patterns and types
The range of colours and compositions found in kilims is
enormous, from intricate designs in natural, undyed wool to
simple, vividly coloured geometric patterns. Kilim owners
are often able to trace the origins of their rugs back to a
particular tribe, area or town, and many styles can be
clearly and easily identified once you know what to look
for. The great charm of kilims is that you do not need to be
a learned rug expert or academic to be able to spot certain
characteristics and pinpoint their origins.
The exact sources of many types are still far from clear,
and are debated hotly by collectors, dealers and owners
alike. In the Middle East and Central Asia, history is
enshrined in the oral tradition of tribal folklore, and few
tribes have enjoyed peace and stability for any lenght of
time - a situation which militates against a rigid and
This chapter will begin with a look at ways of interpreting
the ancient symbols and motifs found on kilims, and with a
description of the more unusual forms, such as prayer rugs,
bags and runners, that are sometimes available in the West.
Finally, there is a comprehensive guide to every major kilim
type, starting in Anatolia and moving east towards
Afghanistan, following the zig-zag path of the ancient trade
routes, describing the colours, patterns and materials used
in antique, old and new rugs from all the main areas of
Motifs and symbolism
The opening words of th Koran are 'There is no God but God'-
everything in Islam derives from God and everything
represents him, with the result that symbolism in Islamic
art is subjective and implicit, and is open to many
interpretations. It is certain that many of the symbols that
are commonly used in kilims pre-date Islam by many
centuries, going back to the very origins of flatweaves in
pre- Islamic Central Asia, and to the Animistic and
Shamanistic traditions and beliefs of the early pastoral
nomads in the southern steppes.
The rise of the Islamic faith brought strictures against
many of the ancient images used in all forms of art and
crafts. The belief that only God can create a living thing
was strictly enforcd, and the idolatry of early Animistic
beliefs was rigorously suppressed. However, representational
art was not forbidden by the Koran, only idolatry, so the
dividing line between forbidden and acceptable images was,
as always, indistinct.
Weavers avoided the taboo of reproducing the animate, but
still incorporated pre-lslamic symbols that had been in use
for generations, passed down like folk-tales.
Such symbols have survived the test of time, and formed a
language of their own. There is no representation of the
Deity in Islam, either in the form of the written word, or
through the depiction of people (man being made in God's
image). An early Christian tapestry might show God, or the
disciples, or tell a story of war and heroism, and contain
lifelike images of flowers, trees and animals. The textile
would recreate light, shade and a degree of perspective and
would attempt to disguise its own form and structure by
presenting an illusory pictorial reality.
Not so an Islamic textile. In Islamic art some figurative
forms, human and animal, are permitted, but in many cases it
is considered disrespectful to walk over them, thus
precluding their use in knotted rugs and kilims.
For the tribal weavers, however, connections with their
natural environment, with their animals and with their
family groups are very strong and deeply rooted, and will
override religious taboo, so that recognizable objects are
depicted in their rugs, but these will never be seen to form
part of a complete, pseudo-realistic picture. Art for art's
sake is a concept alien to Islam, but kilims are practical
as well as decorative, so they are of a high order within
the definition of Islamic art.
The motifs and designs on a kilim often hold the key to its
age and origins, and can develop out of many different
influences and disciplines - for instance, the different
weaving techniques often determine the style of the motifs
used. Slitweave produces abstract, stepped or crenellated
patterns, usually diamond-shaped or triangular; cicim and
zilli produce geometric, brocaded 'medallions' in the field
of the rug; weft- faced patterning gives a narrow band of
geometric and floral patterns across the width of the rug,
and soumak is able to produce flowing patterns, representing
recognizable images with some accuracy. Kilim weavers have,
over the generations, developed ways of combining weaving
techniques to achieve more complicated and elaborate
There are two factors other than religion that influence the
designs that a weaver will choose for her kilim. One is the
discipline of the weaving techniques themselves, which
produce mostly abstract patterns; the other is the natural
environment in which the weaver lives, and from which she
will adapt motifs to represent lakes, rivers, flowers,
petals, trees and leaves, or domestic animals (sheep, goats
and camels), wild animals and insects (snakes, scorpions and
spiders). She will incorporate images from her own
household, such as a kettle, teapot, ewer, comb, beater or
lamp, as well as, more recently, objects of Western
influence, including cars and bikes and, most recently, even
helicopters and automatic rifles.
