Saul Barodofsky on “Nazarlik”

Dear folks – On January 16, 2010, Saul Barodofsky

gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program, at The Textile Museum here in Washington, D.C. on the topic:

Nazarlik :” Small pieces as a window into the consciousness of tribal peoples from the Silk Road.

Saul is a dealer in Charlottesville, VA, who has traveled the world, importantly all over Turkey and Central Asia, in search of interesting textiles. He has frequently conducted previous TM “rug morning” programs.

What follows here is a virtual version of Saul’s presentation that draws on a set of notes taken for me, the photos I took during it, Saul’s treatment of this same subject on his website, and Saul himself as we edited this post.

“Nazarlik,” Devices of Protection & Good Luck

The term “nazarlik” in Saul’s program title may need a word or two of explanation.

Saul began by indicating that one belief held by nearly all humanity throughout human history is that their interactions with the “unseen” can produce good or evil results. He said that “This belief in “luck” or “Divine” interaction seems to be a universal human characteristic that transcends physical location, education, religion, wealth, social status or lack thereof.”

The ancient Greeks believed in this power. They even had a name for its application: “Apotropaic” meaning having the power to prevent, to ward off, evil or bad luck. (You can occasionally encounter use of this word in more rarefied levels of conversation in the rug world.)

Saul said that while he is most familiar with the belief in the unseen worlds in Turkey, the phenomenon of worrying about evil and of taking personal steps to deal with it, is spread along the length of the Silk Road.

“Nazar, Saul said, is an Arabic word for “a glance or look” which may contain (even unconsciously) evil thoughts like envy, greed, jealously and hatred. “Nazarlik” are devices that operate like lightning rods repelling and/or misdirecting the “evil eye.”

And this is what Saul’s program was about.

He had the front board in the Myers Room covered (more than one layer) with amulets, nazaliks, fertility, and good luck pieces. And he led us through an array of examples he had brought.

Nazarlik as a Pre-Islamic Residue

Saul said (and this is likely true for much of the Middle East generally) that the belief in the “evil eye” and in “nazarlik” likely belongs to pre-Islamic eras when shamanistic beliefs were predominant.

Conversion to Islam has not, seemingly, led to the shedding of some pre-Islamic beliefs.  Islam is experienced as a kind of firm overlay, but previous beliefs still operate strongly without any experience of contradiction.

He said that in Konya, a highly religious and conservative area of central Anatolia, the locals find no apparent contraction between their formal Islam and their usage of a symbol from pre-Islamic, shamanistic times for example — the Shah Miran, the Queen Goddess of the Snake.

Here is a Taimany Baluch example from Afghanistan, with a Shah Miran design.

If locals are queried about this seeming contradiction, they merely state, “She is a nazarlik.”

Saul had two more pieces with a “Shah Miran” field design.

Here is a Antep Kurdish example from S.E. Anatolia.

Here is a Hakkari Kurdish example – also S.E. Anatolia.

This version has interesting horses in its corners.

Saul sketched beliefs and behavior he has observed regarding nazarliks in Turkey and Central Asia.

He said that while we might smile at examples of such belief in traditional societies, we need also to remember that even in the “modern and rational America of 2010, we have a continuing unease with the number 13 in hotels, office buildings and airplane seating. In addition, we avoid black cats, carry a rabbit’s foot, knock on wood, wear religious symbols as jewelry, and hang an upside down horseshoe on a barn or home to protect the inhabitants from evil.”

The similar superstitions actively practiced in our own society could be multiplied.

Saul began with the general observation that “within Turkic society colors, symbols, pattern and design are used to ward away malefic intent, and call forth beneficent interactions.  Other societies within modern Turkey (like the Kurds, the Alawites and the Yezdis) view colors and patterns in the same way.  Even non-Islamic Turks (the Jews and Christians) conform to the social usage of nazarlik.

The Ubiquitous “Blue Bead”

Perhaps the most ubiquitous nazarlik is the blue “evil eye” bead.

Even the most westernized Turks may have a small blue bead pinned under their suit collar (This is especially true of small children), and most still carry their tasbih or prayer beads (for prayer and good luck).

Even a “modern” Turkish mother will pin a blue bead on her child’s clothing.  Just in case.

(Ed. I have seen a blue “evil eye” bead on the bumper of a BMW in Istanbul.  Some folks define their “children” variously.)

