Carpets in Uzbekistan: history and traditions (I part)

Carpet weaving is an amazing art form with which mankind has been familiar for almost five millennia (the first pile structures are known from findings from Sumer). Its uniqueness lies in the fact that carpets are not just a usual piece of furniture. This is an invaluable historical source, a kind of “text of culture”, capable of telling about the lifestyle of its creators, ways of managing and the surrounding landscape, cults and religions, ups and downs of ethnic history, relations with neighboring nations, aesthetic priorities.

When it comes to carpets in Central Asia, Turkmen production is primarily meant. Meanwhile, this type of home needlework and craft was widespread among other peoples of the region – Karakalpaks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Arabs, Tajiks, Uzbeks. But here we will talk about the Uzbek tradition of carpet weaving.

Ancestors of the Uzbek carpet in the context of ethnic history

The Uzbek carpet is a fairly young phenomenon by historical standards, formed simultaneously with the multi-tribal people themselves, now known under the collective term “Uzbek”. However, this phenomenon is based on earlier traditions associated with multilingual human groups that played an important role in the ethnogenesis of the Uzbeks. These are residents of agricultural oases – Bactrians, Sogdians, Khorezmians, Ferghana, as well as representatives of the nomadic steppe world – Sako-Massagetan tribes, Tochars, Ephthalites, Turks, Karluks, Oguzes and other, smaller groups that left only their names in history.

The last large wave of Turkic-speaking tribes that poured into the oases of Maverannahr at the very beginning of the 16th century were the Dashti-Kipchaks, along with which the ethnonym “Uzbek” spreads in the region. One of the components of this tribal association – Kungrat Uzbeks – these days are the main carriers of the authentic carpet tradition in Uzbekistan.

Unfortunately, antique carpets are poorly preserved, because wool is a very unstable material. The nowadays unique rarities have survived to our days only because at one time they were lucky enough to get into special climatic and temperature-humidity conditions. Archaeological research of the last hundred years has revealed some gaps, revealing to the world the wonderful creations of ancient weavers.

Bactria Carpets
A paradox, but archaeological textiles related to the territory of Uzbekistan were discovered outside it, demonstrating the paths of migration and the wide contacts of the peoples living here. Thus, Bactrian carpets were preserved in the burial grounds of the Taklamakan desert, famous for its unusually dry and hot climate (Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China). The most famous fragment among them, with the image, in all likelihood, of a warrior – a representative of the Tocharian nobility (2nd century BC – 1st century AD), is now stored in a museum in Urumqi.

A fragment of a carpet depicting a warrior and a centaur. Wool, kilim weaving. Bactria, end of the 2nd century BC. – beginning of the 1st century AD XUAR Museum, Urumqi (China).

A fragment of a carpet depicting a warrior and a centaur. Wool, kilim weaving. Bactria, end of the 2nd century BC. – beginning of the 1st century AD XUAR Museum, Urumqi (China).

A number of facts testify in favor of the Kushan-Bactrian version of the origin of these carpets, including a portrait image that is identical to the image of a real historical character – the “ruling“ Geray ”Sanab Kushan” on a silver tetradrachm of the 1st century.


The image of the “Ruling” Gray “Sanab Kushan” on a silver tetradrachm. I c. and, possibly, his own images in the sculpture (Khalchayan) and the embroidered carpet from Noin-Ula

The image of the “Ruling” Gray “Sanab Kushan” on a silver tetradrachm. I c. and, possibly, his own images in the sculpture (Khalchayan) and the embroidered carpet from Noin-Ula

These and other findings indicate that Bactria was one of the largest carpet production regions in the ancient world. These were embroidered, nap and smooth-woven wall panels with a rich pictorial row, and some were undecorated.

Carpets of Sogdiana
In the early Middle Ages, carpets remained an integral part of the daily and ritual life of the local population. We see them on numerous monuments of the Sogdian art culture – wall paintings, toreutics, and ossuaries.

