Nomadic Carpets from Iran: Qashqai, Lurs, and Bakhtiari

My Qashqai rug

My Qashqai rug

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, and this led me to my first foray in the field of carpet motifs.

Qashqai tribespeople on their migration

Qashqai tribespeople on their migration
(photo courtesy Pars Times)

Perhaps it is not surprising that a Qashqai rug should have such affective qualities, for Qashqai carpets are the quintessential expression of tribalism, laden with all the romantic trappings of a nomadic, pastoral existence. The Qashqai are a Turkic tribe (their language is closely related to Azeri) of nomadic shepherds who live primarily in the southwestern Iranian province of Fars. Their annual migration from the summer highland pastures in the Zagros Mountains north of Shiraz to winter pastures at lower elevations south of the city, closer to the Persian Gulf coast, is the stuff of legend. The journey, undertaken twice a year, is the longest by any of Iran’s many pastoral nomads, covering some 500 km of steep terrain. Over the course of the 20th century there were various attempts on the part of the central regime (especially in the 1930s) to forcibly settle the Qashqai and other tribes. This, and the gradual encroachment of modernity in their lives, has meant that many Qashqais have become sedentary in the last 40 years, taking up agriculture and urban occupations. A small number, however, continue their migratory movements even today.

Tribal areas of southwestern Iran

Tribal areas of southwestern Iran

So, how do we identify carpets traditionally woven by the Qashqai? As one might expect, Qashqai rugs are all-wool, usually with ivory warps, and employ the asymmetrical (Persian) knot. Vegetal colours were used until the middle of the 19th century, and have made a strong comeback in recent years. Their favourite colour has always been madder red, often mixed with pomegranate rind to obtain darker hues.

Settled tribal weavers working in workshops have been known to copy standard floral designs from the mainstream of the Persian rug-making tradition, such as all-over Herati or boteh patterns, but the traditional Qashqai designs usually tend to be quite different. The pattern of my own Qashqai carpet is relatively common: a medallion shape filled with a myriad irregular geometric elements, such as rosettes, diamonds, little guls, stylised figurines, which are scattered randomly across the field like amulets on a soothsayer’s table.

A jumble of mini-motifs

A jumble of mini-motifs

This penchant for clutter recurs in other Qashqai designs as well, such as rugs in which a Herati pattern seems to have been chopped up into disjointed leaves and palmettes; or very characteristic renditions of the common “millefleur” design (of Mughal origin), in which the floral elements are jam-packed in the prayer niche rather than spaced evenly. There is also a predilection for human figures, four-legged animals (especially the lion, which is a tribal emblem for the Qashqai), birds, and trees—all symbols and shapes characteristic of a simple, outdoorsy, pastoral life.

In the last few decades, nomadic weavings from Iran and elsewhere have steadily gained in popularity in western markets. This has brought fame to Qashqai weavings, but also, inevitably, changes to the patterns, techniques and colours they use, changes that favour contemporary tastes. For example, the Qashqai and neighboring confederacies have had great market success by simplifying one of their traditional rug types, the thick-piled gabbeh, to a more minimalist look. The new gabbeh is composed of only a few tone-on-tone colours, with a sprinkling of tribal motifs or accent points. This evolution in the style of the gabbeh shows us how easily and quickly the reach of western market demand can alter local artistic traditions.

A millefleurs design in a Qashqai rug auctioned at Christie's

A millefleurs design in a Qashqai rug auctioned at Christie’s

To the north and west of the Qashqai lands are two more major tribes, the Lurs and the Bakhtiari. The latter inhabit Chaharmahal province, which straddles the main body of the Zagros Mountains, whereas the Lurs occupy Lurestan province, just north of the Zagros range. These are not Turkic peoples—they speak Luri, a Persian dialect close to Kurdish, and their members have diverse ancestries. However, their nomadic lifestyle closely resembles that of the Qashqai.

The annual migration of the Bakhtiari, though shorter than the Qashqai’s, is equally arduous. Moving from west to east in the spring, their trek begins at their winter quarters around the city of Ahvaz on the Khuzistan plain, crosses the cold waters of the Karun River, climbs the high passes of the Zagros Mountains, and ends at their summer pastures near the city of Isfahan.

The Khesti, or panelled garden: a popular Bakhtiari design

The Khesti, or panelled garden:
a popular Bakhtiari design
(photo courtesy Nazmiyal Collection)

Much less is known about the ways of these tribes. Often their woven articles are mistakenly labelled and sold as Qashqai, but they do have a heritage of their own. A well-known Bakhtiari pattern, for example, is the Khesti, a garden design in which the carpet is divided into panels (usually square, but they can also be rectangular, diamond-shaped, or hexagonal).

Each panel is filled with a natural motif, such as a willow tree, a cypress tree, a bush, a grapevine, a vase containing flowers, or a bird roosting on a branch. Each motif can appear only once in the composition, or be repeated in several panels.

Other common Bakhtiari designs include medallions and tree-of-life motifs derived from Isfahan carpets, Heriz medallions, vases, and all-over boteh designs. Runners with vertical stripes of small botehs are common too.

While originally woven by nomadic weavers, most authentic Bakhtiari rugs nowadays are woven in settled communities southwest of Isfahan.

Detail of a boteh-filled Luri rug

Detail of a boteh-filled Luri rug
in Arastan’s collection

Luri designs tend to be simpler, including all-over patterns of botehs, flowers or lozenges. Notably, however, Luristan has a very ancient and influential tradition of craftsmanship, and some of the most ubiquitous motifs used in west and southwest Iranian weaving may be derived from ancient bronze work found in Luristan.

Please visit our online store for a varied selection of tribal rugs from southwestern Iran, including several Qashqai and Luri rugs and gabbehs.

Of course, all the tribes discussed here, and the Qashqai especially, also weave a wide array of fine kilims, jajims, and saddlebags. The designs of these flat-woven items are quite different than those used in knotted-pile rugs. They are much simpler, suggesting a more utilitarian purpose for these textiles, compared with rugs that are specifically made for markets in Shiraz and Isfahan. Colours are also lighter, with extensive use of yellow, light blue and even light green. A more detailed review of these tribal Persian kilims, however, will have to wait for another post!

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