The Evolution of the Chuval Gull

Category: General

by Jim Allen

clip image002 180x180 - The Evolution of the Chuval GullAnybody using an inductive approach to Turkoman studies must constantly search for the next truly revealing or benchmark Turkmen weaving to make hypothesizes about. These kinds of pieces are by definition ‘historically important’. The handful of historically significant Turkmen weavings still unidentified among the Diaspora of Turkmen weavings should be identified, examined, and their iconography appreciated on an anthropological and psychological level to unlock their secret meanings.When properly positioned and compared along the 500 or so year time line of known Turkoman weaving’s one begins to see hidden relationships that help explain the true meaning of Turkoman symbols. From a few acknowledged foundational examples I purpose or better hypothesize about the early history and design evolution of the chuval gull.The earliest written mention of the Turkomen people in the world dates to the 10th century of the Current Era. There were earlier peoples on the Central Asian steppes whose tribal organization and matriarchal culture were essentially identical with the Turkoman’s own ways. The nomadic way of life has no known beginning and may well reach back into the period of the last ice age when moving with herds of quadrupeds was essential for survival. The supposition that the Turkomen wove at allduring their earliest period is based on the fact that other similar groups wove carpets and the very high quality of their later work. It is fairly reasonable to imagine that these earliest Turkmen rugs were composed of rows and columns of octagonal shaped “gulls.” I say octagonal because in a loosely woven matrix, e.g. a low number of knots per square measure, this eight sided form would more or less approximate that of a circle. The inspiration for early Turkmen iconography was possibly derived from Chinese roundels, round badges of rank, that were indicative of the importance of those who wore them e.g., Chinese royalty.The Turkomen might have considered that the embroidered roundels themselves possessed power. In their experience these badges conferred ‘power of authority’ to every Chinese person wearing them. It seems perfectly reasonable to believe that 10th century Turkomen, having fled from the Chinese and migrating from north western China to the eastern environs of the Caspian sea, might seek to transfer the power of those badges of rank, those roundels, to their own main carpets as harbingers of great power.The next step in the development of Turkomen iconography was intimately related to an increase in weaving quality, from coarser carpets to finer products as the time they had to weave was enough to finish a piece without moving . Within this evolving progression changes in the sizes of the primary octagonal gull shapes would have led to the appreciation of a “positive” image in the negative spaces between the octagons.

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The shape bounded by the sides of adjacent octagons, whose top and bottoms were imaginary lines implicitly understood as existing between four adjacent gulls, ultimately resulted in the negative space being interpreted as a positive image, an elongated eight sided form. This was the genesis of the archetypal octagonal gull. There is a 13th century main carpet in the Turk Ve Islami Museum whose field is covered with just such motifs.

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This is the earliest known Turkoman main carpet. (Juxtaposed is the border from the oldest known Tekke torba that is just some 275 years later than this main carpet fragment.)
I propose the small octagonal designs decorating the field of the large white field ‘Turkic’ carpet in the Turk Ve Islami Museum was the result of some 300+ years of Turkoman design evolution. Its small red ground octagonal gull shows four arrow heads pointing inwardly, about as simple as it could be. The slow rate of design evolution assumed here is consistent with what we have recently discovered about the rate of design evolution during the last four hundred plus years of Turkoman design that we have C-14 dated examples of. It should be noted that the 13th century Turkoman rug is generally thought to have been woven in Anatolia and the Turkmen were known to have been there during this period as a hired professional fighting force for the Timurids. The gull from this early great carpet later became modified into the secondary ornament of all Salor chuvals and main carpets woven during the last four hundred years of the second millennium and significantly it was seldom used as a minor gull by the Tekke after 1700 AD. (footnote 2)

The chuval gull as we know it today evolved from the small 13th century octagonal gull. By taking the outline of that small octagonal gull and then placing a box inside of it and then disrupting the diagonal sides with the corners of a larger superimposed box results in the basic outline of all modem chuval gulls.

