Bordering on the Infinite: Border Motifs in Oriental Carpets

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.

As in my previous post, the aim here is to develop a toolbox of simple terminology, a handy vocabulary to help us understand, visualise, and describe rug designs. Though often colourful, discussions on the origin or semiotics of these border motifs are less important, because they are invariably speculative, and because in any case such mythologies are relevant only when analysing rugs that were made in a time when tribal and nomadic ways of life still prevailed among carpet weavers.

Running water

Running water motif in the border of a Qashqai rug

Running water motif in the border of a Qashqai rug

Running water (su yolu or akarsu in Turkish) is a common border pattern. Its meaning is straightforward: among all carpet-weaving communities, water, the indispensable element, was associated with life itself, as well as with rituals of purification and renewal.

Appearing as a triangular, saw-blade or wave-like pattern (and sometimes labelled ‘saw’ or ‘mountains’), it makes for a simple yet elegant border design. It is found in tribal carpets everywhere, from Anatolia to the Caucasus to Persia. The difficulty, however, lies in distinguishing it from other, similar patterns, such as the running dog and meander motifs (see below).

The running dog pattern above and below a Bergama border

The running dog pattern above and below a Bergama border

Running dog

Well-known in classical architecture, the running dog is a decorative motif consisting of a repeated, stylised scroll form, rather like the profile of a breaking wave. The running-dog pattern is sometimes referred to as the Vitruvian scroll, after Vitruvius, a Roman architectural historian of the first century BC. It is also known as the wave ornament, or wave scroll.

It is common in rugs from many origins, appearing especially in border stripes. A similar, more rigidly geometric pattern is sometimes known as ‘running hook’.

Barber’s pole

A pattern of adjacent oblique stripes that mimics the old-fashioned signs often seen outside barber shops. Popular and versatile, the barber’s pole can also appear in combination with other motifs. For example, in the right-most image below, taken from a Khotan rug, the bands of the barber’s pole contain swastika motifs.

Examples of the barber's pole border,  and the real thing

Examples of the barber’s pole border,
and the real thing

 

Kotchanak

Two examples of the kotchanak

Two examples of the kotchanak

Found especially in Turkmen and Afghan rugs, the kotchanak (or gochanak) design is probably a derivative of the ram’s horn motif. It has several variants that usually consist of a geometric shape (such as a compressed hexagon or a rectangle or an hourglass), with protruding ram’s horns on two sides.

However, in a talk hosted by Arastan in March 2013, textile expert Thomas Cole posited that the kotchanak is in fact a fertility symbol of Scythian origin, representing a goddess with child.

Kotchanak variants

Kotchanak variants

Cup-and-leaf

Variants of the cup-and-leaf border

Variants of the cup-and-leaf border

Also known as leaf-and-calyx or leaf-and-wineglass, this border motif is primarily Caucasian, and is found especially in kazak carpets. It consists of a serrated wave-like form (the ‘leaf’), with small, goblet-like, geometric flowers (the ‘cups’) nestled in each wave trough. The name, of course, was applied by western scholars.

The meaning and origin of this border motif are unknown, but we can be quite certain that the ‘cup’ was never meant to represent a chalice or a wineglass. At least one scholar believes that the pattern is derived from another, purely geometric border pattern (known as Bergama), sliced in half.

Meander

The meander border in a modern rug

The meander border in a modern rug

The meander (also known as Greek key) is a decorative pattern drawn in a continuous line and shaped into a repeating geometric motif. The name comes from the River Meander in western Turkey, known in antiquity for its many twists and turns. It is also known as “Greek key” pattern because it was widely used in ancient Greece in architectural friezes and earthen pottery, and because its shape is reminiscent of the tooth or bit of a simple key.

Though there are curly versions of the meander motif, if usually occurs in the squarish form shown in the image. Note how the meander has a (squarish) wave profile, such that it is often interpreted as a running dog or running water motif.

S-shape, or hook

The S-shape or hook pattern in three different rugs

The S-shape or hook pattern in three different rugs

The S-pattern or hook is a very common border motif, appearing almost everywhere in the landscape of oriental carpets, both as a very geometric figure and as a curly arabesque. It is regarded as a protective sign that can ward off the evil eye, but as a hook that joins two elements, it can also be considered a symbol of union and togetherness.

From top to bottom, the image on the right shows the hook motif in the borders of a Caucasian rug, an Afghan Mashwani, and a Kurdish kilim, respectively.