Ossuary with characters sitting on rugs. Sogd, VI – VII centuries Shakhrisabz Museum of the History of Material Culture named after Amir Temur

Ossuary with characters sitting on rugs. Sogd, VI – VII centuries Shakhrisabz Museum of the History of Material Culture named after Amir Temur

There are so many reasons to believe that real Sogdian carpets have been preserved. These are rarities from the famous collection of Sheikh Al-Jaber-al-Sabah of 5-7 centuries (Kuwait National Museum). F. Spuhler attributes them as Sassanid (Eastern Iran, Samangan or Maiman provinces). However, the images of animals in the central field and the three-part half-marks on the borders of these carpets appeal to a greater extent to the decor of Sogdian toreutics.

Pile carpet with the image of deer. Tokharistan or Sogd, 5–7 centuries Kuwait National Museum.

Pile carpet with the image of deer. Tokharistan or Sogd, 5–7 centuries Kuwait National Museum.

Bukhara’s tyrases and embroidered carpets of Samarkand
We know about the carpet weaving of the Muslim Middle Ages thanks to numerous written sources. The most famous among them is the “History of Bukhara” by Narshakhi (10th c.). The famous historian mentions that there was a large workshop in Bukhara – byte-ut-tyraz, where, among other things, carpets were woven, apparently with epigraphic decor (tyrases), as on the surviving Seljuk carpets (Konya, 12–13 centuries). Information Narshahi – the only evidence of the existence of an urban carpet workshop in Maverannahr – in Central Asia, carpet weaving was still the prerogative of the inhabitants of the steppe nomads and villages. One can recall the diaries of the Spanish ambassador Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo, who arrived in Samarkand at the court of the omnipotent Timur in 1404, where gold-embroidered carpets in the home of Timurid nobility are mentioned.

Pile carpet with the image of deer. Tokharistan or Sogd, Ulugbek with his family and retinue on a falconry. Miniature of the Samarkand school, 1441-1442 Freer Gallery, Washington.

Pile carpet with the image of deer. Tokharistan or Sogd, Ulugbek with his family and retinue on a falconry. Miniature of the Samarkand school, 1441-1442 Freer Gallery, Washington.

Oguz and Dashti-Kipchak traditions
In the 10th century, a new – gel – style was formed in the carpets of the Central Asian Oghuz tribes, which will determine the image of the late medieval Turkmen carpet. Each tribe now weaves carpets with only its inherent medallion-gel, which was endowed with the meaning of the coat of arms of the tribe, its distinctive sign. The term “gel”, perhaps, comes from the word “el” – the people, society, which the Turks used to refer to their state system. The formation of the gel style was a dictate of the time – during the period of active migrations and the creation of their own statehood, the Oguzes needed markers that allowed fixing the hierarchical place of each tribe in the ale structure – the union of tribes.

However, among Uzbeks, carpet decor developed according to a different scenario. Unlike the Oghuz and their heirs, the Turkmens, the tradition of using marking signs was not widespread among them. The tribal associations of the dashti-Kipchaks, especially in the lower links, were more flexible – they easily disintegrated and just as easily united in new combinations, mixed together. Often, the same groups find themselves in different, larger associations, losing their own names. Many moved to a settled agricultural lifestyle, completely losing their identity. Only large tribes preserved the purity of the clan up to the present day – Kungrats and Lakai.
Kungrats, in particular, followed the concept of nasl buzilmasin – “so as not to spoil the family clan”, which was expressed in the rejection of mixed marriages and strict adherence to their own traditions. But even so, they did not use tribal markers in the carpets, although they retained shamanistic symbols that are generally significant for nomads (cosmogonic, totemic, and tamgas).

Thus, in the Central Asian carpet weaving one can see two main lines of development: the Oguz-Turkmen (from the 10th century), which was based on the dominant system of gels as identification tribal “emblems”, and the Dashti-Kipchak (Uzbek) (from the 16th century), the decor of which reflected the general mad worldview. Both lines had much in common, as they belonged to a single circle of the steppe culture and at the same time retained some differences in the species range of products and manufacturing techniques.
In general, the history of carpet weaving on the territory of Uzbekistan is the history of the change of large styles associated with various ethnic groups, their cult and aesthetic preferences.

