One of the great pleasures and source of never ending excitement researching and collecting historic Near Eastern non-classical weaving is the propensity for new, unknown, examples to suddenly appear.
RK has been at it for more than 40 years and we can definitively state this is perhaps the only constant this field enjoys: At any time a theory breaking weaving might pop up to destroy a formerly well-thought out position.
Success in non-classical oriental rug studies needs long experience, a well-developed familiarity with an ever increasing corpus of examples, and often a je ne sais quoi quality of intuition and clairvoyance to properly generate new ideas.
As many readers realize RK is surely not a fan of Belouch rugs, that said we are a fan of early ones and/or those that possess archetypal iconography.
But don’t be fooled; among the extremely large number of extant Belouch rugs there very, very few genuinely early examples, and it can rightly be said they are incredibly rare, numbering far fewer than any other Near Eastern weaving group.
Some long years ago we made a bet with a devoted Belouch weaving collector and then won it. He wagered we could not prove our position every design on the Belouch rugs in his collection was derived from an earlier Turkmen, Anatolian or trans-Caucasian weaving source.
Nothing has changed, we still maintain this position defying anyone to produce an old Belouch weaving with truly original iconography, and while all weavings are more or less derivative those labeled Belouch are undoubtedly the most easily proven.
Today we are not going to get into the ball of wax as to why this is the case. Rather, we wish to make public some thoughts concerning a specific iconographic assemblage many, actually the largest number of known, Belouch pile khorjin bagface display.
This Belouch khorjin-face is the earliest example of the type RK knows; ex-RK Collection; present whereabouts unknown
Of course that assemblage is the large central octagon and its iconic interior group of elements. For convenience we’ll christen this medallion the “ubiquitous” Belouch central medallion (UBCM).
Because Belouch weavings are not really our bag we never bothered to carefully and methodically examine what the UBCM is all about; however, all that changed when we saw offered for sale on the internet, and then purchased, this Belouch small format main carpet(SFMC).
Early and unique Belouch SFMC; RK Collection
This, obviously, is a very unusual Belouch weaving with, as far as we know, unique features not the least of which is the appearance of the UBCM in a non-khorjin format.
But before we get into examining the UBCM let’s spend a few words on the quixotic central medallion, which appears sandwiched between them.
Detail of the central medallion and four integrated side pendants
A first glance at this white ground, latch-hook outlined, diamond-shaped central medallion cannot help but draw analogy to the Turkmen darynak gol. But on closer inspection several interesting features signal this is not just a later copy but one deserving a higher level of appreciation.
For starters the white center is not divided into four quadrants like all darynak gol. And though quite damaged enough of the well articulated, reciprocal, white bird-heads perimeter remains to support this opinion.
Equally different and eminently notable is the asymmetric universe of small diamonds surrounding a large, brown, abstract symbol at dead center.
Two small boxes are attached to its two lower corners, below the central yellow rectangle, but unfortunately the corresponding upper section of this curiosity does not remain.
Yet somehow one cannot help but think it anthropomorphic, and let’s just leave it at that.
This is not the case with the four smaller side pendant/medallion on its flanks that are rather surprisingly quite similar to the rarely seen earliest form of chemche gol -- another ubiquitous icon but one hardly ever found in Belouch work.
Left: early form chemche gol, Belouch SFMC; Right: archetype chemche gol, ancient Tekke torba; both RK Collection
We are not going to explain why we believe the Tekke torba’s version is the archetype chemche, and the Belouch SFMC quite later.
We will mention the latter has a much earlier rendition than that seen on almost every Tekke torba, where chemche standardization mostly borders on monotony.
Surely this is not the case here and, in fact, one of the main reasons we purchased the Belouch SFMC was the early chemche variant.
And it is likewise why RK believes this SFMC is earlier than the righteously old ex-RK collection khorjin illustrated above.
At some later date we intend to revisit the chemche variant’s relationship with the archaic Tekke torba’s and discuss how it was developed.
So now let’s leave the center third of the Belouch SFMC and examine the meat of the matter –- the UBCM.
