Armenian carpets, four thousand years of history

By Valentin Chesneau-Daumas

Carpet origins

You have to go far, far back to understand where Armenian carpets come from. After the Ice Age, Mesopotamia became the cradle of agriculture. It was here, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, that the very first traces of livestock farming were found. To the north of this region, also known as the Fertile Crescent, lie the Armenian highlands. The region that is now largely in Turkey, at an average altitude of 2,000 meters, is the source of the water from these rivers. There is evidence that people began domesticating wild animals at a very early stage, in particular a local species of mouflon, ovis gmelini gmelini armeniaca. Wool and skins were naturally exploited for a variety of uses.

Research has revealed that the Armenians, in the century before Jesus Christ, made huge woven baskets and floated down the rivers with an array of goods to sell further south. The Egyptians called these sellers “the people of the river”. Unfortunately, these weavings left no trace as they were made of organic material, but pottery was found with basket motifs as ornaments. In the Areni-1 cave, located in what is now the Republic of Armenia, in the Vayots Dzor region, a textile fragment was recently discovered in addition to the famous woven leather shoe dating from 5500 BC. This piece of clothing proves that advanced techniques for weaving fine wool were already known at that time. It would seem that the inspiration came from birds’ nests, with the interweaving of reeds and various plants before the use of woolen yarns.

The world’s oldest known carpet was discovered in the Altai Mountains in 1947. It now bears the name of the valley where it was trapped in the ice, the Pazyryk Valley. Particularly well preserved, it has been dated to around 2,500 BC by carbon-14 testing and is currently on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Thanks to its ornamentation and motifs, this carpet provides a wealth of information on the fact that other carpets were already being used as horse saddles, for example. It also features the Armenian red reindeer, an animal that was abundant in the Armenian highlands for centuries and is now almost extinct. These motifs will continue to be used until the present day.

Pazyryk carpet, Hermitage Museum

Patterns and colors

The patterns on Armenian carpets are difficult to explain, according to Hratch Kozibeyokian, an American specialist, because “every author of a book is inspired by books that already exist”. According to him, the same design can mean different things depending on the region it comes from. In his view, “it’s very relevant to compare carpet patterns with the regional dialects spoken centuries ago”. There were several hundred of them in the four corners of the Armenian plateaus, ranging from a small variation to a total difference from one to another. It’s exactly the same for tapestry and clothing ornaments. There are, however, some obvious recurrences, such as the number 8. In Armenian, 8 is pronounced “ut”, and infinity “ansahmanut’yun”. “Ut” can be seen at the end of a word, and the stars on Armenian carpets are mostly 8-pointed. Depending on the family and region, this motif can also be transformed into a kind of wheel, also symbolizing infinity.

Dragons are also very common symbols, in a variety of forms, from the snake- or thousand-patta-shaped representations of the collective imagination to much more abstract lines. These are known as “vishapagorg” carpets, literally dragon carpets. With the advent of Christianity, the dragon sometimes became a dove. Hratch Kozibeyokian notes with amusement that the symbolism of predator has been transformed into predated. However, one thing is common to all dragons: the direction in which they face indicates what they are protecting (often the symbol of infinity when facing the inside of the mat, or of external aggression when facing the outside).

If you look at Armenian carpets, almost all pre-Soviet ones have a red background. This color comes from the Armenian cochineal : Vordan Karmir, historically abundant in the Ararat valley, south of present-day Yerevan. The village of Ararat, in the region of the same name, was even nicknamed “the city of dyers”. This tiny insect, just a few millimeters in size, living underground, was dried and then ground into a very fine powder, which, depending on the solvents and metals added, produced a color ranging from purple to bright red. This is undoubtedly the hallmark of Armenian carpets. Today, this little insect has almost disappeared and is protected in Armenia with areas totally preserved by private and governmental funds.

The other colors of the carpets come from natural elements such as the skin of the pomegranate, a fruit more than abundant in southern Armenia, or flowers harvested in spring from the meadows and then dried.

Ingredients for dye preparation, Woolway studio, Argavand

Soviet period: from home made to factory

During the Soviet period, carpets became an important element in the home, for a variety of reasons. Apartment blocks built in the USSR were constructed using materials of relatively poor quality. The Siberian cold and the noise of the neighbor’s TV set could easily be heard in the khrushchevka, making daily life unpleasant. Wool being an excellent sound and heat insulator, it’s obvious that people of the time started hanging tapestries on the wall and using them as blankets, or simply laying them on the floor to protect themselves from the freezing cold of a winter floor. As bright colors are more pleasant than gray or white, and as Russians have a taste for rich decorations, rugs also became an essential decorative element.

On the other hand, embroidery and weaving have always had a connotation of wealth. So owning and displaying carpets, as kings, emperors and other lords have always done, was a way of proving a certain standard of living. In the 1960’s, the price of a factory carpet could represent several months’ salary for the average worker, so to afford one was a clear sign of wealth.

With the Soviet Union encompassing a number of regions with great weaving traditions, such as Central Asia and the Caucasus, it’s logical that the carpet industry became a major sector of the Russian economy and art.

