Zoe Schoofs

Unknown artists, about 1981, wool, 200 cm x 98 cm, Die Neue Sammlung München. Courtesy Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum Foto - Die neue Sammlung (A. Laurenzo)

Oriental Carpet - War Rug

"It is obvious that the images of the carpets must often remain incomprehensible to us, hidden in a language that we do not speak. Even simple statements lie outside our conceptual world and our historical background and thus outside our perceptive faculty." (Schlamminger / Wilson 1980: 9)

  • Zoe Schoofs
    Zoe Schoofs

    The oriental carpet — in Europe it was once proof of the owner's long journeys or good trade relations, but in the regions of origin it was an everyday object used everywhere, often with a reference to paradise. With the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops, the aesthetic concept changed — instead of lively gardens and elaborate arabesque patterns, suddenly there were tanks and weapons — so-called war rugs were created. Not only, but also for European viewers, whose idea of carpets is decisively influenced by classical Persian appearances, these new conventions of representation represent a break with the familiar. Soldiers, diplomats and war correspondents brought such pieces with them from their stays in Afghanistan and made them known in Europe and the USA. Enthusiasts and museum staff were quickly found to create collections of these objects, including the collectors Hans Werner Mohm, Till Passow and Enrico Mascelloni, as well as the Museum für Völkerkunde in Freiburg and Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum in Munich.


    Carpets from the Orient were already popular at European courts in the 13th century, as they referred to the good trade relations with the Near and Middle East and served as prestigious items of the interior. Carpets were imported, but were also knotted directly in European court manufactories. With the enthusiasm for the Orient that emerged in the middle of the 19th century, the perception of carpets, whose origin had been relatively irrelevant until then, changed to a meticulous, scientific analysis, especially with regard to origin and iconography. World exhibitions and museums made them accessible to an ever wider public. While up to then carpets from courtly and urban manufactories had been the object of desire, over time those with a nomadic context became the centre of interest (Jansen 2001: 138). While this interest had already subsided on the part of the ruling dynasties in the 17th century, carpets for decorative use were produced for the bourgeoisie in the course of the industrial revolution. In 1861 William Morris founded his company Morris & Co. in Great Britain. "Over time, the carpet became part of an aesthetic 'spatial concept'. The technique and decorative motifs were first adopted from the Orient, but then adapted to Western tastes.“ (Bristot 2011: 32) They embodied "[...] the romantic ideal of the free and combative nomad in boundless expanse [...] the Turkmen carpet could be regarded as a sign of this independence sought among men.“ (Jansen 2001: 64) Thus the carpets found their way into male smoking rooms and libraries, also as blankets, cushions and seat covers when cut into pieces. The relocation of the production to factories brought with it simplifications of  the motifs and thus further changes. The luxury good was now accessible to a broad section of the population and was thus the object of everyday use.


    Carpets from these contexts, unlike woven textiles, are often knotted. They can be found in many different cultures all over the world. Basically, a distinction is made between courtly and urban works and works of the rural and nomadic environment, although there are of course blurred lines. While in the case of courtly and urban carpets all work processes were carried out by the respective specialists (spinning, dyeing, designing, knotting, etc.), all work processes for the carpets from the rural-nomadic environment were in one hand. These objects were primarily produced for the company's own needs and in some cases for the small local market. Courtly and urban carpets, on the other hand, were mostly commissioned works, intended for export or as envoy gifts and made in manufactories. The respective environment had a decisive influence on the appearance of the knotting work. In contrast to rugs made in manufactories, those produced in private homes or a rural community where meant for the local market.


    The objects that today are commonly known as classical oriental carpets mostly originated from the Persian Empire and are therefore also known as Persian carpets. At this point, however, it should be noted that a large number of ethnic groups which were united under Persian rule knotted those carpets and that therefore there a large number of different aesthetic concepts. Those from northwestern Persia are most likely to correspond to the European idea of a particularly valuable carpet. The basis for this was an enduring period of peace under Shah Ismael in the 16th and 17th centuries, which is why sufficient resources were available to create works with particularly elaborate motifs (Bristot 2011: 56). In addition to purely ornamental patterns, numerous representations of gardens were created; vases, flowers and trees of life often referred to paradise.


