Afshar rugs & textiles

Category: Lectures

Virtual versions of the Textile Museum’s “Rug & Textile Appreciation Morning Programs”.

Afshar Rugs and Textiles, Part 1

By R. John Howe 9 September 2009 – R. John Howe: Textiles and Text

Dear folks -On May 9, 2009, Austin Doyle and Michael Seidman gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program on Afshar rugs and textiles.This post is one of three that provides a virtual version of this program.

Part 1 is Austin’s lecture.

Part 2 presents the pieces that Austin and Michael brought in to illustrate particular aspects of Afshar weaving.

Part 3 is devoted to the pieces that members of the audience brought to this session.

The Myers Room was full, again, for this program.

Tom Goehner,

the TM’s Curator of Education, introduced Austin and Michael, saying that Austin is a medical doctor specializing in oncology. He is also the president of the Washington area rug club, the International Hajji Babas.

Michael is a molecular biologist, employed in research, and is a member of The Textile Museum board.

Both have presented previous “rug mornings,” and both of them collect Afshar weavings.

Austin began

with a lecture on the Afshars and their weavings.

I have presented a virtual version of it below in some detail. Because we do not have permission to include the images of examples used to illustrate particular points, this lecture is presented entirely in text.   Still, I would suggest that it is worth “plowing through” a bit, since Austin has summarized a lot of the current literature on Afshar weaving conveniently.

Austin first said that Afshari weaving has not been studied much because few westerners have visited the Kerman area in south central Iran where the largest numbers of Afshars have been located.
Here is a closer look at Kerman and its surroundings taken from Edwards’ The Persian Carpet.

Notice that Edwards seems here to place Afshars to the south of Kerman. Opie, in his book Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia, places them more to the southwest.

Centuries before the arrival of the Afshars in Kerman province, the area was inhabited by a variety of Persian, Turkic and Arabic-speaking tribes. Among the most important were three Baluch tribes, two Lori tribes, as well as some Lak tribes.

This diverse background, Austin said, is reflected in the immense complexity of various pastoral nomads that moved about in the Kerman area, among which Afshars were numbered.

A sense of this complexity can be seen in the following brief description. Sirjan (see at extreme lower left in the Kerman map above) is usually seen as the major collecting point for Afshar rugs, but also for those of the Buchakchis (a tribe less well known to rug collectors). In his respected book, The Persian Carpet, Cecil Edwards indicates that he thinks that Bam was actually the Afshari trading center, and that the Doragahis, another tribe, greatly outnumber the Afshars in the Sirjan area. Edwards also notes: “The Persian weavers of the Sirjan valley far outnumber the 40, 000 nomadic Afshari and their rug production is greater.” (ed.: Edwards retired from the rug business in 1947 and was writing in the later 40s.)

One additional sign of the diverse background of Kerman Afshars is that the weavings they produced are the most varied of any of the Persian tribes.

As indicated above, the Afshars were (in the past) pastoral nomads. They were among the “black tent” variety.

Austin said that those in the Kerman area migrated between the cool Jabel Barez mountains (which sometimes reach 4,500 meters) in the summer, and warm winter encampments in the lowlands (which extend west to the Persian Gulf).

He said that the Kerman Afshars are now mostly sedentary, with only a few thousand still living as nomads. There are a dozen Afshar villages where a traditional Turkic dialect is still spoken. Most Afshar descendants have mixed extensively with the Persian people in the villages south and west of Kerman.

Although Afshars are generally thought of as a Kerman area tribe, in fact, Afshar populations exist in a number of other areas as well, notably in Khurasan in northeast Iran, and in the Bijar area of Iran’s northwest.

Next Austin sketched some of the deeper historical background of the Afshars.  He said that the Afshars have roots in the Turkmen Oghuz who left Turkmenistan, east of the Caspian Sea, in the 11th century. They traditionally spoke a Turkic dialect, and some settled in eastern Turkey. but the majority of the tribe settled in Khuzestan at the head of the Persian Gulf.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the Afshars were instrumental in assisting six other tribes, all members of the Kizl Bash Confederation, in placing Shah Isma’il on the throne of Persia (1499-1524). By this time important segments of the Afshar tribe had migrated again to Azerbaijan in the region of Lake Urmia.

