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Rugs and trappings from the Caucasus

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Bound by the Caspian and Black Seas to its east and west, and bisected by soaring mountains, modern-day Caucasia consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the republics and federal regions of Russia. In the last 500 years, the Ottomans of Turkey and the Safavids of Persia from the south, Imperial Russia from the north, and the Caucasian inhabitants themselves have all fought over its territories.

The region has been populated by hundreds of different ethnic and religious groups, with great linguistic variation, and the weavings of the Caucasus reflect this diversity. Designs and motifs vary from region to region as do the techniques. There are rugs with knotted pile; flat woven kilims, often with added weft-floating patterns and motifs; and soumaks which are flat weaves that employ a weft-wrapping technique to create the design.

There are few extant examples of Caucasian carpets made between the 13th and 17th centuries, and 18th century examples are not common. The earliest Caucasian rug in the Powerhouse collection is an Afshan runner dating from around the early 1800s. Rugs were home-produced, with each tribe or village displaying distinct design and material differences. Rugs are classified according to their region of manufacture, and their design. Some rugs have multiple names in common use; for example, one striking rug is attributed to its origin, Karabagh; to the tribe who wove it, Kazak; and by its design, Eagle or Sunburst or Chelaberd. Storage bags of varying sizes were also woven, for example the slit-tapestry weave Shirvan storage bag known as a mafrash, which denotes its size and shape.

The symmetrically-knotted pile of Caucasian rugs varies regionally. Coarsely knotted, dense and lustrous pile is found in rugs from the mountainous regions of Kazak, Karabagh and Gendje; finer knotted, thinner and more closely-shaved rugs are characteristic of those from the lower slopes of Shirvan and Daghestan. Until the early 20th century, good quality handspun wool was used and natural dyes gave clear, strong colours. Motifs were as rich and varied as their colours and included dragons, cloud bands, botehs, flowers, and animals. The drawing of Caucasian weaving is quite angular and gives an overall geometric aesthetic.

With the expansion of trade routes and the completion of the Trans-Caucasian railway in the second half of the 19th century, rugs of the Caucasus were exported to Europe and America where they were much admired. By the turn of the century carpet workshops had been established to satisfy the demand from the West. Commercial dyes were introduced and designs were simplified and lost their spontaneity. The First World War and the Russian Revolution caused such upheaval that rug-making was seriously curtailed. By the 1930s however, large-scale rug manufacture had been revived under Russian rule, but these commercially produced rugs had lost the charm and exuberance of their forebears.

Ian Perryman, Secretary, Oriental Rug Society of NSW Inc, 2020