Color as Nazarlik

Why “blue?” one might ask.

“Well,” Saul said, “the color blue not only represents the sky, which is closest to god, it is also the color of the peacock, which to the Yezdis is the creature favored by God’s favorite angel – Shaitan.”

Yet another explanation is that when the dye indigo was introduced, people were in awe of the fact that it was yellow, as it came out of the dye pot, but then instantly, astoundingly, turned blue.  Despite the fact that this phenomena is natural, and merely the result of the dye stuff being exposed to the air’s oxygen, it was so awe-inspiring to ordinary people that the color blue assumed magical properties for many.

It should also be noted that the usage of blue beads goes back many thousands of years.  For pictorial examples, see The Mummies of Urumchi, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

Many of the pieces that Saul had brought featured very bright, even garish colors.

My own previous assumption has been that women in many traditional societies simply favor the brightest colors they can produce or find, and that may still be true to an extent, but Saul provided an alternative explanation.

He said that, for example, Kurdish belief holds that evil does not like pink, orange and other bright colors. Often one can observe Kurdish homes and doorways painted these very bright colors, as are their long-distance trucks.

Saul said that Kurdish weavings usually feature some pinks and oranges – sometimes the fringe is brightly dyed (this doubles the protective effect because fringe moves and, as we will see, below “evil” is thought to have a short-attention span and can be distracted by both color and movement).

This belief may explain why the baby carrier below, that Saul had brought

seems to have a body and back done in naturally dyed colors.  Whereas the fringe is almost electric.

Here is a closer look at a detail of this back.

As one can see, the front is solidly arrayed in tassles, which are bright, bright and bright…using angora goat hair for the shine.

What may be driving this use of bright colors is not just the liking of them, but the desire to protect the baby! (Note the long goat hair fringe, which will, when in motion, creates a distraction away from the baby itself.)

Movement as Nazarlik

A we have noted above, it is believed that ill intentions are attracted by and diverted away by movement.

So features like fringes and tassels are employed for this reason.

Armed with these insights, we scanned the items that Saul had brought for other similar seeming usages.

Here is a Kurdish wedding cloth.

Saul said that it was from the Jehambelli plateau between Ankara and Konya.

Another closer look.

Saul said that, like a similar Jewish usage,

such a piece was positioned to perform its protective function by being held over the marrying couple’s heads, with its tassels hanging down.

Another large, three-panel piece, a Kurdish “tent surround,” did not feature tassels,

but was decorated lavishly with crude embroidery done in bright colors.

A third large piece, Saul presented,was another tent surround – probably from Antep – S.E. Anatolia.

With an intense bluish purple

and although its visibility is not of the “in-your-face” variety, there is a fulsome use of tufting in a secondary diamond design that covers the entire face of both orange and purple panels.

Note also the use of cowry shells (fertility), and blue beads with additional ‘found objects.’

One more large piece, I think Saul said, a camel load covering from Persian Baluchistan that seems done mostly in natural dyes

but which features lots of surface decoration,

including an occasional pink,

that may combine to have the desired protective effect. Note the use of silk tufts.

Another piece with a seeming surround format is not as tall as the pieces just treated above.

Here are some closer looks at this colorful piece.

As one gets closer, one can see that the use of bright colors is very skillful

and that the lower edge is packed with lush “tassels.”

These are tassels that can really attract and divert.

Saul said this was a tent surround from the Baluch tribal area of Pakistan (Barda) – embroidery on cotton, with tassels, small mirrors, shells and triangular amulets – so that all the bases were covered (fertility, protection, distraction, and the bringing in of good luck).

Band-shaped Pieces

As you can see in the case of some of the narrower surrounds, some  band-like shapes can function as nazarlik .

And some are actually bands. They can be long or relatively short.  Some are  woven, and some are not.

Let’s start with some longer examples.  They’re difficult to see in this overall photo, but at the top of the board in the one below

there are two longish pieces.

I did not take closer photos of the one at the top, but you can see that is is a kind of narrow band or plaited cord, decorated at intervals with bunched tassels.

The one below it that swoops twice as it crosses is a band with heavily decorated ends. Here is a closer look at the band portion.

And one that is even closer.

But is the ends of this piece that attract real attention.

They show that such pieces can feature elaborate use of buttons and beads.

In this case, the movement of the hanging ends is for distraction as well as decoration.

