A Silk Road

Turning Calligraphy into Carpets  

The scene is of a meadow – a rich tapestry of shrubs and flowers with barely room for grass to grow. I recognise dandelions with their jagged leaves and yellow flowers, and what appear to be wild strawberries. My eyes wander to a plane tree standing tall as it juts out of the picture frame past swirls of Persian couplets. It fills the top right-hand corner of the page with beautifully detailed, individually painted leaves. Behind the tree a stream snakes across vellum, emerging from a brook nestled in the base of a rocky outcrop that sweeps above the meadow like an arid wave. On closer inspection, hidden faces of a sheep, a camel, and possibly a jinn can be made out, hidden by the anonymous painter amongst the contours of the rocky crags and clefts.


In the foreground, a turbaned black eunuch stands guard over his mistress with a perfume bottle in his hand. Maidservants sit on the grass, having laid out a platter of cool sherbets in tall copper vials. One plays the nai, another a tambourine. There is also a lyre player and a musician who claps and sings. Their mistress Shirin is unaware of the music, her mind on other matters. She stares, transfixed at a portrait found nailed to the plane tree. The portrait is of a handsome young man, and the artist is obviously a master. Nearby, unknown to Shirin, the artist Shapur remains hidden in the undergrowth, watching.


It is Shapur who has set the wheels in motion for a tragic romance as familiar today in the East as the story of Romeo and Juliet is in the West. Blessed with the ability to evoke images through both paintbrush and the spoken word, Shapur has intoxicated Husrov with his description of Shirin, a virgin princess. He has never met her but already the fires of love burn strong in his heart and he commissions Shapur to pain his portrait, capturing the essence of his soul and his love for Shirin.


As Shirin gazes at the portrait of Husrov, she feels a stirring of passion in her bosom. Never has the essence of a man been so cleverly captured. She has fallen in love, not with a man, but with a painting.


And so have I.


~From A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road
 
Discovering this legacy of Amir Timur, known in the west as Tamerlane, has been an exploration into his artistic side. He’s more famous for scourging Central Asia, leaving mountainous piles of skulls in his wake and sparing only craftsmen useful for his lavish vanity projects. Keen to leave a historic legacy, he commissioned the kitob khona, a manuscript workshop which continued under the reign of his sons and grandsons. As Timur’s capital moved from Samarkand to Persian Herat, the rougher Turkic and Mongol styled manuscripts gave way to something softer, sedentary and more embellished.
 
There has been debate about which came first; the calligraphy or carpet. Some have argued that developments in calligraphy, illustrating new courtly standards led to mimicry in carpet workshops, keen to keep pace with the latest illuminated works of poetry or literature. Others, such as Amy Briggs (Ars Islamica 1940) point out that the artistic realism in miniatures when depicting buildings still standing today, suggest that the miniaturists were, in fact, simply rendering on vellum the very carpets they saw before them.
 
Either way, I am grateful for the miniscule detail and the lack of diminishing perspective in the miniatures, allowing each one to become a carpet blueprint – assuming of course that enough of the carpet pattern can be seen. Each miniature is painted from the perspective of a minaret, to give a God’s eye-view, the centre of each miniature devoid of people for only Allah can be truly central. These and other devices were employed in a culture where representative art was considered a blasphemy and the kitob-khona or manuscript workshop was protected from iconoclastic Mullahs only by the patronage of royalty.
 
Timurid carpets are quite distinct from the later Safavid carpets, which influence most Persian carpet designs today. Each Timurid carpet is framed with a series of repeating gul that were once kufic letters but have become stylised and more abstract. Earlier Mongol miniatures such as The Mourning over the bier of Iskandar (from The Great Mongol Shahnama1325-35 now in the Freer Gallery) show borders with distinct kufic lettering, whereas the border in the miniature of Shirin that I’ve just discovered, looks more like a repeating pattern than lettering. The field in Timurid carpets is usually a staid series of tessellating gul rather than the swirling arabesque medallions of the later Safavid dynasty. An excellent example of this is the carpet on which Shah Rukh, Timur’s heir, is seated.
 
The interplay of design between manuscript painters and carpet weavers is by no means limited to the Timurid era or to these two mediums. As I examined miniatures more closely I found designs mirrored in wall tiles and carpets. Khiva itself – dubbed by UNESCO as the most homogenous example of Islamic architecture in the world – is no exception. Marble plinths have been ornately etched and support carved fluted wooden pillars which, in turn, bear up the painted ceilings of graceful iwan or covered balconies. Each is covered in naksh or patterns as are the walls, adorned with majolica tiling, and often the same design appears in different mediums.
 