Also in the 16th century, the Afshars were forced to migrate from Azerbaijan and were resettled in several parts of Iran. Still in the 16th century, Afshar khans were given control of important parts of Persia and gained considerable power.

Their constant rebelliousness led Safavid shahs and rulers of later dynasties to command the tribe’s dispersal and resettlement.

Nadir Shah, who ruled Persia for about 10 years in the mid-18th century, was an Afshar.

The few remaining Afshars in Azebaijan, who had not migrated, have lost their tribal identity. Afshars of the Khamseh area around Hamadan were powerful until the 19th century.  They have now mingled with other Turkish speaking groups.   Some claim that the best Bijar rugs were woven by Afshars.

P.R.J. Ford indicates that Afshar groups in Khorasan and Mazandaran are loosely associated with the Kurds and their weavings are usually classified as Kurdish.  Afshars in Yaz, Fars and Khuzestan imitate local styles and techniques and are indistinguishable from local production by others.

Austin next listed some of the indicators, most of them structural, that are used to attribute particular weavings to the Afshars.

Afshar Attribution Indicators

Afshar pile rugs tend to be square-ish: 4 feet by 5.5 feet is a frequent approximate size.

Tribal Afshars are all wool (city woven workshop rugs are woven on a cotton foundation with depressed warps). Woolen structures tend to predominate generally, until the 1930s, when cotton was adopted.  There are numerous exceptions to these rules, in which cotton foundations can be seen in very old Afshar rugs, which have other characteristics of rustic origin.

The warps of Afshar rugs are usually ivory wool.  Warps are invariably depressed, usually about 45 degrees, but town rugs tend to be more deeply depressed than tribal rugs.

Afshars usually have two orange-red weft between the rows of knots, which help to distinguish them from Khamseh pieces, although single-wefted weavings are encountered.

Tribal rugs are usually symmetrically knotted, with the presence of asymmetric knots indicating either a village rug or a strong village influence.

All old Afshar rugs have long, flatwoven end finishes between 10-15 cm deep.  Generally. these are done in plain-weave stripes using a few colors. Occasionally extra-weft wrapping is used.  The presence of a row of diagonal bars in the end panels done in extra-weft wrapping strongly suggests an Afshar attribution.

Afshar rugs woven in towns tend to have a firmer handle than do tribal Afshars. In general, Afshars have a somewhat less flexible handle than do Khamsehs. They are somewhat more flexible than are Qashqa’i pieces.

Nearly all Sirjan rugs, whether Afshar or not, tend to have two picks of blue cotton weft between each row of pile knots. Almost all Sirjans have some degree of warp depression.  There is little evidence that either pattern or structure distinguish Sirjan Afshar weavings from those woven by non-Afshar weavers.

Tribal Afshars almost always have reds based from madder.  This is true despite that fact that reds from towns the nearby Kerman area are often derived from cochineal dye.

Some colors are seen to be Afshar indicators. The reds used tend to be distinctive, as is a particular shade of electric blue. A distinctive rosy-brown is used in Shahr-i-Babek rugs.  Color in Afshar rugs also benefits from the fact that the sheep in the Kerman area produce a nice white wool that takes dye very well.

Silk Afshars are rare (See Hali 29, page 77).

Afshar rugs tend to have geometric designs. There is sometimes a visible design influence from Kerman, especially in the form of the boteh.  Kerman, like India’s Kashmir, was a major producer of shawls in which boteh designs were heavily used.  Some of the earliest Persian pile rugs with boteh designs were from the Kerman area, including apparent Afshar products.

Afshar rugs frequently have seven borders.  Border designs include some with diagonal stripes and double boteh borders separated by a serrated column.

There is no real demarcation between designs in rugs by indigenous Afshar weavings and more commercial types.  Nevertheless, some frequent Afshar design usages can be listed. They include:

Afshar rugs often have over-sized hexagonal medallions, hanging lamps and 2-1-2 designs with substantial corner brackets. (See Pacific Collections, p.70; Opie’s Tribal Rugs of South Persia, p.183; Hali 126, p.24).