Buttons, Beads & Cowry Shells as Ways to influence the Unseen Worlds.

Here is the left end,

and here is the right end.

Saul had a knotted carpet belt from the Afshar peoples of Iran.

The woven part of this band is quite narrow, but it has a colorful top selvedge and a vertically wider array of wrapped open diamond forms below that end in tassels.

Here is a closer look at a detail of this piece.

And an even closer one.

Next Saul showed a piece of a cradle cover.

Fashioned from four narrow strips sewn together.

Saul described this piece as “Byzant” from Western Anatolia – a baby cradle cover from the converted peoples, who use the cross design as a form of protection. The small cross at the bottom is difficult to see.  Right below Saul’s  hand.

Animals are very important to tribal peoples, and also get the added protection of nazarliks.

The next piece is from Pakistan, and is a decoration for a horse’s chest.

Note the usage of mirrors, blue beads and tassels.

Mirrors as Nazarlik

The horse decoration above is entirely done in beads decorated at intervals with mirrors.

Here is a closer detail of its center section.

Mirrors are used in nazarlik because it is believed that evil does not like to look at itself.

And here is another horse piece. This one from the Lake Van region of S.W. Anatolia.

A generous application of tassels at the bottom.

Here is a closer detail.  Note the fine weave and use of silk.

These tassels not only keep flies out of the horses eyes, but also distract any passing, ill-intentioned spirit or jinn.

Related to the narrower bands were some items that seem closer to plaits.

Some of these were fairly short, like the Baluch horse decorations below.

Note the use of shells and blue beads and coins.

The next pieces is a Turkish hair ornament – with all the various accoutrement that one would expect.

The piece below was a series of Turkish horse hair tassels attached to a plaited cord.  Again with blue beads.

Here is a closer look at the two tassels on the left above.

Saul had some larger pieces with band-shaped component .

The one below features a circular heading device and then several hanging band-shaped sections. It is a camel’s neck ornament, with cowry shells.


Below is a closer look at its circular heading encrusted with cowry shells, blue beads and found objects.

The hanging tassels move when the camel is traveling, and thus distracts the evil eye.

Next Saul showed a similar piece, dominated by its “head” device.

It has only a few plaited strands hanging down.

Below are some closer details of the “head” portion.

Note the mirror and blue rings.

The next piece was also oriented vertically on the board.

This is a woman’s belt from Uzbekistan.

Note the mirrors, blue beads and coins.   She seems to have covered every possibility.

Here is a closer detail.

The shorter band, below, was designed to go across a horse’s head.

Turkish, from the Taurus Mountains.

It is a woven band decorated with cowry shells and small beads hanging down.

The next piece was a horse neck piece from the Konya Mountains.

This one is done largely in beads with occasional intervening squares of leather decorated with pompoms and gold-colored metal Mashallah (means God Bless – about which more below).

Again, a kind of animal decoration with a protective function.

One more band is narrow, decorated its entire length with buttons, and has lots of tassels (themselves decorated with beads) hanging from it.

It is from the Bergama region – Western Anatolia.

Mirrors and Metal as Nazarlik

We saw above that some bands were decorated in part with mirrors, and Saul had some similar examples decorated with reflecting metal.

Here is a band worn on a woman’s forehead, decorated with gold-colored metal devices from Afghanistan.

A closer detail of one end of it.

The textile seems framed with embroidery.

Notice that the “tassels” here are metal and bead.

Below is another woman’s head decoration that is a little wider vertically.  It is Turkman, with silver on velvet, and carnelian stones and tassels.

Note that carnelian was reputed to ward off evil, and if not would change color (become black) in the presence of evil.

Again a closer detail.

Again, the tassels are metal with beads.

Here is a Kurdish woman’s wedding headband decorated heavily with coin-like metal devices.

A closer detail.

This piece is from Turkmenistan and is 19th century

Next was a Turkoman child’s garment is also heavily encrusted with metal devices.

This is heavy “ju-ju” for the infant.

Some closer details.

Note the large silver medallion with carnelian in the center.

A look inside shows how the metal pieces are attached.

We have already seen some nazarlik decorated with buttons, beads or cowry shells.

Saul had a few more.

Sometimes such items are almost entirely beaded.

as is the case for this small Turkish beaded Koran or amulet bag.

Here are two more in small bag format – although these are from Uzbekestan.

A closer detail of one of the above.

