed up his conviction by paying $44,000 plus 10% for the piece.
How this state of affairs came about is curious, as perfectly rational individuals began to make comments about the aesthetics of the Turkoman rugs that, in retrospect, seem to represent a kind of overreaction. Soon after the Ballard piece was reintroduced, for example, I heard a great deal of discussion about its being one of the world's most beautiful and inspired carpets. However much I might find this carpet a fascinating transition piece, I cannot imagine the distorted, malformed palmettes as having anything to do with great art. As an adaptation of a Persian floral design, it is an utter failure. To see great depth in the piece, as with so many of the severely repetitive bag faces, is to attach more significance than they would seem to warrant.
Perhaps there was some sense of this excess among the rug buying public, as prices began to slide after 1981. This was, of course, not so much a matter of slipping Turkoman popularity so much as a loss in faith toward collectibles in general, but there was clearly some diminished enthusiasm into 1982 and 1983. The 1983 London I.C.O.C. proved significant in that for the first time in a decade the emphasis was definitely in other areas than the Turkoman. Although there was some talk of new labels, nothing really established itself.
A paper of my own on the origins of Turkoman guls met a mixed reception in staking out territory at the opposite end of the spectrum from most Turkoman enthusiasts, although Thompson had made an important contribution in this same area. I contended that not only did the guls have no emblematic significance for the various tribes but that many (such as the Tekke and Salor guls) had descended from the roundels in various silk fabrics traded between China and the West as early as 300 A.D. Along with the earlier piece examining the role of the Kufic border in Turkoman design, a comprehensive counter-theory of Turkoman design was now avaliable, based on the idea that they were primarily nomadic adaptations of urban fabric designs. Soon after this piece was published, I spoke with Jim Ford, who had independently come up with a similar concept based on the same kinds of early silk fabrics I had cited. He noted that the one change he wished to make in his book before the German edition appeared was to mention this observation.
Since then the machinery feeding the Turkoman boom seems slowly to have ground to a near standstill, and there has been some retrenchment. Travel to the Turkoman areas of Afghanistan is now impossible unless you have good connections with the Soviet Army, and those Turkoman tribes living in northeastern Iran are hardly more accessible. The well seems to have gone dry, at least so far as allowing us to identify obscure groups among existing rugs on the basis of some eccentricity of structure, nor can we count on Soviet scholarship, always a problem area, to provide fresh material.
A Retrospective View
by Dr. Murray L. Eiland, Jr.
Lot 100 at Skinner's, December 6, 1987, a white field Ersari rug, 4'3"x3', was bought in, reaching $3,000 against a $5,000/7,000 estimate.
Lot 101 at Skinner's, a Yomud main carpet with a $3,000/5,000 estimate. It sold for $8,500 plus buyer's commission.
No major books on Turkoman rugs have appeared, and the 1986 Vienna conference did nothing to inspire the Turkoman faithful. A paper by Annette Rautenstengl suggested, indeed, that there was a coherent group similar to what Thompson had identified as Imreli in l980 but with no known connection to a tribe of that name. At this point Thompson is alleged to have withdrawn the term, explaining that it had been a "provocation" to stimulate thought and was not intended to be a final word on the subject.
So now the great Turkoman tidal wave has passed, which probably comes as something of a relief both to its participants and others in the rug field. Dealers may miss the heady prices, although serious rug collectors probably have a contrary view. Looking back at it, we must all be impressed by its intensity and by the genuine contributions it made. Comparing today's level of understanding of these fascinating rugs with what we knew in 1967 reveals the enormous strides that have been made. We are perhaps no longer so secure and smug, but what we know is based on firmer ground, and we have perhaps learned something of the process by which rug knowledge advances.
Azadi, Siawosch, Turkoman Carpets and the Ethnographic Significance of Their Ornaments, Fishguard, 1975, Crosby Press.
O'Bannon, George, The Turkoman Carpet, London, Duckworth, 1974.
Beattie, May, "Pile and Flat-Weaves: Technical Notes," The Turcoman of Iran , P.A. Andrews, London, 1971, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, pp. 37-41.
Bogolubov, A. A. The Carpets of Central Asia, Edited by J.M.A. Thompson, Ramsdell, Hampshire, 1973, Crosby Press.
Clark, Hartley, Bokhara, Turkoman and Afghan Rugs, London, l922, John Lane.