Knotted carpets and kilims share many symbols and design
elements, despite the complete dissimilarity in their
weaving techniques. The Anatolian motif 'elibelinde'
(meaning 'hand on hip') is seen frequently on both flatweave
and pile rugs, as are the 'gol' (lake) and 'gui' (flower).
It is difficult to decide whether these motifs first
appeared on kilims and were then transferred to knotted
carpets, or vice- versa, although quite probably their first
origins were in flatweaves. Some motifs, however, certainly
originated on knotted carpets and were later used by kilim
weavers, such as the flower and leaf patterns that are
common to north Persian kilims and knotted rugs alike.
Symbols used in all forms of Asian and Islamic art hold a
particular fascination for the West, and there is always a
good deal of speculation as to their meaning.
Very often, an original form representing an animate object
has evolved through generations of weaving into a stylized
pattern. The Western interpretation of this stylized motif
is easily misdirected since it calls for a thorough
understanding of the concepts of the ancient weavers.
Westerners should guard against romanticizing notions of
ethnic symbolism and religious significance, which often
confuse the theology and images of very different cultures.
This is further complicated by the various languages, and
religious and ethnic origins of the people in Anatolia,
Persia and Central Asia. Over the years many of the original
interpretations of a motif have changed or been forgotten,
different interpretations of the same motif have arisen
because of particular local beliefs, and similar motifs are
often given different names in different areas.
Another problem is the tendency for Western eyes to see any
and all geometric designs in flatweaves as stylizations or
corruptions of an original curvilinear and more
representational form. Many of the patterns are just
geometric forms which have been given descriptive names by
which they can be easily identified. Such names have become
part of the language of the weavers and later been
misinterpreted as signifying an original representational
motif. To give an example: the motif used on many Central
Asian and Turkoman kilim borders, the 'tree', is a
convenient geometric pattern which complies
with all the requisites of slitweave it has short slits and
a stepped, crenellated design. It is not a representation of
a tree, but it does resemble one, vaguely, and so it is
convenient to give it a name by which it can be easily
identified and described. More complex, and intriguing,
examples of this are the so-called 'lover's quarrel' and
'pair of birds'motifs, or the double-hooked 'ram's horns'
and 'camel's neck' symbols.
A pattern or design can also be given different names and
interpretations in different regions. The narrow guard strip
frequently used on many kilims to separate the field from
its major borders is colloquially known as a 'ladder'. The
same feature, when seen on Turkoman carpets from Central
Asia, is known as 'camel's teeth'. The boteh is a very
common design element frequently referred to as a hook,
curl, peacock or bird's head, and the 'hand motif',
sometimes identified as the signature of a particular
weaver, is often said to be a representation of the five
pillars of Islam, or the prophet Mohammed and his four
Caliphs, or the hand of Fatima.
Perhaps the most familiar motif used on kilims and knotted
rugs is the 'Tree of Life'. Closer to the true nature of
symbolism, this Tree of Life has multiple interpretations
and meanings, such as the presence of water in desert lands,
or the family tree, with the 'father' trunk and the 'child'
branches. Another genuinely symbolic motif is the talismanic
evil eye, or 'nazarlik', used to deflect evil and to balance
the adverse effects of other motifs on the kilim, such as
the spider or scorpion.
On many modern kilims, made in the last thirty years or so,
ancient motifs have been misrepresented, or given a new
twist, because the weaver has not been aware of the origins
of the design she is using. Modern weavers often work from
'cartoons' or pictures of old rugs, recreating them for an
enthusiastic Western market. Original motifs will be
modified in this process to suit a pre-ordained shape or
weaving technique, and so the evolution of the ancient
design continues under modern conditions.
Prayer kilims The devout Muslim must wash his hands, face
and feet, find a 'pure' surface and prostrate himself in
prayer five times a day. The prayer kilim, with its
distinctive mihrab or 'prayer niche' composition, is ideal
as a small, transportable and clean surface that may be laid
on the ground, with the top of the mihrab pointing to Mecca.
