The Warp and Weft of Soviet Asia

The textiles of Bukhara display the skill of the region's weavers

BUKHARA was one of the three famous oases on the western end of the famous caravan route, the Silk Road, to and from China. Samarkand and Tashkent were the other two. Textiles and their raw materials were a very valuable part of the trade. One can imagine cotton being sent east from Egypt and silk west from China, where it was considered precious enough for the Chinese to guard the secret of its origin for 1,000 years by threatening anyone divulging the secret with summary execution.

Bukhara was once called "The Noble," a city of mosques and mina-rets when it was the center of an important khanate under the Islamized descendants of Genghis Khan. Today it is undistinguished, having lost, along with many of its architectural monuments, the lingering glamour cast by Venetian Marco Polo's 13th-century accounts of his travels along the Silk Road.

While some historians feel that Bukhara was founded in the 1st century AD, the actual date is unknown. The city is first mentioned in Chinese chronicles of the 5th century.

For centuries, the city was a busy trading center peopled by a mix of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, Russians, Turkmens, Persians, and Chinese. The Russian czar added the area to his empire around 1868. The interesting buildings crumbled, and only one tall minaret remains.

After the Russian Revolution, Bukhara became the center of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Ethnic nomadic traditions were repressed, and industrialization was implemented. The two rivers that ran through the dry steppes were diverted to irrigate large-scale cotton growing, with the result that now the water level of the marshy Aral Sea has been significantly lowered and the environment degraded.

In 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan, where Bukhara is located, joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, and there has been an increasing desire to acknowledge and learn about its cultural heritage.

Textiles have always been a very important part of this heritage. The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., has mounted a striking exhibit of traditional weavings from the area. These are not ancient, as they are deemed to have been worked during the period between the annexation by the czar and the formation of the Soviet Union, but tribal patterns have changed little over centuries and therefore can be accepted as representative of traditional local design and execution.

THIS exhibition introduced me to many designs of the region. My previous acquaintance was only with the knotted pile rugs called "Bokhara" in older references. (Other phonetic spellings of the name also appear.) These "Oriental" rugs were extremely popular in Europe and the United States, especially during the latter part of the last century and the beginning of this one.

Their patterns were neat, tight geometrically stylized motifs whose backgrounds were usually deep and glowing reds. They were woven by the more-or-less nomadic tribes who roamed the estimated 85,000 square miles of what was then referred to as Turkestan.

The rugs were shipped westward from Bukhara. The merchants at the receiving end in Constantinople cared little as to which tribe did the actual weaving. The rugs were stamped "Bokhara" and that is how they came to be known.

The pile rug is represented in the show by the specialized prayer rug. These were small in size (usually around 3 by 5 feet), upon which the devout Muslim prayed five times each day. The designs tend to feature a pointed arch called a niche, and, in some cases, a depiction of a lamp hanging down from the niche. This particular rug, which is featured in the exhibition, is made of fine wool, with the customary light field of the niche (white symbolized modesty) showing up against the handsome red.

But in the Textile Museum show we also see designs and materials that are quite different from the dense wool pile rugs. A child's robe of silk is striking for the freedom of the design sweeping diagonally across the front and for the interesting asymmetry of the sleeves.

The child's jacket has silk threads in both the warp (vertical threads strung on the loom) and the weft (horizontal threads shuttled across the warp by the weaver), giving the colors great luster and vibrancy. The region's preferred color (red) appears together with a vivid orange shade contrasted with a black motif. As red signified joy, life, and happiness, the color was very appropriate for the garment.

The dyes may be synthetic, as anilines began to be used in the last century. If the dyes were manufactured by the weavers, the red would be taken from the madder plant or the cochineal bug. A deeper red was made from a base of sheep's blood and required a secret process, which was said to make the color very permanent.

THE design of the silken cloth is rendered by the ikat method. Ikat is an Indonesian word only recently in general English usage. It is a form of tie-and-dye. In this process, the yarns that are supposed to resist the dye are tightly tied in bundles before dying. (Only the warp yarns are tied.)

This method of printing always results in the edges and lines of the design being blurred and soft - never crisp the way printing on finished fabric can be. Another bold pattern consists of slightly flattened bright red disks running horizontally on a white field with a small, black, three-pronged motif in between them.

It seems that almost as soon as humans invented weaving - as they anciently did, all over the globe - they immediately began designing and patterning their textiles.

Does this show that our thin-skinned species, unfurred, un-feathered, unscaled, has a need, not only for a covering to protect us from the elements, but also for the creative production of beautiful woven objects, skillfully executed? The weavings shown on these pages are from "Bukhara: Traditional Weavings from Pre-Soviet Central Asia" at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., through March 7.

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