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Away from the militarized frontlines between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a curious asymmetrical soft war is being waged between the two countries in regards to one unlikely art form, carpets and rugs. A debate over patterns, symbols, and the stories they narrate is being pursued with accusations of appropriation by the Azerbaijani government and its associated scholars on one side of the aisle, and attempts to stop the erasure of Armenian weavers from the literature of carpet studies and the history of the region by individual scholars, dealers, and a specialized Armenian nonprofit organization on the other. Carpet weaving, historically, as is today, is a profound form of art and cultural legacy for the region of Karabakh (or “Artsakh” as Armenians refer to it) in the Caucasus.
A Contested Identity
Throughout this article, I will use the term “Karabakh” to name the carpet production because it is currently more commonly known by that term internationally, as few people ever say “Artsakh rug.” While the term “Artsakh” was put into use long before the term “Karabakh” was introduced in the 14th century, the carpets we are discussing all come from a later period, as early specimens of weaving have been mostly lost.
In 2019, I visited the Karabakh Carpet weaving factory in Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed, but internationally unrecognized, Armenian-led Republic of Artsakh. The firm aims to preserve the art of carpet weaving, producing Armenian rugs with historical and traditional Karabakh patterns of various size, density, ornamentation, and coloration, and all using local sheep’s wool. I observed the exclusively female weavers gently and meticulously play with textile, patterns, and colors. Row upon row of thread and knots on fixed looms were recreating what they consider their ancestral pride — a Karabakh rug.
While Azerbaijanis consider the local carpet weaving tradition to be part of their own cultural heritage, they aren’t willing to accept any historical role for Armenians in the region’s rich history of the art form and refer to Karabakh rugs as one of the major schools of Azerbaijani carpet weaving. It is not uncommon to hear Azerbaijani officials allege that there is no such thing as Armenian carpets and claim that they are appropriated Azerbaijani patterns or that Armenians learned carpet weaving from Azerbaijanis. While this is blatantly absurd, it is in line with larger narratives of erasure that Azerbaijan has engaged in.
Lauren Arnold, an American art historian and author of Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures, tells Hyperallergic that “over five hundred years ago, Armenian carpets were well-known, treasured, and revered in the Christian West long before there ever was an Azerbaijan nation.”
Ethnographer and Armenian rugs expert Ashkhunj Poghosyan has also documented the long history of Armenian carpet production, and has written that “among [the] rug weaving centers of historical Armenia, Artsakh is of specific importance due to [the] diversity of its rug types, superb features … and color shades.” He believes that there is abundant and multifarious evidence — archeological, written, pictorial and oral — of the prevalence of Armenian carpet weaving culture in Karabakh. In fact, three of the oldest surviving inscribed and dated Armenian rugs — the Yerakhoran prayer rug (1202 or 1512) which was exhibited in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (current whereabouts uncertain); the Gohar or Guhar (1699 or 1700) currently owned by a private collector in the US, but previously housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and the carpet woven for Catholicos Nerses of Aghvank (1731), believed to be stored in the Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem — all hail from Karabakh.
Traditionally, scholars categorize Karabakh rugs as Oriental or Caucasian (meaning from the Caucasus) carpets. They can be made in the form of pile rugs called “gorg” (գորգ) in Armenian, or flatweave called “garbed” (կարպետ). Wool is almost always used to produce the rugs and carpets. In more precious pieces, silk can also be used. Karabakh rugs are woven in double knots — a technique often referred to as “Ghiordez” in the trade, which has a symmetrical structure. The red color known as “Vordan Karmir” (Որդան Կարմիր”) produced from the Armenian cochineal insect found in the Ararat plain, is commonly found in Karabakh and Armenian rugs from other regions.
Tackling Scholarly (Mis)Representation
Scholarly interest in carpets started in the 1870s in Vienna and Berlin and then spread to Florence, London, and the United States. Throughout this period, Armenia as an independent political entity did not exist. It was divided up by the three big empires of the period: Ottoman, Persian, and Russian. While Armenians continued to produce high-quality woven art, they did so under the thumb of empires.