Afshar rug designs include infinite repeats of oversize vases. The likely source of this usage is a Kerman city design described as the gol-e-bolbol pattern which dates back to the Safavid period. (See village rug examples in Pacific Collections, p. 87 and in MacDonald, Tribal Rugs, p. 111. See tribal rug examples in Opie, Tribal Rugs, p. 224; Sovereign Carpets, p. 82; Hali 139, p. 87. For classical Kerman vase carpets see Hali 112, p. 83; for Lady Baillie Kerman vase carpet, Hali 128, p.111. For early Afshar rug with city influence see Hali 136, p. 46 and Hali 114, p. 85.)

Boteh repeat designs are also frequent in Afshar rugs. Afshars were among the first tribal weavers to use the boteh. As mentioned above, one Afshar boteh design usage featured double botehs with serrated columns (See Middleton, 118). Afshar boteh usages mimicked those of the fine shawls both imported from India and woven in Kerman. These shawls were seen to be the finest garments for tribal chieftains.

Large Afshar botehs often have an interior device that appears to be resting on a butterfly. (See Hali 34, pp. 17 and 65; Pacific Collections, p. 84; Tribal Rugs of South Persia, p. 195; Sovereign Carpets, 81. There is also pre-1800 Eastern Fars carpet fragment from the Burns Collection, Hali 120, p. 82, with a later derivative in an Afshar rug in Hali 140, p. 129.)

Afshars also weave a large latticed “tulip” design, usually on a dark blue ground. Donald Wilburg and  divided tulip Afshars into two groups. Type 1 with six narrow borders, and Type 2 which features a wide main border flanked on either side by several narrow guards (See Pacific Collections, p. 85.)

Shield designs are also notable in Afshar rugs. These shields are reminiscent of those in rugs from East Anatolia which borders the traditional Afshar homeland in Azerbaijan. They are probably derived from palmette devices. (See Hali 34, p. 18; Pacific Collections, p. 83; Opie’s Tribal Rugs, p. 221; Hali 120, p. 50; Hali 127, p.57.) There are also shield-shaped cartouches that often contain a palmette; and shield separated by a spikey shrub (Antike Orient-Teppiche, p. 97).

We have referred above to the fact that lattice designs are included in “tulip” Afshars.

Afshars also use compartmented designs, which divide field into rectangles or lozenge-shaped compartments (See Hali 57, p. 98; Antike Orient-Teppiche, p. 97).

Murgh (chicken) designs are also encountered in Afshar rugs, but less commonly than in Khamsehs. The usual version seen is that of chickens opposing one another around a vertical pole (See Hali, 29, p. 39).

Afshar rugs also sometimes exhibit Phoenix and Dragon designs (See Hali 116, p. 45; Opie’s Tribal Rugs of South Persia, p. 181; Antike Orient-Teppiche, p. 96).

The influence of Kerman city usages on Afshari weaving is visible, but not overwhelming.  As mentioned elsewhere the Afshars did adopt boteh designs that originate in Kashmir Indian and in Kerman shawls.  Cotton was grown in Kerman province and its presence in the foundation of some older, but more frequently in younger Afshar rugs is likely another sign of Kerman influence.

Kerman city production was marked by large rugs with realistic floral designs, cotton foundations, asymmetric knots open left, used in a distinctive fully depressed structure that included multiple wefts, and reds frequently derived from cochineal.  In contrast, the archetypal production of the Afshars features smaller rugs, closely clipped pile, geometic designs, which is symmetrically knotted on a wool foundation, with reds derived from madder.  While it is not unusual to have apparent tribal Afshar pieces with asymmetric knots, this usually indicates the presence of a Persian villager weaver.

Some nineteenth century Afshar rugs are exceptionally large and have European-style floral designs. They also have asymmetrical knots, deeply depressed warps and cotton foundations, suggesting that they are products of town workshops, although their coloring is distinctly Afshar.

Proximity allowed the Khamseh tribes of Fars and Neyriz to the west, to exert considerable influence on Sirjan weaving, so many of the latter, especially the flatweaves, are hard to distinguish from those of the Khamseh. Striped rugs and those with tree designs are made both in Sirjan and Neyriz.

