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Exhibitions/ Portable Storage: Tribal Weavings from the Collection of William and Inger Ginsberg/ The Tribes

Portable Storage: Tribal Weavings from the Collection of William and Inger Ginsberg

At The Met Fifth Avenue
September 25, 2017–May 7, 2018

The Tribes

The selection of small tribal weavings from Iran, Turkey, and Transcaucasia in Portable Storage was generously given to The Met by William and Inger Ginsberg of New York.

While the term "carpet" evokes a large, heavy, rectangular floor covering (usually of either knotted pile or flat-woven kilim tapestry), a vast array of carpet and rug genres and techniques can be found in the Islamic world, where they serve various functions in nomadic encampments, villages, cities, and palaces.

Women weavers spun the wool, dyed the yarn, and created these textiles, often on small portable looms. The works on display demonstrate the mastery of the weavers and reflect centuries-old artistic traditions. They are at once embodiments of tribal identity and breathtaking examples of artistic expression.

Donkeys and mules, which were a primary mode of transportation for nomadic and premodern peoples, can be seen in an illustrated leaf from the Hamzanama, a text that recounts the fable of Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad and a legendary defender of Islam.

In the adventure illustrated here, the spies Zambur and Mahiya have been enlisted to rescue the princess Khwarmah. The spies enter the town of Tawariq, where the princess is being held, accompanied by a fruit-laden donkey. The animals are fitted with saddle covers, embroidered saddles, and other textiles, but the saddlebags commonly used to carry goods have been replaced by baskets.

This large-scale, multivolume scale copy of the Hamzanama, which was made in India in the 18th century for the Mughal emperor Akbar, took approximately 15 years to complete.

Selected Artworks

The migratory range of the Bakhtiari tribal groups, together with that of their close relatives the Lurs, is concentrated in the Zagros Mountains in the western part of Iran. The Bakhtiari language is thought to be related to earlier forms of Persian, and the confederation plays a prominent role in Iranian politics, as it has over the past few centuries.

Bakhtiari textiles encompass a tradition of large pile carpets with distinctive designs, which are mainly woven by sedentary groups in villages, and the types of bags in this exhibition, which are woven by nomads. Highly stylized animal, floral, and vegetal motifs are common in such weavings. The portable bags often feature a number of different techniques, including pile with symmetrical knots.

Related Objects

The Shahsevan, whose name means "those who love the king," are Turkic nomads. Their historical migratory range reaches from the southwest shores of the Caspian Sea to the southern part of Transcaucasia. Art historians have identified Shahsevan weavings, including a variety of small-format bags, only in the past half century.

Many Shahsevan weavings from the 19th and 20th centuries, especially those with centralized geometric designs, show a striking relationship with Anatolian carpets from the 15th and 16th centuries. The khorjin saddlebags from the Mughan plain (on the Caspian Sea in northwestern Iran), in particular, feature such geometric octagonal medallion motifs with stars and angular hooks that develop from the steplike edges. Sometimes the octagonal motif is repeated. This motif relates to the so-called Memling carpets, the classical 15th–16th century Anatolian carpets named after the 15th-century Netherlandish painter Hans Memling, who depicted them in his religious works. Many of the motifs found on Shahsevan textiles are thought to be centuries-old tribal emblems, a symbolic language that today we are frequently unable to decipher.

Related Objects

The mostly Turkic Qashqa'i confederation of nomadic tribal groups, whose ancestors may have occupied territory in northwestern Persia, is today found in a broad area north and south of the city of Shiraz, in southwestern Iran. With historical roots in pastoral nomadism, the five major subtribes of the Qashqa'i have long held a reputation as great carpet weavers in both pile (usually using asymmetrical knots) and flat-woven (kilim) techniques. However, as the majority of the groups have given up nomadic life, their carpet-weaving traditions have started to fade away. Qashqa'i rugs are known for being made of soft wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz. Their compositions are usually geometric, with highly stylized floral and animal motifs that tend to blend into the graphic designs.

Related Objects

Slit-tapestry rugs from Turkey, called kilims, were woven in a wide range of sizes and formats for a wide variety of uses. Rugs associated with the market town of Reyhanlı, on the Turkish-Syrian border, were produced by nomad groups who moved to upland Taurus mountain pastures in the summer, returning to the Mediterranean littoral during winter months.

Besides the characteristic technique of mainly slit-tapestry (kilim), the splendid double saddlebags from Reyhanlı (called heybe in Turkish) sometimes include metallic-wrapped cotton threads, which the nomadic weavers could not produce themselves but had to acquire, probably in exchange for sheep or goat milk, cheese, or other products from their animals.

Scientific analysis of the metallic thread in the double saddlebag from Reyhanlı confirms that it was made in an industrial workshop, most likely in northern Europe. The industrial revolution that had begun in the 1760s in Great Britain had spread to other parts of northern Europe, creating unsurmountable competition for the manual weaving looms in Ottoman lands. The new textile industry that arose affected the Ottoman weaving economy. Regional textile manufacture, such as in the main Syrian textile production centers in Syria of Aleppo or Damascus, located near Reyhanlı, gradually declined. Materials such as cotton, silk, and metallic thread could be imported for cheaper prices from Europe, even though they had to be traded thousands of miles.

Learn more about the golden metallic thread used to create this bag.

Related Objects

A Documentary about the Bakhtiari (1925)

Authors: Deniz Beyazit, Associate Curator, Department of Islamic Art; and Walter B. Denny, Distinguished Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. © 2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Double saddle bag (Khorjin) (detail), ca. 1900. Northwestern Iran or Azerbaijan, Shahsevan tribe. Wool (warp and sumak weft) and cotton (ground weft); sumak extra weft wrapping (front) and weft-faced plain weave with pattern in brocaded weft (back), 52 x 20 in. (132.1 x 50.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Inger G. and William B. Ginsberg, 2015 (2015.490.43). Photo by Walter B. Denny