Saturday, 3 September 2016

Bazm Wa Razm


I have written about the two Kharraqan towers before, see here. Both had been heavily damaged in a 2002 earthquake. They are located about one km west to the village of Hisar-i Valiasr and 33 km west to Ab-i Germ on the Qazvin-Hamadan road in the Qazvin province.

The towers are basically octagonal with a height of about 15 meters and a width of 4 meters. They are considered the earliest examples of double-domed buildings in Iran.

Due to their extraordinary ornamental brickwork the Kharraqan towers belong to the finest Seljuq monuments found in Iran. Execution of artistic ambition directly relates to that of the Maraghah towers, see here. They were built by Muhammad b. Makki al-Zanjani in 1068 and 1093 CE. It is amazing that they had been discovered in the west not before 1963 by William Miller and described shortly afterwards by archeologists David Stronach and T. Cuyler Young Jr.

The Kharraqan towers are tombs, and the occupants are most likely unknown Seljuq chieftains. The towers resemble in fact typical trellis tents, then so-called khargahs, which are still in use by Turkmen tribes.
Structure of a trellis tent of the Yomut Turkmen of Iran. (Courtesy Durand-Guedy, 2013.)
Structure of a trellis tent of the Yomut Turkmen of Iran. (Courtesy Durand-Guedy, 2013 [1].)

Nomad Rulers and Cities in Iran
After a successful siege of Isfahan in 1050/51 by Toghril Beg it is usually held that the city had been made a capital of the Seljuq empire under one of his successors, Malikshah I. One might wonder, though, what "a capital city" actually means for nomads such as the Seljuqs. It is amazing to read that this question has largely been ignored until very recently.

Isfahan is still home of most impressive Seljuq monuments. I have written about the stunning Friday mosque many times on this blog, see, for instance, here and here. While construction of the larger south dome had been commissioned by Malikshah in 1087, the awesome and almost perfect north dome was built on request of Taj al-Mulk, arch enemy of vizir Nizam al-Mulk, just one year later.
In addition to the Friday mosque, which displays an amazing plurality of Seljuq, Il-Khanid, Timurid and Safavid architecture, Isfahan's old city is home of a couple of surviving Seljuq minarets, for instance the minaret of the Ali mosque (ca. 1200), the Sareban minaret (both 50 meters tall) and the 29 meters tall Chehel Dokhtaran minaret (1107/08). Far more of such buildings can be found in the countryside.

But where has the palace of the sultan been? A recent study considerably substantiated the hypothesis that Seljuq chieftains did not live in cities at all [2]. They lived in luxurious tents pitched in vast camps outside the city walls.

In the first half of the 11th century, Isfahan had been ruled by local Kayukid emirs, in particular Ala al-Dawla Muhammad (d. 1041) who had invited Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037) to his court. Since 1029, the city had been under attack several times by Turkish military powers, first the Ghaznavids, then the Seljuqs.

When the Isfahanian citizens finally opened the gates in 1051, Toghril had decided to spare the city. One of the main reasons was that he strove for the title of sultan conferred to him by the Abbasid caliph al-Qa'im in Baghdad. The conquest put an end to twenty years of war.


Court and Cosmos

When hordes of Seljuq Turkmen invaded the high plateau in the early decades of the 11th century Iran experienced an unexpected blossoming of art and science. An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with just 250 objects (for instance gold and silver-inlaid brass ewers, basins or candle stands, glazed fritware, gold coins and jewellery, illuminated Qur'ans) on display until 24 July paints a picture of the rather pleasant and luxurious life of noblemen and members of the middle class alike who engaged in hunting, fighting and feasting (bazm wa razm).

One may in fact ask (as the New York Times does), What is actually genuinely nomad Seljuqian?
"While all of this testifies to an aesthetically and technologically sophisticated culture, a nonspecialist might wonder what is distinctively Seljuqian about it — what distinguishes it from, say, medieval Islamic arts and crafts in general. Nomadic invaders from Central Asia, the Seljuqs did not impose on their subjects a traditional aesthetic or religion of their own. Rather, they commissioned artistic and decorative works from artisans of various subject peoples. They built palaces, mosques, madrasas and hospitals in Islamic architectural styles. But what the Seljuqs created most consequentially was a relatively peaceful, prosperous and unified world wherein indigenous literature, arts and sciences were able to flourish in urban centers throughout the region."
The beautifully written and carefully edited catalog of the exhibition [3] provides invaluable further information about this rather short-lived dynasty of sultans who had conquered much of the then known world.