“Armenian contributions to the art of carpet weaving were mostly unrecorded in Western literature. Rugs produced by Armenians were often incorrectly presented as Turkish, Oriental, or more generally Caucasian,” explains Hratch Kozibeyokian to Hyperallergic. Kozibeyokian is believed to own the largest private collection of Armenian rugs and hails from a family of four generations of master carpet weavers. He has spent his entire life collecting, preserving, researching, and analyzing these valuable objects — many of which come from Karabakh itself.
Kozibeyokian explains that Armenians were not able to set the record straight in the scholarly world because the Armenian Genocide of 1915 uprooted the Armenian people of Anatolia from their ancestral homeland. The calamity not only caused the loss of 1.5 million Armenian lives, but also disrupted the established networks of carpet production and destroyed a great number of preserved antique examples. The dispersed survivors, who form the large Armenian diaspora of today, were preoccupied with establishing their lives from scratch in new, foreign lands. At the same time, the political and cultural limitations that Armenians in the Caucasus faced, both during the Russian Imperial and Soviet periods, also hindered them from engaging in the proper research and preservation of this historic legacy as older traditions were jettisoned for Soviet-approved designs and crafts.
Fortunately, in 1980, the Armenian Rugs Society was established in Washington, DC, as a nonprofit dedicated to the “identification, preservation, documentation, and dissemination of knowledge pertaining to the cultural contributions made by Armenian weavers and craftspeople to the rich and vibrant history of textile arts.” Kozibeyokian is the organization’s current president. To remedy the dearth of knowledge, the Society has for 40 years sponsored and organized numerous symposia, exhibits, and lectures to recover that lost history, a process that finds parallels in all aspects of Armenian culture and community that suffered from the Armenian Genocide and the repressive Soviet regime in the Caucasus.
UNESCO and Azerbaijan’s Caviar Diplomacy
To solidify its nationalistic claim, Azerbaijan, since independence, has been engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to promote its carpet weaving industry. The Aliyev family, which has been ruling over Azerbaijan for roughly three decades, has been particularly eager to exploit their connections to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with a generous donation of $5 million, to present Azerbaijan as a major hub of the art form.
Most importantly, Azerbaijan successfully lobbied to inscribe the traditional art of Azerbaijani carpet weaving on the representative list of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO posted the announcement with an accompanying video prepared by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which listed Karabakh carpets as Azerbaijani. Neither the video nor UNESCO’s inscription mention the existence of the Armenian rugs of Karabakh.
Attributing Karabakh rugs only to the Azerbaijani people “is not the whole truth,” explains Hadi Maktabi to Hyperallergic. Maktabi holds a PhD in Islamic Art from the University of Oxford and is an award-winning antique carpets dealer based in Beirut. His own family has been in the carpet business for generations. Maktabi is also the author of The Persian Carpet: The Forgotten Years 1772-1872, which reassesses weaving in the period linking (or separating) the Safavid era to the revival era of Persian rug production towards the end of the 19th century. The book also brings up the impact of the Russian invasions of the early 1800s on the quality of Caucasian rugs. Maktabi sees Karabakh as a melting pot of the different civilizations surrounding the region — with Armenians having fixed settlements, especially in the urban areas, and Azerbaijanis being more nomadic, which echoes the international scholarship on the region.
Maktabi asserts that both populations were involved in carpet weaving and explains that “the nature of Karabakh rugs is quite complex. So many different types of weave and structure appear on Karabakh rugs, reflecting the ethnic and cultural diversity” inhabiting and surrounding it. Some of the patterns have a clear Armenian influence and others more of Persian or Azeri or in the French-infused Russian style. The Shushi type particularly stands out, known for its special weave and use of cochineal red.
Kozibeyokian is skeptical of UNESCO’s motivations and questions its legitimacy to weigh in on the topic in light of its failure to respond to and condemn the cultural genocide against Armenian churches and monuments perpetrated by Azerbaijan just over 15 years ago. He adds: “whatever Armenian folk art the Azerbaijani regime was not able to physically destroy, it is spending millions of petrodollars to claim as its own, and carpets are no exception.” Looking at the evidence, it’s hard to ignore that fact.
