On Received Wisdom: Dmitriev-Mamonov
and Turkmen Carpets

August 2007

There is a routine Russian travelogue based on an excursion via the new railroad through Turkmen territory, c. 1900.1  Here is its carpet survey:

“From forgotten times and right up to the present the many localities of Turkestan in their own ordinary life are still satisfied, in the main, with the productions of their own kustar’ [home craft] hand work.  With the onset of Russian hegemony, there appeared in Central Asia no exploitation of native work, but rather with a protector, there was improvement and development of specialties in native kustar’ productions; the many branches of native work, having been liberated from age-old limits, routines, and customs, have found new undertakings for their own economic activities, and more extensive markets.

“In the ranking of fields of kustar’ production, according to the scale of production, first place will belong to works made out of wool and especially to the manufacture of koshmas [felt] and of felt [sic].

“The koshma has an enormous usage by the natives; the nomadic population covers its yurts with it; it serves as a bed on the road for the nomad and the settled native, and for the wrapping of pack loads of goods; in addition it is used together with a carpet for covering the ground.  The women of the nomadic population chiefly concern themselves with koshma production.  Koshmas are prepared in the following manner…… The better koshmas are considered to be the Yomud and the white Kashgar.  Left over from satisfaction of local requirements, supplies of koshmas serve as an article of considerable export to Russia.

“Carpet and palas [pile-less carpets] production is especially developed in Transcaspia [Turkmenistan] and Fergana [eastern Turkestan] provinces, and in Bukhara and Khiva.  The better carpets are considered to be manufactured by the Turkmens of Transcapia province.  They separate into carpets in a strict sense of essentially different dimensions, but no greater than 6 arshins [14 feet], namazliyki [prayer rugs], ensi [door curtains], chuvaly [large bags], torby [small bags], dorozhki [bands], khurdzhiny [saddle bags].

“A small rug is called namazlyk, being stretched out under the legs at time of prayer; ensi – a little rug intended for curtaining off the doors of kibitkas [yurts].  Chuvals and torbas, narrow carpet pockets, which hang on the walls of a kibitka and serve as keep-safes for small belongings.  The dorozhka has the form of a carpet band from 1/3 to 1/2 arshin [9”  to 14”] in width and up to 20 arshins [46’ 9”] in length, for the binding of the wooden framework of a yurt.

“According to established custom, all sorts of Turkmen girls go off to study at a school of weaving art, inasmuch as she must participate in the production of rugs intended for her dowry before going to get married.  The assortment of patterns is different for the various tribes.  The most ancient is called “Salor rose” (Salor gul), used chiefly in the Merv district.  In addition to the ancient Salor pattern, on rugs of Turkmen manufacture characteristic designs can most conveniently be distinguished as: Akhal, Ersari, Yomud roses, and the patterns of namazliks and ensi, depicting the principal feature of the plan of the Kaaba. At present because of its quality, carpet-making of the Pendeh Saryks is put in first place, and next the Merv, Tedjen and Askhabad Turkmens [all Tekkes], and finally the Yomuds, Orgurzhali and other tribes of Krasnovdosk district which already have lost to a certain extent the characteristic drawing of Turkmen patterns, acquiring a whole series of new patterns, in which it is not possible not to see the borrowing and the inroads of the demands of the market.

“For the production of carpet goods white wool of better quality is selected, from which yarns are prepared for the warps and the pile.  The dyeing of wool is carried out with colors primarily of vegetable origin.  Each little yarn is tied by hand around the warp with suitable knots, and is clipped.  In this fashion, the painstaking work progresses, and in a week one weaver is not able to weave more than 1 ½ square arshins. [12 sq. ft.]

“Tekke carpets of old manufacture, thanks to solidity of weaving, durability of colors and strictly consistent dignified design gain the highest price. In more recent times the quality of carpets has significantly fallen with the introduction of more vivid but less fast colors and with their having been manufactured in haste for sale.

“A multitude of small wares agents, from Paris, Berlin and Vienna carry out of Central Asia, in particular from Merv, the better old carpet production, part as models for fabrics, part for the upholstering of furniture; owing to this all these products have considerably increased in price.

“From sheeps’ wool they manufacture ropes, lassos, horse bags (nose bags), pack animal bags (khurdzhiny), fabric for foot cloths, etc.  From camels’ wool – bags, and the fabric for armiyaks [peasant cloth coats], kokma [kokhma? – reversible tapistry weave] and others; from goats’ hair cloth tibut’–sallya, shalis, pai-taba and others.  From horse hair, mixed with wool, they make ropes; from better horse hair there are prepared bedspreads, and “chadra” for native women; also out of choice horse hair there are prepared suspenders and braids, kokul’, which are worn by the native women.”

This short survey has been available in English for a number of years.2 Except for the mention of a weaving school for girls, various product ephemera, the Kaaba – engsi connection, and the politically correct bow to the Czar, the report presents the same portrait – in terms of quality assessment, tribal attributions, nomenclature, and market conditions – as do today’s writings about Turkmen carpets.  Mamadov, in brief, embodies the then current wisdom.  He (1903) preceded Bogolyubov(1908), Semenov (1911), Felkersham (1914), and Dudin (1917, 1928).

All four of the authors spent time in the region, and wrote in considerable detail about the carpets.  It is also true, however, that the nature of the Turkmen oeuvre was fairly well known before their time. They did not start with a blank slate. The Mamanov travelogue provides a useful perspective on these rug books and articles, a reminder that some of the contents may incorporate invalid received wisdom.

In this vein, the Mamanov book accidentally cast a tiny bit of light on the tenaciousness of received wisdom.  Some years ago in a slide talk at the Click for larger image. Photo of weavers in Mamonov taken in 1896 or 1898. Haji Baba Society, an illustration, a photograph (shown here, in a perfectly awful reproduction) showed (immediately in front of the weavers) a recognizable flattened gol motif.  Another carpet photographed in 1882, by comparison, used an essentially squarish (1.1:1.0) gol drawing. Today’s conventional wisdom has it that the horizontal form is “late”.  The photo in Mamonov was taken either in 1896 or, slightly more likely, in 1898 and was pirated from a book by Annette Meakin; Foelkersam (1914) in turn pirated it from Mamonov, and thus it entered the rug literature.   

So, naturally, 1914 dated the rug, wrongly.  One of ICOC Turkmen experts who happened to be present remarked that willy-nilly the photo’s history, he still thought that the flattened gol form was “late”.  This reaction was either a breath-takingly casual redefinition of what was late, or an impressive display of denial. Not much of a choice.

Received wisdom inevitably contains some mistakes; progress in science, indeed, is in part correction of prior error.  Rare in science, in other domains, where proof can be less categoric, there well may be some “experts” with a vested interest in clinging to revealed error.  (How can one remain an expert by confessing to having embraced a mistake?) Perhaps the term, authority, might usefully be employed to describe someone who readily accepts concrete new facts, and who, as well, knows what he or she does not know.

The main point provided by Mamonov, however, is that even the great men -- Dudin, Foelkersham, Semenov -- may have passed on some of the mistakes in the conventional wisdom of their era.  And in fact, a number have been caught by the diligent technical analyses of today’s current Turkmen rug aficionados.

1. Dmitriev-Mamonov, A. I., Putevoditel’ po Turkestanu, St. Petersburg, 1903, p. 114 - 116.
2. The R. E. Wright Research Report, Vol. X. No. 6, November, 1992.

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