Author Archives: Rolando

Pomegranate: Icon of the Silk Road

A pomegranate trinket on my desk

It was my ten-year-old daughter who first alerted me to the iconographic importance of the pomegranate. At Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar she pointed out the myriad trinkets—ashtrays, paper weights, ampules, candles, vases, key chains, pendants—in the shape of pomegranates. (She really wanted a ceramic pomegranate for her window sill, and I obliged her.) I wondered why the pomegranate was so favoured by souvenir makers, whereas there was no trace of any object in the shape of, say, a pear or a raspberry.

I also recalled that last year, when I travelled to Armenia on behalf of Arastan, I had found that in this tiny country locked away in the Caucasus, the pomegranate is a much-loved, ubiquitous symbol that augurs fertility, abundance, and prosperity. It was everywhere, from friezes carved in medieval khachkars, to tabletop ornaments, to cheap fridge magnets sold at the airport.

Without trying very hard I began to notice the …

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Nomadic Carpets from Iran: Qashqai, Lurs, and Bakhtiari

A jumble of mini-motifs

Whatever interest I have in oriental rugs, whatever knowledge I have gained about them, whatever research and travel I have undertaken to seek them—I owe it all to a Qashqai carpet. My wife bought it in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (after haggling mercilessly, like a good Indian, with a not-so-wily Turkish salesman) because she liked its unusual patterns and sanguine colours, and brought it home without knowing much else about it.

I eyed it with skepticism at first, as I do all my wife’s profligate purchases, complaining that the colours were too dark and uniform, and that the multitude of small motifs in the medallion were indistinct and messy. But in fact it started to grow on me very quickly, perhaps because of this very oddness, this lack of clean, recognizable figures, this disorderliness that makes it so tribal. I was particularly intrigued by the quirky scarab motifs in the corners, …

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Daizangi Kilims from Afghanistan

Afghan Daizangi Kilim

Another day at Arastan: a new tribal rug arrives, we learn about another weaving technique, we are awed again by a brilliant skill. Today’s splendid new product is the Daizangi kilim from Afghanistan.

Though often confused with Berjista or Mashwani Nakhunak kilims, Daizangi kilims in fact constitute a genre apart.

The Daizangi are a Hazara tribe from western Afghanistan, living mostly in Badghis and Herat provinces. Daizangi women typically weave on their own looms in village homes, using designs common to their tradition, but also adjusted to suit the requirements of modern rug traders.

Like other Afghan tribal weavers, they incorporate multiple weaving techniques in each rug. Most frequently they combine a background made with weft wrapping (sometimes known as plain soumak) with design elements in knotted pile.

The precision required to make small design elements in knotted pile dictates an unusually high knot count for tribal rugs, up to …

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Bordering on the Infinite: Border Motifs in Oriental Carpets

The running dog pattern above and below a Bergama border

If you read my first, tentative post about carpet motifs, you may remember that I promised a follow-up dedicated exclusively to border motifs. My attempt at compiling a comprehensive glossary of border motifs, however, very quickly ran into a wall. There are countless border motifs out there in that jungle that is the world of oriental carpets, and many of them have multiple interpretations and variants. No wonder that no-one has bothered to publish a simple, helpful compendium of border patterns. It would be a mind-boggling and thankless task.

Out of the galaxy of border motifs that can be found in oriental rugs, I have chosen just a few, because they are either common and worth knowing, or because they are simply cool to look at. This short list, therefore, is not by any means exhaustive. It is just a beginning, an elementary text to jump-start your own motif-hunting expedition.

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Unique Appliqué Craft – Threadwork on Glass from Azerbaijan

The finished product

Last November I travelled to the Caucasus in search of carpets, but also other handcrafted items that might enrich Arastan’s offering. What I found was a lot of skill, not just in carpet weaving, but also in metalwork, stone masonry and wood carving. But skill is not enough to turn creativity and manual dexterity into a viable business. The artisan also needs some market savvy, so as to understand what customers are willing to buy; and especially some innovation in order to achieve a modicum of differentiation and attract the buyer’s attention. In Azerbaijan I came across the work of one artisan who seems to have achieved this, entirely of her own accord.

