Asian Art Newspaper takes a look at the carpets and artefacts on display at the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum in Baku.
This specialised museum in Baku was first established in 1967 as the Azerbaijan State Museum of Carpet and Applied Art and is dedicated to the art of carpet weaving. The museum began to collect, research, and display the wide variety of carpets and traditional weaving found in Azerbaijan before and during the Soviet period. The first exhibition was held in 1972, when the museum was housed in the 19th-century Juma Mosque, located in the walled Old City of the Baku. The museum continued to acquire carpets throughout the 1970s and 80s and was moved to a new location in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 2007, the government, with the help of President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, had decided to expand the cultural reach of the country and created a Seaside National Park, where the new carpet museum is now located.
The new building was designed by the Austrian architect Franz Janz and resembles a rolled carpet, taking over six years to complete, it opened to the public in 2014. It now houses over 10,000 exhibits including, flat-woven carpets, pile carpets, objects from woven materials, metalwork, textiles, embroideries and jewellery. This period in Baku saw enormous change in its building stock – striking contemporary buildings were created – moving away from the grand 19th-century buildings created in the first oil boom and the rather depressing Soviet-period architecture. The city had begun its commitment to modern architecture – the Flame Towers (completed 2012) and Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre that also opened in 2012.
At this striking new museum, part of the drive towards a contemporary cultural city, the evolution of the Azerbaijan carpet is traced from its development as a simple woven mat to increasingly sophisticated forms, such as the Jejim, Ladi, Palas, Kilim, Shadda, Varni, Zili and Sumakh are explored on the first floor. Alongside these flat-woven carpets are archaeological finds, confirming the ancient origins of the craft in the country, which seem to date back as far as the 2nd millennium BC and the Gultapin excavations discovered carpet weaving tools that can be dated to the 4th-3rd millennium BC. This long history emphasises the deep connections between the ancient art of carpet weaving and the traditions and customs of the area.
The flat-woven carpets collection comprises over 600 items, mainly dating from the 18th to 20th centuries and are distinguished by their weaving techniques, as well as by their regional compositions, ornamentation, and colour schemes. Palas and jejim styles are characterised by coloured stripes of different widths and are woven with a simple inter-weaving technique. In Azerbaijan, kilims are decorated with a variety of geometric patterns that consist of four- and six-pointed symbols, and often include a medallion, kilimgulu, which is woven in a complex inter-weaving technique. Other flat-woven carpets, such as varni, shadda, zili and sumakh are all woven by wrapping the weft around the warp, which allows the creation of a stylised dragon in the shape of the letter ‘S’, or ‘Z’, along with anthropomorphic, zoomorphic motifs, and plant motifs. These flat weaves were created to be used in every-day life for flooring, tent coverings (alachig), curtains, blankets, as well as for use as tablecloths and other household textiles.
However, it is the pile (knotted) carpets that are the core of the collection with over 2,300 items dating from the 17th to early 20th century, representing the four major types of carpet weaving in Azerbaijan: Guva-Shirvan; Ganja-Gazakh; Karabakh; and Tabriz. In this style of carpet, there are over 600 documented classic designs with the oldest carpet in the collection being a 17th-century Ajdahali (dragon) design in the Karabakh style, donated to the museum in 2013.
Motifs and their meanings are obviously integral to their design and a wide range symbols are used in Azerbaijan, not only in carpet making, but also in their folk art and craft. The buta is one of the most widely used motifs across Asia and is especially prevalent in carpets. This symbol, in Azerbaijan, is linked with divine fire, which was worshipped in the country for millenia in the form of Zoarastrianism – the predominant religion in the Greater Iran before the region’s conversion to Islam. The name of the country originally comes from the Persian and means ‘protector of fire’. However, the buta although seen as a depiction of fire, is also connected to the ‘Bird of Juno’, the peacock, linked to the Roman goddess Juno’s (Greek Hera) chariot that classical myths state was pulled by peacocks. In the culture of Turkic-speaking peoples these birds were also considered to be holy.
Another common motif is the cross, which is an ancient religious sign used in many cultures and in this region is also associated with the ideas of fertility and wealth. Its earliest use in this region can be seen decorating Neolithic ceramics. It is believed ancient cultures saw the cross as a symbol of the sun that personified the ideas of birth and fertility. Subsequently, the symbol has acquired many other interpretations with the most widespread being the form of a diamond-shaped cross with hooks on all four sides. It is this interpretation that is most commonly found on Azerbaijan carpets and flat-weaves. The mass production of these carpets is usually associated with the major migrational currents of the Turkic tribes across the Caucasus and Asia Minor that has happened regularly over the centuries. In the culture of the ancient Turkic tribes, the Greek cross also symbolised heavenly fire and light coming from the God of Tengri (Tanri) and was a popular design for many objects. It survives today on fragments of early carpets in museums throughout the world and can also be seen in Renaissance paintings. The form is distinctive due to its large number of variations – in many cases, the circle contains cross forms known as the ‘wheel of fortune’, or a swastika with spiral horn-shaped edges. Despite the fact there is such a rich variety of designs and variations of this symbol, all these variations are believed to share the same origins.