UBCM from archaic Belouch rug illustrated above; RK Collection
First we need to reiterate our position every Belouch weaving has been derived from earlier Turkmen, Anatolian or trans-Caucasian weaving traditions.
Most can be traced to Turkmen, fewer to Anatolian, and only a very few to a trans-Caucasian source, the one that spawned the UBCM.
That scarcity of provable relationship to any trans-Caucasian weaving is somewhat surprising as present day interpretations of the historical record maintain groups of Belouch long ago lived and roamed this region, primarily northeast of the Caspian Sea.
Supposedly this was as early as 1,000 years ago when, sometime later, they began to migrate south and east.
Eventually many ended up even further, south and east of Turkmenistan proper, the areas where most of the older Belouch weavings were likely produced.
We are not going to guess where our Belouch SFMC was produced, leaving this guesstimating to the raging cadre of Belouchophiles that have become, next to collectors of Turkmen rugs, the largest and most vocal group in rug studies.
RK will also not, besides the following very brief mention, discuss the quite excellent rendition the Belouch SFMC white ground archaic minor border shows. It is one often seen on pre-17th century Anatolian rugs.
Nor will we examine the alternating red, white, purple and blue complex-kotchak type emblem that fill the major border.
These complex-kotchak are frequently seen, in a far simpler form, on many Tekke torba, but they do appear in a similar complex form on certain groups of post-archaic period Anatolian and Caucasian Kelim.
Left: trans-Caucasian (Borjalu Kazak) Kelim, Right: early Classic period Anatolian Kelim with complex-kotchak type emblem
Again demonstrating our position Belouch designs are absolutely derived from other weaving traditions.
OK, let’s now tackle where and how the UBCM was developed.
Ground zero for this exercise is an ancient embroidery, which we believe is the earliest surviving example of what is commonly called “Caucasian embroidery”. Its truly mystical design has peaked our interest since we acquired it at auction in Paris, France in 1976. We have previously published it several times on RugKazbah.com and guessed it is some sort of an astrological “calendar”, since then we have yet come to a better conclusion.
Ancient fragment of long-stitch silk “Caucasian” embroidery(#1), undyed linen ground; RK collection; published in Kelim Soumak Carpet and Cloth: Classic Weaving of the Caucasus, 1990
Although this fragment is probably only an sixth or eighth of the original, it is a complete corner allowing reconstruction based on several later examples, the most salient in the Victoria and Albert Museum also made in long-stitch technique.
Unfortunately we do not have it available for illustration but there is a second related example, also long-stitch, from their collection shown below.
It is not as early as the other and therefore does not provide the all the clues necessary for positive reconstruction, but enough do remain for astute readers to get the idea how #1 originally might have looked.
It is also eminently close enough to illustrate direct connection to #1; plus more importantly the viability this genre of iconography was able to maintain over centuries, as both V&A examples, the others we illustrate and the Belouch SFMC are spread over at least several centuries.
Trans-Caucasian embroidery with large radial arm icon; V&A Museum Collection, London
And just to prove connection to this exercise below is a detail of the medallion showing what is left of the fork-leaf icon and, slightly above it in the detail, the beginning of the fleur-de-lys discussed below.
Detail later complex-ornament with abstract fork-leaf below and fleur de-lys above; “trans-Caucasian” embroidery,V&A Museum Collection
On our continuum of examples this embroidery fits after (ie later than) #1 and #2, but before the others shown below.
It is interesting to note how the “animal” motif it initiates, see below, is then codified in a much later embroidery that will be illustrated further along as #3.
Left: Detail V&A embroidery “animal” motif, one of four, which now appears in the medallion under the radial arms; Right: “animal” embroidery#3
Also note the progressive exaggeration and codification into an octagon the medallions these embroidery(V&A and #3) have built on the far more subtle (octagonal)definition of the inner white ground medallion of embroidery #1.
Detail inner medallion embroidery#1 showing the two small white ‘tits’ protruding into the brown perimeter. These, plus the similar ‘points’ at the end of the center staff with the red and green bird-heads undoubtedly prompted the development of the large, pointed or star extremity, central octagon all later examples display.
We see this, and the progressive changes other features of #1’s iconography have undergone, as no accident –- proof of the systematic codification and regularization this iconography underwent over many generations of use.
