A Brief History of Carpet Weaving in Armenia
By James Tufenkian
It is hard to believe how ancient the art of carpet weaving in Armenia is. No one really knows for sure, but there is considerable evidence to indicate that the art originated there. It is clear in any case that until about four hundred years ago, Armenian carpet weaving was preeminent in the world, and was generally recognized as being so.
Marco Polo in his 13th century account of travels through ancient Armenia comments that “…the population consisted of three classes. The Turkomans, who worship Mohammed are a crude people, completely uneducated. They live in the mountains or other virtually inaccessible places which offer good grazing land for their cattle, their sole livelihood…The other…Classes are made up of Greeks and Armenians, living in cities and in permanent settlements and earning their livelihood from commerce and trade. It is here where the best and most beautiful carpets are produced as well as silk of crimson and other splendid colors.”
In fact there is evidence that carpet weaving in the area of ancient Armenia was already a well developed art 5 centuries before the birth of Christ. The oldest carpet discovered is called the Pazyryk Carpet after the royal burial tomb in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia where it was unearthed in 1949. The carpet is finely knotted, even by the standards of today. European scholars have argued convincingly that its origin was in pre-Armenian Urartu based on its design elements, depictions of Hittite dress and horse ornaments, as well as an analysis of the red dyes used in the carpet originating in that Ararat plain and recognized for thousands of years as an exclusive product of the region.
Armenian sources refer to carpets being used to adorn the floors and walls of churches from the 5th century, and describe their use for sitting on during meals. Records, literature, and historical accounts from Greek, Iranian, Arabic, Bulgarian and other sources comment with respect on Armenian carpets given in tribute or as taxes, taken as booty, or simply as objects of admiration from pre-Christian times. Surprisingly Arab sources refer to the supremacy of Armenian prayer rugs, often thought of as the quintessential Islamic art form. What is so remarkable from historic accounts is that the carpets made were not simply small products of home looms, but were the result of organized commercial enterprises that created huge works of exceptional beauty. A single carpet sometimes covered as much as 60 square meters (600 square feet)!
All of this began to change, as did the association of Armenians with weaving of great carpets when the last Armenian kingdom of Cilicia in what is now southeastern Turkey fell to Egyptian Mamluks in the 13th century. At that time many Armenians fled their homeland, settling in Transylvania, Poland, Crimea, and Iran. Not coincidentally it was during this time that highly developed carpet weaving began in these, and other countries, as the Armenians carried their craft with them, and transferred it to the local populations of their host countries. The Egyptian Mamluk carpets of this time are a notable example.
At the beginning of the 17th century the Persian Shah Abbas transplanted 100,000 Armenians from their homes in Julfa (Anatolia) to New Julfa, constructed outside of the Iranian holy city of Isfahan. He gave them a monopoly on the trade of silk, sending them to India where they created flourishing trade outposts. Again it is from this time that the great Persian carpets, as well as the Moghul carpets of India began to be created. At the same time the famous Polish court carpets known as Polonaise were woven in Isfahan, and presented to the royalty of Poland which by then had a thriving community of more than 100,000 Armenians. Great carpet weaving followed the Armenians wherever they settled, but unfortunately the Armenian contribution to weaving became obscure, as Armenians, a people without a country, came to be know more as traders who brought the carpets of there adoptive lands to the corners of the world.
In modern times, Armenian carpet weaving has been primarily identified with the great carpets of the Caucasus and Northwestern Iran which until recently was heavily populated by Armenians. Going back to the great Caucasian Dragon carpets of the 16th century and before, continuing with the French influenced floral carpets made in Nagorno Karabagh for the Russian aristocracy beginning with Russian occupation of the region in the early 19th century, Armenian Caucasian carpets are magnificent as they are diverse. Prized by collectors for the past half century, these carpets are characterized by their bold and inspired designs, brilliant colors, and velvety wool pile.
During Soviet times the cottage industry of carpet weaving, practiced by most Armenian women of the time, was slowly strangled. Individual enterprise was discouraged, and the carpet industry was centralized in a single massive state enterprise which had a monopoly on the production of carpets. Not surprisingly Soviet values were not conducive to the propagation of a great folk art tradition. The state enterprise produced carpets with emphasis on quantity and conformity, without much sense about the market, or respect for the art form. The result was carpets as bland and uninspired as the workplace in which they were created.
Fortunately with the independence of Armenia and the fall of the Soviet system there is now a movement underway to revive the great carpet making of the past. Paramount are the old values-use of the of the best indigenous Caucasian mountain wool, yarn made entirely by hand, dyeing colors of the great carpets of the past, and restoring to the process of design and production the inspiration, and the respect for the art that was lost for the past 50 years. Armenia is rich in these prized wools, and the crafts of spinning and weaving have survived in homes throughout the country in spite of Soviet suppression. What was needed was organization, financing, and the marketing inspiration to direct the process towards producing great carpets with a ready market. Now it has been found in several small enterprises in Karabagh and Armenia, and on a larger scale with Tufenkian’s well organized facilities in Yerevan, and seven regions of the country. With everything under its control, from flocks of sheep to its modern design and administrative center in Yerevan, it is bringing to market in the west more than 10,000 square feet of carpet each month through its world-wide network of dealers. In the process it employs more than 1000 workers, providing a good, and steady livelihood for as many families in the difficult economic situation of post Soviet Armenia.