Azerbaijan has spent a fortune to relocate the Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum to a new purpose-built, state-of-the-art venue, shaped like an unfolding (or rolling) carpet, in one of Baku’s prime locations, the Seaside National Park. The museum, now considered one of Azerbaijan’s landmarks, was designed by Vienna-based architecture firm Hoffmann-Janz Architects. The construction took about six years to complete and required the demolition of what has been described as a historically significant building to pave the way for the new structure — in line with the Aliyev regime’s repeated practices of “bulldozing its past” to make room for new, contemporary buildings in a bid to modernize the capital and rebrand itself, using energy sector revenue.
Moreover, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum is funding research, symposiums, and exhibitions, both in-house and globally, to further their nationalistic claim that Karabakh carpet weaving is solely an Azerbaijani tradition. “Politics and money go hand in hand pretty well, especially in caviar diplomacy,” explains Sevak Khachatryan, founding manager of Karabakh Carpet, over the phone. The term caviar diplomacy is a common term to describe the approach of the oil-rich Azerbaijani ruling family to lobby foreigners.
Despite all of Azerbaijan’s institutionalized attempts to conceal the Armenian identities of Karabakh rugs, the oral history that accompanies these carpets, their naming, their iconography, as well as some scholarly representation, have preserved their Armenian roots. As a result, Karabakh rugs are often victims of competing narratives with varying levels of accuracy, one Armenian, and the other Azerbaijani. Western connoisseurs and specialists have also added their own understanding and terminologies to the field, many of which are not used by the weavers themselves, which only adds to the confusion. Below I discuss a handful of examples from Karabakh’s long heritage of carpet and rug production.
Cheraberd Ardzvagorg / Chelaberd / Chelebi
This manner of carpet in Armenian is known as Cheraberd or Jraberd. Armenians believe it is named after the town where the pattern was born, in the Martakert region of Karabakh, falling west of the Tartar river. In Armenian, it literally means the water (“chour”) fortress (“berd”). The ruins of the Cheraberd fortress survive to this day.
Most rug dealers call it Chelaberd, which doesn’t have a literal meaning. Azerbaijanis have named it Chelebi and link the name to the region of Chelebiler (or Chalabilar) in Jabrayil, which they allege is the birthplace of the design. It is also referred to as Chelebi Kazaks, Eagle Kazaks, or Adler Karabakh. Both Khachatryan and Kozibeyokian believe that this is a distortion of facts used to undermine the Armenian heritage of the rug type.
The main feature of the carpet is the central cross-shaped ‘flaming’ medallion which some see as a clue to the Christian iconographic influence on the type. The large and intricate sunburst medallion is decorated with geometric animal ornaments (bird/eagle heads). This is why Armenians categorize it as an “Ardzvagorg”, meaning eagle rug. Poghosyan has suggested that at least a dozen different variations of the pattern exist. One particlar variant is called Cheraberd Bdretsik which is the name of the village formerly known as Badara, known for this pattern.
“This is one of the most distinctive and recognizable types of Armenian weavings,” explains Maktabi. He showcases a beautifully knotted antique Cheraberd in his showroom, belonging to the “pre-commercial era” (pre- early 19th century), having a single sunburst medallion in the field. “After 1880, they invariably have two to three medallions,” he adds.
Vishapagorg / Ajdahali (or Khatai)
The highly prized dragon carpets are known for their diagonal and complex compositions. They are decorated by various combinations of floral and animal ornaments such as rosettes and the abstracted, stylized image of a dragon. The dragon is often paired with a phoenix form.
The scholarly world largely considers that the dragon motif came to the Caucasus from China through Mongol invasions. Maktabi agrees with this assessment. This being said, Vahram Tatikyan, author of Ancestral Carpets of Karabagh, argues that the Dragon or “Vishap” was never a ‘foreign’ character to the Armenians. It is found abundantly in ancient Armenian mythology and oral folklore — often understood as large serpents. For example, the Armenian god of fire, thunder and war, Vahakn, was known as Vishapakagh – meaning the dragon reaper. Dragons can be found carved on the walls of Armenian churches. In Daron, the cities of Vishap and Ots (Armenian for snake or serpent) exist. Moreover, the Armenian Highlands is home to 150 surviving prehistoric megaliths/menhirs known as “Vishapakar”, meaning dragon-stones. Kozibeyokian thinks that it only makes sense that this character eventually made its way to carpets.
