A Look At The Word Tribal by Murray L. Eiland


Often our thinking becomes most muddled and imprecise around just those issues on which we feel most confident. Particularly during the last several decades, the term tribal rugs has come into wide usage both as a description to set certain pieces apart from urban rugs and to give them a particular cachet, a stamp of special significance. At the beginning of this trend, the term nomadic was perhaps more common and certainly inspiring of higher prices for the rugs so designated, but we have come to understand that pastoral nomadism, as practiced by such large groups as the tribes of Fars, is much less common elsewhere in areas where rugs are made.

[This article originally appeared in print in Volume 9/5 of Oriental Rug Review, February 1989, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission.]

We have learned, for example, that most Kurdish rugs are made by non-nomadic groups, while even the Turkomans — once thought by many in the rug world to represent the essence of nomadism — have been relatively sedentary as people during the last several centuries. This does not mean that the young men of many groups do not move with the flocks to find pasturage, but large-scale movement of entire living groups, including the women who weave, is less common than we formerly thought. We now know, for example, that pastoral nomadism had little to do with the weaving tradition of the Caucasus.


Thus the designation of tribal has taken on a new significance in reference to works relating to the ethnic identity of a particular people, as if it suggests that the group so designated consists of settled nomads or, at the very least, people still living together in kinship units. By implication the tribal rug thus emerges as something superior to a non-tribal piece in terms of having a heritage within a specific ethnic group, an authenticity suggesting a resistance to outside influences that makes it more a part of the indigenous art of the Middle East.

Thus a city rug is designed by professionals either creating new forms or borrowing from the past, and it is woven by people who have no traditional association with the design. The tribal rug has designs that have evolved within the context of an ancient legacy passed on from mother to daughter, and the weavers project onto their looms those forms that reflect the very soul of the tribe. By this magic we are given an honest, non-derivative, noble art that has arisen and persisted independently of Western Culture. Consequently it is of special value. To assign a tribal name to a type of rug conveys upon it more significance and, after a brief period of market realignment, greater market demand.

That this process may at times be going a little too far came to mind after I read the recent ORR account by Michael Craycraft, “The Qarai Rugs of Turbat-i-Haidari,” and viewed the supporting exhibition at the Adraskand Gallery. I have never visited this gallery without feeling rewarded with a sense of having learned something from the thoughtfully curated exhibits; but, as I have mentioned several times previously in these pages, the labels are often invitations to lively disagreement.

Surely this applies here to the new Qarai attribution for a group of rugs that have previously merely been labeled as Baluch. The rationale is presented in the ORR piece, which begins with well researched, historical data on the Qarai. With this I would only have a minor quibble in that the relationship between the 13th century Qarais (or Karas) of the Gobi and the l8th century Khurassan tribe of the same name (a common Turkish word that simply means black) is perhaps more tenuous than suggested in the article. But the existence since the 18th century of a group of Turkic background in the neighborhood of Turbat-i-Haidari under the name Qarai is undisputed.

The next section, an attempt to separate on structure a particular group of rugs from the general Baluch category, is less convincing to me. To state that “true Baluch structure” is a “method of weaving based on flatweaves with all the warps set on one level” is simply not verifiable. Thus the supposition that the Qarai rugs are distinguished by having a depressed warp means little. Similarly saying that the edges of Baluch rugs are finished in one- or two-cord goat hair selvages and the Qarais in a four-cord selvage can be no more than supposition. One could just as easily suppose the opposite. To have any claim to reliability, such a determination would have to be based on rugs of known Baluch and known Qarai provenance, and no one on the spot has provided us with any such thing.

A look at the rugs in the gallery similarly does not convince us that they were all produced by the same group. Substantial differences in color and finish raise considerable question in my mind that we are dealing with a single tradition. This is not to minimize the importance of the rugs, many of which are quite handsome. One splendid, large Mina Khani rug, labeled as a Baluch, showed what I thought to be an early form of the design. Even though thin, the rug emerged as one of the most successful Baluchs I have seen. Another prayer rug showed an unusually graceful arch for a Baluch-type rug.

The most prevalent designs of those rugs alleged to be Qarai, however, do not strike me as having any tribal significance. Variations of the Mina Khani are by far the most common, and this design is now usually seen as derived from a group of 17th century Persian city rugs. (I felt that more of the lattice and repeating floral designs were Mina Khani inspired than the labels suggested.) There are also degenerate palmette motifs and other fragments of the Herati, while even the borders are often stiff, angular forms of floral designs associated with Persian city rugs.

One area in which I agree with the Adraskand attributions is that most of the pieces were probably woven around Turbat-i-Haidari. Yet Edwards, who visited Turbat and bought rugs there in the 1940s and perhaps before, indicates that a number of Baluch subtribes lived around the town, including the Bahluli, Baizidi, Kolah-derazi, Jan Mirzai, Rahim Khani, Brahui, Kurkheilli, and Jan Beghi. These he described as the principal weaving tribes of the area. Craycraft comments that “the evidence that this group of weavings are not the product of Baluch tribes is fairly conclusive. The four-cord selvedge, depressed warp set, and weft substitution chevron kilim ends deviate from the structure of Baluch weavings found in Baluchistan and Afghanistan.” In my opinion this is far from established. What about weavings of the Baluch tribes around Turbat?

I passed briefly through Turbat (a dreary place I had no desire to visit longer) about 20 years ago, and the rugs I saw there appeared to be later descendants of the Mina Khani types displayed at Adraskand. Like this group, most of them had depressed warps and some were a little finer in weave, but their dimensions and finish were essentially the same. I was told at the time that many of the type were woven in and around Turbat in small workshops. They were obviously produced in response to the greater demand at that time for more finely woven rugs. As elsewhere in Iran, there was some attempt made to make some of them appear much older.

The rugs in the Adraskand exhibit, in my opinion, represent an earlier generation of this type of rug from the Turbat area. But we do not have convincing reason to say that they are not Baluch work, nor do we even know that the Qarais have been weavers during historic times.

So should we use a tribal label for these rugs? Do they merit being separated from Baluch rugs in general and given a special category? Is there any evidence that they were woven by Qarais?

There is, of course, nothing wrong with an article and exhibition that purports to identify a new type of tribal rug. The rug field would, indeed, be in a sorry state if no one sought to expand our horizons, and Michael Craycraft responsibly backs away from insisting on a Qarai designation for his rugs. Toward the end of his article he notes that, “Proving conclusively that these rugs are from the Qarai tribe is less tenable, but indications do exist.”

Unfortunately, however, this is just the kind of caveat that soon gets overlooked, and I have already heard people in this area begin to describe certain rugs as Qarai, and I have seen the term used in an advertisement. I would imagine that the first dealer who described a Tekke ensi to his customer as a “Princess Bokhara” probably knew that he was simply using a little sales hype, but some decades later, when the term had been established in the trade, the real identity and function of these rugs had been obscured. If we are to avoid such accumulations of mythology in the future, I believe we must cast a cautious eye toward new labels and make certain we understand their full implications. In the process we might also try to refine our definition of tribal rug so as to give it some real significance. If we are to avoid another Imreli debacle, we must look carefully at iour labels and understand just what they mean.

[This article originally appeared in print in Volume 9/5 of Oriental Rug Review, February 1989, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission.]