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The chuval gull is known or thought to be the archetypal gull because it apparently moved from the main carpets of the dominant Turkmen tribes of the 14th and 15th centuries to the rugs, large trappings, and bags of the Salor and every other Turkmen tribe, except possibly the Arabatchi and Chodor, in recent centuries. The movement of elements of design from main carpets of great tribes of ‘previous eras’ to the weavings of more recent tribes is generally accepted by scholars.
The uncontested power of the Salor in the 16th century resulted in all tribes weaving their chuval gull into their chuvals. A handful of Salor chuvals have been dated to the 16th century via Carbon 14 dating and every one of them have this format, with “chuval” major gulls and flattened octagonal minor gulls. The oldest documented Tekke chuval, a mid 17th century example (ibid. Hali 55, plate 3) recapitulates this formula of design.

I believe the most significant element of design in classical era trappings and bags is a hidden gull formed in the negative spaces between their major gulls.

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The earliest known Tekke torba was published in a book by Peter Hoffmeister, TURKOMAN CARPETS IN FRANCONIA, as figure #25. The photo below is cropped to reveal the outline of this very old torbas hidden gull.

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To quote from Hoffmeister’s description, “This tekke torba differs from most Tekke torbas in three ways. Most importantly, the minor ornament is very rarely found in torbas.” … “the second way in which it differs is that the ‘major’ gulls are connected in the weft direction and the minor ornaments are connected in the warp direction. Finally the border is atypical of Tekke torbas, at least those generally seen.” In conclusion Hoffmelster notes,” This piece is certainly an important addition to our stock of published Turkomans. It has an extremely powerful and primitive quality not normally seen in Tekkes. It seems to me to be from a very early period”.
This torba was subsequently, to the publication of his book, Carbon 14 dated to the 16th century and is one of the very oldest known Turkmen bag faces that was woven during the high point of Turkmen power and influence in Central Asia.
Since this is obviously a very important benchmark piece its examination ought to reveal some exciting insights. Examining the border first seems appropriate to me. I believe border ornaments are related to the oldest strata of design influence in any given Turkmen genre. The vertical border ornaments of the Hoffmeister torba are reminiscent of the oldest known iconography from ancient Anatolia. In the vertical portions of the border of this torba one finds six sided hexagonal shapes with a central box that has lines radiating from its comers in the general shape of upraised arms and outstretched legs. There are also simple lines extending upwards and downwards from the mid-portions of these boxes representing a woman’s head and that of possibly, a fetus. This motif is well known to students of prehistoric Anatolian iconography and is thought to represent a seated woman, a “Mother Goddess” giving birth. Below are three interesting representations of the ‘Mother Goddess’ ranging in age from maybe 6,000 BC to 1300 AD and then to 1600 AD.

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In the Hoffmelster torba, the vertical borders are fundamentally different from the horizontal borders suggesting some differentiation in meaning. It seems possible a 16th century Tekke weaver resolved her Mother Goddess design into a highly simplified though no less meaningful representation for her horizontal main border. The basic hexagonal outline repeat is retained along the horizontal course of the border but its central ornament is very different. The central box is gone and is replaced by a reflected pair of bilaterally symmetrical ornaments. The laterally projecting superior and inferior lines of this bilaterally reflected ornament terminate in triangles or arrowheads while the truncated central projections terminate bluntly. I find an amazing visual correlation here with the major border design of the 13th century Turkmen rug pictured above.
The ornaments intervening between the main designs along the horizontal stretches of this torbas border seem to me to represent simple “T” shapes, possibly bird perches. The diagonal coloring of the spaces surrounding these ‘perches’ could represent the dynamic flashing of their eagles’ wings as they fly off or possibly as they land. Considering the central role these birds of prey played in the fabric of most Central Asian cultures, this interpretation is entirely possible.