[1] Durand-Guedy D. Tents of the Saljuqs. In: Durand-Guedy D (ed.) Turko-Mongol Rulers, Cities and City Life. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2013, pp. 149-190.

[2] Durand-Guedy D. Iranian Elites and Turkish Rulers: A History of Isfahan in the Saljuq Period. Routledge Studies in the History of Iran and Turkey. Routledge: London, New York 2010.

[3] Canby S, Beyazit D, Rugiadi M, Peacock ACS et al. Court and Cosmos. The Great Age of the Seljuqs. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2016.

First published at Freelance.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Intentionally Overestimating Age

UPDATE below.

On a commercial website where dealers can offer antique rugs I found today the picture below. The dealer describes it as,
"158 x 106 cm, 5'3 x 3'6, Fahralo Prayer Kazak, dated 1806/7, still in rather good condition with some old repairs."

The date on the rug is clearly visible, 1261. One may calculate the Gregorian year by adding 622 (the year of Hijra) and subtracting 1261/33 (due to the lunar calendar AH, each year is 11 days shorter, so 365/11 =11.18). So, the possible year when the rug was manufactured is 1845, not 1806/07 (which would be 1221 AH). Apparently the dealer wants to suggest that the third number is a (mirrored) 2, not 6.

The script is clearly Arabic, not Persian, see below.

I doubt whether any serious collector of antique rugs is not aware of the importance of dates in rugs. It may be the only more or less reliable way to estimate age. It may also serve for tentatively dating similar rugs without a date. Having knowledge of Arabic numbers and the peculiarities of the (lunar) Hijri calendar is a must for any collector of Islamic art. So, I wonder who the dealer has actually in mind for purchase.

In an email exchange the other day, he surprisingly admitted that he had the same (later) age in mind ("even without considering the date"), in contrast to "so-called American experts". He conceded that I had rumbled his "little trick" and frivolously mentions that many collectors may fall for "fakes" based on their "gut feeling".  So far, he did not bother to correct his false claim of early age.

So, overestimating age was intentionally done despite evidence in the rug. Nice try.

UPDATE 25 September 2015. Meanwhile, the dealer has corrected his claim and given the correct year, 1845.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

From the Bazaar in Tabriz

While I do not believe certain antique rug dealers who claim time and again that there are no collectible artifacts anymore to find when in Iran, I do believe that there are many crooks underway who search for low quality textiles of the Shahsevan in the great bazaar of Tabriz only for one purpose: to cheat both their vendors and customers. I know that the economic situation for the common Iranian and, after the recent quake in August, in particular people from Tabriz has become dire after "crippling" and unilateral sanctions have been imposed by the US blackmailing also European countries. Tourists, a major source of income for so many Iranians, have abandoned the country in recent years. So, times are again good for the professional deceivers from the West (disgusting German Heinrich Jacoby style) taking advantage of either the destitution of common Iranians and the greed of "collectors" in the West.

So, let me tell a brief story which started about two years ago when becoming interested in the now gone weaving art of the Shahsevan in Northwest Iran.

Coming back to my first statement, I'd been in Tabriz, for not more than 72 hours, in 2005 when I got to know an extraordinary carpet dealer in the bazaar who had specialized in collecting and restoring very special rugs which he smuggled from nearby Armenia. Pictorial designs, not at all "oriental". I have to admit that none of these rugs was appealing to me, but he talked about a big market in particular in the United States where he sooner or later would be able to emigrate.

I had been introduced to him by one of his young colleagues, with whom I every now and then exchanged emails. So, as regards the question, 'Are there any Shahsevan artifacts from the 19th century still available in Tabriz', he immediately came up with pictures of a very special rug.


One has to know that the Shahsevan were famous for their exquisite flatweaves, khorjins and mafrashs. The best pieces (small bags, khorjins and chantehs) which have yielded very high prices in the West, in particular after publications by Parviz Tanavoli, Siawosch Azadi in the 1980s and, more recently John Werteim (1998), have not been in use but have been manufactured for barter. It was questioned whether the Shahsevan had even been weaving pile rugs but had rather bought them in the bazaar.
So, now we can see a sample which is special in several aspects. The composition of the rug (226 cm x 106 cm) is balanced with its colorful stepped lozenges. How animals and human beings (men, veiled women on horses, goats) in the border of the main field are naively depicted is quite amusing. It might in fact be a wedding rug, produced by the bride or mother of the bride. The almost interlacing, "kufic", design in the sides of the main border is also interesting.
Now, what makes this Shahsevan? My friend mentions the dresses of the gentlemen. They were probably khans, or leaders of the group, he assumes. No credits.

