The Rug-Weaving Peoples home page

    IT is hard not to put questions to an Oriental rug when you are alone with it. What of this little web, which in its gay Eastern coloring seems so much more, like a silent, smiling guest than a property? Was it born in a shepherd's hut in the pillared mountains of Central Asia, with the snow whirling about the door, and the sheep and camels huddled without? Or did the birds sing among the roses of a Persian village to the weaver as he tied the stitches in? From what far defile in Afghanistan did it journey on camel-back to the sea, swept by the sand-storms of the desert, scorched by the Orient heat? Was it paid to a mollah for prayers at the shrine of Mecca or Meshhed? Did it change hands in fair barter in the market place, or did it pass over the dead body of its rightful owner to the keeping of the swarthy man who sold it to the dealers from Istanbul?

    It has been maintained, in another chapter, that Oriental rugs, studied collaterally, tell much of bygone peoples and religions. Considered in the same way, they are even more eloquent of the character, customs and conditions of the Eastern life of today. They have an inestimable value in suggestion.

    This volume cannot pretend to describe, even cursorily, the multitudinous tribes, which populate the rug-making countries. They are spread over a great territory. Many of them are alien to one another in origin. Many have undergone changes in speech and habit, both by conquest and peaceful assimilation, which make them seem kin when they are not kin at all. Others have preserved character, customs and language, unaltered through centuries, and are today practically what they were in the time of Moses. Some there are, dwelling in far fastnesses, which look down over all Asia, whose province the modern geographer has scarcely invaded. Their highways bristle with armed men, and almost the only knowledge got of them is from the fabrics, which are sent through the merchants of the neighboring and more pacific tribes to the great trade centers and the fairs in the low countries.

    Every populous district throughout the East holds fair, for the purpose of local traffic, one day in the week. Fair day is as much an institution with them as is the Sabbath among the people of New England. These fairs are rotatory. They are held in the different towns of the district, each having its regular day. The greater fairs are held once a year, and the traders of all the East journey to them. At Baluk-Hissar, near Broussa, Asia Minor, the fair is in May. August brings the famous gathering of Yaprakli, fifty miles north of Angora, in the vilayet of Kastamuni. A collection of log-houses is there, great, flimsy buildings reared only for the purposes of the fair, and during all of August they are packed with men and merchandise. The remainder of the year they are empty, and all the country round is unpeopled as a wilderness. Another big fair is held near Mosul, the mercantile center of Mesopotamia.

    These exhibitions are to the South, in a small way what that of Nijni Novgorod is to Russia. But more significant, in the present discussion, are the great fairs farther to the eastward, in the Persian and Turkoman towns. There for weeks the life of every quarter of Asia and Asia Minor may be seen at its gayest and best.

    No distance is too great for the trader to travel to show his wares. Mongols and Tartars of the Central Asian hordes, Tekkes from Merv with a pigtail down each side of the head, men from Bokhara, clad all in white, with shawls swathed about their loins, and the many-tongued kashbag dangling from their waists, fierce Kurds, descended from the Medes and Chaldeans of old, who can trace their pedigrees back in unbroken lines for a hundred generations, wandering Hats, bearded Kazaks from the Kirghiz wastes, timid, indolent, astute, mendacious, dreamy-eyed Persians, greasy Afghans and Beluches whose most ecstatic joy is in bloodshed, East Indians, in whose demeanor is the calm of centuries, Syrians, Arabs with horses as proud as themselves, Anatolians, wheedling Armenians, resourceful Greeks and the inevitable Jew - they are all there, bargaining away for dear life.

    All the ways leading to the great bazaar are dusty from the endless procession of heavy-laden asses and camels. Even from distant China come the caravans, and almond-eyed merchants exchange their bales for print-cloths, clocks, and jewelry of the Mediterranean. Here one may learn how wide is the field of Oriental rug manufacture. To this omnium gatherum are brought, along with other wares, the woven products of remote districts, and the rug trader who has brow-beaten the people of his own village sharpens his wits here against those of rivals as shrewd and heartless as himself. But with all this mixture of peoples whose promise would not stand for an hour with an American shop-keeper, every man's word, in a business transaction, is as good as yellow coin. Their dealing is almost all in the nature of barter, and obligations are held good by word of mouth until the vendor can collect his debt in some commodity he needs, from a third, fourth or fifth person who owes the purchaser. No checks are drawn, and little ready money passes.