Afshar designs are frequently variations on hexagonal schemes and stylized flower and foliage motifs. There are also frequently stripes in the spandrels of Afshar rugs.

Next Austin talked about the regional groups who are implicated in Afshar weaving.

First is the Sirjan area, mentioned frequently above. This area is a large valley west of Kerman city in Kerman province. It has the greatest production of tribal and village carpets in Kerman province. Here are the largest concentrations of Afshar weavers, who are outnumbered by Sirjan Persians who also weave.

Jabel Barez and Afshar-I-Kuhi are a mountainous area stretching southeast of Kerman all the way to Baluchistan.  Its rug collection center is Bam. The rugs are termed Afshar Jebel Barazi or Kuhi.  Afshars co-existed with Lak and Baluch tribespeople.  Afshar-I-Kuhi rugs are easily distinguished from other Afshar rugs, being deep-piled with soft, shiny wool in dark colors reminiscent of Baluch rugs (See Hali 58, p. 105). Old Kuhi rugs are symmetrically knotted with two shoots of weft between rows of knots, with depressed warps. Their foundation is either all wool or a mixture of wool and cotton. The Kuhi have a unique khorjin in which both the front and back are piled. Kuhi means “from the mountain.”  Flatweaves resemble those of Sistan Baluch (MacDonald, Tribal Rugs, p. 122.)

Shahr-I-Babak and Dehaj are areas located in the extreme Northwest of Kerman province. Dehaj is a village north of Shahr-I-Babak with a long history of excellent weaving, generally by Arab residents. Rugs have a high-quality weave with blue wefts and symmetric knots (See MacDonald, Tribal Rugs, p. 120; also the boteh rug in Ford, p. 69).

Pockets of Afshar (also Khamseh) are found in the neighborhood of Neriz, a town in Fars province to the west of Kerman. Designs peculiar to Neriz include triple-trunk trees supporting angular flowering, bows with numerous birds.  Saffron or white fields are noted, as well as deep indigo botehs and sophisticated flower borders (Hali 34, cover; Hali 20, p. 30; MacDonald, Tribal Rugs, p. 115; Hali 113, p. 34; Middleton, p. 119).

“Outback Afshars” (See Hali 117, cover) is a term popularized by Tom Cole to refer to primitive and archaic Afshar rugs, often with lazy lines, which have turned up in the bazaars of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. These rugs have a structure similar to that of Azerbaijani weaving with cotton or mixed cotton and wool foundations, coarse weave, with uneven backs and slightly exposed wefts. Some of the oldest Afshar rugs known have a similar structure (Tanavoli).  Some rugs in this group have an asymmetric knot open to the right. Warps, in some cases, are cotton twisted with animal hair. Colors include very saturated reds and greens and an electric blue, plus peach.

Afshar weaving includes the following formats/weave techniques:

Khorjin: many pile saddle bags were woven.

Namakadans : salt bags used to carry salt or grain.

Jol-i-ash: horse covers

Qur’an bag: for carrying a Koran volume

Dozar: a rug two meters by one and a half meters or less

Zaronim: a rug one and a half meters by one meter, an older format.

Sofrehs: and similar flatweaves; mostly in concentric or zigzag pattersns. Done in a mixture of plain tapestry weave and double-interlocking brocade with delicate patterns in weft wrapping and weft substitution techniques. Sofrehs were used in a variety of ways, among them, for wrapping (there are “bread” sofres), and as eating cloths.

Sumak: less common than in the Caucasus but some technical similarities between Afshar gelims and Caucasian sumaks suggest a common origin.

Shiraki peech: another square-ish format, a flatwoven cover about five feet by eight feet, with a complicated structure in which plain weave is combined with weft wrapping, brocading and weft substitution to produce images and motifs that are often diamond shapes.

This is the end of Austin’s introductory lecture.

He and Michael now moved to examine some “in the fabric” pieces they had brought in to illustrate particular aspects of Afshar weaving.  To go to this Part 2 click on the link immediately following or copy and past it into your browser.


Please note that there is also a Part 3, in which pieces brought in by members of the audience were examined.  This third part is at the following link.

R. John Howe: Textiles and Text

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