He was very much convinced that it was made by the Shahsevan. He mentioned that unfortunately more than one third of the rug (about 35%) was repaired, at least by an expert. So what is it worth? We can get it for $3500 or $3800, he promised, although the owner had asked for considerable more money. Well, I had to admit that this turned me down. The age of this piece might be not older than mid or late 20th century. Is it collectible? No, not if it is contemporary. Then the Shahsevan were history and the recent weavings by people claiming descent from the Shahsevan were for commercial purpose. And no! It is not original, 35% repair is not a trifle. If someone needs proof that the Shahsevan also wove pile rugs and that these were not so appealing as their more spectacular sumakhs, this is not sufficient. (I have to admit, though, that the longer I look at the pictures the more I get a clue about its character.) 

I remembered that once this very young friend of mine gave me some advice when bargaining with Iranians. Just bid half of the amount and then see what he does, he suggested. Anyway, I did not express any interest.

What a surprise when I saw the piece offered by an Iranian on a commerical website the other day. I contacted him and he told me that he had been in Tabriz recently (and had apparently brought what he had found in the bazaar). On request, he wanted to have $2500, a gorgeous price he claimed. But is it reasonable? "There are some small repairs here and there." That's what this dealer tells.


Sunday, 23 September 2012

Patterns of Evolution in Tribal Textiles And the Confusion About Provenance

I had recently made efforts to draw the attention of several collectors/dealers of Iranian/Central Asian tribal textiles to the recent work of anthropologists and archaeologists who have employed contemporary methods of phylogenetic analysis of evolutionary patterns, something which I have been familiar with for some time. Unfortunately, respective efforts were, by and large, unavailing and at least to me revealed an overall amateurish approach of assessing age and provenance of newly emerging or already published "antique" pieces by self-promoted experts/dealers within a by and large shady business whose main effort is to hook future "collectors". There seems also to be, well, if not an intellectual gap between scientists and those who, at an early stage of their career, had changed areas of interest from research to commerce, clearly lack of knowledge about scientific method in the latter group. I do not directly claim that they are just conscious posers or impostors, but easily identifiable as such anyway.

I had first encountered Jamshid Tehrani's work in more detail, which he had done with colleague anthropologists at Durham University, when recently arguing with an American rug dealer who is now located in Germany (a self-proclaimed "expert" in Baluch weavings). I had inquired of a "Baluch" rug which he assigned to the "Hazara" of the Badghis province in Northern Afghanistan, and more precisely those living in Qala-i Naw. And further, he mentions "early" meaning very old (18th century) in antique rug dealers' jargon ("earlier" samples have not survived, I suppose, simply due to a general utilitarian manufacturing, not commerce). Since this particular dealer had found in the kilim part of the rug an Afshar design pattern, he was quick to suggest intermarriage between Hazara and Afshar (both Shi'ites) in the Kabul area.

Ethnic groups of Afghanistan (see a much higher resolution of the image above on the collection of maps of the Middle East by Columbia University's Gulf 2000 project here)

Well, the Hazara in the Badghis province are Sunnis, in contrast to those of the Hazarajat in Central Afghanistan. In his standard book on Afghan carpets, R. D. Parsons writes (p. 152),
"The fourth member of the Chahar Aimaq tribes is the Qala-i-Nau Hazara, who live in and around the small town of Qala-i-Nau, the capital of Badghis Province. This tribe of Hazara are Sunni Muslims referred to as Sunni Hazaras, quite different from the Hazara native to the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan who are Shi'a Muslims. As with the Hazara of the Hazarajat they are said to be descendants of the hordes who accompanied Genghis Khan. However, another theory claims they only settled here in the middle of the eighteenth century when they were forcibly displaced from the Hazarajat by King Nadir Shah."

So, Hazara living in Qala-i Naw which is close to the Iranian border and certainly part of greater Khorasan might have forcibly been displaced from the Hazarajat in the mid-18th century by Nadir Shah, a Sunni. In a tribal society, intermarriage between different tribes is highly unlikely, in particular when members belong to different faiths and this was confirmed immediately.