Here we see not only distraction and color usage, but also, the idea of concealment.  That which one does not see cannot be cursed.

Such beaded items can also be found amongst the Baluch.

Here is a woman’s head cover, replete with cowry shells, beads and pom poms.  Note, also, the use of old buttons.  (This was a gift from Tatiana Divens).

It is decorated heavily with cowry shells, thought to resemble female genitalia.

This next piece is from Kurdistan, and was used as a camel side cover.

This time shells, beads and buttons are supplemented with some mixed technique weaving. Some closer details of the piece above.

Multiple efforts to distract and divert evil, whilst bringing forth good luck are evident here.

The piece below is in the bead, button and cowry-shell-decorated grouping, and comes from Afghanistan (Pushtun?).

It has a khorjin shape and is decorated mostly with cowry shells and tassels.

Concealment, fertility and distraction are all intended.

The next piece had a similar khorjin shape, but is from the Baluch peoples of Afghanistan, and was probably used as a dowry bag.

Note the use of mirrors.

Buttons, beads and tassels are used to enhance the protective powers of the woven patterns.

A closer one-half detail.

And here is a view of the back of this piece.

The plain character of this back suggests that evil is not expected to approach from this side. Saul had one more similar piece.

Also from the Baluch peoples, and also probably a dowry bag.

Here, the weaving is more visible, but buttons, beads and tassels are used prominently.

Saul had some additional bags. We’ll treat them next.

Koran Bags to Protect and Conceal

This first example is a 19th century Ikat Uzbek koran bag.

Here we see the beautiful creation of something which will hold, and also cover (protect) from profane eyes.

This is the back of the immediately preceding piece.

Very often Central Asian ikat is backed with Russian printed cloth, but I think Saul said this back is done with a “mud-resist” technique.

Here is another Koran cover, this time in pile.  An 18th century example from Central Anatolia.

In the image above its covering flap is down.  The image below shows what it looks like when the flap is raised.

The image below is of its very worn plain-weave back.

Good, old colors.

The image below is of another koran bag in sumak.

This was Saul’s first Koran bag.

It is a 19th century piece from Obruk in the Konya region.

The piece below is of yet another Koran bag, this 19th century example is from Western Anatolia (Bergama or Seljuk).

Again a flapped pile treatment, but this time a fringe is added to the flap.

Here is the front with the flap up.

And here is its plain-ish back.

Here is one last Koran bag in this sequence.

This example is from the Denizli region of West Central Anatolia – early 20th century.

This time tassels have been applied to the edge of the flap and some beading has been included in them.

We can see the resort to the protection of bright colors in the orange and purple usages here.

This piece has a somewhat less plain, and more colorful and interesting back.

Apparently, some modest protection was thought to be needed on this side as well.

Nazarlik in the Kitchen

Saul also had an example of a “spoon bag.”

Such bags are convenient holders for kitchen spoons. Saul had a couple of wooden spoons, with calligraphy from the Koran – an added blessing, that we’ll treat specifically below.

and placed them in this bag to demonstrate how such bags are used.

Apparently, protection of food is also needed.   Not, in fact, a bad idea.

Here is a closer look at the center compartment of this spoon bag.

and also one of one of the two side compartments.

The piece below is a complete set of Kurdish saddle bags from S.E. Anatolia.

I do not have an image of it opened up, so to speak, but you can see that this piece has a long connecting piece and two bags at its ends.

Stripes in bright colors and tassels hanging down the front are used to effect protection.

Here are some additional images of this set.

The next piece is a salt bag from the Baluch peoples of Pakistan. Notice the fringes and tassels.

Below is a small bag,  another of the Koran bag type.  Very finely woven – from Uzbekistan.

A little closer detail.

A nice green.

The two items below are a format not frequently seen: a set of hangers for one’s rifle.  They were made by Baktiari in Iran.

The colors here are very good and appear natural.

Tassels, beads and cowry shells are employed to protective effect.

Here is a closer look at the one on the right above.

Good use of stronger colors and graphics.

The next bag was an Anatolian weavers bag from the Obruk region near Konya.

A closer detail.

Strong graphics, seeming pom poms cowry shells, beads, feathers, buttons and tassels are featured.

Shape as Nazarlik

Next Saul pointed out that the shape of nazarlik makes a difference.

