Home > Turkmen Rugs >The "Salor" Engsi: Tradition or Invention
Sun, Jul 12th, 2015 09:21:55 AM
Topic: The "Salor" Engsi: Tradition or Invention

Detail ancient Turkmen engsi; unpublished; RK Collection

You might wonder what the detail above has to do with S group engsi. Read on to find out…

Four year ago, in fact on June 1, 2011, RK penned a review of robert pinner’s twenty year earlier article on ‘Salor’ engsi.

Our critique is, of course, still online and motivated readers who have not read it can do so here:


Both before and after publishing our pinner comments RK made it abundantly clear we do not believe any of these engsi, or any other type of pre-1880 so-called ‘Salor’ weaving, were necessarily their work.

We prefer the far more descriptive, and defensible, term S-group for those weavings which exhibit the tell-tale and unique weave of an asymmetric knot open left with strong offset warp alignment.

That offset alignment, which often approaches 180 degrees is often referred to as a ‘depressed’ warp, which though somewhat descriptive is not technically correct.

Type 1 "S" group engsi; published that rag hali, et al; ex-jon thompson collection

There is, however, another quite similar group of weavings made with the same strong offset warp alignment, but these have an asymmetric knot open to the right.

These weavings are distinctly NOT S-group and should never be referred to as S-group.

For arguments sake we call them the open right type.

The open left group appears to be the earlier, as a few examples are demonstrably older than any of the open right type or others of their own kind.

Utilizing the name S group for those with asymmetric knots open to the left open is beyond debate because this is based on 100 percent provable physical evidence, while ascribing any S group, or its sister group with asymmetric knot open right, to the Salor at this point is nothing but pure speculation and blatant conjecture.

In pinner’s article, or for the matter all other attempts to discuss so-called ‘Salor’ weavings, disregard for this fact pretty much destroyed any credibility the rest of the article might hold.

After all no one knows for sure who or what tribe/group made any pre-1850 Turkmen weaving, let alone ones called Salor, so it’s about time contemporary Turkmen studies owned up to this reality.

The only available and positive way to categorize Turkmen weaving is by observable structural and material differences, also to a less definitive degree subtle color variation.

And expertly constructed continuums based on accurate art historical analysis provides the best available means to comparatively date them.

Though some people believe c14 dating for Turkmen weavings is plausible, thus far this test has proven far less reliable than comparative analysis.

Type 2 S group engsi; published that rag hali, et al; ex-Wher Collection now tabibnia gallery?

The S-group’s unique weave signature is one of the few certainties in Turkmen studies, and appreciating it as such allows certain conclusions to be positively formulated.

Unlike most other types of equally old and even earlier Turkmen weavings made by yurt dwelling pastoralists, the S group and the open right group appear for all intents and purposes to have been produced in town or city workshops and not so to speak in the field.

This is question number one: Who wove them, where were they made and under what circumstances?

Plus there is an even larger question -- Are these weavings even Turkmen?

The unusually homogenous nature of S-group examples, and their sister group with open right knots, points clearly to the conclusion they were produced in urban workshops.

Some basic facts support this idea.

The far more sophisticated loom necessary to produce strong offset warp alignment would never have been used by non-settled Turkmen.

And while a weaving with this technique could in theory be created using less sophisticated means, it would not be possible to produce the highly accurate and uniform weave S-group pieces always exhibit.

Nor would so many, so similar in all respects, main carpets have been easily produced outside a workshop environment.

Also the lavish use of silk and rare insect dyes would have been, once again, beyond the means of Turkmen weavers who were yurt dwellers living a very different lifestyle that kept them well beyond the trade contacts available to weavers from oasis and urban environments.

Nor did these weaving groups have the financial means to acquire such large amounts of these expensive materials.

Then there is the size and weight of S group main carpets, which would made them quite impractical possessions for pastoralists.

One more word about the various shades of field color S-group, and the open right variety, display.

These differences seem to confirm there were a number of workshops and they were not geographically close.

Their distinctly different colorations are the result of different dye formulas and the different minerals in the local water supplies used for dyeing.

It is also apparent these weavings were not produced contemporaneously but rather over a period that seems to encompass about 150-200 years.

Engsi are the least numerous type of S-group weaving, there are far more main carpets, chuval and torba; though no tentband or asmalyk have yet been discovered.

This, too, might supply more evidence none of these so-called Salor weavings were produced by them, as it is abundantly clear the asmalyk and tent band were important accoutrements of the non-settled, non-urban, Turkmen lifestyle.

While knowing exactly who produced any of the extant early tentbands is problematic, this is not the case for asmalyk.

In fact the asmalyk other Turkmen weavers produced were woven using particular weave signatures, materials and colorations, which makes grouping them eminently possible.