Knowing of Tehrani's work on population co-phylogeny by reconstructing the evolution of Iranian tribal craft traditions, I contacted him and here is his response.
"I am afraid I have not carried out any analyses of Hazara or Afshar traditions, so would not be able to tell you about their phylogenetic relationships. In the absence of such knowledge it is hard to tell whether the kilim pattern you mention represents evidence of blending between their traditions (via intermarriage or some other process, such as contact, trade, etc.), or  alternatively, a "missing link" that would indicate descent from a common ancestor. Having said that, my ethnographic studies of Iranian tribes suggest that intermarriage is a fairly unlikely explanation, since it only occurs under very restricted conditions, namely, when members of different tribes settle in large towns and cities and basically abandon their previous way of life (including weaving), or when their populations dwindle to the point that their survival as independent endogamous entities becomes unsustainable. If you think these conditions might be met in this case then intermarriage might explain the presence of the Afshar kilim pattern on a Hazara rug. Otherwise I would suggest that other explanations - either descent, or borrowing (perhaps via participation in commercial production?) - are more plausible. Sorry not to be of more help, and I wish you luck in your efforts to solve this mystery!" (Emphasis added.)
The question here is whether traditions, for instance weaving techniques and special designs, which are characteristic for certain tribes which are known to evolve mainly "vertically" (from generation to generation, that is, from mother to daughter) or whether there is any likelihood that they can also be transmitted "horizontally" among peers. Tehrani had conducted a field study in the early 2000s when living among different tribes in Iran (Yomut, Shahsevan, Qashgai, Boyer Ahmad, Bakhtiari, Papi) and had interviewed over 60 weavers (all women) about how they learned to weave. In a summary of some of his group's recent articles he writes,
"The interviews revealed important differences in the ways that techniques and designs are transmitted. Techniques are almost always passed on from mother to daughter, usually at a young age (between 9 and 14 years old), over a period of several years. During their apprenticeship, young weavers also build up a repertoire of designs by collaborating with and imitating their mothers. However, whereas adult weavers rarely acquire new techniques once they begin to work independently, they frequently copy designs from their peers. We can therefore hypothesize that while the transmission of weaving techniques follow similar pathways to the transmission of genes (i.e. they are transmitted "vertically" between generations), the transmission of designs is likely to be much more complicated (since they can be transmitted "vertically" between generations and "horizontally" within generations)."
Technical and design characters in a Bakhtiari bag (Matthews LJ, Tehrani JJ, Jordan FM, Collard M, Nunn CL (2011) Testing for Divergent Transmission Histories among Cultural Characters: A Study Using Bayesian Phylogenetic Methods and Iranian Tribal Textile Data. PLoS ONE 6(4): e14810. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014810)  

Tehrani and his colleagues tested this hypothesis by using a phylogenetic technique known as cladistic analysis which focuses on variation of "characters" (for instance gene sequences or morphological traits in biology), in the case of material culture stylistic and/or technological elements of assemblages such as (in our example) variations in textile ornaments (for instance, as shown in a recent publication of the group, the "infinitive knot" motif, the "rooster" motif, a "jagged border"), as well as knotting or weaving techniques (plain weave, weft wrapping and pile knotting, all found in the same bag from the Bakhtiari tribe).
"Cladistic analysis reconstructs relationships among taxa or classes by distinguishing characters that are evolutionary novel (also termed apomorphic or derived), from those that were present in the last common ancestor of all the taxa under study, which are labelled ancestral or plesiomorphic. The presence of a derived trait in two or more taxa provides evidence that they are descended from a common ancestor of more recent origin than the ancestors they share with the other taxa under analysis."
As an example for structural characteristic one might consider textiles produced by the various Turkmen tribes, for instance the Ersari, Salor, Saryk, Tekke and Yomut. Structural characteristics are (i) whether the knot is symmetrical or asymmetrical, (ii) which can be open to the left or to the right. And finally, (iii) whether the wefts are depressed (thereby raising the pile knots). Thus, Turkmen weavings can definitely be discriminated using these three structural characteristics. Weavings of the Salor have asymmetrical knots open to the left, those of the Tekke asymmetrical knots open to the right, while those of the Ersari have asymmetrical knots open to the right and depressed wefts. Saryk and Yomut weavings employ symmetric knots, while the former have raised warps, the latter has depressed.

Cladogram. A popular method to identify which traits are derived and which are ancestral is outgroup analysis. An outgroup is defined as a taxon that shares a common ancestor with the taxa under analysis (the ingroup), but is of more distant origin than the ancestor the analyzed taxa share with each other.

