Several years ago I authored a presentation on Turkmen weavings for the Weaving Art Museum (http:///weavingartmuseum.org), which included five historic ensi. The accompanying text presented a number of new ideas concerning the origin of these enigmatic knotted-pile weaving and the meanings of some of the icons they display.
Much of that presentation contained ideas and theory that was speculative and it was very clearly presented as such.
In reality little is known about the Turkmen and their weavings and when it comes to their historic examples even less. As someone who has collected and studied these artifacts for more than thirty years I am well aware of this fact and can appreciate so-called shots-in-the-dark to try and answer the riddles they present.
However, I cannot stand silent when other authors present outlandish and completely foolish ‘opinions’ and pseudo-research as fact and this should put the following critique in perspective.
After reading the preview of the upcoming show of Turkmen ensi slated for show in D.C. later this month on the hali website I decided to reprint it in its entirety and to add my own comments. These appear in quotations directly after the statements to which they refer.
The following appeared on April 4 on hali.com:
For connoisseurs of Turkmen tribal weaving, ICOC X offers a specialised exhibition of ensis or door rugs, drawn from both US and European private collections.
“When over half of the exhibitions examples come from one of the organizers collections it does make the previous statement seem rather disingenuous, doesn’t it?.”
The subject is introduced here with abridged extracts from essays to be published in the ICOC catalogue. The authors, exhibition curator Peter Hoffmeister and Elena Tsareva, pay particular attention to the way the ornamentation serves the magical protective function of the ensi.
“Gosh doesn’t this sound authoritative? But, in fact, there is no proof of this concept nor is there any to show any of the ensi’s ornaments were talismanic.”
During the late 19th and 20th centuries large numbers of Turkmen ensis were exported to the West as floor coverings. Today they are treasured and studied as part of the rich repertoire of Turkmen folk art. An international loan exhibition of almost thirty carefully selected early (pre-1850) examples representing all the major Turkmen tribal groups, will be one of the highlights of the ICOC exhibition programme.
”Again the reasons for any piece’s inclusion in this show are extremely suspect as is calling it an ‘international’ loan exhibition.”
As originally conceived, the ensi was used to guard and protect the entrance to the Turkmen tent, a frame construction which, given the cold winter storms and hot summers of the Central Asian steppes, requires a well protected entrance.
”This too is pure speculation as not one shred of evidence exists to substantiate such a claim.”
Since any slit-like opening is seen in Eurasian cultures as allowing access to evil forces, decoration with appropriate patterns is necessary to provide protection.
“This claim, unlike all the others, is factual, however, there is nothing factual to connect it to the Turkmen ideology surrounding the ensi.
Openings such as tent doors and the joints between the lattice walls and the tent poles are thus protected in this manner, and not surprisingly many complex ensi patterns have apotropaic significance: thus function, ornament and magic cannot be separated in any discussion of meaning.
“What a mouthful, is the author of this trying to dazzle the reader with his fancy footwork? What joints is he talking about?, the one he has been toking on? And speaking of separated from meaning, that perfectly describes what is he trying to say doesn’t it?”
Every classical ensi ornament has a deep symbolic meaning and most can be interpreted within the archaic mythologies of Eurasia.
“They can?, now really I can’t wait to read the expanded version of this arm-chaired fantasy of an approach.”
In the pre-Islamic animist belief system of the westward migrating Turkic steppe tribes, everything had a spirit or soul, the visible and invisible being equally part of reality.
“This maybe so but it surely is stretching the point to apply it to the Turkmen makers of the ensi under discussion as they did not leave south-west Turkestan and, moreover, they appear to be indigenous to this area and not migrants.”
The ensi's importance lay mainly in its invisible aspects.
“More mysto-mumbojumbo, what’s going on here, who wrote this crapola?”
When men felt threatened by the world around them, symbolic representations, rituals and the exercise of psychic powers were able to ward off harm or exorcise evil.
“This is argument by vague association at best, surely not scholarly and far from scientific and just another example of opinion presented as fact.”
On important occasions the ensi was hung within the tent as an icon and mediator of cosmic order, ensuring protection to the space it occupied.
“And did the author of this attend one of these ceremonies, or read about one in a classic comic-book? Where the H did this idea come from, the oujji board? ”
As well as guarding against harmful influences ensis also played a role in prayer or invocation, to support the spirit in its passage between the spheres.
"It did?? Wake up here because when ‘classic’ ensi were made the Turkmen that made them were non-muslim and surely were not praying on or to any rugs.”
Bird images led the spirits to the upper world, and the souls of the ancestors from the world of the living to that of the dead.
“The connection of the images of birds and shamanistic belief is the first piece of this incredibly jumbled puzzle created by these authors that rings true. Congratulations and applause to you, mr/ms author.”