It’s also worth noting that Armenian contact with the Mongols, which included a royal visit in 1254 CE by Armenian King Hethum to the Mongol court at Karakorum, is also indicated in 13th and 14th century Armenian manuscripts from Cilicia, a region on the Mediterranean and further from the Mongol homeland than the Caucasus. In the Lectionary of Hethum II (1286 CE) one can clearly see the influence of Chinese and other forms from East and Central Asia.
Azerbaijanis call this rug type Khatai or Ajdahali, the latter literally meaning “with dragon.”
Interestingly, one of the oldest surviving Armenian inscribed rugs (the Gohar) and the oldest exhibit (called The Adjahali) in the Azerbaijani Carpet Museum are both 17th century Karabakh dragon carpets.
Dzaghgagorgs / Baghchadaguller (Floral Rugs)
Khachatryan explains that Armenians often named floral rugs (or dzaghgagorgs – ‘dzaghig’ meaning flower) by the names of the regions where they belong to or hail from. Therefore, Armenians refer to this type of floral rug as simply ‘Artsakh’ or ‘Karabakh.’ They are known as ‘Karabagh floral rugs’ in the trade too. Azerbaijanis call them Baghchadaguller (Bağçadagüllər xalçaları), meaning garden flower carpets. The pattern can be found in pile rugs and flatweaves alike.
Known for their black, dark blue or dark brown fields decorated with colorful (but mostly red, pink) rose or flower ornaments all over, these rugs attest to the meaning of the word ‘Karabakh.’ ‘Kara’ in Turkic means either ‘black’ or ‘big’ and ‘bagh’ in Persian means ‘garden’. “All interpretations of the toponym Artsakh [also] stress some geographical description: mountainous terrain, vineyard, forest area or fields,” concludes Lusine Margaryan in her in-depth study of the etymologies.
One of these types of Karabakh carpets can be found in Hadi Maktabi’s showroom. The 82-year-old rug has a woven inscription on it in Armenian. It reads “Year 1939 Martuni.” Martuni is the Armenian name of a town in Karabakh. Azerbaijanis call it Khojavend. This not only reiterates that Armenians were carpet weavers in Karabakh during the period, but also highlights their persistent usage of the Armenian names of the regions.
Khndzoresk / Chondoresk / Malibayli
These carpets are known as Khndzoresk for Armenians but as Chondoresk among the scholarly world and in the rug trade. Maktabi explains that “as with most things to do with the nomenclature of Caucasian rugs, it is a misnomer attributable to the German dealer and scholar who wrote the first definitive book on Caucasian rugs, Ulrich Schurmann.” Schurmann used German spelling. “Ch” in German is equivalent to “Kh.” Therefore, Khndzoresk became Chondoresk. Azerbaijanis consider them a typical ‘Shusha’ (Shushi) carpet and call them Malibayli, after the name of a village in the Shushi region, which has been Karabakh’s cultural and carpet weaving hub. The Armenian name for the village of Malibayli is Ajapnyak and currently falls in the Armenian-majority administrative region of Stepanakert.
The Khndzoresk is also referred to as Cloudband Karabagh or Kazak Cloudband due to the cloudlike motifs in the hexagonal or octagonal medallions in the field. The Armenians compare them to serpents which is why they regard the Khndzoresk an ‘odzagorg’ or a serpent-rug. Different variations of the pattern exist. One of the most prototypical, however, is the ancient swastika icon as a central motif of the medallions. The arms or hooks of the swastika are usually pinned together by a knotted dot and surrounded by serpents in the form of the letter “S” or Chinese cloud bands. A motif of an abstract tree is usually seen next to it.
Armenians believe the Khndzoresk is named after its origin in the village of Khndzoresk in Goris (present-day Armenia), which is close to the current borders with Karabakh. The Khndzoresk soon became a common pattern used throughout Karabakh, with the design coming from Armenia but woven in a typical Karabakh style. The journey of a motif, Kozibeyokian explains, usually happened through marriage. When a bride was married into a neighboring village or district she would often be accompanied by the traditional designs native to her village or town.