Once the direction of change could be established for a character, a branching diagram that connects taxa according to their relative derived status can be constructed, a so-called cladogram. The classic model for evolution of species is the Darwinian model of descent with modification.
"If cultural histories would follow this concept, and descent with modification were the only cause or source of similarities among taxa, all the character cladograms would be compatible with one another. Normally, however, a number of the character cladograms will suggest relationships that are incompatible because [...] common descent is not the only source of similarity among taxa. How can we sort true family resemblances (known in phylogenetic terms as homologies) from similarities resulting from other processes such as independent evolution and borrowings (homoplasies)?"
Well, one has to find a consensus cladogram that is consistent with the largest number of characteristics and therefore requires the smallest number of evolutionary changes to account for the distribution of character states among the taxa, an approach based on the principle of parsimony (explanations should never be made more complicated than necessary). Characters consistent with the consensus cladogram are then considered homologous (common descent), those which are inconsistent homoplastic (similarities due to other processes such as borrowing and blending among lineages).

Tehrani's hypothesis that similarities among the designs used by Iranian tribes (transmitted both vertically across generations and horizontally within) would be much more homoplastic than similarities among their techniques could be rejected after cladistic analysis of 122 decorative and technical characters from the six tribal groups mentioned before, the Yomut, Shahsevan, Qashgai, Boyer Ahmad, Papi and Bakhtiari. In fact, similarities and differences among the assemblages can be largely explained in terms of descent with modification (the classic Darwinian evolutionary model) from ancestral assemblages. Most interestingly, the phylogenetic signal in design characters is as strong as ("if not stronger than") the signal in technical characters. Thus, transmission of designs between weavers occurs mainly within, rather between groups.

This is not very much surprising in particular when considering the life (settled or still semi-nomadic), even in the recent past, in tribal areas in Iran, as has been described, for instance, by Erika Friedl in her classic books on Women of Deh Koh  and  Children of Deh Koh (of the Boyer-Ahmadi, living in the southern Zagros mountains). They have shown that girls are married off, often at young age, mainly within small villages. Intermarriage between tribes, which would expose the bride to different weaving traditions in the new family, would be extremely extraordinary, it can even be ruled out.

Coming back to the confusion among dealers about age and provenance. I would agree that lifelong dealing with textiles may put some of them in a position to make claims which might lend them authority. What is missing is certainly any evidence. As long as the origin and history of certain pieces is kept in an obscure state, any claims should be met with basic skepticism. As an example, the bag face below had been described (even published in 2000) as 19th century Shahsevan sumakh with extra weft of the Khamseh region. It was later offered to collectors as "one of the oldest" Luri bag faces the dealers knows of and, finally, displayed even "possible Kurdish influence".
A sumakh bag face showing a Bakhtiari design pattern in the main field. 

Respective ethniticies are quite different, separated by huge distances, language barriers and high mountain ranges. The Shahsevan claim descent from Oghuz Turks which had invaded Iran in the 10th and 12th centuries. They speak Azeri, a Turkic language. Among Luri (an Iranian language) speaking tribes of the Zagros mountains in Southern Iran are the Boyer Ahmadi and Bakhtiari tribes. Kurds are an Iranian people  speaking the Kurdish language. Any intermarriage between these ethnicities is highly unlikely. The bag face in question has a main field most characteristic for Bakhtiari weavings. Two outer borders with its animal or bird heads facing each other (separated by a border displaying stylized rams or blossoms) are on the other hand quite special. The weaving is rather loose, in contrast to common Bakhtiari weavings which, in their bags, usually have more durable pile knotting at the bottom. The patina of the bag may in fact point to old age. How old remains a matter of guessing.    

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Collectible Reproductions?

I know that this is going to be provocative. Comments and clarifications from people with similar experience are most welcome.

A couple of years ago, I've read about a mafrash front of the Shahsavan confederation with a somewhat different and, well, appealing design. It had apparently been offered years ago at a German auction house specializing in antique, "collectible", textiles at an estimated 7,500 Euros. I am not (or better no longer) sure, however, whether it could achieve that price or even was sold at that time. The auctioneer suggested as origin "Northwestern Persia (sic!), Azerbaidjan (a combination which immediately discredits him as expert, of course), 1st half 19th c. Size: ca. 53x95cm." And further: "Very finely woven sumakh panel in pleasant colours originating from Qeydar, a small town south of Zandjan in the Khamseh district. – Minor re-weaves in the outer border; in good condition."

There was a reference for the origin, of course: "TANAVOLI, PARVIZ, Shahsavan. Flachgewebe aus dem Iran. Herford 1985, no 87." Parviz Tanavoli is a well-reputed Iranian professor of art and design, a sculptor and painter himself, a collector of arts and an (or the) expert in Iranian flatweaves.

I was very much surprised when stumbling, only a couple of months after I had seen this particular mafrash on the internet, over a very similar piece just offered by a German dealer of antique textiles. I bought it. I erroneously assumed at that time that it might even be the back face of very same which resembled Tanavoli's no 87. Although mine had a different dimension, 83 x 48 cm squared. And, Tanavoli's, did not have a "show" back face. The other four sides were just made of kilims, which I learned later after I had been lucky to get a copy of his gorgeous book.