Birds-on-a-tree, birds-on-a-pole

The birds-on-a-tree border motif, common in Caucasian rugs, suggests a flock of birds roosting on a tree. In more curly renditions, it matches its name nicely, but in more geometric versions the figural element is almost lost.

 

Variations of the birds-on-a-tree border motif,  from the figurative to the geometric

Variations of the birds-on-a-tree border motif,
from the figurative to the geometric

A typical bird-on-pole border motif; note also the running dog in the border stripes

A typical bird-on-pole border motif; note also the running dog in the border stripes

Just to keep things confusing, there is also a birds-on-a-pole motif, which is rather different in appearance. Staying with bird imagery, we might say that it looks like a flock of toucans sitting on a power line; alternatively, it looks like a row of connected hooks or S-shapes that have been fattened and then stretched diagonally.

Herati

A common Persian rug design, the herati features a rose as a centerpiece, often encased in a diamond shape, surrounded by four leaves. While this pattern can be used to cover the entire main field of a rug, it also appears as a border motif in Persian and Caucasian carpets.

In the image below, we see a classic Herati all-over pattern (left), and a corresponding, though much simplified, Herati pattern in a border (right).

Herati patterns

Herati patterns

Mystery border motifs

Strange and unexplained

Strange and unexplained

And here are a few border motifs that I find truly puzzling. I was unable to determine their names or origins or meaning. If anyone knows, please share. Or, if anyone would like to give them an interesting label…

Clockwise, starting with the top left, we see what seem like fairies hovering in the border of a triple-medallion Tibetan carpet; a strange, winged creature, perhaps a griffon, in the border of a Caucasian zeiva rug; and an odd, key-like symbol (possibly an elongated boteh) in a herringbone cartouche, as seen in a Persian suzani kilim.

Kufic or Kufesque

Several versions of the popular Kufic border pattern

Several versions of the popular Kufic border pattern

Last, but certainly not least, the Kufic or Kufesque border pattern. I left it for last because the speculation about its origin is quite intriguing. It is common in Persian and Caucasian carpets. The first time I heard this pattern described as Kufic, I immediately thought: “This looks nothing like calligraphy! Why do they call it Kufic?”

Indeed, the word ‘Kufic’ or ‘Kufi’ refers to an early form of Arabic calligraphy, used by the first Muslims to record the Koran. The script was called ‘Kufi’ because it was thought to have been developed at Kufah in Iraq, an early Islamic centre of learning. Originally, the script was angular and staccato, but later a floral Kufi was developed, and then several other varieties, including foliated Kufi, knotted Kufi, and square Kufi. Eventually, it seems, the word ‘Kufic’ came to denote any form of ornamentation based on calligraphy—a word art—including both highly decorative scripts and purely geometric, abstract ones.

Back to my original question: how do we go from Koranic calligraphy to our Kufic/Kufesque border motif? I scoured several books on oriental carpets, as well as the Internet, for an answer, and came up with very little. The only viable, if highly speculative, answer that I could find was in a blog entry by artist Martin Erik Andersen. Simplifying his theory somewhat, and putting my own spin on it, yields the following argument.

The most important word in the Arabic vocabulary, of course, is Allah, the name of God, and it must also be the word most frequently rendered artistically. In a simple ornate script, the word is shown in part A of the composite image below. It is not uncommon, however, to depict the word with the first letter, the alif, shifted to the middle, so that the composition looks a bit like a trident, as shown in B.

The Kufic symbol: from calligraphy to carpet border

The Kufic symbol: from calligraphy to carpet border

Now, anyone wishing to incorporate such a script into a textile would want to simplify it, and make it symmetrical. In a geometric rendition, we might come up with something that looks like C. (This, as Andersen points out, is already similar to some border patterns found in 13th-century Seljuk carpets that may be early versions of the Kufic border.)

Now we turn our rudimentary pattern by 90 degrees and give it a mirror image, as shown in D. All that is left to do is to join the two middle tines and turn the messy tangle of diacritical marks in the centre into a floral flourish, or an endless knot, and we have a basic Kufic border motif (E).

Is this how it came about? Maybe. The progression of steps seems laboured and a bit contrived. Moreover, it seems unlikely that anyone would knowingly have woven the name of God into a rug, where it would be trodden upon continually. Then again, in olden times most weavers would have been illiterate, and may have perpetuated the use of this pattern without being aware of its etiology. Fascinating all the same.

Miscellaneous border motifs

A miscellany of borders

A miscellany of borders

Here’s a medley of other border motifs that I found during my research. They have colourful names, but there’s little in the way of scholarly study to be found about them.

From top to bottom, they are: sainak, crow’s feet, Bergama, and fence.

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