Who wove carpets in the 19th – early 20th centuries?
The period of the Uzbek khanates finally gives a significant amount of preserved carpet material. At this time, carpet weaving among the Uzbeks existed as a type of home needlework. Carpets were woven for their own needs, first of all – as part of the dowry of the bride, and were not intended for sale. That is why the Uzbek carpet products were less known than the Turkmen and Arabian ones, some of which were created specifically for the market (Arabian gilam bazaars, Turkmen bashirs brought for sale to Bukhara). The main producers are Uzbek-Turkmens (Nurata), Uzbek ethnic groups of Dashti-Kipchak origin, the largest of which were Kungrats and Lakai (Kashkadarya, Surkhandarya), as well as the Uzbek population who lost their tribal identification (mainly Samarkand and Jizzakh regions). All of them kept cattle-breeding type of management.
Uzbeks according to national identity, Nurata Turkmens were genetically associated with Oguz Turkmen. In the 10th century, Uzbek-Turkmens became part of the Seljuk association, and eventually settled in Nur Bukhara (the so-called medieval written sources). The connection of the Uzbek-Turkmen and Turkmen carpet traditions is clearly visible in the decor of their carpets. Uzbek Turkmens use a single, strictly defined gel medallion – the so-called kalkan-nuska (literally “shield pattern”). The gel of the Uzbeks-Turkmens demonstrates a clear relationship with the gels of Turkmens (tekke gel, yomud gel, etc.), but its name was no longer associated with tribal self-name. Obviously, the Uzbek Turkmens retained the Kalkan medallion as the most important, but not ethno-marking symbol.

Pile carpet with a Kalkan-nusk motif. 19 century

Dashti-Kipchaks (Kungrats, Lakai) mainly engaged in the manufacture of carpets and rugs (various bags) in smooth (lint-free) techniques. The decor is a common Turkic steppe heritage, with the dominance of a medallion known as Kuchkorak or Kaikalak (a cross with a rhombus at the base and curls of horns). The motive itself was the most important and common cult symbol in the art of all nomadic peoples in the past, a kind of “steppe mandala”, and at the same time – a sign of the patronage of the God of Heaven – Tengri.
In the 20th century, Kungrat, one of the largest sub-ethnic components of the Uzbek people, lived mainly in the Kamashinsky, Guzarsky, Dekhkanabad districts of the Kashkadarya region, as well as in the valleys of the Sherabad and Karatag rivers of the Surkhandarya region. In the 70s. 20th century, in connection with the development of the Karshi steppe, Kashkadarya Kungrats are forced to move to Surkhandarya. As a result, one of the local regions, Baysunskaya, has become a real reserve, where this tribal group currently lives compactly, faithfully preserving the traditions of its culture, including carpet weaving.

Uzbek-Kungrat woman at work. Baysun, Surkhandarya. 2003
Uzbek-Kungrat woman at work. Baysun, Surkhandarya. 2003

As for the Lakayes, due to the historical upheavals of the early 20th century, they migrated to the mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The unique Lakay tradition of carpet production has not been preserved.

The embroidered carpet. Kungrats or Lakai. Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary, Canada
The embroidered carpet. Kungrats or Lakai. Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary, Canada

Finally, the weavers of the Samarkand, Jizzakh, and Zaamin regions, although for the most part lost their tribal culture, remained carriers of earlier, even before the Dashti-Kipchak carpet traditions. During the 20th century, carpet weaving in these places was constantly declining. Nowadays, there are practically no women sitting down at the carpet loom.

Eshik-Asma. Uzbeks. Bulungur district, Samarkand region, 1930
Eshik-Asma. Uzbeks. Bulungur district, Samarkand region, 1930