Tanavoli's book on flatweaves of the Shahsavan appeared in the same year as Siawosch Azadi's (with Peter A. Andrews) on Shahsavan mafrashs. Azadi is a collector/dealer of antique textiles located in Hamburg. He has written highly recommended standard books on Shahsavan flatweaves (1985), rugs woven in the Baluchi tradition (1986), and Turkmen weavings (1975) just mentioning a few of his works. In his book entitled "Mafrash", page 157 displays Tanavoli's no. 87 (or a very similar piece, see below; Tanavoli's is in black and white only) while on page 155, on first sight, was a mafrash displayed which resembles mine with 95% or so concordance. Overall colors, composition, colors of Medean stars (at least those of the upper and lower main border; the stars of the left and right main border differ in color) were identical. I had to scrutinize each inch to find minor differences. For instance, the colors of small hooked diamonds on blue ground in the corners of the two main medallions were just exchanged: two white and one red in Azadi's, two red and one white in my piece (there were more colors involved in mine, though). Azadi describes the origin of the front side of his mafrash on page 155:

"Western Iran, mid-XIXth century. Dimensions: 95 x 53 cm (squared). The central field is devided into two rectangles with a red ground. Within this medallions of different shapes are arranged concentrically. The red hooked lozenges with truncated tips (gizil giyanakh?) dominate the composition; they contain striped rectangles. The empty spaces are filled with lozenges of various shapes and sizes, and small striped ornaments; at the same time these form components of the medallions. The main border with a red ground displays a row of stars (so-called "Med(i)ean star") alternating with twohalved counterset lozenges. The main border is flanked by two stripes with a white ground and a cranked, interrupted, interlaced vine meander (cheren), which are themselves accompanied by two gap-baja stripes."

I became concerned when the first of the above mentioned mafrashs (which actually draw my attention to the Qeydar mafrashs) was offered again at the same German auction house in last year's main Spring auction, this time at a much lower estimate. And it sold this time, for less than 2,200 Euros. The auctioneer has more information now:
"Finely woven in outstanding colours, this sumakh panel used to be the elaborate decorative face of a mafrash. The other three sides (sic! Note that mafrashs have, of course, four "other" sides) were woven in kilim technique, as shown by a comparable piece published by Tanavoli. It was made in the surroundings of Qeydar, a small town south of Zanjan in the Khamseh district. – Small restored areas along the sides, otherwise in good condition."
Azadi counted nine colors in his mafrash, which is pretty high. I found ten in mine. In the meantime, I had to conclude that Qeydar in the 19th century must have been a hub for similar looking (well, almost identical) mafrashs, since the German dealer who provided mine has sold more stuff of the kind.

To be clear at this point, I still like the pieces I've bought over the years. I rapidly noticed that age and provenance are more or less educated, or rather wild, guesses by savvy dealers (those in the West are by no means better than those in their home countries; the latter are more honest) who desperately try to hook customers and sell their, well, inferior pieces (the better ones are never for sale). The lay customer is usually told several flimsy arguments: As a rule of thumb, the more natural, of course not synthetic, colors the older the piece. No synthetic dyes would mean it must have been manufactured before synthetic dyes had been introduced. The more thoughtful and elegant the design, the older the piece.

Most of this is of course nonsense. In 1856, the first synthetic dye (fuchsin) was invented by William Perkin and quickly used in oriental weavings afterwards. At least for some time. Azadi tells us, however, that synthetic dyes only reached the Shahsavan after WWII! After Tanavoli's and Azadi's book, fakes became a serious matter of fact as John Wertime explains in his more recent excellent book on Sumak bags of Northwest Persia [sic!] and Transcaucasia of 1998.

I have not figured out yet why someone should collect these expensive pieces, but it's my strong opinion that what is collectible is just the original. Long published pieces. If later (25 years later!) very similar (almost identical) pieces emerge, there must be only one conclusion: these are reproductions. It's simple like that. First and foremost these are unique pieces. Pieces of art. There have not been manufactories for mafrashs in Qeydar or the rest of Shahsavan country in the 19th century. Qeydar was not even likely the place where Tanavoli's and Azadi's mafrashs have been woven. The Shahsavan were nomads. Their mafrashs were certainly utilitarian, other than, for instance, khorjin saddle bags or the other small beautiful weavings which might have been used as surrogate currency and exchanged for goods in the bazaar of, say, Zanjan and other towns, not really Qeydar (it was only Tanavoli who suggested the village).

