Ancient Azerbaijani carpets part of world cultural heritage

By Seymur Aliyev

Carpet-weaving is one of the oldest forms of arts and crafts in Azerbaijan. Some of the masterpieces of this craft are exhibited in well-known museums around the world, pleasing the eyes of visitors.

In November 2010 Azerbaijani carpets were included in UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Unfortunately, they are often displayed in world museums under the name of Caucasian, Iranian or even Armenian carpets. According to archaeological and written sources, carpet-weaving in Azerbaijan dates back to the Bronze Age. This was documented by Herodotus, Claudius Aelianus, Xenophon and other ancient historians.

In the Sasanid era (III-VII centuries) the carpet art in Azerbaijan was a path leading to further development, and magnificent carpets were produced of silk, gold and silver threads. Making carpets, woven with gold and silver threads and decorated with precious stones, in XVI-XVII centuries assumed the nature of a tradition.

Presently there are broad opportunities for development of carpet-making in Azerbaijan. Carpet-making is taught as an art and science in Azerbaijan State Art School named after A. Azimzade and at the Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Art, as well as in art colleges.

The hali (carpet) was named after the Sheikh Safi Mausoleum located in the city of Ardabil. The Mausoleum was one of the main pilgrimage centers for Azerbaijani and Iranian shiite Muslims. Pilgrims used to bring generous gifts to the temple. The hali of "Sheikh Safi" was one of the artworks presented to the temple for charity purposes. Originally, this hali used to be called "Ardabil".

Artistic decorations of the hali related to the "Sheikh Safi" type are based on the composition of "Lachakturunj", but it differs in its complicated structure, originality of the elements, artistic perfection of the sixteen-pointed turunj (medallion) placed in the center, as well as in stylistic and image-bearing unity of border strips and the central field.

The ornamental composition of this unique hali, which became popular all over the world, consists of such basic elements as göl, gubpa, ketebe, gandil, bulut, islimi and spiral branches that masters usually call "arkak-dishi". These elements counterbalance each other and have a complete highly artistic form. Its artistic value is determined by the professional drawings made especially for this purpose.

The production of "Sheikh Safi" carpets traditionally continues to this day. But none of the subsequent hali could be tantamount to the art perfection of the one which is kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The main reason of the lower artistic level of the carpets attributed to the "Sheikh Safi" group produced recently is their small format.

Other masterpieces of carpet-weaving are Shahabbasi. These carpets were named after the fifth ruler of the Safavid State, Shah Abbas I (1587-1629). Shah Abbas transferred the capital of the Safavid State from Azerbaijan to the internal regions of Iran -- to the city of Isfahan. Subsequently, many outstanding Azerbaijani masters and craftsmen were obliged to move to Isfahan. For a short period of time, they wove the first hali with vegetative patterns based on a geometrical net; those carpets have become very popular. They consisted mainly of stylised colors and wide fig leaves. These elements are placed in the points of lines' intersection, thus forming a net basis. In the upper part of the middle field on the central axis, weavers usually depicted a flower vase that can also be seen in the carpets of "Sheikh Safi", "Khanlig" and others.

The asymmetric and horizontal arrangement of elements is considered one of the most typical features of the "Shahabbasi" carpets.

Since the second half of the 17th century, the Shahabbasi carpet has been called "Jovshagan". Jovshagan was a well-known carpet weaving center located north of the city of Isfahan.

One of the ancient samples of the Azerbaijani carpet art styled Mughan (13th century, Garabagh) decorates the Turkish and Islamic Arts Mu­seum, whereas the carpet known as Dragon and Phoenix (14th century, Gazakh), is exhibited in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. This is the earliest known example of a rug with a dragon and phoenix pattern. The relatively coarse weave of the rug results in a beautifully stylized depiction of the dragon and phoenix, rendered on a bright yellow background which recalls the imperial Chinese history of this design.

At present many German museums, antique shops, private collections of Bonn, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Mannheim and other cities possess thousands of Azerbaijani carpets. A unique carpet of the Gazakh group dating back to the 15th century with ornamentation is currently kept in the Oriental department of a Berlin museum. The plot of the carpet is an original illustration to the Azerbaijani national fairy tale about Malik Mammad.
The museum in Munich also has some bright examples of Azerbaijani carpet-weaving.

