Central Asia is full of mysteries and wonders. Streaching from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east and from Afghanistan in the south to Russia in the north, the region is composed of five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan with a total population of about 66 million.
Middle Asia, as it is sometimes called, is rich in stunning landscapes, culture and history, it has many a thing to be proud of. Thanks to its close connection with the Silk Road, an ancient trading vessel which led from China through India to Europe, Central Asia , it acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, Western Asia, South Asia, and East Asia. It was known as one of the most wonderful and dangerous parts of this road. Its peoples were able to develop weaving techniques unseen anywhere else. Their marvelous designs and luscious colors mix numerous traditions and approaches, while staying original and unique.
The carpets have an important place in the culture of this region – Turkmenistan has even its own Ministry of Carpets! What’s more, Turkmenistan’s national flag sports a red stripe with five traditional guls – designs used in making carpets which symbolize 5 main tribes: Teke, Yomut, Arsary, Chowdur and Saryk. While numerous museums were devoted to antique Middle Asian carpets, this subject remains unexplored in the west. One of the scholars, who was best known for her work, was Valentina G. Moshkova, who died in 1954, leaving behind few articles which were based on 25 years of extensive research. The major museum with carpet collections can be found in inter alia Tashkent, Samarqand, and Ashgabat. Each Central Asian country has its own separate weaving traditions, which contain the long history of this craft.
Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are known as producers of oriental carpets called ‘Bukhara’ or ‘Bokhara’. The name itself was derived from the city of Bukhara, which in the past was one of the main trading centers from which all goods traveled further west. Despite similarities, Uzbek and Turkmen Bukharas have their share of differences which help to distinguish them.
At the very beginnings, Turkmen rugs were woven by indigenous tribes, the major ethnic group in the country, but nowadays it is a common trade, as large amounts of rugs are being exported to Pakistan and Iran. The rugs had various different purposes, from covering the entrance to the tents from acting as a bags. With time, carpets started to play a more important role and at the end of the 20th century they became an important sector of Turkmenistan’s economy. Since 1992, Turkmen started to celebrate Carpet Day every last Sunday in May. Moreover, Turkmen weavers set the world record for the largest carpets in 2003 with a 301 m2 handmade rug.
It’s important to know the difference between rugs woven by the tribes and those produced on a large scale, as they have little in common. The latter are made mainly of synthetic colors, sometimes including cotton warps and wefts and woolen pile. They utilize patterns and colors, but the Bukhara design, often with a red or tan background, is the most popular option. Another reproduction, the Ersari main carpet, has a design featuring an octagonal elephant’s foot pattern.
Afghan rugs often resemble Turkmen rugs, as and coarse rugs produced on a mass scale by Afghanistan also sport Bokhara design. Of course there are numerous fine carpets woven in the country: Baluchi carpets are usually small, in the size of a prayer rug or slightly larger. Their loose pile and abundance of colors makes them fascinating and very original. Baluchistan, where those carpets are woven, is a sparsely populated area, located in the west of Afghanistan. The Mushwani rugs are made by a tribe living near Shindand. They are quite unusual in the sense that they are a mix of a kilim and pile, called ’embossed’ or ‘compound’ type of weave and sport geometric patterns. The sizes of Afgan rugs can vary, as nomad tribes are limited to what can be done on a portable loom. Usually the larger ones are made in the villages, whereas smaller are the specialty of the tribes.
As the subject of Central Asian carpets is a long, albeit fascinating one, the article was divided into two parts, in order to contain all the knowledge about those marvelous rugs. We invite you to read part two!