In this way the ensi was indeed the 'doorway to Paradise".
“But there you go again getting carried away with those classic comic-book ideas — was the ensi really an all-purpose swiss army knife type of a weaving? I doubt that and so would any other knowledgeable reader.”
The standard decorative scheme of the ensi is universal for all Turkmen tribes. It is reminiscent of a Western panel door, with a cross-shaped centre. The upper part has between one and seven arches, there is a lower panel, an outer frame, and an additional bottom panel.
“Since when do all ensi have arches?”
This gives a highly complex portrait of the Universe seen simultaneously in two projections. The horizontal plane, represented by the central cross with its floral motifs, shows the Earth. The vertical, represented by the outer border frames, depicts heaven and the spirit. The composition thus develops from simple, earthy subjects through higher, more spiritual images, and ends in heavenly arches.
“This is complete poppy-cock and nothing more than a feeble attempt to graft warmed over central-asian shamanism into the ensi story and while there surely are connections what is presented here is far from inventive or original, nor is it even worthy of repetition at this point in time.”
Above the alem (skirt), the cross is thought to represent the four compass points.
“So what, again can’t these authors do better than such well-known reasonings, don’t they have anything new to present?”
The vertical axis depicts the tree of life, with branches and birds at its sides.
At the top, gable forms decorated with kochak motifs stand for the 'upper world', symbolizing regeneration and the renewal of life.
The tree of life, a potent cosmic symbol often found in the ensi, is situated at the focal point of the world connecting the three cosmic regions; its roots penetrate the underworld, its top branches reach up to heaven.
“I defy the authors to show me a tree in any ensi, what garbage.”
The birds perched 0n its boughs symbolize the link between earth and heaven, and transport the souls of the ancestors.
“Maybe those birds are carrier pigeons of the gods, ha ha, sorry but I couldn’t resist”
Similar designs are found in almost all ensis. Most often the protective frame is decorated with the sainak (cream) ornament, also called yaile, translated from the Arabic word for 'family'.
"Wow, haven’t these authors figured out yet the makers of ‘classic’ ensi weren’t speaking Arabic? Yeesshh…”
With the latter we are in the shamanism of the Steppes, and analogues in Turkic arts can be traced from ancient rock engravings.
“Rock engravings of ensi or families??” Plus the author has omitted any pictures or even direct references to these engravings."
The central cross is a universal symbol of the Earth, while the 'curled-leaf' ornament refers to everlasting life, and a magic staircase to the heavens.
“See several paragraph above, are these authors so confused they can remember what they just wrote? Or have they aspent too much time listening to Led Zepplin?"
We may regard the ensi as an icon - or thamga - representing the cosmology of western Central Asia.
“You may regard it as such but since no proof exists to support this contention you can not infer the makers of these weavings did. And that is the issue here - what the makes thought - or have these authors forgotten that? Once again does the author really believe by throwing so many suppositions some of them will eventually stick? Unfortunately, with each sentence providing a new definition the author has drowned the ensi in a miasma of thick sauce. ”
Whether such a prototype incorporated variants, or later changed under the influence of tribal ornaments or priorities remains a matter for speculation.
“This surely stretches the point as everything written here, aside from the association of bird images in Turkmen weavings and shamanism, is only speculation and not original speculation at that.”
Such a complex composition could not have evolved by itself and may well have been laid down by high ranking priests or shamanic initiates.
“This takes the cake for erroneous opinion presented as fact. Are these people nuts or what? Or do they just spend more time with that oujji board than they should. This is the most nonsensical thought I have ever read concerning Turkmen weavings and believe me there have been some doozies.”
Our knowledge and understanding of the Turkmen ensi has increased greatly since 1970,
“This is true but seemingly these authors have not been on the receiving end.”
when the pioneering Hamburg Turkmen rug exhibition and catalogue contained just a single example. In the following years, as more of these weavings came to public attention, some attempt at definitive tribal attribution became possible. A high point in this process was the attribution of the first Salor ensi by Jon Thompson in London in 1973.
Still, much remains to be done.
“And it is woefully clear these authors will not be able to rise to the challenge or be the ones to do it.”
Ensis of the Salor, Saryk, Tekke and Chodor tribes are very similar in their basic ornamentation, while those of the Middle Amu Darya and Caspian Sea coast regions may differ substantially - there are still ensis for which we lack attributions and tribes for which we lack ensis.
So what constitutes the special pleasure of studying and collecting Turkmen ensis? For some they represent a strange, exotic art, full of mystery, a challenge to research. For others their graphic, abstract composition, beautiful colours and patterns are sufficient reward.
“From this tidbit it can only appear that for these authors seeing their names in print might be the most salient reason for theirs.”