Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Afghans Ride Again. By Bruce McLaren

Life can seem fickle at times. My father used to say life was very transient indeed. Trends come and go almost as quickly as they appear. A few years ago all people wanted to buy was a Turkish Oushak. Everything had to be gold, gold, gold with a few red accents. Then we got hit by the big swing towards everything being slate-blue and brown. Not to mention the myriad of rug makers who jumped on the Suzani runaway train and started cranking out countless Suzani designs, a production traditionally restricted to embroidery.

An Antique Suzani

Suzani design elements incorporated into a new rug

Perhaps the greatest surprise as these wheels of change roll over is the unexpected quality in rugs made in Afghanistan. In recent decades the best quality hand-woven rugs have come from China and Turkey. China used the finest weave. Turkey used plant dyes instead of aniline dyes. But now there is some competition from that unruly child of Asia - Afghanistan.

The speed with which Afghanistan has emerged as a major market, the major new market, in terms of weaving traditional Persian and Caucasian designs, is astonishing. Afghanistan is perhaps best known in the rug world for the standard red and black "elephant foot" design (actually these are tribal guls). But these rugs are a dime a dozen and were mass produced with aniline dyes.

The classic "Elephant Foot" Afghan rug
Three years ago nothing was coming out of Afghanistan except a lot of misery. Now, at least rugs have appeared as a viable economic prospect. What is really remarkable is not just the fact that all new Afghan rugs are made using labor intensive natural dyes, but the weavers seem to have learnt their craft overnight.

The new Afghan rugs are very striking. A lot of this is to do with the dyes. The blues are made from the indigo plant, the reds are made from pounding the madder root into a pulp. Because the dyes are the same as those used in Antique Persian rugs, these new Afghan rugs look very similar indeed to the Antiques. So it is no surprise that we have sold 29 of these rugs in the last 30 days.

Indigo Leaves

Madder Roots
People seem a little stunned when I tell them these rugs came from Afghanistan. What makes it all possible is that most rug production takes place in the far north of the country at Mazar-i-Sharif, not far from the Oxus River beyond which lie the infinite plains of Central Asia. This is a world away from all of the madness to the south.

Location of Mazar-i-Sharif
Most of the industrious people making these rugs in the far north of the country are Turkomen and Hazaras. "Hazara" means "1000" and refers to the 1000 soldiers Genghiz Khan left to guard the southern mountain frontier. The Hazaras in particular are a target for Sunni jihadists because they are Shiite. There are a lot of bombings, also in Pakistan, in particular Quetta, where there are substantial Shiite populations. Jan Ali here in the shop is a Hazara from Quetta. He looks harmless but he has a certain, um, affinity for horses and guns. Really.

Don't mess with this guy. He is a Hazara
Occasionally the Taliban turns up and simply take the rugs they can find. So making rugs and money is a gamble and a risk. Or maybe a risk and a gamble? We certainly feel fortunate to receive these gems that have been smuggled out over mountain passes...

Let us look at a few examples for now..

1. The most popular design that we sell from Afghanistan is the classic tree of life and twin Cypress tree motif. Just look at the depth of blue there! This design also comes in small squares (see photo at bottom) and a range of colorways. In terms of design the parent image looks like it came from a Persian Tribal Bakhtiari.

2. These amazing Afghan rugs comes in all shape, sizes and designs. Here is an example of a large area rug in the Ottoman style of the Egyptian Mamelukes. This highly detailed and geometric design has also been making something of an appearance and is being made in a wide range of colors.

3. The Cypress is certainly a favored motif by the Afghans and originally by the Persian Tribal Bakhtiari. So too the willow tree, which is also featured in this rug. Here is an example of a mid-size piece in light blue indigo and rust madder red. The variegated striations in the blue field are the result of intentionally tye-dying. ..

4. These rugs are also available in runners..

5. And of course, many many smaller area rugs. Some are new creations, such as this vibrant rug. Tell me, have you ever seen such rich and dense natural dyed yarn? I don't think I have...

While some are efforts to replicate the specific look of a particular tribal rug, such as this light-toned Sarab from the north-western part of Iran...

While other rugs have drawn their inspiration from the tribal rugs of the Caucasus, such as this reproduction of a Kazak...


  1. I could create a strategy for getting these rugs out by air. If in fact they are carried by ponies on that trail, there is an alternative.

  2. Majority of the world fantacizes about the West, but i feel, infact know that the East too has a lot of richness to offer in almost all spheres. I like this post. Thankyou

  3. Great post about the Afghans Ride Again. By Bruce McLaren.Get the Silk carpets online