Mokhank Arevagorg / Memlings / Mugan
Arevagorg literally means “Sun rug” in Armenian. It is also referred to as Mokhank as it is believed to have hailed from the town of Mokhank. The rug is more commonly known as Moghan Memling, Memling Gul (or Göl), or simply Memling in the trade, and Mugan by the Azerbaijanis. The pattern’s signature icon is the stepped medallion with curled hooks hanging from the outer corners, encompassed in octagons. For the Azerbaijanis, the motif represents life; for Armenians, the sun – which they consider the source of life. “Armenians were initially nature worshipers. They worshiped eagles, lions, the sun, and heaven. They called themselves Arevortik (Children of the Sun). The sun-god was called Ar (Arev, meaning sun in Armenian),” explains Knarik O. Meneshian.
The Renaissance period saw increased interest in “Oriental” rugs. Hans Memling, a leading Flemish artist of the mid-15th century, incorporated carpets that resemble Arevagorgs in four of his paintings, bringing attention to the geometric pattern. The Europeans who wrote the early histories of carpets would bestow them with the painter’s name.
In her study of 350 oriental rugs featured in European Renaissance paintings, categorized and made publicly accesible in The Carpet Index, art historian Lauren Arnold reassesses the long-standing error of the Berlin School in carpet studies which suggested only Muslim communities produced Oriental rugs. Arnold argues that “the land mass that we call Asia Minor or Anatolia [Armenian Highlands] was populated by local Christians for almost a millennium before and another millennium after the arrival of the first followers of Mohammed in the 10th century. It is wishful thinking to insist that carpet weaving suddenly arrived and burgeoned on the Anatolian plateau only with the arrival of late-coming nomadic Muslims from the east.” She makes the case that the featured carpets in the paintings are in fact “revered relics brought by small groups of Eastern Christians – Syrians, Greeks, Georgians, but especially Armenians” who were fleeing to Europe as the result of the incursion of the Mamluks, Mongols, and later Ottomans into their ancestral lands.
Arnold builds on the work of German art historian Volkmar Gantzhorn who authored a pioneering study, The Christian Oriental Carpet, in which, contrary to the dominant scholarly narrative, he traced the origins of Oriental rugs not to nomadic tribes nor central Asia, but rather to ancient civilizations in the Armenian uplands. Gantzhorn explains the necessity of his reassessment and revision of the art form in the introduction of his book, which is widely criticized by the conservative scholarly community for trying to reconstruct possible connections through visual clues and other material in light of the lack of written evidence and biased European scholarship. He writes:
“As cult objects of Christian oriental churches, carpets, along with other textiles, constitute what may well be the most important Armenian contribution to the history of world art. My book attempts to make good the injustice done to a people who, in the course of their more than two thousand year history, have suffered more than any other as a result of their geographic location between the Orient and the Occident. The Armenians have countless times been divided, exploited, robbed, exiled, deported, enslaved, murdered and mistreated. They have been robbed of their art, the authorship for which has been attributed to the conquerors during the years which followed, either due to ignorance of the facts involved, or to the manipulation of these facts. This unique collection of patterns and designs, characteristics of oriental carpets, is a part of the Armenian heritage and identity, and it should now be understood as such.”
Fact Over Nationalist Fiction
For Maktabi, Karabakh carpets tell a story of coexistence and interaction of peoples rather than that of nationalism. He sees Karabakh as one of the most complex geopolitical parts of the world, where myriad populations have lived. He believes “nationalism appropriates art and obscures its origin.” Maktabi invites us to look at Karabakh rugs as shared human history instead of picking sides.
The Azerbaijani stand on the topic is best articulated by Vidadi Muradov, head of Azerbaijan’s state carpet production company, Azerkhalcha. In a statement issued on November 6, 2020, Muradov alleged that “Armenians are trying to appropriate many examples of our national culture, including our carpets. We declare that carpet weaving is an integral part of the history of Azerbaijan, an example of our national art. Every place where the Azerbaijani carpet is woven, including Karabakh, is Azerbaijan.” He accuses Armenians of falsifying the history of Karabakh by ‘Armenianizing’ Azerbaijani carpets. “Karabakh carpets presented by the Armenians as their own works of art are the products of the thinking of Azerbaijani people. There is just one name for the appropriation of other people’s work of art – theft,” he adds.