It is beyond belief Salor weavers would not have done the same and created asmalyk, an extremely important type of ceremonial object and vehicles for iconographic expression.

This adds another piece of evidence contradicting so-called Salor weavings were woven by the Salor, and furthers ideas these weavings are nothing but posh citified workshop products made for wealthy, urbanized Turkmen clans.

Nor can the thought a still unknown group of urban Turkmen, or non-Turkmen weavers produced them for their own use.

The so-called Salor weavings have such overwhelming similarities of design, wool and dyes -- something very unusual for all other types of pre-commercial period Turkmen weaving – it raises the most pertinent questions about where, who, how and why they were produced.

Too bad these questions can not be answered by proposing the simplistic solution they were all woven by the mighty and famous “Salor”.

Also, unlike other types of Turkmen weaving that appear to have broad dating continuums lasting 250-400 years, the S-group and affiliated open right examples appear to have one that is only 200 or so years long.

And none of the engsi, by the way, appear to be among the earliest examples of S group weaving.

That distinction belongs to several chuval and large format torba that arguably stand head and shoulders above the rest.

There are two different engsi, type 1 and type 2.

At last count there are less than 12 known, and although the defining visual differences are readily apparent, in the long run both are actually quite similar in form.

All have open left asymmetric knots, we do not know of any with knots open to the right.

What we have written so far is basically a restatement of what is already known, however, our reason for publishing this article has definite loftier purposes.

The first is to put the rather overwhelming, and we believe undue, awe and respect for the so-called ‘Salor’ engsi into proper perspective.

The second is to explain why and to show a few earlier engsi from other Turkmen groups which most likely have been the sources of important iconographic elements used in their invention and creation.

Yes, dear readers, RK believes the S group engsi to be nothing but a pastiche of elements lifted from other types of engsi, like the one that provided the detail shown at the beginning of this paper.

We grant the super-saturated, glowing coloration S-group weavings of all types (in high pile condition) display is quite a remarkable and commendable feature, one hardly any other group’s engsi can match, other than a scant few examples we believe to be pre-1700.

Regardless of what many rug collectors think – “color is everything” -- RK would have to disagree in favor of “iconography is everything”, particularly archetypal iconography.

Using this criteria S-group engsi fall to the wayside when compared with these much earlier examples, engsi RK believes are genuine products of non-urban Turkmen weaving groups.

These engsi are, by the way, far rarer than S-group; in total we know about a half dozen.

Each seems to be a sole survivor of a specific weaving group and while we are not going to turn this into their unveiling we will publish one and a few details of others to document our comments below.

Ancient Turkmen engsi source of the border detail above; unpublished; RK Collection

Perhaps the most distinct visual feature of S-group engsi is their ungainly bottom heavy proportion.

This is the result of the off-center placing of the central panel that horizontally divides the quadrant field (this is where the term ‘hatchli’ originates), as well as including an interior elem panel of semi-abstract camels in the lower part of the field.

This format is very unusual and we know only one engsi, shown above, that is demonstrably older than any S group one with this extreme bottom heavy appearance.

We will discuss it later.

All S-group engsi have this off-center panel that creates the very noticeable smaller upper and larger lower quadrants. It is debatable whether this was done to balance that interior (elem) panel of camels in lower region of the field above the bottom major border.

These animals are definitely camels, regardless of the fact some writers continue following robert pinner’s error of calling them ‘birds’ .

Detail S group engsi type 2 showing interior elem of camels

Less repetitive and stiffly depicted camels can be seen on certain Arabatchi and Chodor engsi.

These camels are most probably the models for the S group’s.

Detail from an ancient Arabatchi engsi showing the more realistic bridal camels

The oldest versions of these engsi appear to convincingly predate all S group examples, their more life-like camels can be identified as bridal camels with large khibita(bridal enclosure) on their backs.

The small triangle between the tail and neck on the back of the S group camels can then be seen as representing the khibita, which is also incorrectly we believe referred to by some writers, robert pinner in particular, as the kejebe.

The kejebe is an important Turkmen weaving culture icon in its own right but whether or not these anthropomorphic figures that always are shown in a peaked niche were also part of certain Turkmen clan wedding rites, in name or in fact, remains undocumented.

What isn’t undocumented is the large tent-like structure on the Arabatchi camels back is a khibita, an enclosed place where certain Turkmen group used to transport the bride on her camel trip to her wedding ceremony held at her soon to be new husband’s family.

Notice the border of large kotchak double hooks above the Arabatchi camel elem. The same border of kotchak have been placed above the S group engsi camels on all the type 1 examples.