And, reproductions are largely worthless, regardless how finely woven they are, how many colors were used and how nicely designed the front side is. Bad news for those who want to make a living from selling "collectibles" to their greedy but generally poorly informed clients. Dealers have to yield. But they almost never are able to present evidence, not for age and usually not for provenance. Customers have to be cautious.

A mafrash is, of course,  a large bag. Certain dealers use to tear the bag, which is certainly difficult to store in a collection, into front, back and side panels; trying to sell them one after the other. If these bags have a cultural value, this must be considered irresponsible, almost a criminal act. If not, there is no sense in collecting them.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


Rug dealers are never scholars, and neither are collectors who, after some time, become inevitably dealers. Scholars are experts who do not need to own "collectibles" to study them. Having lived in the Middle East for a couple of years I had been infected with the carpet bug from the very beginning. Considering myself a "collector", even after some years of buying what interests me, would be an exaggeration. I have been, though, in contact with a variety of antique rug dealers over the years and have learned to be suspicious of, in particular, western self-declared pundits. What they desperately need is information regarding provenance and age. Otherwise it would be difficult to sell their inferior textiles (they keep, of course, their better pieces). Having said that, I can only thank a New York collector/dealer/expert who I have recently come across for his advice: not to buy but just enjoy and, well, study!

Of all Turkmen weavings I had always been fascinated of chuvals of the Chodor, a Turkmen tribe which had originally been living in an area in the northeastern shores of the Caspian Sea, in particular the Mangyshlak and Buzachi Peninsulas. The design was quite easy to identify, very different from other Turkmen designs, rather complex and, in a way, electrical. When living in Kuwait, they were totally missing in the supplies of local dealers. I had to wait until I had left the Middle East.

When I became more interested in a certain Chodor chuval being on offer by a dealer in Germany, I came across an article by Kurt Munkacsi, famous producer of popular “classical” music by composer Philip Glass, who is a renowned collector of Turkmen weavings. In this article which had appeared about 17 years ago, Munkacsi tries to explain provenance and, in particular, age of a great number of carefully analyzed Chodor chuvals of his collection (textural composition, autochtonous design, additions of Yomut designs) by speculating that both can be related to known historical movements of the Chodor and Yomut (originally living in the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea) in the 18th and 19th centuries as described in Turkmen Ethnohistory by William Wood (in: Wood W, O'Bannon GW, Swinney HJ (ed) Vanishing Jewels: Central Asian Tribal Weavings, Rochester Museum & Science Center 1990). The movements were depicted in several maps indicating forceful, by Kalmuks, expulsions of the Chodor and Yomut to the Khorezm oasis south of the Aral Sea in the early 18th century (which is known for its cotton plantations and where he assumes a "Possible first Chodor interaction with the Yomut") and then further movements forced by Nadir Shah (in ca. 1740) and alliance of both tribes against the Uzbek army (a "second Chodor interaction with the Yomut") in ca. 1760. And so on. In 1873 Russians conquered Khiva (south of the Khorezm oasis and forced the Chodor to remain in this area around Porsu while the Yomut were "slaughtered and driven out of the city."

Munkacsi tries to sort out what he had found in his large collection of Chodor chuvals and describes four groups which is okay; descriptive, quite reasonable. Everything else is, of course, circular reasoning, just guessing. There is no evidence in his reasoning that known historical contacts of the Chodor and Yomut would relate to special designs and presence or absence of cotton. When he writes (in the description of plate 6, a wonderful example of great Chodor art), “A Yomut elem design and the absence of cotton in the foundation indicate this chuval was probably made after the Chodor and Yomut joined forces against the Uzbeks, and were driven from Khorezm back to Mangyshlak [i.e. after 1811]. It shows the final stage of lattice development [containing what he calls “box flowers”],” it has to be considered mere speculation. Both tribes move and, as nomads, migrate in a vast area of about 300 km times 300 km and certainly have had contacts or “interactions” for a very long time. Mangyshlak is at the crossroads of several cultures and religions, mainly Animist, Islam, and Jewish. These tribes, are not different human species. The Chodor and Yomut of the 18th, 19th centuries are not primitive “aborigines” but both pretty civilized (as their produces indicate) Turkmen, at times pastoral people living the life of nomads.        