“It’s sad that the Azeris teach this nationalistic view of ‘theft’ to their children, because it’s simply not true,” says Lauren Arnold. She explains that current research and considerable Western documentation, particularly in the Vatican archives and library, can “no longer be ignored or brushed away by the Azerbaijanis.” Those records document Christian missionary activity in Armenian Cilicia, Nakhichevan, and Artsakh in the 13–14th centuries. Arnold explains that “these Latin missionaries (Franciscans and Dominicans) facilitated migrations of Armenians to the West in the 13th century when their traditional homelands in Anatolia, the Armenian Highlands, and in the Caucasus came under hostile Muslim rule.” Vatican files also document the presence of Armenian clergy at important Church Councils in Rome and Florence during the 15th– 16th centuries, at the peak of the Renaissance. “Long before the Azerbaijanis laid claim to all Caucasian carpets as exclusively their own, we have the visual proof of Armenian carpets being known, treasured, and revered in the Christian West,” she adds.
Kozibeyokian, on the other hand, asserts that the corrections Armenians are seeking in the literature of carpet studies does not stem from a discourse of nationalism, nor is it an attempt to “Armenify” the works of others, but rather to clarify a missing part of global art history which falls short of accrediting Armenians for their centuries long contribution to the art of carpet weaving. He explains that rightfully categorizing a rug as Armenian simply points to the fact that the pattern came from the Armenian Highlands.” It does not mean that only Armenians wove them, everyone — including Azerbaijanis and Turks — did. For Kozibeyokian, this is a matter of preserving Armenian identity and cultural heritage. Kozibeyokian believes that they have a responsibility to urge current specialists and scholars to set the record straight for future generations.
Azerbaijan’s attack on the Armenian indigenous territory of Karabakh in September 2020 resulted not just in tens of thousands of displaced people, but also displaced carpets from the Shushi Carpet Museum, which found safe haven in Armenia. As Azerbaijani forces growingly approached and targeted the city of Shushi, Vardan Astsatryan, the founder of the museum and the owner of the private collection of carpets, saw no other choice but to evacuate the woven treasures he and his family have spent a lifetime collecting. The evacuation was conducted during the evening of November 1, using phone flashlights to avoid being seen and targeted by Azerbaijani forces. Though the rescue vehicle was still shot at, it thankfully made it to safety. The carpets that were saved were put on display in Yerevan’s National Museum-Institute of Architecture on February 20, 2021, and will remain there for a period of three months.
Astsatryan explains that they were able to save 160 precious carpets, including a 350-year-old silk embroidered specimen from Askeran’s Shosh village, however, a further 100-120 were left behind. What was left in the museum, which is now under the control of Azerbaijan authorities, has been looted, according to Astsatryan. Azerbaijan has refused to return any of the 1,500 artworks seized from various museums in Shushi to the Armenian authorities of Artsakh.
Azerbaijan was quick to respond to the exhibition in Armenia, calling it illegal and sticking to its usual claims that Armenians are falsifying history and appropriating Karabakh’s Azerbaijani rugs. Their Ministry of Culture also pledged to carry out the necessary legal procedures against Armenia. “UNESCO shall not turn a blind eye to this misbehavior,” the ministry’s statement declared, according to AzerNews, which is a news outlet owned by a member of the ruling party in Azerbaijan.
In December 2020, I acquired a wool-knotted Arevagorg from Karabakh. It was woven in the city of Shushi by a local woman, earlier in the year. With the city now falling under Azerbaijani occupation, it is probably one of the last carpets to be woven by Armenians in the cultural capital of Karabakh. No one knows if Armenians will ever be able to return to their homes in Shushi, let alone weave carpets there again. What we do know, however, is that Azerbaijan’s claim that Armenians have no contribution to Karabakh’s art of carpet weaving does not reflect the truth. It is a state-sponsored falsification of the artistic history and a desperate attempt by the Azerbaijani state to airbrush the cultural legacy of Armenians and their millennia-long history in the region.