    At night, while the fair lasts, bonfires are lighted in the hasar or yard of the caravanserai - in Turkey it is called avluh - and in their weird light jugglers and mountebanks perform. Wandering troubadours, blind men as a rule, or Dervishes, contest in improvisation, as singers were wont to do in Europe centuries ago. When their rhyming is ended, both rise from the little rugs, which they carry for use in such engagements, and go about among the company, collecting coins in their shells or great horns. These receptacles are rudely mounted with silver, and are usually swung by a chain. Shooting, racing, mock fights, wild music and such dancing as surely was never seen out of Asia, make up the programme of the time's delights. Then the camels, which came bearing Western trinkets, return homeward laden with the rugs of Persia, Afghanistan, and the Trans-Caucasus. Contracts have been made, and the middlemen from the rug districts go away with orders tucked snugly in their girdles. Then follows a new buying of wool, a new dyeing, and warps are stretched for a new season's work, upon looms worn by the hands of many generations.

    The whole business of rug-making throughout the East, except, of course, where it is conducted by large firms, is controlled by the head merchant of the town. This extraordinary person has a finger in every enterprise. He is in many cases mayor, storekeeper, lawyer, notary, farmer, and whatever else offers a margin of money and influence. Upon the verandah of his house are as many looms as there is room for. The folk of his own household and the wives and daughters of his neighbors find employment there. Early morning, after the first prayers at the mosque, sees them skurrying to the "factory." They work at so much a "pick" of twenty-seven inches - or in Persia by the arshin, a somewhat larger measure, varying in different localities - but the price is merely nominal, for the earnings are invariably taken out in trade at the store. The local potentate thus manages to hold them forever in his debt, and when a debtor dies the obligation passes on as a legacy to the heir.

    People who make rugs in their own homes are none the less in the tudjar's power. He provides them with wool, sees to the paying of the dyer, advances to them whatever groceries and other supplies they need, and keeping a studious eye on the progress of their work, appropriates the rug when it is finished, and adds it to his store of merchandise to be taken to the next fair for sale.

    Monotonous and profitless and hopeless as this system is, the Oriental people cling to it. They have a weavers' guild - esnaff, the Turk calls it - but it never undertakes to regulate wages. Its chief function is to protest - and that heartily - against any innovation upon this old method of procedure, to lift up its voice in rebellion when any mention is made of the importation of European machinery to aid in the spinning or dyeing of the yarn.

    The burden of the rug weaving, in all the rug countries, save India, falls to the women. They are patient, nimble-fingered, and learn the patterns quickly. In some parts of Anatolia and Persia the great demand in Western markets has driven men to the loom, and in the cities of Persia where rug-making has flourished for centuries under the personal tutelage of royalty and nobility, the best artisans are men. But in the more remote sections, and among the nomads, the women do all the weaving. They are the designers, too. They invent from year to year all the modifications of the old patterns. The head woman, the traveler Vambery relates, makes a tracing upon the earth, doles out the wool, and in some of the tribes chants in a weird sing-song the number of stitches and the color in which they are to be filled, as the work goes on. As little girls of six or seven years the women begin to work about the looms, rolling and passing the yarn, then learning to beat down the rows of knots after the weft has been thrown across. The first actual weaving they do is on the broad central fields of solid color; and from that they work up to the handling of complex patterns. The borders are the final test of skill. The girl's first earnings are spent in self-adornment - the purchase of ornaments such as she must wear her whole life through. At sixteen she must be skilled enough at her trade to begin thinking of a husband. It would be harsh to say that the girl is sold into the servitude of providing this lord with food, clothing, and his modicum of tobacco and raki, but the terms of marriage make clear the purely business nature of the transaction. A contre dot, to phrase it mildly, is paid by the husband to the father of the bride. If her first spouse be called away by death from the enjoyment of such an arrangement, the next who weds her must pay more. Repeated bereavement only serves to augment her value. This rule is plainly based on the theory that with each New Year of experience at the loom, she becomes able to earn more money by her weaving.

    In some parts of Asia, notably in Kurdistan and Eastern Turkestan, and among the Yuruks of Anatolia, the women enjoy some measure of emancipation. They go abroad unveiled, and laugh at the slavery in which their sisters in other sections are held. But the Turkish or Persian woman of the weaving class is content. Her life mission is to work for her husband; she does it uncomplainingly. He helps her in the handling of the wool, and maybe in spinning and dyeing. In his spare time he tills a little land, raises some wheat and vegetables, tends a small vineyard or has a field of dye products.

