By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian
serious study of Armenian textiles is still in its infancy. There are scattered
monographs and catalogues on Armenian carpets, lace and embroidery, cloth
fragments preserved in manuscript bindings, ecclesiastical vestments, altar
curtains, and clothing. However, not one of the rich textile collections
in the Armenian monasteries in Etchmiadzin, Jerusalem, Venice, Vienna,
and elsewhere is graced by a catalogue or complete inventory.
The complex history of Armenian weaving
and needlework was acted out in the Near East, a vast, ancient and ethnically
diverse region. Few are the people who, like the Armenians, can boast of
a continuous and consistent record of fine textile production from the
first millenium B.C. to the present. Armenians today are blessed by the
diversity and richness of a textile heritage passed on by thirty centuries
of diligent practice; yet they are burdened by the pressure to keep alive
a tradition nearly destroyed in 1915, and subverted by a technology that
condemns handmade fabrics to museums and lets machines produce perfect,
but lifeless cloth.
oldest existing tufted carpet, dating from the fifth to the third century
B.C., was excavated from the frozen Scythian burial mounds at Pasyryk northeast
of the Caucasus in the Soviet Union. Called the Pasyryk carpet and preserved
in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, this extraordinary rug predates other
whole examples by more than 1500 years. The rug is in a near perfect state
of preservation; it is roughly six feet square and the predominate color
is red-brown. The central design is made of geometric star patterns enclosed
in five successive borders, the second of which contains a continuous line
of large antlered animals and the fourth from the center, a procession
of men mounted on caparisoned horses. Recent scholarship inclines toward
Armenia as the place where it was woven, because of the similarity of motifs
in late Urartian and some early Armenian artifacts, and the long history
of tufted carpet weaving in Armenia. The Scythians, according to this theory,
acquired the rug when passing through the Caucasus.
or not the oldest carpet in the world was made in Armenia, early Greek,
Armenian, and Arabic historical sources repeatedly speak about the fine
rugs and other textiles woven there. Carpets are mentioned as part of the
annual Armenian tribute to the Caliph of Baghdad in the late eighth century.
In the later medieval period, Marco Polo praises the rugs woven by Armenians.
The characteristic red Armenian dye (vordn karmir) was prized throughout
the Mediterranean world. Unfortunately, no rugs have survived from these
early centuries. There are a few fragments from the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries, uncovered in mosques in Eastern Anatolia, but no convincing
origin has been established for any of them, though Armenia has been proposed
for several. However, renaissance artists in the west painted rugs imported
from the Near East in precise detail allowing scholars to establish some
of the basic designs of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.
Until very recently, scholars have
dismissed the possible Armenian origin of these carpets. Though there has
been much debate during this century on the source of the famous "dragon"
carpets, A. Sakisian and others after him propose an Armenian origin for
them. The Armenian province of Artsakh (Karabagh) has retained the dragon
design into modern times, reinforcing the Armenian origin of seventeenth
and eighteenth century examples. A number of these dragon rugs have Armenian
the dislocation of the first World War, the production of Armenian handloomed
rugs nearly ended as did that of so many other crafts. Some survivors,
however, continued to weave Armenian rugs until World War II. Furthermore,
the wholesale destruction of Armenian life and property in Anatolia and
western Armenia from 1915 to 1922 resulted in the loss of heirloom Armenian
rugs passed down in families. In the last two decades a new interest in
Armenian weaving and rug making has resulted in the re-establishment of
the identity of Armenian carpets, which in this century have been, unfortunately,
gradually subsumed under the heading of Islamic or Turkish carpets. What
has helped in the scientific study of the rugs produced by Armenians has
been the habit, already remarked upon in other arts, of weavers leaving
a written memorial by way of Armenian inscriptions woven directly into
the rugs with names and dates. Hundreds of these inscribed Armenian rugs
have now been recorded and several major exhibitions organized around them.
The earliest dated Armenian rug is
also one of the largest and most exquisite, the famous Kohar carpet
made in the Karabagh (the Armenian district of Artsakh) with an inscription
identifying the weaver, Kohar, and the date 1700. Another important carpet
woven in 1731 for Catholicos Nersés of Aghuank', probably in Artsakh,
is preserved in the monastery of St. James in Jerusalem. The rest of the
dated and inscribed Armenian rugs are from the nineteenth and the first
quarter of the twentieth centuries.
rugs, though woven in various regions and in divers styles, are predominantly
of the Caucasian type with vivid colors and broad geometric designs; often
small figures or animals are placed randomly in the border or field. The
most frequently encountered types among the inscribed rugs are Karabagh
(Artsakh), Kazak, and Gendje or Ganja. The earlier Karabagh rugs with sunburst
or eagle designs seem to have affinities with the famous dragon carpets
of an earlier period. Other Karabagh types are popular: Kasim Ushak design,
cloudband design, jagged red band design, lempe/lampa design, Lesghi star
design, etc. Armenian Kazak rugs are classified by the following types:
three medallion design, Lori-Pambak design, Sevan-Kazak design, Karachoph
design, etc. Among the most famous Karabagh carpets are a large number
produced at the turn of the twentieth century with designs copied from
western models, which were in great vogue in the Caucasus and Iran. These
fall in two large categories, the rose design rugs and the pictorial rugs.
There are also a large number of Karabagh, Kazak and village rugs with
unique patterns as well as saddle bags or twin bags from Artsakh.