He said that a noted Anatolian dervish held that the circle, the triangle and the six pointed star attract, and so deflect, the attention of the nazar.  (Notice that a diamond is two triangles joined on a common side, and that a six-pointed star is composed of two overlapping triangles.)

These shapes, Saul said, are common in traditional tribal weavings.

He acknowledged that the six-pointed star has seen less use in the 20th century, but suggested that this may be more a political statement than a shift in belief.

He added that Islamic philosophy provides a coherent iconography of the meanings of various kinds of stars. Five-pointed, six-pointed, 7-pointed, etc.

Triangles that upper-pointing triangles such as those in the amulets Saul is holding below, symbolize unity with God.

(below is a closer look at the one on the left),

Note: While we are primarily treating “nazalik as shape” here, it is important to note that amulets have compartments that should have something  sacred within them – like pages from the Koran, or earth from a holy place, etc., something we’ll treat again below.

The small, beaded bag below is another example of  the use of triangles pointing upward.

When triangles are reversed, with one point down,

as in this Turkish horse’s head band,

they are said to symbolize the fertility of the earth.

Here is another piece in which a triangular shape is prominent.

This piece is a horse’s head piece from Uzbekistan.

Strong colors, graphics and a liberal decoration with tassels that employee beads all add to the protective power attributed to such a piece.

A closer look at this triangular area.

The next piece is made from a 19th century Turkman fragment and has added blue beads, cowary shells, tassels, etc. This was to hang in one’s tent or home.  It was purchased from the wall of a home.

Here is a little closer look at it.

Color use and graphic design provide good protective impact.

Calligraphy as Nazarlik

Saul next said that calligraphy is another form of nazarlik.

Any of the traditional 99 names of God, quotations from the Koran or Hadith in written form are used to ward off evil.

These may be found on such things as the spoons we saw above (spoons are calligraphied and from Konya)

on a variety of bags or hangings,

The one above is from Uzbekistan.

The one above is Turkish, and has a pouch to hold sacred objects, whilst the triangles are amulets and are filled with holy or sacred things..

The hanging above is also of ALLAH, and has a Russian print on its back.

Another example with calligraphy was the beaded amulet below.

The Turkish piece above is both nationalistic and a nazarlik. It hangs on the rear view mirror in one’s auto.

Saul showed another “calligraphy” piece with a pentagonal shape.

He had a pair of small weavings with this same shape.

These pieces are from Turkey and made by Central Asian immigrants.

They have the same shape as the asmalyks that decorate the sides of the bride’s camels in a wedding procession. If these were a little larger we might conjecture that they were intended to decorate the knees of modest wedding camels.

An unusual Anatolian piece in the “calligraphy” group was the picture frame below.

A little closer look.

There is a crown above the space where the picture is to be placed and some writing below it. The flowers are composed of opened silk cocoons.

Here is a somewhat closer look at these two areas.

And of the embroidered flowers.

It is believed that calligraphy does not have to be visible to be protectively effective.

So many amulets contain a small piece of paper with something written on it.

Below Saul is holding a small amulet, feeling to see if it seems to contain something.

His facial expression suggests that it does.

Here, below, are some other small, beaded amulets that Saul showed.

These are 19th century Anatolian, and were probably used on a horse or camel.

Closer looks at the items in the little collection above.

Below is a Turkish woman’s hair fall which is an array of beaded tassels…but perhaps an important array to its owners since the tag says “dowry” visibly.

The next pieces were two pairs of “dowry” mittens. from the Konya Mountains, and probably used as nazarlik during a wedding ceremony.

These mittens are made of the same angora material, using the same technique employed to weave the Anatolian “tulus,” the shaggy sleeping rug.

The next piece is a kumus bag from S.E. Anatolia.  Here the aspects of concealment and fertility are paramount.

Saul brought out his last piece with a flourish.

This is a “fly palace.”

It is a farmer’s nazarlik, hung in the home to bring prosperity and good luck. It is made from seeds and is from Konya.

Saul answered questions,

and adjourned the session.

I want to thank Saul both for permitting me to share this virtual version of his nazarlik program with you, and for his considerable editorial assistance as we prepared it.

Thanks also to Amy Rispin for a detailed and useful set of notes.

I hope you haven enjoyed this interesting and usual material.


R. John Howe

A belated footnote:

Saul indicates that those who want to follow his schedule of of lectures, exhibitions, etc. can do so by joining his website for email announcements at:

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