Carpet on the wall of an Armenian house

So the USSR put aside its handiwork to build gigantic factories all over the country to meet demand. Quality was no longer central to the process, but quantity. Wool is no longer local, but imported from all over the world; dyeing is no longer done with wild flowers, but with artificial dyes from the rapidly developing chemical industry. The factories are equipped with an impressive array of machinery, enabling them to produce more and more, with no regard for tradition, and with designs that bear no relation to the ancestral art of carpet making. The Armenian territory was not to be outdone, with the establishment of factories in the industrial valleys of northern Armenia, in Dilijan and Ijevan. These factories operated until the fall of the Union in 1991, but some of them continued to produce. For example, the Ijevan factory, which opened in 1964 and employed 2,500 people at its peak, was the third largest carpet factory in the Soviet Union. It was gradually closed down, with some machines shutting down in 2006 and 2010, before its final shutdown in 2016.

Ijevan carpet factory, 2024

Old machines in the Ijevan carpet factory, 2024

A former employee of the Ijevan plant shows an example they have kept.

The initiatives of the last thirty years

Since the end of industrial production a few decades ago, Armenia has been trying to bring these family traditions back to the villages and make this art form an international flagship. A few months ago, in November 2023, the Ministry of Education and Culture announced the forthcoming opening of a carpet museum in Yerevan, without however giving a precise timetable. There is a real desire to bring the carpet and its manufacture back to the land where it was born four millennia ago. Among the concrete measures, we can note that businessman James Tufenkian, a wealthy carpet collector and owner of the eponymous company, is actively working to revive this craft and ensure that this memory lives on. He is currently exhibiting part of his collection at the National Museum in Yerevan, alongside pieces belonging to the institution. His company, Tufenkian Artisan Carpets, is one of the few still operating in Armenia.

Hratch Kozibeyokian is a key figure when it comes to Armenian carpets. Historian, collector and “doctor for carpets” as the New York Times puts it, he was born in Syria and is now based in the USA. He heads the Armenian Rugs Society. This is an organization that works to safeguard and teach the traditional Armenian craft of tapestry-making. “In 1980, Armenian rugs were sold everywhere as Turkish or Caucasian at best.” It was imperative to let the world know the history of these carpets and their exact origin. “During the Soviet period, it was impossible to do personal business, if you wanted to make a carpet, you had to go to the factory. Know-how disappeared.” It is this fear of oblivion and ignorance that has fuelled the foundation’s actions over the past forty years, such as teaching the art of weaving to little girls in the villages and publishing books and catalogs.

Young girl weaving, Noyemberyan, Tavush, Armenia

Megerian Carpet and Artsakh Carpets are Armenia’s biggest historical producers, but there are also a number of smaller companies offering village women access to a well-developed sales network. The Rug Code is the perfect example of these new companies, which showcase local know-how and prove that a market is available for handmade rugs, made in Armenia.

Rug in production at Woolway studio, Argavand

Carpets being made in a family home

Carpets from Artsakh, far from their homeland

The autonomous region of Artsakh is, and always has been, a mecca for the arts. While the province is famous for its architecture, particularly religious, it is also famous for its tapestries. Many of the oldest and best-known Armenian weavings recorded today were made in this region, in particular carpets with dragon or eagle motifs, an animal very present in the Karabakh mountains. For decades, however, Azerbaijan has been trying to increase its influence and rewrite history, in order to legitimize its wars against Artsakh, which have been waged for over a century. The motives, often religious, are thus diverted from their origins in a state revisionism orchestrated by the Aliev government. For example, the Oudis, a Christian Azerbaijani community, are being urged to lay claim to the Ecclesiastical heritage of the Armenian province, now in the hands of the neighboring country. The task of surveying and controlling this heritage is now very complicated, and is carried out in particular by satellite surveillance processed by the Monument Watch organization and by a few journalistic sources. This method is effective for monuments visible from space, but naturally useless for the “small” heritage held by families and in the few museums in the region.

In Shushi, a carpet-making tradition has endured for hundreds of years, culminating in 2011 when Vardan Astsatryan opened a carpet museum with a collection of almost 300 pieces. During the war in 2020, almost two-thirds were repatriated and rescued on Armenian soil, while the remaining third remained in situ. The museum’s Wikipedia page now states that it is a branch of the Baku National Carpet Museum, and it is difficult to say whether these works of art are still well preserved, and in what conditions. Proof that carpet art is a medium for rewriting art history, Aliev and his wife personally inaugurated the museum’s reopening in 2021, with the remaining collections… More recently, during the war and subsequent annexation of Artsakh by Azerbaijan and the exodus of the population to Armenian territory, many cars were seen carrying carpets in their trunks and on their roofs, but it is almost impossible to assess the quantity preserved and a great deal of investigative work remains to be done.

In 2013, Artsakh Carpets was founded in Stepanakert, employing around 100 people at 5 different sites. The workshops produce rugs typical of the region, as well as clothing, bags, tablecloths, etc. It is a major Armenian handicraft company that has borne the full brunt of the war and Azerbaijan’s recent invasion of the region. After the 44-day war in 2020, the company had already had to close its factory in Shushi, keeping only those in Stepanakert and Chartar open. All the looms, carpets and machinery on site were lost, and this was the first economic blow.

Like almost the entire local population, the organization had to flee to “mainland” Armenia in a hurry following the events of September 2023, leaving behind everything that had been created over ten years. As the company had a store in Yerevan since its foundation, a few looms were set up there in a hurry, enabling five people to work since then. The products available in the store have been gradually repatriated over the last few years, but a large part of the stock has remained in Artsakh, and the company is trying to survive as best it can.

The Armenian highlands saw the beginnings of weaving almost 4,000 years ago. Today, the country is trying to revive the craft that was wiped out during the Soviet period, and has understood the historical significance of these carpets.

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