A people's culture. Rugs of Armenia

This is the second article highlighting Armenian culture. The series was prompted by the exhibit ``Weavers, Merchants, and Kings -- The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia,'' which is on its way to Washington, D.C. (Oct. 27-Jan. 25), and Fresno, Calif. (Feb. 15-April 8). Tomorrow: Armenian dance.

The close association of Armenians with the trade, commission, and distribution of Oriental carpets leaves no room for argument. But did they actually dye the yarns, set the looms, and most important, sit and weave these fascinating, exotic coverings? That's been a question.

In the harsh, rugged land of Armenia, exquisitely woven carpets have brought color and warmth to even the most humble of homes for literally hundreds of years.

They were used to dine upon and sleep upon, for floor coverings and wall hangings. They were collected as tax tribute, bestowed as gifts, and sometimes offered as part of a woman's dowry.

Sophisticated carpets, sometimes woven of silk with gold and silver threads and encrusted with sparkling jewels, were draped over the thrones of kings and emperors, spread before sultans and princes, presented to churches, and in the worst of times, carried off as spoils of war.

For centuries travelers, merchants, missionaries, even Crusaders passing through Armenia returned to the West with these treasured carpets and all sorts of romantic tales about them.

Rugs brought from the East were instrumental in changing Western floor coverings from simple animal skins and woven rush and grasses to the colorfully designed woolen carpets of the Orient.

These weavings dazzled the imagination of artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Holbein, Memling, and van Eyck, who included them in many of their portraits and still-life paintings. And some 14th-century Armenian churches are embellished with stone carvings of the Virgin and Child sitting on richly designed tasseled rugs.

In the mountainous terrain of Armenia, now fenced within Soviet borders, these rugs portray a continuous thread of culture, religion, folklore, and history. What has been lacking, according to some scholars, is clear evidence that Armenians did more than trade in these carpets.

There has been little proof compiled, say these scholars, that Armenians actually wove carpets themselves, despite the many notable historians and travelers who made reference to Armenian weavers. Marco Polo, for one, observed that ``the Armenians and Greeks . . . weave the choicest and most beautiful carpets in the world.''

On the other hand, Arthur Upham Pope, a Harvard University art theorist, wrote in 1925 to dispute this:

``There is no recorded nor even any local tradition that rug weaving was ever carried on in Armenia to any extent . . . that a slow, elaborate and difficult art like rug weaving could have grown up in Armenia without showing relation to contemporary and allied arts is difficult to believe.''

The collection of rugs in the exhibit ``Weavers, Merchants, and Kings -- The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia,'' however, brings to light some needed evidence.

While it is true that most motifs woven into these carpets are not exclusively Armenian, but more general in design, the occasional Christian crosses tucked unobtrusively here and there, as well as Christian dates, indicate an Armenian origin.

In the 4th century Armenia became the first country to declare Christianity its official religion. It became a Christian country surrounded by pagan and Islamic nations -- which is why flagrant displays of Christianity would not have been wise.

According to Dr. Lucy Der Manuelian, who holds the lectureship in Armenian art at Tufts University and who was a co-author of the impressive catalog of this exhibit, ``What makes this exhibit unique as well as invaluable are the inscriptions woven into each of the 68 rugs.

``Most significant are those carpets bearing inscriptions in the uniquely Armenian language,'' she continues. ``Some are simply signed with a weaver's name or origin of the carpet or date. As some rugs are totally Persian in design, the Armenian inscriptions clue us that these rugs are in fact Armenian.''

Other inscriptions are more telling and involved. Perhaps the most significant is found in the jewel of the exhibit, an 18th-century Gohar carpet named after the lone woman weaver who piously inscribed at the end of her 111/2-foot work:

``I Gohar, full of sin and weak of soul, with my newly learned hands wove [this rug]. Whosoever reads [this] say a word of mercy [to God] for me. In the year 1149 [AD 1700].''

Important as these carpets are as a cultural statement, their simple appeal can be appreciated by the youngest of schoolchildren. They are a treasure-hunt of folklore, fashion, and fantasy.

Charming stick-figured people appear among the fields of rich colors. Some are hunters and soldiers. Others dance, ride horseback, or stroll hand in hand across a backround of warm ``Armenian red,'' the color derived by crushing larvae of the indigenous cochineal insect.

Elk and deer gambol freely among stylized dragons, peacocks, goats, and camels. The tree-of-life motif and flowers and palm leaves appear over and over again, framed by borders of traditional Christian or Maltese crosses.

Colors fade or glow where new skeins of dyed wool were used. Designs and patterns stop and start abruptly where perhaps different members of a family sat at the loom, or when boredom or whimsy took over. Some bold sunburst designs end middesign for reasons known only to the weavers.

Two carpets reflect a sad note to the story of the proud and troubled Armenian nation. These are the ``orphan rugs'' woven in American-run orphanages during the late 1800s and early 1900s by homeless children to raise money for the ``starving Armenians,'' as they were generally known.

But on a happier note, an elderly woman who had worked on early rugs was discovered in a nursing home where she had little to do.

``She was taken out of retirement to help work on designs for some rugs woven today,'' says Dr. Der Manuelian. What's a warp? What's a weft?

Oriental rugs are hand-knotted, loomed, piled carpets. It is the pile, specifically, which distinguishes them from other handmade flat-weave rugs like kilims, dhurries, and those of the Navajo Indians.

Warp, weft, pile, and knot are general terms used in the weaving of rugs. As commonly used as these terms are, they can be confusing.

Warp. These threads run vertically, like strings on a harp, and determine the length of a woven carpet. These are most commonly cotton, sometimes wool, occasionally silk, and, rarely, plant fiber. When a carpet is cut from the loom, the warp strands at either end of the rug are referred to as the fringe.

Weft. These threads run horizontally -- ``from `weft' to right'' is an easy way to remember. They may or may not be made of the same material as the warp. Ordinarily visible only from the back of the carpet, they are the foundation threads between each row of knots.

Knots. These are the individually hand-tied strands that determine the thickness of a rug. They also make up the design or pattern. The two most common types of knots are Persian (asymmetrical) and Turkish (symmetrical). Knots start in the front of a carpet, twist around the warp and weft, and finish again in the front. The weaver then snips them off. The yarn length determines the carpet's thickness, or pile. The number of knots per square inch is one but not the only measure of a quality rug.

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