    On one hand, various textiles are ubiquitous in many societies: in tents and yurts, carpets have been hung on walls and lain on the floor as thermal insulation since ancient times and hung at the entrance as a substitute for doors. On the other hand, carpets were made in a (semi-)nomadic context in memory of the deceased. These carpets were placed on walls and, in addition to their insulating function, also had the function of commemorating the ancestors. The prayer rug was of central importance for the performance of religious practices. Thus, textile products shape the visual perception of craftsmen and users, and on the other hand, everyday things also find their way into the art of knotting (Frembgen/Mohm 2000: 15).


    When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979, war became part of everyday life for many people there; in the course of the years, a civil war broke out. “As early as 1981, the war took on genocidal dimensions. Young and old, men, women and children were affected by unspeakable atrocities.“ (Knauer 1994: 27) "The cultural policy of the [Prorussian] Afghan government was aimed at destroying the traditional ties of Afghan culture to the Islamic world and at adopting the Soviet ideology.“ (Knauer 1994: 28)


    As a reaction to these developments, women began to process these impressions into carpet art. The aim was not only to report on specific events, but also to motivate resistance against these conditions and the political system. The resulting carpets originated from the nomadic rural environment. In contrast to large manufactories, in which the knotting and design process was usually carried out by different people, these experiences could be directly converted.

    In Figure 1, three horned hexagons arranged one above the other in a light background dominate the main field, which is lined by a wide, sixfold border. In the inner field of the rhombuses representations of three to four prayer rugs, several stylised mosques and a centrally placed ZSU-23-4 tanks were arranged. Although the tank immediately catches the eye, the carpet looks very calm, there are no other war instruments depicted. This impression is reinforced by the many geometric borders and the structure of the main field, whose symmetrical arrangement is reinforced by the triangles placed on the sides. The similarities to Mushwani carpets from the west and Baluchi carpets from the south are striking (cf. MacDonald 2017: 77 / 78; Parsons 2016: 166/167). The carpet measures 160 x 88 cm and was probably knotted in Pakistan in the 1980s. Since the carpets were mostly in use before they came to the bazaar and to Europe through traders, only estimates can be made in this respect. Since it didn't take long for international buyers to become interested while there was also a market in Afghanistan and Pakistan, such carpets were soon produced in Pakistani refugee camps to generate income.


    In Figure 2, a border of BTR-60 tanks frames the midfield, on which two identical representations are arranged one above the other: A hand underneath hammer and sickle is directly related to the map of Afghanistan. Below is the inscription جهاد (Dschihád). This motif of map, hand and writing can be found twice in the carpet. On the right side two AK-47 rifles were placed. On the left side there are two representations of trucks each with a ZPU-4 rifle (heavy multi-bore anti-aircraft machine gun) and also a Mi-24A combat helicopter with glazed bow. The field is filled with pseudo-cyrillic writing.

    In addition to the motifs shown here, there are many other illustrations that can be found on such carpets. Some point out the changes in day-to-day business by depicting weapons, others illustrate specific attacks on cities. But what was the purpose of those carpets whose motifs depict violent everyday scenes? In this respect, too, only speculations can be made. Scientists around the world hold different views on this question. What is certain however, is that the aesthetic change from classical ornamentation to specific depictions was also accompanied by a change in function.


    Surely the desire to process the experience played an important role. According to Jürgen Frembgen, it can be ruled out however, that carpets depicting objects of war have found their way into the family space. Instead, he assumes that the carpets were used in the men's house, hujra, or in the reception room of a house reserved for male visitors, otaq — rooms in which conversations and discussions took place. "The use of space and spatial presence are [...] the expression of social interaction and include shared experience. Spaces thus become zones of identity building.“ (Issa 2009: 83) In such a place they could also serve as a call for resistance. The aesthetics of Object 2 resemble anti-Soviet leaflets that circulated in large numbers, often showing the head of state Babrak Karmal, appointed by the Russians, represented as an (Afghan) puppet whose strings were pulled by the Russian hand. In Carpet 2, only the hand and the Soviet symbol were taken from this illustration. A carpet that makes war the subject of discussion could stimulate conversation and strengthen the idea of community. In addition, the homeowner positions himself on the side of the mujahideen. Pursuing the same purpose, they have been presented "in the houses and tents of some mujahidin commanders (sic!) and wealthy people — as ornaments and probably also out of pride about victories won.“ (Frembgen/Mohm 2000: 46) Accordingly, the objects would have been bought and used as "art within resistance" (Frembgen/Mohm 2000: 46). With the resignation and presumably also a further deteriorating economic situation, the objects later came back onto the market and were then purchased by international buyers.