Perhaps the most impressive iwan is the courtyard in the Kunya Ark where the Khiva Khans once pronounced judgement. Together with Madrim I identified potential carpets everywhere. The tessellating waves of a tile design becoming a carpet we call Tolkin misleading tourists who assume a Middle-Earth connection, when it simply means, wave in Uzbek. Another tile design reminiscent of a rippling pond, we name Damchigul or rippling flower. Each of these tile carpets we reproduce in the same majolica colours – the name a derivation of Majorca, the island from which this cooling colour combination is said to originate.
 
With carved wooden doors, we have felt freer to experiment using different palettes sometimes as part of a commission. Some of these carved wood designs are there on our very door-step. Our own madrassah front door has yielded two carpet designs already.
 
Whilst many of our carpet designs originate from fifteenth century manuscripts, the silk we use to re-create them is grown all around us. Squat mulberry trees grown to chest height and then heavily pruned line every rural roadside as testament to Uzbekistan’s ranking as the world’s third largest producer of silk after China and India. Unfortunately, like its cotton production, sericulture in Uzbekistan is steeped in exploitation. The government still maintains the Soviet collective farm model which forces villages to grow silkworms, housed temporarily in the villager’s own living rooms. As the worms grow, so do their appetites and towards the end of their life cycle, the villagers work from dawn till late at night to provide them with mulberry leaves. A strict government monopoly ensures that villagers are paid little, if at all, for six weeks of backbreaking work. Ironically, this means that we try to buy black-market silk because it’s more fairly traded.
 
Ethics have played a founding role in this joint Operation Mercy and UNESCO project. Whilst I was keen from the start to achieve excellence in terms of design and quality, I was aware that creating beautiful silk carpets was a lot easier than changing exploitative mentalities. I’d already been living in Khiva for thee years prior to starting the workshop, and had learnt the local dialect and knew how things worked. I knew that corrupt officials would soon be clamouring for bribes if the workshop was referred to as a business, and that only the protection of UNESCO as a big name, would ensure that we were allowed to function. All our workers were instructed to refer to the workshop as the carpet school, and never to use the term factory or business to describe us.
 
I was keen for us to employ people considered needy by the community, so focussed initially on widows, orphans and disabled. I also employed women with prior experience in carpet weaving, although none had worked with silk, the Turkic knot or a hook-knife. The art of dyeing had completely died out and we had to train up our dyers with outside expertise.
 
Early on I established a committee of weavers and dyers, attempting (not always successfully) to introduce the concept of a cooperative and joint ownership. We priced our carpets competitively, aiming for a high turnover rather than huge profits. I never increased the weaving wage, bumping up the quality bonus instead as an incentive to weave fast but also well.
 
Cutting our first carpet from the loom was an emotional experience, and a day of celebration for us, but equally special was our first wage-day. Most of the workers had never received a wage in their life and the excitement, breathless exchanges over which material to buy from the bazaar or what gift to purchase for loved ones, provided me with a level of job satisfaction hard to beat.
 
I watched our assortment of weavers and dyers gradually woven together into something more akin to family. I watched Toychi, our flirtatious dyer, leaping to the defence of Davlatnaza, a disabled dyer who was often taunted on the street. There was Shola, a submissive quiet little weaver, orphaned and living with her brother and his wife. They planned to marry her off to someone from a distant village. It was not an auspicious match but Shola beamed with pride that someone actually wanted her. The wedding itself was a simple affair which we all attended, Shola shimmering in a beautiful new wedding dress. It was only after the wedding that I heard that Shola’s new in-laws had grudgingly provided her with a dirty, torn dress for the wedding, ignoring her tears of shame. The other weavers, appalled, had pooled their wages and brought a new dress for her.
 
Daily life in the workshop involves fights, scandals and plenty of gossip, but also deep friendship that spread from loom to loom and spill out from the workshop into weddings, birthday parties and other community celebrations. Newly married weavers, traditionally housebound under the tyranny of their mothers-in-law, are usually allowed to continue working with us as jobs were so scarce. Unlike their husband’s home, they don’t have to avert their eyes or remain silent unless spoken to. Having heard tales of exploitation within the world of carpet production, our workshop has been a place of empowerment, as wages increase each person’s status and the workshop gives a respite from bullying mothers-in-law and domestic servitude.
 
Unsurprisingly, we have a long, long list of women who want to work with us but we’ve reached capacity and each of the cells within our madrassah courtyard is bulging with looms. Fifty people now receive a fair wage and get paid on time as a result of the workshop, but we don’t want to stop there. I’ve been looking at a nearby madrassah with Madrim. It’s derelict and needs a lot of work done to it, but we’re hoping to start a second workshop in conjunction with the British Council, using the same Timurid, tile and door designs and creating suzanis with them – a type of Central Asian embroidery. Many of our visiting tourists love our carpets but can’t afford them, so in our new workshop we’ll start making cushion covers, handbags and more affordable items. Who knows where the silk road we’re travelling on will lead?
 
Christopher Aslan Alexander is the author of A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road.

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