Mongolia is a fascinating country, famous for its rich culture and stunning landscapes. However, despite its impressive artistic heritage, Mongol weaving art remains largely unknown to general public. This might be caused by the fact that Mongolia located near countries, which are known for old weaving traditions, such as China or India.
Mongol carpets were created as a enticing mix of numerous techniques and styles that arrived to this country via Silk Road. In order to truly appreciate them, we have to learn a bit of Mongolian history and culture, that created those beautiful rugs. Sadly, very few Mongolian rugs survived and we can learn about them mostly from old Chinese manuscripts, which describe in detail those gems of Middle Asian craftsmanship.
Mongol Carpets in history
Ever since the inception of weaving in Middle Asia, carpets had an important role in the life of local nomadic tribes. Although they were often richly decorated, rugs were not treated as mere decorations. For ever moving nomads they functioned as furniture, mainly chairs and doors, keeping people warm even in the middle of harsh Middle Asian winters. Some rugs were woven in such as way that they could be used as sacks on the road and then unfolded and used as normal rug again. In order to weave during their journeys, nomadic peoples used portable looms. Compared to looms used by city folk or villagers, nomadic ones were relatively small and light, so that they could be easily moved from place to place. Their size and weight is the reason why many Mongol rugs are small comparing to other types of carpets, usually produced in the settlements.
For nomadic tribes, rug weaving was a form of a pastime and a great way to bond with other members of their group. Granted it was mainly women’s job, but it helped to keep family bonds alive. Few craftsmen were educated in the art of weaving, so Mongol carpets often have a very original look or palettes.
Thanks to the proximity of Silk Road, an enormous intercontinental trade route, Mongolian craftsmen witnessed many different styles of weaving, from Indian to Iranian. Genghis Khan’s conquest of Asia, especially China, allowed his people to learn even more from other nations.
The design of Mongolian carpets is largely characterized by their see-through patterns., Similarly to Chinese rugs, Mongol had their patterns put against a solid background. Local artists were obviously under the influence of China’s aesthetics, as they share numerous characteristic motifs: Buddhist symbols fretwork spandrels, endless knots, shou, tigers and dragons can be seen on Mongolian carpets. However, Mongolian counterparts were often significantly simplified, so that unskilled weavers could copy them, or modified to suit the tastes of local people. Genghis Khan’s war with Persia allowed Mongolian weavers to learn the secrets of world’s beloved Persian rugs and utilize them in their own craft. In some Mongolian carpets we can see simplified central medallions, inspired by Middle Eastern designs, however their forms remind rather of Chinese forms than anything from Persia or Iraq. Geometric motifs, such as Greek key seemed to dominate due to their simplicity, but more artistic patterns depicting animals and flowers also existed and were usually modeled after Chinese ones.
When it came to the palettes of Mongolian rugs, they depended largely on weaver’s place of living. Nomadic artisans had to make their own dyes, using whatever plants they could find. This is why in many antique Mongolian rugs subdued colors tend to dominate – more vivacious hues were simply unavailable. The situation was different near trading centers or cities. Rich patrons would often buy expensive dyes for their commissioned carpets, but even poorer craftsmen could afford to pick up a dye or two. Carpets inspired by Persian or Chinese craft tend to be more colorful than original Mongolian creations, as local artisans tried their best to copy originals, often creating something completely new.
Fibers using during the production of Mongolian Oriental rugs differed from those used in other weaving centers. Due to naturally mountainous topography of Mongolia, local sheep breeds differed from those common in lowlands. In order to adapt to harsh weather and scarcity of food, those sheep evolved a very thick and warm fleece, that is perfect for production of sturdy and soft carpets, although nowadays majority of wool from local sources is bought from shepherds living in the western part of the country and includes the Altay Mountains. In some cases, cashmere was also used to make carpets, but they were usually reserved for monarchs and rich nobles, as few could afford such a luxury.
When it comes to the type of their pile, Mongolian rugs could be both flat-woven and shaggy. The first variety was usually reserved for decorations or bride’s dowry, although in some cases flat weave rugs were used as saddle coverings for soldiers and nomads. Shaggy rugs were a precious commodity during winters, as they helped to warm up tents and regular houses, as they were often used instead of a blanket or fur.
Unfortunately, few collectors express interest in antique Mongolian rugs. It is mostly due to their rarity and similarity to Chinese creation. Even nowadays Mongolian weaving remains relatively insignificant on the market, compared to other high profile weaving industries located in China and Iran. Only small amount of rugs is produced in the country, which makes them an extremely rare commodity. However, due to the increase of interest in ethnic craft, rugs from Middle Asia are gaining more attention worldwide. More dealers become interested in the possibility of selling Mongolian rugs, as scholars and art historians start to trace their origins. There is a hope than in the future, Mongolian carpet will become better known by carpet aficionados and will earn their place next to the most famous varieties of carpets. Before that day comes, however, we would like to encourage you to browse through our website and check if one of our rugs won’t be the one that will make your home special.