OK enough about #1, let’s put another somewhat later, but still outstandingly early, “Caucasian embroidery” fragment into the mix and provide icing on the cake RK is baking.
Early cross-stitch “Caucasian embroidery”(#2); indigo dyed linen ‘net’ ground-cloth; RK collection; published Kelim Soumak Carpet and Cloth: Classic Weaving of the Caucasus, 1990
Below it will become clear how combining certain iconographic elements these embroidery display produced the UBCM.
Here is the most significant, the fork-leaf.
Left: fork-leaf, long stitch embroidery#1; Right: fork-leaf, cross-stitch embroidery#2
RK is pretty sure most of our readers can connect the dots without further comment but to ensure comprehension below is a detail of the fork-leaf in the UBCM.
Detail UBCM showing a much later version of the fork-leaf icon than those on the embroidery #1 and #2
For lack of a better moniker we decided to call it a fork-leaf, and although on all Belouch weavings it looks like a cock-eyed tulip(see the two Belouch khorjin below) there should be little doubt they all are closely related to #1's seminal version.
Two Belouch khorjin (Upper: mid-period, Lower: Late period) with UBCM and details of their progressively abstracted fork-leaf
Worth additional notice is the subtle articulation the perimeter of the long stitch embroidery’s white ground central medallion has, as well as how each of the cross-members of the amulet it encloses can be read as two bird-heads on a staff(a very early and common central-asian icon).
Three of these, two green and one red, remain; the missing lower one was surely originally like the upper red one.
But it is this inner medallion, floating in the center of the blue outlined far larger and more complex red ground one, that can easily be seen as the archetype for the eight-pointed white star which occupies the same position in all UBCM.
More about where the might have star originated will be discussed below.
The processes of design degradation responsible for these changes are unknown since they happened over centuries -- the embroidery#1 is at least 16th century, if not earlier, and the UBCM maybe at the earliest circa 1800. But when enough closely related examples, like those shown in this exercise, are placed on a continuum their relationships and relative age can be mapped.
Along this line here is another trans-Caucasian embroidery to further illuminate and substantiate what we have already written, as well as what we will add.
Large and complete cross-stitch trans-Caucasian embroidery(#3) of a decidedly later vintage than the other two illustrated above; private collection, USA
It might at first seem alien but when carefully examined its iconography is absolutely related to the others.
They, of course, are earlier demonstrating examples like #3, and the UBCM, are accreted/degenerated copies.
Here are several details we have extracted from #3 that show this quite clearly.
The first, and lynchpin, is a rather disguised but still recognizable fork-leaf in the two “cypress-tree” pendant left of the central medallion.
Left: One of the two “cypress-tree” pendant with a fork-leaf in its interior: Right: detail of the fork-leaf turned 45 degrees to the right to facilitate recognition
There is another fork-leaf, though far more abstract and codified, within the medallion in exactly the same position it occupies in the two other embroidery and UBCM.
Detail of central medallion showing a second far more abstract fork-leaf(notice the two small curved arms below, remnant of the larger radial arms in embroidery#1)
And, does it not come as surprise there are four large octagon, each with eight(eight pointed) stars, above and below the central medallion that were also likely sourced from #1, as was the smaller octagon containing an eight-pointed star in the center of all UBCM?
1. the iconography of the UBCM and a the largest group of trans-Caucasian embroidery are interconnected and closely related
2. the long-stitch, embroidery#1 is the archetype for almost every known trans-Caucasian embroidery, whether long or cross-stitch, the UBCM iconography their vestigial descendant
To create a larger continuum of evidence we add another even later embroidery.
Trans-Caucasian embroidery(#4) with still recognizable fork-leaf and many of the other seminal icons seen in those pictured above
Here the fork-leaf in the central medallion remains in the usual position, aspected at 45 degrees, but it has become even more abstract by recombining two icons from the archetypal embroidery#1 and #2 -- the lower half(the fleur de lys) remaining within the central medallion and the connected upper half(the now abstract insect-like icon) just outside.
That lower part, is a now codified fleur-de-lys, no doubt based on and taken from the white ground areas of embroidery #2 where several less codified versions can be seen.