Type 2 have a more involved version of thse kotchak. This is no accident and neither are the others we will highlight below. They all document our position the S group engsi iconography is invention not tradition and was lifted from earlier engsi.

Another feature S group type 1 and type 2 engsi appear to have appropriated is a curled-leaf and vine meander for border stripes.

Type 1 use it as a single border stripe, and type 2 as a co-joined pair.

Compared to the use of this border by other Turkmen groups, particularly on bird asmalyk below , the S group engsi version seems less potent, contrived and in any event surely not the most evocative or archaic representation.

Bird asmalyk and detail of its curl leaf border

While we cannot prove the following we believe it fact: The archetypal curl leaf icon was not a leaf but actually a quadruped, perhaps a horse, with a long neck turned sideways, as shown by the detail photo below from the same ancient Arabatchi engsi with the bridal camels.

Detail from an ancient Arabatchi engsi showing the quadruped animal icon that is probably the archetype of the curl leaf motif; published Weaving Art Museum “Turkmen Trappings: From Tent to Town” exhibition.

Some rare later engsi also depict a slightly less recognizable version of this icon, see this detail from a first half 19th century Chodor engsi.

Chodor engsi; unpublished; ex-RK Collection

Then there is the quite rare iconography of co-joining (pairing) the curl leaf border meander to purposely create hexagonal medallions (gol), as this detail from an archetypal Kizil Ayak engsi shows.

This also appears to be an archetypal use of this icon.

Detail ancient Kizil Ayak engsi with hexagonal gol formed by co-joining the curl leaf border meanders; unpublished; RK Collection

Another interesting curl leaf parallel is the more complex rendering found on the best of the Tekke bird asmalyk. Type 2 S group engsi reproduce these exact same features down to the added # signs and the subtle kink in the meander vine.

Left: Detail bird asmalyk complex curl leaf meander border; Right: Detail S group engsi type 2 complex curl leaf border meander

However RK believes it is not hard to see this parallel is only surface deep, as the S group version can not reproduce the presence, high quality articulation or dynamics the weaver of this ancient bird asmalyk was able to capture.

These perceptible differences are the result of a weaver inspired by cultural heritage and one who is attempting to copy it.

The addition of the number/hash sign, or tic-tak-toe (#) design, within the curl leaf border iconography is a rarely seen icon we believe originally belonged to a very specific Tekke weaving group (see this detail of an ancient Tekke turret-gol, so-called “Salor gol”, chuval that is earlier than any known S group one).

Detail ancient Tekke turret gol chuval; unpublished; ex-RK Collection

By the way, the inclusion of the # sign adds more evidence bird asmalyk are Tekke products.

We are not inferring the curl leaf was ever proprietary to the Tekke, rather we see it as a shared icon found on various weaving group products.

The chuval gol, or the tauk naska, are perfect examples of icon sharing.

A related caveat worth noting is the inclusion of the meander kink in the S group engsi appears only in the upper and lower borders. It is absent on the co-joined side borders.

This allows the hexagon medallions/gol mentioned above to be created.

But the pair of all too large # signs now dominates this space, reducing the curl leaf to a minor element.

This is something we believe distorts the original meaning and demonstrates later copying.

Notice in the top and bottom borders each curl leaf appears between two # signs, while there is only one # sign in the side borders. This insures each co-joined hexagonal medallion has two # signs and not four.

This also permits the inclusion of two pair of small triangles, copying the larger ones in the Kizil Ayak archetype that point left and right rather than up and down as the S group version shows.

Comparison of the hexagonal medallions formed by co-joining the curl leaf meander border; Left: Detail S group type 2 engsi; Right: Detail ancient Kizil Ayak engsi

Both type of S group engsi have another curl leaf form embedded in their format, one that appears in the horizontal panel dividing the quadrant field.

This is another rarely seen feature but one that is also present in a small group of Classic Period Tekke engsi (see below), and a group of somewhat later Kizil Ayak ones.

Comparison of curl leaf panels; Left: Detail Tekke engsi circa 1800; ex-RK Collection; Right: S group engsi type two

The rather rote and lifeless S group engsi depiction compared with the more lively and animated version the Tekke engsi’s weaver was able to create is one more piece of evidence implying S group engsi are not older than an engsi like this Tekke we date circa 1800 and perhaps even a bit later.

Another S group engsi feature we see as a lifeless and rote, and worse totally contrived, is the row of repeating vulture-like birds that appears in type 1 and 2 lower elem panels.

We know no other Turkmen weaving with this motif and therefore cast a suspicious eye on anyone trying to suggest it is anything but later invention.

After considerable thought how this design might have been created we arrived at the following possible explanation.