The one I was interested in belonged to Munkacsi’s group I, where the blue guls contain a vertical bar. Interestingly the piece was composed of six blue guls (considered by Munkacsi as main guls) with only one complete white and one complete red gul in the center. The “electric” lattice contains small boxes. The dealer, notorious for his bragging about provenance, historical myths and uber-precise age estimates, assigned it to the first half of the 19th century (“1800-1849”). He unexpectedly introduced Munkacsi himself informing me about a recent chat he had with him when he confirmed age. Both seem to agree that (“bold, macho”) Yomut elements in elem and vertical borders (the dealer in Germany had apparently forgotten about who used to manufacture the bags: young women), cotton (“one ply in wefts”) and small “boxes” in the lattice were sufficient for pretty accurate age estimate, according to Munkacsi’s 1835 map:

“The Aday Kazakhs drive the Chodor from Mangyshlak [to which parts of them had returned in 1811], for the last time, forcing a return to Khorezm. Fourth Chodor interaction with the Yomut.“

Mackie and Thomson had cast doubt on surviving Chodor chuvals being older than 1800. They had used color to distinguish older from newer weavings (as quoted on TurkoTek’s webpage) and describe a “proto-Chodor” (of early 19th century) as having “a very deep purple field color, the red is clear and strong tending towards orange-tan or even apricot, [and] … often have a good green or light blue-green, and a clear yellow.”

Well, someone had suggested that Munkacsi himself, who is said to own one of the largest and finest collections of Chodor textiles and who had suddenly been asked to testify our German dealer’s claim, had commissioned the latter to sell this piece. It’s speculation and I won’t be able to trace it.

Overall, antique textile collection business seems to be shady. Truth is never known (the surviving pieces are too young to do radiocarbon dating), but that fact is usually concealed, and bold but mainly irrelevant clues by self-named pundits (who are dealers, never scholars) are mainly used to justify what is “collectible” and what is not.

By the way, I have so far not figured out why certain people with their limited knowledge about culture and history of Central Asian people want to collect.

How did I come to know the above-mentioned New York collector/dealer/expert? Well, I noticed that one of the very old Chodor chuvals in Mukacsi’s paper (plate 12) of 1994 (“ca.1760”) had been published before by the former in 1988, see also here. Munkacsi doesn’t quote him, so I asked him why not. In his description he doesn’t mention a precise age estimate but describes it as belonging to “the earliest period. It has the spacious and clear drawing, wonderful color palette and very rare border patterns that should be expected from examples of great age and even though it is missing part of its length, having been rejoined, thus disfiguring the first row of major guls, its beauty and importance remain little effected.”  

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Christmas in Oman

I had missed Sultan Qaboos' Grand Mosque when in Oman last time, about 7 years ago. We visited the marvellous mosque, which has been finished only in 2001, on Christmas Eve. It now harbors the world's second largest hand-woven carpet and chandelier (after those in Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan mosque in Abu Dhabi which has been installed only in 2010). The mosque in Oman features architectural gems and recalls, at the same time, Cairo's Ibn Tulun and Esfahan's Shah mosque, the Timurid floral and Arabesque tiles in its Friday mosque, Safavid muqarnas, Persian weaving art and a Paradise garden. 

On Christmas Day, we attended the mass in the Protestant Church in Ghala, at only a couple of hundred meters distant from the Grand Mosque (although heavy construction work would have made it impossible to walk). I was not really prepared to meet an evangelizing Christian there who expressed her hope and good wishes for us to find the way back to salvation, only after having admitted that I wasn't too much religious and mentioning that evangelizing Omanis appears to be kind of weird. Indeed, I suppose that evangelizing Christians are only tolerated on the Arabian Peninsula by highly tolerant, friendly and peaceful Omanis. 

Monday, 2 January 2012

Toward Misfah

What can you do in Oman when you have just a couple of days? We were lucky that Ahmad, a fisherman from beautiful Sur and cousin of a friend, promised to drive us to Nizwa. Friday market with cattle and goat on sale. Many tourists and generally no collectible souvenirs. We had lunch in a restaurant only with separate rooms for families.


We then went to Misfah, a small village in the mountains with spectacular views into canyon-like wadis with subtropical (actually tropical!) vegetation. The road to Al-Hamra and Misfah offers spectacular view at Oman's highest mountain, Jebel Shams (3009 m).

Ahmed Saleh Al Araimi may be hired as guide also for longer tours by emailing him:

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Royal Opera House Muscat

A couple of weeks before the opening ceremony, I stumbled over the brand new Opera House in Muscat on the internet. The program included Turandot, Carmen and, well, Pjotr Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. When it was dead-easy to purchase tickets online, I planned to spend Christmas once more in the Middle East. The performance of the world class Mariinsky Ballet on opening night was marvelous, and so was the opera house in Al Qurum.