    At first glance, it may seem surprising to be processing everyday life in a carpet. Since  particularly Persian pieces are often seen as an investment, timeless patterns or representations of traditional legends are more common. These representations of realities of life therefore mark an aesthetic idea of Modernism in which "the textile is already understood as a pictorial surface in the sense of narrative, sometimes even realistic iconography.“ (Baumhauer 2016: 156)


    Since their creation carpets with war motifs have served various purposes: to contribute to financial survival, to express political messages, to represent a medium of processing war. At a time when issues concerning refugee policy in Germany make up a large part of the political debate and there is disagreement about how to deal with migration of all kinds, the carpets have not lost any of their actuality. They are contemporary witnesses of the beginnings of a war that is hardly remembered today. Globalized relationships have made it possible for them to be known to experts around the world. Using various narrative concepts, the carpets with their „pictures against oblivion“ are meant to serve as a reminder of the conditions in the country for the following generation" (Frembgen/Mohm 2000: 45) – thus another purpose can be added, not only in Afghanistan, but all over the world. Although they were not explicitly created for this specific purpose, they could gain it through their display in museum spaces.



    • Baumhauer, Till Ansgar: Kunst und Krieg in Langzeitkonflikten. Visuelle Kulturen im Dreißigjährigen Krieg und im heutigen Afghanistan, Berlin 2016.
    • Bristot, Monique Di Prima: Bildlexikon Teppiche, Berlin 2011.
    • Frembgen, Jürgen Wasim / Mohm, Hans Werner: Lebensbaum und Kalaschnikow: Krieg und Frieden im Spiegel afghanischer Bildteppiche, Blieskastel 2000.
    • Issa, Christine:  Baukultur als Symbol nationaler Identität: Das Beispiel Kabul, Afghanistan, Dissertation zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades Dr. rer.nat im Fachbereich Geographie, Gießen 2009, https://geb.uni-giessen.de/geb/volltexte/2010/7483/pdf/IssaChristine_2009_12_08.pdf [15.12.2018], S. 83.
    • Jansen, Simone: Von der Jurte ins Herrenzimmer. Reisen von orientalischen und zentralasiatischen Teppichen, in: Dietrich, Andrea / Herbstreuth, Peter / Mannstein, David (Hrsg.): Orientale 1. Recherchen, Expeditionen, Handlungsreisen (Kat. Ausst. ACC Galerie, Weimar 2001), Weimar 2001, S. 58–71.
    • Knauer, Karin: Afghanistan. Krieg und Alltag (Kat. Ausst. Museum für Völkerkunde, Freiburg 1994), Waldkirch 1994.
    • MacDonald, Brian: Tribal Rugs. Treasures of the Black Tent, Woodbridge 2017.
    • Mascelloni Enrico: War Icons, in: Mascelloni, Enrico / Sawkins, Annemarie (Hrsg.): Afghan War Rugs. The Modern Art of Central Asia (Kat. Ausst. Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester 2016), https://mag.rochester.edu/exhibitions/afghan-war-rugs/ [19.11.2018], S. 15–20.
    • Parsons, Richard: The Carpets of Afghanistan, Woodbridge 2016.
    • Passow, Till / Wild, Thomas: Geknüpftes Gedächtnis. Krieg in afghanischer Teppichkunst (Kat. Ausst. WILD Teppich- und  Textilkunst, Berlin 2015), Berlin 2015.
    • Schlammiger, Karl / Wilson, Peter L.: Persische Bildteppiche. Geknüpfte Mythen, München 1980.



    published February 2020