The Timeless Cosmology of 19th Century Caucasian Rugs (Part I)

Wall Street Journal

High mountain villages spread throughout the Caucasus Mountains each developed their own style of carpet weaving that reflects their individual tribes.

OAKLAND, CA. - “Remember to look up at the stars. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.” ---Stephen Hawking.

For centuries, the Caucasus Mountain Range provided refuge for nomadic peoples forced out of more hospitable areas. Eventually, approximately 350 different tribes resided in the mountain range that extended from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, stretching across modern-day Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia. The people spoke over 150 distinct languages.

Along with the Moslem Lesghis, Chechen, and Talish, there were clans of Mountain Jews, Christian Armenians, Buddhist Kalmucks, Norsemen and even a group of Württemburg Germans. They were collectively known for their spirited sense of independence and longevity, with many tribal elders apparently living decades past one hundred years.

The existence of the Caucasian tribespeople depended entirely on their ability to cultivate a simple lifestyle, along with a deep respect for the natural forces which governed their lives. By living a life of almost continuous physical activity, they learned to tap into the instinctive nature hidden within to guide them.

Perhaps as an expression of the deep joy of a people living and working close to the earth, the tribespeople wove rugs. The finest antique Caucasian carpets possess an individuality, a boldness, and a deep sense of unity which is unsurpassed in the world of antique Oriental rugs. There is a caveat in that not all Caucasian rugs from the 19th century reach “elite status.” Combined with a proliferation of rugs woven in the 20th century that seek to copy rather than create art, it is important to employ an educated and discerning eye when considering an acquisition.

In this three-part series, I will explore (and explain to the degree possible) what allowed the weavers, primarily women, to create such beauty out of such a harsh, nomadic lifestyle. They learned to have gratitude for everything that provided comfort or beauty and gratitude for life itself.

Caucasian nomads often knew only two environments during their entire lifetimes: the high mountain meadow to which they brought their sheep to graze during the summer and the deep valley below in which they waited out the winter. They lived in either a small tent blackened with smoke or a “Kosh,” a dimly lit sod hut dug out of a hillside.

The tribespeople had a completely organic world view, one unfiltered by science or formal education. They studied the forces of nature firsthand, in significant part because their survival depended on it. Throughout, they maintained a sense of wonder at the harmonious forces of nature and the universe.

Such contemplation of the cosmos was a nightly occurrence for 19th-century tribespeople in the remote Caucasus Mountains who, though they knew nothing of telescopes or cosmologists, would have understood perfectly.

“A Starry Night Over The Rhone” by Vincent van Gogh (1888), the most renowned of his night paintings, expresses Western art’s capturing of man’s enthrallment with the star-filled sky. It’s no accident that 19th-century Caucasian rugs evoke a decidedly cosmic perspective.

The mountainous landscape where the rugs were woven provided front-row seating to the constellations. The tallest in this range is the extinct volcano, Mount Elbrus at (18,510 feet), with no less than ten peaks rising to greater heights than Mont Blanc (15,781 ft.), the highest in Europe. The Caucasus also guaranteed the contemplation of heavenly mysteries. Nearly every deep valley is still inhabited by peoples whose customs and history are entirely different from those in the next valley.

At the time their rugs were produced, virtually all of the tribespeople lacked literacy, but they excelled at pictorial, non-linear thinking, fed in part by nightly story-telling that embodied their collective wisdom and by a vast body of symbolic patterns that had been handed down, from generation to generation, for millennia. A nearly intact 2,500-year-old rug known as “The Pazyryk Carpet,” discovered in 1949 frozen in a Scythian tomb in Central Persia testifies to the advanced knowledge of carpet-weaving in the early Iron Age, that used symmetrical “Ghiordes Knots” and patterns similar to those in 19th-century Caucasian rugs.

Caucasian rugs embody a sweeping arc of human perception that connects the disparate tribal Near Eastern and urban-based Western worlds. The rugs are treasure maps left to us by artisans who lived in harmony with, and whose art was informed by, the natural world.

How is this possible that these carpets—created by weavers living in the folds of what were, at that time, virtually inaccessible mountains—have found an ever-growing audience in our technologically complex, ever-on-the-move, 21st-century lives?

Imagine living in a remote mountain village occupied by your ancestors since the dawn of history and witnessing, as they had, the spectacular blanket of the Milky Way, undimmed by electricity, stretching as far and wide as the eye can see. Imagine exploring and paying honor to your connection to such unknowable cosmic forces through hand-knotted rugs, the only “written” language you have.

Not surprisingly, the Star symbol is possibly the most utilized design in the Caucasian panoply. One recent arrival to Claremont’s collection, a 140-year-old Gendje rug, is studded with dozens of them, set against a rich, deep, shifting blue field—bringing to mind “Starry Night Over the Rhone.”

Caucasian rug symbols include Ram’s Horns (a motif dating back to the region’s Bronze Age metalwork, their inward-turning curves speak to strength and fertility, as well as introspection), the Wheel of Life (an ancient mandala representing the cyclical nature of the cosmos) and Botehs (a seed-like form representing the ever-present potential for growth), among others. Zigzag border patterns are “running water,” without which life cannot exist.

The formidable Caucasian mountains birthed an amazing artistic outpouring of weavers living in its folds, whose rugs captured an extraordinary spectrum of age-old symbols and a sense of cosmic harmony.

I had the unique privilege of having longtime relationships with descendants of weavers and tribal elders over a three-decade period. Most of my interpretations of these symbols came through these conversations and to my knowledge are not reflected elsewhere in any published research.

It’s particularly noteworthy that the weavers recognized their ancient symbols and pattern language—keystones in their unique cultural heritage—as guidelines rather than absolutes, that spontaneity was to be relished rather than frowned upon, and that as inspiration dawned on them, they were free to improvise at their looms.

They also understood the power of placement, of strategic asymmetry, and ‘unity in multiplicity— meaning that each motif is unique yet connected.

Drawings on cave walls indicate these symbols pre-date organized religion. The layers of imposed meaning compose a powerful, universal, non-verbal language.

The best 19th-century Caucasian weavings are a phenomenon that will not come again. The circumstances that allowed them to come into being are lost to history, technology, and “progress.” That said, they are a gift passed down to a future the weavers themselves would not have been able to recognize or imagine, but a gift immensely valuable, nonetheless.

In the next chapter of this series, I will examine specific symbols and what they represented to the people who wove them.

Article number one of a three-part series.

Claremont Rugs
This High Collectible Caucasian Kazak rug, 5-2 x 9-1 (157cm x 277cm), circa 1875, is a stunning example of tribal rugs woven in the highest reaches of the Caucasus Mountains.

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