It must be said that any clean floor mat, kilim or carpet
can be used for prayer, but the mihrab design provides a
specific focus and a link with Islamic spiritual traditions.
But even the mihrab symbol can be variously interpreted. Its
origins can be traced to the arch that is found at the
centre of the wall that faces Mecca in all mosques, and
prayer kilims are therefore sometimes used as mosque door
hangings and decorations.
Prayer kilims are found throughout Anatolia, Kurdistan,
Khorasan and west Afghan is tan. They form an important part
of the weaver's dowry and are often woven for the head of a
family or as a gift to the local mosque. Single-arch prayer
kilims are of a common size, about feet by 3 feet, but the
shapes of the mihrab vary enormously. There are, at one
extreme, elaborate architectural forms supported by columns,
often with ornate lamp and tree decorations, such as can be
seen in central Anatolian examples.
These contrast with the simplified and almost unnoticeable
mihrabs of the west Afghanistan prayer kilims. Kilims
featuring multiple arches, known as 'saf', are rare and
exclusive to Anatolia. Their large size, about twelve or
fourteen feet long with up to seven niches in horizontal or
vertical rows, implies a family use or a decorative
Soifral and rukorsi
These are distinctively shaped kilims, largely woven by
Kurdish and Balouch tribes. Soffrai, in Persian, means
'small rug'. They take the form of small runners, above five
feet in length and about one-and-a-half feet wide, or
squares used as eating cloths. Both types are easily
identifiable by their zig-zag motifs, penetrating two sides
of a plain, madder red or camel-hair field. The borders are
frequently of soumak or knotted work, and these delicate
techniques perfectly complement the plain ground. Soffrai
runners are woven by the Balouch as 'fill-in' rugs, to lay
around the edges of a large room-sized carpet. Rukorsi
kilims, about four feet square, are used as covers for
charcoal braziers or bread ovens. In the depths of winter,
layers of felt topped by a rukorsi kilim make a warm family
Tapestry-woven bags are made alongside kilims for practical
everyday, but very different uses. Nomadic peoples and
settled tribes in villages have little use for furniture,
except for low chairs and tin or wooden chests, so flatwoven
bags are used for storage and transport. Double bags, known
as hurgin or khoorjeen in Persian, and heybe in Turkish, are
slung over the shoulder as a small pannier for vegetables
and foodstuffs; larger bags, up to three feet square, are
set across the backs of camels and donkeys as saddle packs.
Bedding and clothing bags include the cradle-like maffrash
of Anatolia and the Caucasus, and the pairs of juvals from
Khorasan and Afghan Turkestan. Similar to, but smaller than
juvals, the Turkoman jaloor bags have long tassels and, like
the juvals, are hung on the frame of the yurt for storage.
Salt bags, namak donneh, are most distinctive in shape, with
a long narrow neck that may be folded over to seal the bag
and preserve the valuable contents from moisture.
If oriental carpets of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries were invariably described as 'Turkish', then
'Persian' surely stands today as a much abused term, and
erroneous synonym for all types of carpets and rugs, But
there is in fact, no real problem in identifying authentic
Persian kilims, since their varied tribal ancestry has
resulted in sharp colours and strong, abstract patterns,
quite different from the fine silk carpets produced in urban
workshops, packed with floral and other figurative designs,
and available everywhere in the West.
The origins of the Persian tribes can be traced back to the
greatest empires of Asia. Persia has been ruled by
Achaemenidae, the Greeks, the Sassanian kings, The Arabs,
The Mongols and the Turkomen, finally returning to local
control with the Safavid dynasties. All have left their mark
by way of their tribal enclaves scattered about modern-day
Iran. The distribution, over the centuries, of these
immigrants from areas such as Central Asia and the Caucasus
was thrown into disarray by the Persian monarchs of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whole tribes were
forcibly uprooted from one end of Persia and settled in some
remote border district for political and military reasons.
The confusion caused by the cultural mixtures and the free
movement of tribes across frontiers until relatively
recently means that the exact origins of some Persian kilims
remain a matter of calculated guesswork.
