San Francisco

Celebrating Rites of Passage in Inscribed Armenian Rugs

Hali Magazine Review


For a month this past summer more than a hundred rugs with Armenian inscriptions were on show in ‘Passages’ at the Herbst International Pavilion in the San Francisco Presidio park, overlooking the Golden Gate.

The opening gala for ‘Passages’ on Friday 19 July 2002 was attended by some three hundred guests, happily munching a seemingly endless variety of Armenian delicacies (plus circulating sushi trays for a San Francisco accent) and washing them down with good California reds, whites and bubbly. Mayor Willie Brown opened the festivities with a graceful welcome, and later in the evening the guests heard a performance of Armenian music played by Peter Dorian on his oud, more music by a trio of Armenian musicians, and then Peter Balakian reading a poem (in English) inspired by his meditations on an oriental rug. A symposium followed on Saturday and part of Sunday. The entire proceedings were held in the exhibition, surrounded by an enormous variety of Armenian-inscribed rugs, no two of which were alike.

The catalog accompanying the exhibition (Passages: Celebrating Rites of Passage in Armenian Rugs (Armenian Rugs Society, San Francisco Chapter, 2002) illustrates and describes 116 previously unpublished rugs, including a few which were not on exhibited due to lack of space. It also serves as proceedings of the symposium since the speakers made their papers available in time for the publication of the book – an achievement meriting a place in The Guinness Book of Records. Credit goes to Murray Eiland, the editor and author of one of the papers, Jay Jones, who did the photography, design and layout of the book, and to co-chairs Joe Bezdjian and Levon Der Bedrossian. 

The papers dealt with a variety of subjects, including Mary-Jo Spencer’s discussion of various designs seen in Armenian rugs, with emphasis on the King David rug (2) from the standpoint of a Jungian analyst, Margit Hazarabedian’s folkloric ‘decoding’ of the Armenian national epic, David of Sassoun. Loretta Boxdorfer gave an account of the Armenian Rugs Society's growing database of inscribed Armenian rugs; John Sommer reflected on Armenian weavings, including marash stitchery brought home from Turkey long ago by his mother; and Murray Eiland discussed the designs that occur so often in these rugs as to be considered ‘Armenian designs’. An injury prevented Levon Abrahamian, Curator of the Yerevan Museum, from delivering his contribution on rugs that commemorate rites of passage, but Harold Bedoukian filled in with a history of the famous ‘Agin Orphan Rug’.

This exhibition recalls the groundbreaking Weavers, Merchants and Kings: the Inscribed Rugs of Armenia, held at the Kimble Art Museum in Fort Worth in 1984 (see HALI 25, pp. 44-47). The catalogues of the two shows similarly invite comparison. That of the 1984 show illustrated and described 68 rugs; Passages illustrates and describes 116 more. Both catalogues provide close-up photographs and English translations of the inscriptions (but no transcriptions into the roman alphabet), and include technical analyses as well as commentary on each rug by Murray Eiland. Although most of the rugs in these books come from the southern Caucasus, both books include rugs from other areas, including Iran and Syria as well as various places in Turkey. 

Most of the rugs are types familiar to us from many uninscribed examples seen in rug shops and auction catalogues. Two interesting exceptions are peculiarly Armenian types. A poignant composition with the allegorical figure of ‘Mother Armenia’ superimposed on a map of the short-lived (1918-1920) Armenian Republic (4), with names of cities and towns in Armenian script, is known from a number of examples. The other type, also known from a number of examples, is an intriguing composition of three large figures – King (or Prophet) David flanked by two robed standing figures with hands upraised (2). Here, David is seated and holds a harp, the two flanking figures are labeled Astvats (God) and all three figures have small, skull-like heads. Interposed between them are four horses, saddled but riderless, standing in what may be gardens of flowers. 

These two types aside, should rugs of certain well-known Caucasian types for instance Chelaberd (1) and Chondzoresk(3), be designated Armenian? Murray Eiland believes they should, since the great majority of inscriptions on these rugs are in Armenian script. Asked by a member of the audience whether his two Chelaberd rugs with inscriptions in Arabic script should be called Armenian, he replied, "I think so, they were probably commissioned by Muslims". The same argument is used in reverse by those who perversely insist that Armenians wove no rugs, but were merely the commissioners of rugs bearing Armenian inscriptions.

I think it's more reasonable to assume that Armenian weavers made rugs using designs, materials and structures that were part of the local tradition in the villages or towns where they lived. In many villages of the southern Caucasus the majority of weavers were Armenian, so it's no surprise that most inscribed rugs from those villages have Armenian inscriptions. Rugs in these designs were not made in places where other dyes and structures were the norm. On the contrary, rugs with Armenian inscriptions from other places exhibit the designs, palette and structures characteristic of those places. 

The ‘Passages’ exhibition itself makes a strong case for this view. Armenian inscriptions appear on a typical Anatolian leather-bound heybe, and on rugs and kilims that, despite their Armenian inscriptions, are identified as Shirvan, Kuba, Sivas, Hereke, Bakhtiari, Kurdish, Chahar Mahal, Lilihan – even a "Ladik 16th century fragment”. No one, I think, argues that Armenians were responsible for most of the production of rugs of those types. It is reasonable to say, of course, that a Chondzoresk or Chelaberd rug with no inscription may well have been made by an Armenian, and if a south Caucasus rug has small human figures in the field, they are more likely to have been put there by an Armenian weaver than by a conservative Muslim villager. The majority of the rugs in both of the exhibitions and catalogs are identified as being from the Karabagh area, where rug-making was an important cottage industry. Their designs and structures are those typical of a great many similar but uninscribed rugs from the area that came to the European and American markets beginning in the last half of the 19th century. With only rare exceptions these special rugs, inscribed to commemorate a rite of passage, do not appear to differ in other respects from their uninscribed siblings They incorporate the same designs, materials and structures used by the weavers in the rugs they made for the market; the only difference is that the inscription replaces a small portion of a field or border design. I conclude from this that Armenian rugs, whether inscribed or nor, were a proud expression of the weaver's art, knowledge, diligence, patience and skill, and much more than just an article of commerce.


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Armenian Rugs Society