The dragon motif has been used as decoration since ancient times, with the earliest representations found in the Azerbaijan on a gold cup from Zivie area in southern Azerbaijan that dates to the first millennium BC. In carpets, the image seems to have first appeared between the 14th and 15th centuries and was mainly associated with the explosive growth of trade and cultural relations between China and the East Asia that developed after the Mongolian conquest in the 13th century. Various household items, decorative textiles, and other objects were all decorated with images of this mythical creature. Unlike the ancient Zoroastrian tradition, where a dragon was a personification of the powers of evil, in East and Central Asian cultures a dragon was a symbol associated with heaven, power, and fertility. It was especially associated with fertility in the Turkic-speaking world. The S-shaped motifs, a stylised image of a dragon, were used as a main decorative element in Garabakh and Gazakh Varni styles. Also used is the popular representation of the symbol as a stylised battle scene between a dragon and phoenix. The earliest example of this type of design dates to the 15th century and is housed in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. According to experts, such compositions reflect the philosophical idea of the unity of the forces of heaven and earth. The ‘dragon’ carpets are distinguished by their concise and well-laid-out composition, the richness of their decorative elements, and a complex colour palette.
The gyol (gul) is a medallion-shaped motif and although thought to be associated with wealth, abundance, and multiplication in early times it has since lost this meaning in Azerbaijani carpets and is purely used as a popular decorative motif. It has also come to be known as ‘Memling’s Gyol’, after the 15th-century Flemish artist, who incorporated carpets with this design into his paintings, such as the St John Altarpiece in the Memling Museum, Bruges and Flowers in a Jug (circa 1485) in Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Gyols have been commonly described in the West as ‘elephant’s foot’ motifs, in Persian gol means flower or rose and the Turkish gol also means rose, or roundel and is also used as a decorative motif in West and Central Asia. However, in the Azeri language a common translation of gyol is lake – and in altered close forms the word qol (branch), nasil (generation), or soy (origin) can also transfer the meaning of the symbol in which a family or tribe’s seal could be placed within the gyol – often used to show ownership of a carpet amongst the migrating tribes.
The ubiquitous Tree of Life motif is also popular in all types of decoration in the country. Its earliest origins in the region are in the black-glazed ceramics of the Bronze Age. It is believed that the earliest tribes worshipped trees and today there are still agadj piri, sacred trees and in many rural areas of the country childless women tie pieces of fabric and models of cradles in the branches of trees in a wish to conceive. In carpets, the motif often found in pairs of animals, birds, or people depicted by the sides of highly stylised trees of life. In this form, the tree of life acquires and even deeper meaning and turns into a representation of the universe where paired images of people are seen as the male/female principle, whereas the various types of animals used (snakes or dragons and other beasts and birds), correspond to certain spheres of life – the underworld, earthbound, or heavenly spheres. Both botanical trees, such as pomegranate, cypress, and palm as well as stylised plants forms can be found in the design. A popular pattern of vag-vagi shows images of heads of animals and people seemingly growing on mythical plants instead of fruits and flowers are considered part of the tree of life motif.
Religious motifs are also found in the carpets. Islam gained popularity in Azerbaijan from the 8th to 9th centuries with new motifs and elements connected to the canons of Islam and Islamic culture starting to appear. The most widespread of these motifs were samples of Arabic or Quranic calligraphy, executed in Kufi script. Architectural motifs were also used, such as the mihrab – used as an orientation guide for the faithful to direct their prayers towards Mecca. The characteristics of the Kufi script, with its geometrically precise forms and proportions, lent itself naturally to the ornamentation of carpets. They hemmed the central field and were perceived as a protective or talismanic script that encircled the central area of the carpet with this type of decoration mainly used in the carpets from Baku, Gazakh, Guba and Shirvan. According to the most generally accepted opinion, prayer rugs (namazliks) started to appear in the country from the 16th century onwards, made distinctive by their stylised depiction of the mihrab located, as a rule, in the upper part of the central field. Many of the carpets with these motifs were of a small size, designed for personal use, although there are some rare examples in the museum designed for group prayer.
In 2010, the traditional art of Azerbaijan carpet weaving was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, recognising its continued importance and place in world culture. In Medieval Europe, these oriental carpets were regarded as a sign of great wealth and are found in paintings from the 14th century onwards. In this period, the carpets served to draw attention either to the importance of the sitter, or to highlight a location in the painting where significant action was going on. In parallel with the general development of Renaissance painting, these oriental carpets were initially included in paintings of Christian saints, or in religious scenes. Later, with the rise in trade between East and West they were integrated into secular contexts, but always served to represent the idea of opulence, exoticism, luxury, wealth, or status and as more people gained sufficient wealth to afford luxury goods, oriental carpets also appeared in the commissioned portraits of merchants and wealthy burghers. Hence the modern practice of linking Western artists names to certain types of carpets – Bellini, Memling, Holbein and Lotto. The depiction of carpets in Western European painting declined during the late 17th and 18th century, when they became more widely available and less of a status symbol.
An ancient Azeri saying is ‘My home is where my carpet is spread’, and these oriental carpets continue to fascinate and link the past to the present, as can be seen in the ultra-modern carpet museum of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, Baku, azcarptemuseum.az