A unique carpet related to the period of prosperity of the Tabriz art school is held in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan. According to the type of its drawing it is a so-called "hunting carpet". In the field of the carpet, which has wide borders, among the flower pattern one can see figures of galloping hunters striking a deer with arrows and spears or fighting wild animals, as well as separate images of running animals. The tempo of the carpet details does not disrupt the general composition harmony, strict symmetry of the pattern and decorative balance of the color range; this range of colors is based on the contrast of the large red medallion and the dark blue field covered with a thin polychromatic pattern. The inscription inside the medallion tells us the date when the carpet was woven -- the years 1542-43 and the name of weaver Giyas ad-Din Jami. Excellent examples of Azerbaijani carpet weaving art are also on display in the museums of Vatican.

Azerbaijani carpets are also kept in the White House and the US Department of State. The old ones are shown in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. A round carpet kept in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is particularly worth mentioning.

Excellent examples are also presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Textile Museum in Washington.

As for examples of Azerbaijani carpet-weaving in France, the carpets kept in the rich museum collections stand out in particular. The most valuable Azerbaijani carpets, both in terms of art and techniques, are the ones that are preserved nowadays in the Paris museums of decorative art and in the Louvre.

The composition of a Tabriz carpet kept in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris represents a rich landscape with orderly cypresses, blossoming trees and animals and birds. The range of carpet colors, which are not as contrasting as usual, is based on a combination of warm red, brown and other tones. According to the motives of the pattern, in which the figures of hunters are actually missing, this carpet is related to the "animal group".

The Tabriz carpets of the 16th century constitute another special group that usually have large, sometimes star-shaped medallions occupying almost all the central fields of carpets. Here, the images of animals can be hardly met at all; the vegetative pattern prevails, consisting of thin spiral stalks with leaves and flowers. Cartouches are sometimes included in the ornament of borders, usually with good wishes and other inscriptions of Arabic type. Cartouches sometimes constitute the basis of composition of the entire carpet drawing. For instance, the pattern of a Tabriz carpet attributed to the 16th century and belonging to the art museum in New York is exactly of this type. Grouped in octagonal polychromatic rosettes, cartouches regularly fill the entire field; inside the cartouches one can see a vegetative ornament and images of fantastic animals. On the carpet border the pattern is also enclosed in cartouches.

The Baku carpet known as Khile-Buta, manufactured in 1801 in Khila (Amirjan) village, now adorns the State History Museum in Moscow.

During the XIII - XIV centuries many carpets and carpet items were exported to other countries from Azerbaijan. These carpets draw the attention with their tender ornaments, and the fine and graceful patterns were reflected in famous works and miniatures of Europe. In the work of XV century Dutch painter Hans Memling "Virgin Mary and Child", the "Shirvan" carpet, in the work by Van Eyck "Saint May", the "Zeyva carpet", and in the work by German painter Hans Holbein (XV century) "Ambassadors", "Gazakh" carpet were reflected.

In the second half of the XVIII century carpet-making was considerably expanded during the time of khanates, and each khanate had its own workshop, which had fostered a ground for the formation of different carpet-making schools.

The best samples of carpets brought from Guba, Shamakhy, Ganja, Shaki, Gazakh, Javad provinces and other places were awarded in 1872 at the Moscow Polytechnic exhibition and in 1982 at the "All-Russian industry and art exhibition" with golden and silver medals. Most of the exhibits displayed at international exhibitions organized in Vienna in 1872, in Turin, Italy in 1911, and in London and Berlin in 1913 consisted of carpet items brought from Azerbaijan.

For instance, the "Still Life with a Jug with Flowers" and "Madonna En­throned" by Hans Memling (1433-1494), dating back to the 15th century, portrays Mughan style carpets originating from Garabagh; while the XV century "The Madonna with Canon van der Pale", by Jan Van Eyck, depicts a Guba carpet styled "Zeyva", which is typical of the classic school of the Guba region.

The biggest carpet museum in the world designed in the form of a rolled carpet will open in the Baku seaside park (boulevard) next year, Azerbaijani Minister of Culture and Tourism Abulfaz Garayev said last week. The ministry said the four-storied building will be the first museum complex in Azerbaijan.