Before delving into this we must reiterate one definite fact of Turkmen studies: As time progressed the formerly sacrosanct weaving culture of the Turkmen broke down and lost elements of an archaic iconography that had formerly been strictly followed and reproduced.

While certain icons became forgotten, others were changed to varying degrees, and still others were combined together to form newly minted ones.

This is readily observable when comparing similar weavings of different ages, particularly when making continuum and examining them from an art historical perspective.

One might not agree with the order weavings are placed, or any dating conclusions drawn from that placement, but one cannot disagree over time Turkmen weaving iconography underwent substantial and great change.

Since the S group engsi vulture elem has no comparables we have to look elsewhere for its source and we believe we have found how it was developed from combining and abstracting two very rare elem panels which happen to be from the Classic period Tekke engsi mentioned above.

The upper elem has a repeat of five and a half large chemche, a virtually unique elem iconography. There is only one other engsi we know like it, the somewhat later example below.

Tekke engsi; published Turkmen Studies, page 155 plate 332; Walter Denny Collection

We had the opportunity to examine it more than 20 years ago when it still belonged to Denny.

The lower elem also has the same repeating version of the unique ashik tree, each with four semi-wavy arms attached to a strange geometric motif we read as a bird with extremely large outstretched wings with thin protruding white ‘feathers’.

We believe the S group engsi vulture design was developed from combining elements from these two Tekke elem icon.

Notice the vulture motif has the same elongated central hexagon seen within the upper chemche icon.

Left: Vulture motif S group type 2 engsi; Middle Left: hexagon embedded in vulture motif; Middle Right: hexagon embedded in Tekke chemche; Right: chemche icon Tekke engsi

While the designs inside these two hexagon are not exactly alike, they are similar enough to believe the simpler version in the Tekke engsi, which has strong identity to the archetypal gol that later became the chemche, became accreted in its transfer to the S group vulture motif.

Archetypal chemche gol from an ancient Tekke LFT(large format torba); unpublished

Equally decipherable are those quite abstract and simplified winged motif at the end of the branches or arms of the Tekke ashik tree in the lower elem.

Left: Tekke engsi ashik tree with pairs of bird motifs attached to arms; Right: detail of bird motif

They appear to be birds viewed from far above, their large sharply pointed wings have four white and red alternating thin lines representing wing feathers.

We provide another engsi detail to help explain why this motif is a bird(vulture) and not a leaf or other plant form.

Notice the familiar and far more easily recognizable icon in the white border surrounding the quadrant field of the archaic engsi above.

It appear in certain groups of older chuval and has been called by some collectors a butterfly.

But actually it is far closer to a vulture, the sharply pointed wings and large span tell-tale clues.

Border detail showing border of vultures; archaic Turkmen engsi illustrated above

Worth additional mention are the kotchak (double hooks) attached atop and below the each of the S group engsi vulture motifs. These kotchak also appear on each of the Tekke engsi’s upper elem chemche and lower elem ashik tree icons.

Remember the S group engsi and this Tekke engsi are well connected iconographically as both have a very rare compartmentalized central curl leaf panel horizontally dividing their quadrant fields, a dark brown ground elem, and most significant the unevenly proportioned field quadrants.

All these similarities and shared iconographic details are very important links in the chain that connects them. Virtually no other engsi, or even other types of Turkmen weavings replicate.

As a set they define how the S group engsi vulture elem was invented.

The derivative nature of this design fits well with all the connections we have mentioned and supports our position the S group engsi was rooted in invention, not cultural tradition or history.

Author: jc
Sun, Jul 12th, 2015 09:21:55 AM

We believe it pertinent to remention the connection between the bird/vultures on the S group engsi elem and the more well articulated and depicted ones on the rare asmalyk in the Michael Rothberg collection that was the subject of an article he wrote.

RK published an extensive commentary (that can be seen here http://rugkazbah.com/boards/records.php?id=2254&refnum=2254) on his article which included the following comments and pictures.

Perhaps his asmalyk’s most interesting iconographic element is the birds and their similarity to those found on the elem of certain “S” group engsi.

As our readers know RK is not star-struck, as are many, by the alleged importance or antiquity “S” group weavings, particularly engsi, are said to possess.

And seeing the far more lyric and life-like depiction the birds on Rothberg’s asmalyk display, in comparison to those on an “S” group engsi, is one more nail in the “S” group weavings are ‘early’ coffin.

Left: detail showing the typical bird form found on “S” group engsi; Right: detail of bird from Rothberg's asmalyk

Rothberg's Ersari asmalyk might well show the transition stage between the later S group engsi bird/vulture and the earlier archetype ashik-tree icon.

For this reason it deserves to be included, even as an addendum to our S group engsi analysis.

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