First published on www.magazine.amcham.ge
The cultures of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are woven together by the threads of Caucasian carpets. Although the art form floundered under the Soviets, tourism has given it a second chance.
Creating a legend
Every carpet has its history; every seller a story.
The history of Georgian carpets is as rich and vibrant as their famous designs. For over three hundred years, artisans and traders from Istanbul to Athens have traveled to Tbilisi to sell hand woven carpets at a local bazaar known as the Caravanserai.
Although that tradition ended during the Soviet regime when the bazaar was closed, today a multitude of carpet sellers are working to support the craft.
Ilzar Mamed-Zade and his family have traveled the country for the past 15 years to find old and unique carpets, rugs, kilims (carpets and rugs created throughout the region that are known for their tight weaving and flat form) for their clients in Tbilisi.
The family's central shop, called Meidan-91, was founded in 1990. The first to sell carpets and kilims in the former USSR, Mamed-Zade collected over a thousand different original designs from families in the Caucasus.
Traditionally, carpets were an indispensable part of a dowry for Caucasian girls. For instance, in the past when an Armenian girl married a Georgian, she started knitting carpets with Armenian ornaments and in Georgian colors, known as "Caucasian carpets."
According to local custom, a girl could not marry if she was unable to knit carpets or did not have rugs in her dowry. Ilgar Mamed-Zade, who works with Ilzar, said it is still possible to find girls hand weaving carpets in villages, but it is becoming increasingly rare. "I have been to distant villages of all Caucasian countries, and I can say that this tradition has been preserved only in Azerbaijan," he said. Mamed-Zade noted that today some of his best carpets come from Georgian families who still have the rugs and carpets their grandmothers - and great grandmothers - weaved in preparation for marriage.
The Caucasus are home to some of the world's first pile rugs. The term pile refers to the cut or uncut loops of yarn that form the surface of the rug or carpet. The region inhabits one of the world's most diverse populations and Caucasian rugs mirror the complex ethnography of their weavers; every nation in the region has some history in carpet weaving. According to carpet experts, the Caucasus are famous for three designs: Shirvan, Kuba, and Kazak.
The colors of older Caucasian rugs are mostly made from natural materials found in the respective tribal regions. Older Caucasian carpets are "all wool" - not only the knotted pile, but also the warp and weft threads are usually made from hand spun woolen yarn or goat hair. However, one can sometimes find older carpets with cotton warps and wefts. Warp threads can be made of undyed light yarn in one area, and dark or mixed in another. Goat hair is also used for the warp threads, but never for the pile. Weft threads can be different colors: rusty red/brown, blue or white. The number and colors of selvages often can be an identifier of the area of origin.
Carpets are usually so unique that the tribe, region and village of origin can be identified without much trouble. The designs, colors, and overall quality of the carpets can be very different. Likewise, there are clear differences of function, design and quality between tribal, village and production center carpets.
The carpets from the Caucasus region, for example, are readily distinguished by their geometrical designs and bold colors. The use of bold color contrasting with warm primary colors can help to create a sense of warmth and comfort within sometimes dreary surroundings. This is especially important when considering the regions where people in the Caucasus live are often cold and mountainous.
A real antique - depending on its design and quality - can fetch thousands of dollars which means there are a lot of imposters in the market trying to cash in on the new demand. Although Mamed-Zade has not had any special training in the carpet craft, years of experience have taught him how to identify a real antique.
He said that there are two easy ways to distinguish an antique from the hundreds of fakes that are flooding the market. One is by touch. "At first I understand touching them," he said. "There are people who bring false carpets, claiming they are very old. But I know that old carpet was weaved using a special technique."
According to Mamed-Zade, the second secret to distinguishing a real antique carpet from all the fakes is the colors. He noted that traditionally weavers used "special thread," which was dyed using flowers and worms, providing the carpets with their stunning red color. Even today experts are unsure how the women were able to produce such vibrant tones.
If the traditions surrounding carpet making are changing, the demand has not. According to Mamed-Zade, his shop turns a tidy thousand dollar profit monthly and can usually bet on higher profits during the tourist season from April through July.
"Foreigners appreciate Caucasus carpets," he said.