    This last was a famous occupation for men in the Orient, until the chemical dyes began to be imported. Since then it has declined until there is no longer any profit in it. With digging alizarin root in the winter months, when the sap is down, gathering the yellow seeds, valonias, and gallnuts in the fall, and the many flowering shrubs and berries in their seasons, the weaving woman's husband could fill in a good share of his year, and, if he was saving, add a pretty penny to her earnings.

    But the old dyes, especially in the sections most accessible from the coast, are out of fashion. The anilines, which have been industriously pushed by invading agents, are about six-sevenths cheaper, and require no long process of compounding. Alizarin, when vegetable dyes were universally used, sold for twenty dollars a hundredweight. It has now fallen to three dollars or less; and not only is it an unprofitable crop, but the land where it has grown is thenceforth ruined for any other purpose. The Oriental farmer spends, in clearing his fields of the tenacious roots, more than he has ever made by their cultivation. So the male of the rug-making family idles, and is happy therein.

    For education, there is little of it. In some districts the authorities, spurred on by the missionaries and by the Western cry for reforms, have in late years opened schools. But the work of instruction lags. Reading and writing are about the extreme limit of erudition. Besides these schools, the village priest, who is also village schoolmaster, teaches children to sing verses of the Koran. In parts of Persia learning is more prized. There is rather more inclination to educate the young than in Turkey. The low-class Turk seldom knows even how to read or write. Information of an official sort is conveyed to him not through the medium of newspapers or placards, but by the government herald, or town crier, who goes about clanging a lusty bell, and shouting, "Bou gyun Allah couveti ilan" - the solemn formula introductory to his errand.

    The Greek and Armenian populations are wiser in their day and generation. They make their lives and customs conform to progress.

    They utilize every innovation, turn every invasion to their own profit. They are wedges, which are helping, by slow degrees, to open Asia to the commerce, learning and freedom of the West. In the schools of their communities, found in most of the large towns, the pupils are taught the handicrafts, the making of embroideries, cushions, counterpanes and slippers from European patterns. This sort of kindergarten training has large practical value. It makes them apt at following strange designs, and secures them employment upon the high-priced fantaisie work which is all made upon orders, and which the Turkish women are unable to master.

    In the mind of the Turk there is a deep-seated distrust and dis9like of the European and his improvements; among the even more conservative races farther East this antipathy is a passion. In the mountain regions there are tracts where safety for the "Frank" - as all Europeans are called - is a thing unknown; where his life and valuables are almost certain to be taken by the first roving company that spies him, unless, indeed, he be held for ransom. His only absolute safety against molestation is in an Oriental escort, backed up by a passport and tezkereh, with instructions mandatory upon all officials along the line of his journey to see to it that he goes unharmed.

    There is usually, however, a warm welcome for the native way

    farer from the Mediterranean coasts, and it is a red letter day when atraveler comes to one of the hamlets which, for the sake of safety from marauders, are formed by the huddling together of the farmers who till the fields for a distance of perhaps twenty miles about. The son of the mukhtar (mayor) holds the voyager's bridle. The mukhtar himself helps him to dismount, leads him into the house, and makes him the central attraction of the place, as long as the sojourn lasts. The foremost of the townsmen come to add their greetings, and, incidentally, to look the newcomer over, and see if he have not some new wonder to tell or show. It is an imposing ceremony, formal as a court function, and yet fraught with all cordiality. The host lights the fire in the mussafir odasi, or guest room, and spreads before it the hearth rug, proudest possession of the household. Chairs there are none. Along the sides of the room heavy felt divans are arranged, and over them are spread rugs of fine quality, with rich, rug covered pillows for comfort's sake. At the head of the apartment sits the host, with the guest at his right hand.

    When the salaaming is over and all are seated, the first of the callers takes from some recess of his raiment a little bag of raw coffee beans. This he hands to the village dandy, an indispensable person on such occasions, who goes to the fire-place, and sitting cross-legged on the odjaklik, browns the berries in a long-handled pan, which he shakes over the fire like a corn-popper. This done, he places them in a wooden mortar, and with an iron pestle begins to crush them, droning a chant of welcome meanwhile, and beating time upon the coffee as he sings. Then he puts jezveh or coffeepot on the fire to boil. While this solemn proceeding goes on the guest, if he be versed in the customs of the country, passes his tobacco among the company, who roll cigarettes; and then the coffee comes. Thus amid the soothing fumes, and the even better-loved incense of talk, the night wears away. Each visitor in his turn produces a bag of coffee, and before the company disperses half a hundred cups may have been swallowed by every one of them, in case this traveler be what every good traveler should be, and what the Oriental loves almost as well as himself, a story-teller.

