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Textiles 

By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian

he 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. 

Carpets

he 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. 

Whether 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 inscriptions. 

During 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. 

Armenian 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. 
 

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. Another type of pictorial rug was also woven by Armenians in the various parts of the world they settled in after 1915. These rugs, usually one of a kind, were woven by individuals to commemorate an event or to honor a person. Many of these have portraits of Soviet leaders -- Marx, Lenin, Stalin -- or western statesmen or historic symbols. Orphan rugs produced by young Armenian women, parentless survivors of the massacres of 1896 or 1915, under the guidance of American missionaries, are also numerous. To this day, the rug industry remains an important part of the organized crafts in Armenia.

For more online information/pictures about Armenian rugs, 
visit the ArmSite web site at www.armsite.com 


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Updated 10 July, 2002 ..
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