THE GEOMETRY OF LIFE

Azerbaijan 2012 | TOURISM & SPORTS | FOCUS: CARPETS

Striking in design and breathtaking in workmanship, Azerbaijani carpets reached their pinnacle after thousands of years of production in the region and are currently undergoing a colorful revival.

When the 2,500-year old “Pazyryk Carpet," believed to be the oldest surviving pile carpet in the world, was excavated in 1949, it shed light on a carpet-weaving tradition in the region that stretches back to a time when Azerbaijan was part of the Achaemenid Empire. After then flourishing for thousands of years, the institution of carpet making began to wane during the country's Soviet years, with ancient traditions replaced by modern methods including chemical dyes and machine-spun yarns. Today, the Azerbaijani carpet is undergoing a revival.

The revival is set to take a step forward in Spring 2012, when Baku's much-loved carpet museum moves to a new home; a building designed to resemble a rolled-up carpet that is three times larger than the museum's current residence. Determined to keep the region's carpet heritage alive, Azer-Ilme, one of the largest carpet producing institutions in the country, has also announced a carpet school that is set to open its doors in 2012. Their influence far extending beyond the country's borders, Azerbaijani carpets have also been a long-standing fixture at world auction houses, and their value looks set to increase after UNESCO proclaimed them a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage in 2010. Joining such traditions as Turkey's Sufi Ceremony and Spain's Flamenco, this unique piece of heritage has taken its place in the annals of world cultural accomplishment.

Developing over several distinct periods, the carpets were originally very simple and lacking in motifs, with complex threading techniques introduced later. Another major period of development introduced both simple and complex whipping techniques, while the development of knotted pile weaving took the tradition to its zenith. Latif Kerimov, who is considered the country's greatest carpet artist and scholar during the second half of the 20th century, categorized the many shapes and forms of Azerbaijani carpet into four distinct schools: Guba-Shirvan, with manufacturing centers in the Guba and Shirvan regions, and Baku; Ganja-Kazakh, with centers throughout the Ganja and Kazakh regions; Karabakh, which developed in the lowland and mountainous parts of Karabakh; and Tabriz, with centers in Tabriz and Ardabil in South Azerbaijan in modern-day Iran. The Guba school is famous for ornamental patterns with geometrical and vegetal motifs, while the Shirvan school features articles of everyday life, including wildlife and people. Although the Ganja school boasts only a few compositions compared to its peers, the region is one of the largest producers of carpets in the country, reaching a peak of 203,000 sqm produced in 2005. Its designs are ornamental, similar to Kazakh carpets, which also feature geometrical ornamental patterns and plant and animal motifs. It is the Karabakh school, however, that produces the most finished products, which are famous for their vivid colors and flower and vegetable motifs. They are also known for their fluffy pile, due to the nature of the region's sheep breeds.

The international popularity of Azerbaijani carpets is also reflected in export figures. In 2010, carpets valued at $262,000 were exported from the country, up from $238,000 in 2009. Despite recent industrialization, the importance attached to the traditional production of carpets is valued by companies such as Azer-Ilme, which produces around 12,000 sqm a year in 600 different authentic designs. “We continue to use age-old techniques; we make carpets in the same way that they were made 200-300 years ago," Vidali A. Muradov, Director of Azer-Ilme, told TBY in an interview. Explaining the production process, he continued, “we acquire the wool directly from the Azerbaijani mountains, totally washed and cleaned. We only use natural dyes in production: indigo, onion skin, walnut, saffron," adding that, “after manually dying ourwool and silk, our designers make the old authentic patterns, which are later on handed to the weavers, who start the actual process of making the carpet." A silk carpet usually takes “between 40 and 45 days" per square meter to complete, whereas wool pieces “usually take a month." The company is also in the export game, with its main markets the US and Europe, as well as Gulf Arab countries such as Kuwait and Jordon. “Currently, 60% of our production goes to the domestic market, while the other 40% is exported. However, there are other differences, since the Azerbaijani market is dominated by silk production, while wool dominates the foreign markets," Muradov told TBY. As a popular souvenir for incoming tourists, buyers should be aware that strict regulations are enforced on the export of carpets, and an export permit from the State Museum of Azerbaijani Carpets and Applied Art is required. However, many carpet-selling shops will happily obtain the permit for buyers free of charge, or at least as a “sweetener" in the inevitable haggling over the price.