Antique Caucasian rugs are often compared to Persian carpets. It’s easy to see why; rugs made in old-world Iran are the benchmark of excellence that remains unchanged even today. But it doesn’t mean one can’t find gems that are as beautiful somewhere else in the realm of rug weaving. One such source of extraordinary antique rugs is Caucasia.
Rugged Beauty of Caucasia
Caucasia or the Caucasus in the world map marks an approximately 750-mile stretch of mountains and valleys that form a barrier between the Black and Caspian seas. It also happens to be an area where Europe and Asia physically converge. Even to this day, experts and historians still debate what continent each country here belongs to.
What is certain though is that the Caucasus region possesses one of the most breathtaking landscapes on the planet. The imposing snowcapped mountains of the Greater Caucasus provide an exhilarating backdrop to almost everything in the area. Mt. Elbrus, the range’s highest peak, is even mentioned in Greek mythology as the place where the Titan Prometheus was chained and punished by Zeus for gifting mankind with fire.
But beauty often comes with danger and the Caucasus ranks high in the list of the world’s most treacherous environments. Extreme temperatures in a region filled with gorges, glaciers, steep cliffs, and ridges can lead one to believe it’s uninhabitable. But not only do people call it home, but civilization here has thrived for over a thousand years. In fact, it’s in this area where incredible antique Caucasian rugs like the Kazak, Karabagh, Shirvan, and Azerbaijan trace their roots.
Surviving the Caucasus
Conflict and territorial disputes among countries in the region have forced early inhabitants of Caucasia to seek refuge in its hostile mountains. Many of them were nomadic tribes who survived by adapting to the unforgiving environment they found themselves in. It was so harsh that according to one Caucasian folktale, God had forbidden the Devil to come to the place because living there was already ‘hell enough.’
But the Caucasus mountains proved no match for these nomads’ ability to endure and adjust to extreme conditions. They learned to move with the seasons; go up during summer when grazing for their sheep was abundant and climb down to the valleys during winter where the cold was more tolerable.
Caucasian Rug Weaving
Nomads who came to the Caucasus did not belong to a single tribe. People from various ethnic groups in the region went up to the mountains either to escape persecution or try to live independently. People from Georgia (the country, not the US state), Russians, Buddhist Mongols, Circassians, Armenians, Iranians, and even tribes from as far as Germany sought and found a new home in the mountains. There were over 300 groups that first settled in the Caucasus with approximately 150 different dialects spoken. It’s not surprising that rug weavers would be among them, especially considering that the Persian Empire controlled the area from 590 BCE to the early 19th century.
Antique Caucasian rugs were made using portable looms. Being nomads, carrying smaller tools and implements was more practical for weavers than lugging around heavy equipment in extreme mountain conditions. But this meant not having the ability to make large, oversize rugs that were seeing an increase in demand from rich countries in the West.
Fortunately, Caucasians hardly made rugs that were intended for others. Given the kind of environment they have to deal with every day, weaving carpets became an essential activity. Rugs became the first line of defense against the elements. They used them for sleeping, floor covering inside tents, and for their horses. The wool carpet became a crucial tool for survival.
Caucasian Antique Rugs and the Silk Road
The famous Silk Road that linked China to Europe primarily went through Iran and Syria. For centuries, merchants and traders used the 4,000-mile tract to safely transport goods from Asia to the West and vice versa. Silk gained prominence in Europe and they were willing to trade wool, gold, and silver for them.
The safety of these valuable items depended on peace between powers that controlled territories where the road passed through. But in the 6th century, the conflict between Byzantium and Persia made the caravans vulnerable to attacks and raiders. This forced many traders to seek alternative routes with one passing through the treacherous Caucasus mountains. From the 7th century up to the late 14th century, intrepid merchants used the Caucasus route to deliver silk to Byzantium which is Istanbul today.
During this period, traders passing through the mountains of the Caucasus relied on its nomadic inhabitants for guidance and survival. Most of the time they were offered shelter and food which they repaid by bartering some of the goods they have. This newfound ‘friendship’ eventually led merchants to discover the beauty of Caucasian rugs.
Extraordinary Rug Design and Craftsmanship
Many carpet experts and historians agree that Caucasian weaving represents a period of evolution in handwoven rugs. Persian influence was obvious in these antique rugs, but the Caucasus nomads managed to create designs and details that were entirely of their own. They used common motifs such as the Boteh, crab patterns, flowers, dragons, and animals which would be central features in other rugs. But their versions would have everything in one rug which was highly unusual.
A key factor that made Caucasian rugs different and special is the remoteness of the mountains. With hardly any contact or influence from the outside world, weavers made rugs mainly for themselves. There was no right or wrong design. They played around with the motifs, hiding an animal or plant symbol in a set of geometric patterns. The details were also so refined which reflected the lack of urgency and laid backness of mountain life.
Bold Colors and All Natural Dyes
There are plenty of rug collectors and connoisseurs who see antique rugs from the Caucasus as equal or even greater than Persian rugs. And they have two compelling points of argument for the claim. First, the use of bold colors to achieve contrast in rug patterns. Traditionally, weavers used a shading technique in the dye application to highlight details in their designs. This allows them to ‘soften’ colors that serve as background and enhance the hues in central figures.
But Caucasians did not adhere to this method and mixed strong colors such as blues and reds together with greens and yellows. Most people will see this blend as a ‘clash of colors’ with an unsightly effect. However, one look at a Shirvan or Kazak rug is enough to convince anyone that they managed to pull it off. In fact, this feat was considered groundbreaking and was studied by artists from the West for centuries.
The second factor that made antique Caucasus rugs valuable is the use of natural dyes. While Persian and oriental carpets used the same organic coloring materials, the high demand for handmade rugs in the West prompted companies to use artificial dyes that were discovered by accident in 1856. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Caucasian weavers began using aniline dyes for their work; more than half a century later.
The inaccessibility and remoteness of the mountains played a crucial role in how these rugs evolved. With no merchants pestering weavers to produce more rugs at a faster pace, Caucasians made them with patience and keen eyes for crafting perfect details. And for years, these incredible rugs remain out of sight from the rest of the world. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century when they came into circulation in the rug market.
Today, antique Caucasian rugs are still a wonder to behold. Rug makers from different parts of the world have been able to reproduce their designs and they have found their way into some of the most beautiful homes both in the West and East. But just like art, it’s not really the set of images or illustrations that appear before the naked eye but the inspiration behind them.
Author: Carlo Vincent Mollenido