Most of the finest Persian kilims that can be found today
were woven in the nineteeenth and early twentieth centuries
by Kurdish and Turkic tribes before the repressive regime of
Reza Shah. Kilims were woven for traditional family and
domestic purposes within the villages and encampments of the
areas many tribes; the highest quality floral patterned
kilims were produced in workshops in Senna, the capital of
The policies of the Pahiavi regime, established in 1925,
were directly aimed at reducing the political powers of the
tribes of Persia, tribes that were fast dwindling to a
minority amongst the Persians of the towns and cities.
Tribal leaders were imprisoned, firearms confiscated and
nomadic groups forcibly settled on marginal lands that could
not support them, or their flocks. For fifteen years after
the overthrow of Reza Shah in 1941, the tribespeople enjoyed
a return to self-government and traditional lifestyles.
After 1956 and to this day the governments of Iran have
continued with a tribal settlement and emasculation
programme that has attempted to create a homogeneous Iranian
society. These actions and the social changes that have
occured because of Westernization of the country have all
but destroyed the forces behind the traditional production
of kilims, although they continue to be produced in Persia
today on a much smaller scale.
Before the Islamic revolution, and as with Anatolian
production, there was a strong Western commercial and
scholarly pressure to re-introduce vegetable dyes and
traditional patterns. Much of this work was concentrated on
the weaving of the Qashqai of southern Persia.
Senna Senna, now known as Sanandaj, is the capital of the
district called Kurdistan and gives its name to a group of
finely woven kilims of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. The fine floral patterns were inspired
by the embroideries and brocades of the Safavid period and
most were workshop produced for sophisticated urban demand.
Senna kilims are small in size and finely woven in slitweave
and eccentric weft technique, with cotton warps and woollen
wefts; motifs are frequently enhanced with metal or silk
threads. The designs often consist of small clusters of
flowers, boteh, running vines, bees and a central diamond
cluster of small flowers known as a Herati pattern. Persia
is not known for its prayer kilims, the sole exception being
those made in Senna, with their distinctive bulbous mihrab.
The central field of Senna kilims is flanked by a series of
major and minor borders of leaf, stem and other floral
motifs. The colours are predominantly blue, red and white.
These kilims are woven in the villages and nomadic camps of
Kurdistan and are often naive copies of Senna work. The
weave is of coarse cotton and wool, the colours are bright,
and small animal and human figures are often depicted in the
field, with charming results.
(flow known as Ilsavan) The Ilsavan are a confederation of
the most important of the Turkic tribes that are found on
the north-west Persian border with the Caucasus. Some of the
tribal groups are semi-nomadic, moving from the plains of
Mughan to the summer pastures in the mountains west of
Ardabil. Shahsavan means lovers of the Shah', indicating
their mercenary attachment to the Safavid rulers, and these
Turkic tribes are descended from the Seijuk Turks of Central
Asia. Members of this confederation include those Caucasian
Turks who fled south from the Russians in the late
The Ilsavan are best known for their ceremonial horse
blankets, woven in soumak technique and decorated with
horses, deer and birds. Kilims from this area are similar in
design and scale to the southern Caucasian production,
differing only in the raw materials used, and in certain
design details. Ilsavan kilims are woven with dark, dry and
coarse wool, a contrast to the fabled soft, fine and ivory-coloured
woollen yarn of the Caucasus. Persian influences are evident
in the random scattering of stylized birds, flowers and
human figures in the field of the kilim.
Kilims woven between the villages of Saveh, Zarand and
Qazvin in central Persia are collectively known as the
Zarand production. They are often the work of elements of
the Turkic Ilsavan who have settled in the area in large
Zarand kilims are all long, narrow and durable, woven with
cotton warps and a heavy woolen weft. Small slitweave and
eccentric weft work are the techniques most commonly used.
Patterns are stylized and floral, with running vine and
trefoil on the inner and outer borders; colours are muted
blues, creams and browns. More often than not the floral
motifs group to form a diamond grid pattern, or two or three
Veramin and Garmsar
Kilims woven in this region, some 35 miles south-east of
Tehran, have diverse tribal origins, for the towns of
Veramin and Garmsar straddle the east-west trading and
migration routes of Central Persia. Arabs, Kurds, Ilsavan,
Lurs, Qashqai and many other tribes have mingled here, and
have settled and established an important kilim-weaving
district. Veramin and Garmsar kilims are heavy, tightly
woven and large in size, with cotton warps or warps and
wefts of the local dark and relatively coarse wool.