Simuzer, 36, lives in Qobu, a small town not to be confused with Quba, or with Qobustan, which is known for its petroglyphs and mud volcanoes. She comes from a family of carpet weavers, so she learned the …

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Caucasian Carpets: Realities on the Ground

Urartian elements

It has been a busy week in Armenia, and after having seen too many medieval monasteries and khachkars and carpets, and met with so many artisans and manufacturers and traders, I am exhausted and ready to go home. But I must not forget my primary mission here in the Caucasus: I came for the carpets. So an overall assessment of the state of the Caucasian rug, both old and new, is in order.

The musings that I have summarised below are based on empirical research, if we can call it that—what I have seen and experienced at several carpet factories and workshops, as well as many carpet showrooms and dealers.

An Art Revived: New Carpet Production

In both Armenia and Azerbaijan there are just a few carpet manufacturers who produce quality rugs using traditional hand-knotting techniques in significant (i.e., export-friendly) quantities. This is reassuring, because we all know and agree, …

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In Love with Khachkars

Khachkar main

I’ve been in Armenia for just a few days, but already I am in love with khachkars. These elaborate stone crosses – both ancient and modern ones – are found all over Armenia. Next to the ever-present pomegranate, which appears in everything from cheap key chains to medieval friezes, the winged Armenian cross is perhaps the most ubiquitous and cherished symbol of this nation so rich in historical and religious symbolism. Its most characteristic manifestation is the khachkar – a large, monolithic stone sculpture that often decorates the interior or exterior of a monastery, marks a grave site, watches over a country road, or adorns a public square.

That a cross should serve as the primary signifier of Armenian culture is not surprising. Christianity is at the very core of Armenian national identity. In 301, King Tiridates III, who had previously persecuted Christians and imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator for twelve years, finally …

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Architectural Wonders in Baku, Copper in Lahij, Caravanserai in Sheki

Caravanserai 19th-century engraving

Baku is a metropolis that I can only describe as grand. Its buildings are grand, and its ambitions are even grander. A meticulously restored medieval citadel – a warren of quiet cobbled alleyways enclosed by stone walls – is surrounded by a stunning urban landscape of impressive neo-classical buildings, wide boulevards and a multitude of fountains, all dating from the end of the 19th century, when Baku experienced its first oil boom. Here too, every brick and cornice has been painstakingly restored to its full splendour. And beyond and above all this neo-classical elegance rise awesome and highly futuristic new structures of steel and glass – the fruits of the current oil boom.

Some of them, such as the Flame Towers and the Crystal Hall, are at the very cutting edge of contemporary architecture, rivalling the ultramodern hyperboles of Dubai and Shanghai. (Check out this enlightening list of the noteworthy architecture that is changing Baku’s …

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A Day in Quba

Fatima and Aygun

Heading north from Baku, the grey, monotonous flatness of the Caspian coast eventually gives way to a more verdant terrain, tree-lined roads, and plenty of apple orchards, apples being Quba’s other claim to fame. Beyond Quba are forested valleys and the snow-capped peaks of the Greater Caucasus. The town itself is low and flat and muddy in winter and decidedly underwhelming. The most ubiquitous sight here looks like this: two old Soviet-era Lada 7‘s driven at manic speed swerve dangerously to avoid each other at an intersection. They come to a screeching halt in the middle, blocking what little other traffic there is. Windows are unrolled and an altercation seems about to explode when the two drivers recognize each other as acquaintances, and whatever acerbic language was about to form on their lips melts away into inquiries about the family. Small town life in a nutshell.

Quba was for long …

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Caucasus Reconnaissance

Pomegranate seller in Quba

Remember me? Several months ago I wrote a short primer on carpet motifs on this blog. I was a complete novice in all matters woven back then, and the blog entry was as much an attempt to educate myself as it was a presentation on the topic. I did it because my old friend Nisha – never a stranger to pressing friends, family and sundry strangers into unpaid servitude – realised that I was living in Turkey and at a loose end, and quickly seized on the opportunity.

You’re in Turkey, she said, so inform yourself about carpet designs. Later she said, casually, you should find out more about Caucasian rugs in particular, because they are striking and unusual, and I want to add more of them to Arastan’s portfolio. And then, quite brazenly, the Caucasus is so much closer for you than for me, why don’t you do a short reconnaissance trip …

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  • Welcome to Arastan

    Arastan was an online store that curated rare and handpicked treasures from exotic bazaars along the ancient silk route. Unfortunately we ceased trading in early 2014.

    You can read about the reasons for closure.

    You can still browse some of the products we used to have via the category links above, although none of these are available for purchase.

    Relive our travels and stories by browsing our articles and archives from the menus below.

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