A Day in Quba

Apples for sale along the road

Apples for sale along the road

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 an important carpet-weaving centre. The names of various villages nearby – like Shahnazarli, Chichi, Perpedil – identify some of the most characteristic and arresting patterns in the Azeri carpet heritage. Nowadays, however, these exotic labels identify design concepts more than provenance – there is only small-scale weaving in these villages and in Quba itself, while carpets with traditional Quba patterns are woven in greater volumes in Baku and elsewhere in the country.

Aygun unrolls some of World of Carpet's creations

Aygun unrolls some of World of Carpet’s creations

So why make the three-hour journey from Baku? Perhaps the most important reason was to visit World of Carpets (Xalҁa Dünyasɩ Assosiasiyasɩ) and to meet its remarkable founder, Fatima Aghamirzayeva, perhaps the first female entrepreneur of post-Soviet Azerbaijan and a dedicated carpet revivalist. Over cups of tea and portions of paxlava (looks and sounds like baklava, but tastes more like a laddoo), Fatima told me her story in broad strokes, with her daughter Aygun translating patiently.

Towards the end of the Soviet era Fatima began her efforts by teaching local women the craft of designing and sewing clothes – a subject on which she has authored three books.  In the late 1990s she turned her attention to bringing back traditional carpet weaving techniques that had all but disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had collectivised the carpet-weaving industry and managed it, like everything else, as a state industry intended to churn out carpets in quantity. Carpet-making was not an art form, and little attention was paid to authenticity, traditional forms, or quality. The Soviets  also centralised all supply chains for yarns and synthetic dies. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, these state-run factories were dissolved and, importantly, supply chains were broken, such that weavers had nowhere to turn to for the required materials. Even today some of the materials used by World of Carpets are difficult to come by in Azerbaijan. For certain high grades of wool warp, Fatima must make several trips to Iran every year to supervise special orders she places to Iranian spinning mills.

What's on the loom today

What’s on the loom today

Cordial weavers at World of Carpets

Cordial weavers at World of Carpets

Fatima’s journey to revive the art of weaving in Quba started with a painstaking study lasting several years, during which she and a few collaborators pieced together what knowledge was still available by collecting anecdotal data, samples, and interviewing village women and former factory weavers about methods and designs. She sought out a few remaining master weavers and engaged them to train a new generation of artisans. She collated a great deal of information learned from her father, a lifelong nature enthusiast, about natural coloring agents such as walnut peel, madder, and pomegranate skin, and about natural fixing agents. With the help of international aid agencies she was also able to enlist the help of foreign textile consultants, whose advice she follows to this day.

S-pattern Soumakh

A gorgeous soumakh with serpentine pattern

Fatima and Aygun

Fatima and Aygun pose on the very first carpet ever woven by World of Carpets

After this long period of research, which also included analysis of museum pieces and travel to other regions in Azerbaijan, Fatima and her newly trained weavers made their first attempts at replicating traditional Quba rug patterns and knot types. Two years of experimentation and development eventually yielded good results, and the workshop has been thriving since. Today the workshop employs weavers in several surrounding villages as well as at the centre in Quba, and unites multiple small producers in an association, founded in 2006, that aims to foster the revival of a traditional carpet craft relying exclusively on natural materials and handcrafted work. The workshop produces mostly custom-ordered pieces. Access to a wider market remains difficult, and scaling up the production while abiding by Fatima’s strict principles is also problematic. Hopefully Arastan can help bring their creations to a wider audience.

Old synagogue facade in Krasnaya Sloboda

Old synagogue facade in Krasnaya Sloboda

After leaving World of Carpets the day was still young, so there was still time for a drive around town, a visit to another carpet workshop, a stop at the market (where my driver and guide Eynulla bargained hard for white cheese and some fish), a short excursion into the picturesque woodland beyond Quba, and also and a brief tour across the river to the peculiar town of Krasnaya Sloboda. This is one of those little oddities of history – a Jewish settlement dating from the eighteenth century, when Feteli Khan, the ruler of the Quba khanate, gave a group of Jews permission to set up a community free of persecution across the river from Quba. Despite a dwindling population it has several active synagogues, and several gaudy mansions attest to the fact that relatives either working in Israel or trading in Russia are doing well.

Finally, a quick lule kebab (think of a seekh kebab without any spice, and with mint chutney conspicuously absent), and back to Baku.

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