The upper, shown below in the center, is an accreted version of the brown insect-like icon from the medallion of embroidery #1.
And like embroidery#3 a second highly abstract fork-leaf, shown below on the left, is also present. There are six of them secreted in the now overloaded field, four surrounding the central medallion and two others around the partial medallions left and right.
Left: Second highly abstract fork-leaf (embroidery#4); Center: Embroidery#4's abstract version of the insect-like icon from embroidery#1;Right: Detail insect-like icon from medallion embroidery #1
Again, these icon’s visible degenerative changes are the result of both a long passage of time and progressive separation from the ancient cultural tradition responsible for the iconography all these embroideries display.
RK has an extensive collection of pictures of trans-Caucasian embroideries that readily proves the long-stitch embroidery#1 setup an iconographic format that was then progressively enlarged through addition of a group of codified emblem based on those it and embroidery#2 possess.
These later elements come mostly from the white ground top and bottom areas of what remains of #2’s fragmented central medallion.
This is truly a shame, as almost nothing remains from the obviously larger original center of this medallion making reconstruction impossible. Also the lack of another similar ‘bullet’ shaped medallion adds another formidable obstacle.
Fortunately the outer two upper and lower parts of this medallion are untouched and many of its highly articulated emblem retain their distinct bird-head finial.
But before we identify its source, compare them with the four similar but not nearly as complex white ground brackets which surround the embroidery#3’s red central medallion.
Left: detail cross-stitch embroidery#3; Right: detail cross-stitch embroidery#2
This symbology, as well as that within the two “cypress-tree” pendant, is very reminiscent of that seen on the Dragon rug group and it is not a far guess to surmise their iconography, too, might also have been sourced from long-stitch embroidery#1.
RK might reiterate we believe the long-stitch embroidery#1 to be 16th century or earlier while the oldest Dragon rugs are 17th and, with most dating later.
So where might you ask did the emblem in white ground brackets, and “cypress-tree” pendant, originate?
If you answered the long-stitch embroidery you are right.
RK believes their highly codified and repetitive nature prove they are all likely derived from the same model, that model created not by a gradual and natural design progression but deliberate decision.
We can see a cartoon, created by a master who knew our long stitch embroidery, one like it or perhaps even its ancestor.
Regardless of how it happened this seems obvious to us, and we illustrate two detail below to show the brown insect-like icon and its yellow and blue curlicue extensions were regulated, codified and drafted into the far less complex and evocative drawing seen in the brackets and the “cypress-tree” pendant of the cross-stitch embroidery#2/3, as well as others we could illustrate.
Details embroidery#1; Left: brown insect-like icon and curlicue extensions; Right: detail brown insect-like icon
This is pure speculation but speculation backed by the documentation an ancient example like embroidery#1 provides.
It’s clear our continuum proves an ancient weaving culture, like “Caucasian” embroidery, was able to last for centuries but eventually as unknown influences forced separation and disconnection an ever increasing process of design degeneration became inevitable.
We could easily write about and illustrate more examples of this continuum contained in our files, but we’d prefer to end this discussion with some speculation centered even farther back in time to textiles which display what we believe is the original source for #1’s fork-leaf and curled radial arm icon.
Ancient slit-tapestry(Kelim) textile; RK Collection
Even more ancient slit-tapestry(Kelim) textile; V&A Museum Collection, London
Both of these intriguing and mysterious weaving have been illustrated on RugKazbah.com before and interested readers might remember them.
Suffice it to say if you have not figured out their relationship to the fork-leaf and other iconic symbology we have discussed, here is a detail that should open the door.
Left: fork-leaf icon, detail first slit-tapestry pictured above; Right: radial arm and curlicue, detail second slit-tapestry pictured above
RK would be surprised if after reading the above anyone could doubt the UBCM reinterpreted the iconography of the trans-Caucasus embroidery tradition.
Tracing this iconography to that displayed on the two much earlier slit-tapestry textiles might be too far a stretch because of the long vacant intervening time period. However, RK feels confident we will someday uncover a missing link or two that will fit into those vacant slots and will provide enough evidence to validate that supposition.