Carpet Weaving in Azerbaijan
Located along one of the tributaries of the fabled Silk Road, the Trans-Caucasus–Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan–has long enjoyed its strategic position at the nexus of Asia and Europe. Carpet weaving in this part of the world has been traced back to the Bronze Age, long predating the ancient trade route that once connected two continents.
In Azerbaijan, carpet weaving has a particular cultural significance. More unique carpet designs are woven here than in any other country on Earth. Many of those designs are documented at Baku’s Carpet Museum, the first institution of its kind in the world. Soumak, Azerbaijan’s signature style of carpet-making, involves hand-wrapping pure sheep’s wool threads over a warp. The wool is purposefully left uncut on the carpet’s underside and as a result, soumak are non-reversible. The tuft of wool gives the rug extra warmth and durability–important in Azerbaijan’s mountain villages, where winters are bitterly cold.
In recent years, Azeri carpets have found a market outside of their traditional use in homes and for ceremonies. Soumak and cut-pile carpets are an increasingly popular souvenir for tourists from Russia, Turkey and Central Asia. Small workshops that re-emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse are once again alive with the clunk of looms. It was on a recent visit to one such workshop, Qadim Quba, that I got to see soumak and cut-pile carpet weaving up close.
Located two hours north of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, and close to the border with Dagestan, Quba is a small city of just 38,000 people. It has long been known as one of Azerbaijan’s seven key carpet-making centers.
Qadim Quba looks nondescript from the street. After entering a long hallway, I have to try a few doors before I eventually find the workshop. Not a word of English is spoken by the women working inside, but they are more than happy to show me around and allow me to photograph them working. Most make carpets; others are busy assembling a massive steel-frame loom.
Carpet weaving is strictly women’s business. Traditionally, weaving would be reserved for the winter months but at Qadim Quba, artisans must work year-round to keep up with demand. Up to six women work in tandem on the one carpet – huge area-rugs that bare traditional Quba designs, knotted according to a complex tie-by-numbers pattern. Others work individually on small Sajjadah prayer mats. Synthetic colours are mixed with Quba’s traditional hues of red, blue, green, yellow and cream.
Some designs are more contemporary than others; an almost life-size Jesus Christ on the cross catches my eye. This is not what I expected to see in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan – but Quba is also home to the country’s largest Jewish population, so this kind of religious crossover is not a total surprise.
One thing I do find extraordinary is the median age of the artisans. Many are young women in their 20s and early 30s; some listen to music on their iPhones as they work. It's unusual to see younger generations engaged in commercial weaving. It’s a great testament to Qadim Quba that wages and demand are both high enough to attract young women to pursue a career in carpet making.
For more information, please visit Qadim Quba on Facebook.