BAKU, AZERBAIJAN — AS early as the 6th century, travelers to this Caucasus land were enthralled by the beauty of its woven silk and wool masterpieces.
"Their carpets have no equals in the world," 10th-century Arab historian Al Mukaddasi wrote.
Marco Polo, a 13th-century visitor, told of the skill of Azeri masters. His fellow Venetian merchants introduced the masters to European society and the intricate designs of Azerbaijani carpets appear in the paintings of Renaissance European artists such as German painter Hans Holbein.
In the more recent era, Azeri carpets have not held the exalted reputation of their cousins from across the border, the magnificent Persian works. But the tradition and quality of work has remained intact, and with the opening of borders following the collapse of Soviet communism, Azeri carpets are showing up in the galleries of London and New York.
The carpets are known by the names of the regions in which they are woven - the best-known being Kuba, Shirvan, Karabakh, Kazakh, Gyanja, and Tabriz. The designs vary greatly, from the ornamental intricacy of Shirvan to the dynamic geometry and strong colors of Kazakh. Both pile and flat-woven carpets are produced. The most famous of the latter are from the Kilim region, the name by which flat-woven carpets from both neighboring Turkey as well as Azerbaijan are known.
The art of carpet design and weaving is still celebrated in this land by the Caspian Sea. The old section of the capital, with its beige stone mosques and caravansaries, the ancient inns where camel caravans stopped to rest, is home to the marvelous State Carpet Museum. The museum, organized in 1967, is said to have an unparalleled collection of some 16,000 carpets, from antiques to carpets of the Soviet period with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's visage.
Not far from the museum, on an old narrow street, Carpet Factory Number Four continues the hallowed art. The factory - actually a well-lit workshop - is one of a dozen around the country organized during the Soviet era. While carpetmaking still goes on in mountain villages, most of Azerbaijan's production comes from shops like this. Virtually all of its output is for export to Germany, the United States, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, and elsewhere.
MASTER weavers Latif Gulmahmedov and his wife Tamara Zenalova supervise the painstaking labors of 50 weavers, all women, ranging in age from teenagers to grandmothers. The women sit on long wooden benches in front of the looms, using curved metal instruments to hook the woolen threads one by one onto vertical cords. It takes several months simply to learn how to tie and cut the thread, and a year to master the process.
Each carpet is a labor of months. The weavers follow patterns derived from the great Azeri works of the past, but they are free to choose the colors according to their taste. A small carpet, 3.5 sq. meters (4.2 sq. yards), requires the labor of two weavers for two months, while a larger 6 sq. meter (7.2 sq. yards) carpet takes three people three months to complete. The wools are still mostly colored with natural dies such as onion skin, walnut, and pomegranate skin, but some artificial colors are also no w used.
Ms. Zenalova has been working with carpets for 33 years, beginning her apprenticeship as a weaver at the age of 14. She comes from a family of carpetmakers - her three sisters, a grandmother, and cousin are all weavers, as is one of her two sons.
"When I first opened my eyes at home, I saw a carpet," she explains. "When I was a little girl, I would run every day to the carpet factory. I wanted to weave very much. When I made a carpet it was as if all the colors came from my soul."
Her husband is also a weaver who still practices the art at home, designing carpets and making sweaters. As he twirls his prayer beads around calloused fingers, Mr. Gulmahmedov talks of the old traditions of the craft.
"Now we have this factory," he says. "But the roots are from the home. The same people kept the sheep, made the threads, dyed them, and wove the carpets. Unfortunately, we can't keep sheep in the city."
Gulmahmedov laments the loss of the spontaneity of that tradition, embodied in the often quirky lack of symmetry in the geometric designs.
"Here the pattern always repeats," he says. "There are no mistakes. But in old times, a person went out, milked a cow, forgot the design he was working on, came back, and started again."