Selvedges are distinctive, forming ridges of dark, cabled
warps to the sides of the kilims; weaving techniques include
delicate slitweave, lines of weft-faced patterning with 'S'
and rosette designs, and weft wrapping to highlight the
Compositions include horizontal or diagonally offset bands
of motifs or a field of interlocking designs that converge
to dazzling effect. Garmsar and Veramin kilims have a colour
palette of brilliant reds and blues, and unusual greens and
yellows on a dark ground.
The nomadic Qashqai of the Fars district of south-west
Persia are well known for their traditionally woven kilims.
The tribe's origins can be traced back to the sixteenth
century, when its people formed part of the Turkic hordes
who invaded from ihe north. As a result, some Qashqai kilim
patterns can be directly related to those of the Caucasus.
Once famed for their long annual migration from their winter
quarters by the Persian gulf to their summer pastures in the
Zagros mountains, the Qashqai have suffered heavily under
the repressive policies of the Persian governments since
1925. In consequence, most of the best rugs were woven
before the Pahlavi regime, and these older Qashqai kilims
are particularly exciting and satisfying to live with.
Woven during migrations, or at resting-places, Qashqai
kilims often display striking variations and shifts in
pattern and colour. Only a small amount of dyed yarn can be
carried by the nomads at any one time, so successive batches
of wool for the same kilim have to be dyed en route, hence
the colour variations. The ground looms upon which they are
woven are often packed up and moved while weaving is in
progress, so that the patterns are interestingly varied.
The Bakhtiari tribes were, until recently, a nomadic group.
They migrated from the plains of west-central Persia into
and over the Zagros mountains. Their origins are obscure and
ancient, their language is Persian and only the
inaccessibility of their homelands has ensured the survival
of their cultural traditions. Bakhtiari kilims are,
therefore, original in design, retaining their tribal
identity and purity.
Weaving techniques are unusual. Double interlock is used,
with cotton warps and woollen wefts, resulting in one-sided,
stiff and strong kilims. The rugs are long and narrow, with
clear colours and bright contrasts of yellows, blues, reds
and oranges. Designs most commonly consist of a grid pattern
of boxes in the field, or a pattern of boteh or lozenge
shapes, surrounded by several concentric borders. The ends
of the kilims are finished in bands of weft-faced
patterning. Horse covers are woven in soumak technique with
striking compositions of animal motifs and bands of colour.
Khorasan This region in the north-east of Persia, bordering
Afghanistan and Soviet
Central Asia, is home to the indigenous Balouch and Turkoman
tribes as well as groups of Kurds. These were displaced from
their homelands in the Caucasus and Kurdistan by the Ottoman
Turks in the sixteenth century and eventually forced to
settle in Khorasan to
defend Persia against the raiding Uzbeks from Central Asia.
The Kurds weave large brocade kilims with stripes and
lattice patterns in dark blues and reds, as well as heavily
brocaded and robust bags. It is often difficult to
distinguish these Kurdish weaves from the work of related
tribes further west.
Many of the Turkomen of Khorasan are exiles from Soviet
Central Asia, such as the Tekke and Yomut tribes who fled
from Imperial Russia in the nineteenth century, and from the
Soviets in the twentieth. Their kilims are distinguished by
their deep red ground onto which are brocaded the
characteristic Turkoman guts. Flatweaving is confined to
large dowry brocades, jaloors and pairs of juvals. There are
also groups of Balouch peoples living in Khorasan, thought
to be of ancient Persian stock form the central Kirman
region, displaced east and north-east by the Turkic
invasions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Balouch
who inhabit this borderland between Iran and Afghanistan are
known as the Rukhshanis, and they produce many kilims
commonly identified as Balouch. By contrast, few kilims are
made by the eastern Balouch tribes, the Brahuis of the
deserts of Pakistan Balouchistan.