The didactic character that these early border ornaments possessed is characteristic of all later Turkoman design right up until their cultural collapse in the early 1880’s. In my opinion all early or classical Turkmen design had some didactic function. The nomadic dictum or law of maximum utilization of materials demands that this be true. Turkoman weavings were very durable, often lasting many hundreds of years, and were perhaps the only media that the Turkomen had to use for the transfer and storage of their most important survival information and myths. We should all expect that Turkoman iconography contains a great deal of important information ‘knotted up’ and ‘concealed’ like genes bound within the geometry of our own DNA molecules. One should expect that the positive and negative spaces of each and every classical Turkoman motif would have been maximally utilized as in Samartian or Sythian stylisations of life in their art.
The relationship of negative space ornaments to those we westerners normally perceive as positive space or colored images isn’t obvious at first. The white or negative space images were the ‘primary’ images or signifiers to native Turkoman observers. The native Turkoman perceived the colorful elements of any given design as ‘background’ and secondary or sup-portative of the white ground designs associated with them. This is the complete opposite of what one normally expects to see. I believe this because I think the Turkmen were much more sensitive to the significance of negative space or ‘white forms’ than we are to the positive or colored elements of any given Turkoman design seen against a white background. We, the literate, generally perceive white as the ‘background’ because our linguistic characters or letters are printed in black ink against the white tabula rasa of blank white sheets of paper.
Peter Hoffmelster mentioned lines connecting the major and minor gulls in his short commentary on his 16th century Tekke torba. These lines are very important because they serve to cut off and emphasize the negative spaces between what we literate observers ‘normally’ assume to be the major gulls. But one must wonder what was the major ornament, which ornament was the more meaningful in the minds and eyes of the Turkomen? Many modern Turkomen have long suspected that the minor gulls were the more important iconograms relative to that which we all have long supposed to be the primary design motif, the so called main gull.
The seemingly boring repetition of the chuval gull in essentially every chuval woven since the early 18th century caused me to examine them more closely. By looking very carefully at the forms or ornaments created by the lines connecting the two major ornaments in the Hoffmeister torba, following nothing but the pure line regardless of its thickness, the almost perfect shape of a simple octagonal gull is revealed, almost the exact shape of the major element of design of the 13th century carpet in the Turk Ve Islami museum. Following the lines between the “major” and “minor’ gulls of this torba reveals an elongated octagonal gull with the ‘minor gull’ ornament at its center. I believe that the true primary motif of this 16th century torba is precisely this ‘hidden gull’.
In concentrating ones attention on the hidden gull one immediately realizes that the diagonal regions of each conjoined ‘main’ gull contains meaningful supplementary patterns or information in white and red coloring.
One sees that on both inferior sides of this “hidden” gull are two abstract shapes that might well represent the heads of eagles in profile. The box motif here represents an eye and the figure or design in white represents a long prominent hooked beak. Along the superior diagonal portions of each “hidden” gull one sees the profiles of two different types of bird, each with an elongated body but only one bird form contains a box within its body! Might the bird with the box design in its chest represent the tribal sacred bird while the other bird form, resembling an egret or crane, represents perhaps nothing at all?
The hidden gulls superior bird form with an interior heart box resembles the shape of the elongated body and big tail of some road runner species. Might the roadrunner be the sacred bird of the Tekke? The flightless roadrunner is fast, fearless, and aggressive; all attributes with which a powerful Turkmen tribe might wish to identify. The egret or crane figure seems to me to have very little significance for the Turkomen but then what do I really know?
The bird figures along the lateral inferior and superior sides of this Tekke torbas hidden gull aren’t vertical reflections of each other.
The heart boxes, inside the roadrunner figure but outside of that other bird form, transform inferiorly into the eyes of two great raptors.

Two raptors in profile below the horizon of the hidden gull; one red the other white, one alive the other dead, one hot the other cold. Two birds above the horizon of the hidden gull, one bird is important and truly representative of the Turkomen, the other what?, who knows?Jim Allen 14 February 2004

Jim Allen Antiques


(1) THE MERV OASIS, London, 1882. Edmund O’Donovon



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