    A session of Heidelberg examiners could not quiz him more industriously than does this room-full of villagers. Despite the stubborn resistance of these communities to industrial innovations, their interrogatories show the consuming interest they feel in the progress of the outside world. Steam, electricity, all manner of Frankish customs, inventions, agriculture and its mechanisms, methods of trade, prices - these are the things upon which their interest centers. But there is in their questioning, for all its closeness and persistency, naught of intrusion or discourtesy; they never pry into the visitor's religious, political, or family affairs. The comfort and safety of a guest are paramount. He abides there as long as it pleases him, eats his fill of the family comestibles - thin bread and sheep's-tail fat, pilaff, or whatever there may be - and goes on his way without mention of recompense from the host. A wrong done to him is a wrong done to the head of the house where he is harbored, and personal redress is tolerably sure to follow it. Not alone is this true of the more cultured part of the population. Even among the wind-swept habitations of the mountaineers, whose hoard is little, and to whom a human life is so much chaff, guesthood is sacred.

    There are many Christian weavers in the Orient, yet there is an utter absence of rugs betokening the Christian faith, save that the Greek cross, doubtless without any religious intent, is worked in the body of the Kazaks and in some Chi-chis. It must be remembered that the Christian teaching is nineteen hundred years old, but with this single exception its emblems are not found in any oriental rugs made for market, though Indian and Mongol have wrought their creeds in wool, and every sect of Islam has given its belief expression in its fabrics. The desire for money has, of course, lured them to sell these almost sacred things, and rugs inwoven with the Koran have been smuggled out in spite of the governmental prohibition, to be trod by the foot of any infidel who was rich enough to buy them.

    In a letter to the writer, Mr. L, A. Springer, European correspondent of the United Press, who traveled all through southeastern Europe and the Levant during and after the Greco-Turkish war, has thrown light upon this absence of the Christian emblems from the rugs imported to America. He said:

    "I have just come from Novi Varos, a little place in the Sanjak of Novi Bazaar. It offers a fair specimen of what the Mussulman policy is doing for Christian communities in the Turkish dominions. Years ago Novi Varos throve by the manufacture of curious rugs. They were sent to Paris and London, and found great favor with the amateurs. But Novi Varos was almost entirely Christian, so the Porte put a 'last-straw tax' on the inhabitants and ended their making of rugs for the trade. Today the little town, straggling in the depths of its valley, has about half its former population. Houses stand vacant, and the Greek Church, which was begun in more prosperous times, is unfinished. The Turkish law, fortunately for the Christian pocketbook, forbids bells, and the congregation is called to service by the clapping together of two boards. Every girl is still a weaver of rugs, but not for market. Her rug is her dowry. She spends all her girlhood weaving it, that it may cover her marriage bed.

    "I went with the village priest into some of the houses. They are very poor and squalid, but in almost every one is hidden one of those superb rugs. Their beauty, as the women brought them out from the chests in which they are kept, made a striking contrast with the mean surroundings.

    "The knots of these rugs is wool, but hemp is used for warp and weft. The people make their own dyes from barks. The designs are almost wholly of a religious character - the symbols of the church. Upon one was woven the figure of the Virgin, in the peculiar Byzantine style of the pictures in the Greek chapels. Another represented a priest in his richest robes. Others were a mingling o! patterns from vestments.

    "These people have absolutely no idea of drawing, or of form, as taught in schools; many of them have never seen a picture, except those in the village chapel, nor a rug made anywhere else than in Novi Varos; yet their weavings are all artistic, and the colors tastefully chosen. The body of the rug is almost invariably white, the principal border red, relieved with tints of blue and green, and a deal of brilliancy is lent to them by the use of the most flamboyant yellow." home page


This "rule o' thumb" method of designing is not confined in the Orient to rug-making nomads. It is common throughout Asia Minor, even nowadays, to see builders, who are their own architects as well, tracing on the ground the plans for successive steps of the work they are engaged upon. No general plan is made in advance, except in the case of a great palace, bath or mosque, where a miniature made by the master builder himself is used. Ordinarily, he plans as he goes. The design drawn on the ground is carefully studied. If it bids fair to come out all right the quarrymen and stone-cutters are ordered to cut according to it. The only measure employed is the primitive one of the "hand's span." Back

Bou gyun Allah couveti ilan:
"Today with the help of God."

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