James Opie on South Persian Rugs, Part 1

 James Opie

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gave a presentation on South Persian Rugs, here at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.

Wendel Swan introduced Opie,

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saying, in part, that he is likely the leading authority on South Persian textiles and that his two books, “Rugs of Southern Persia,” in 1981, and his broader treatment of “Tribal Rugs,” first in 1992, and then in a paperback edition, in 1998. are likely on the shelves of a great many of us. 

Opie mentioned, himself, that he still deals a little and has natural dye projects in Afghanistan http://www.jamesopie-rugs.com/rugs.html

I should say, here, at the beginning, that we were not able to arrange for Opie to review what follows, but we have drawn heavily on his two books. And while we often say that he said something, some other of these comments came from experienced south Persian collectors who were in the room. So your are forewarned about my reporting here.

Opie began with an illustrated lecture.

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He made some introductory points.

  • He said that there were indigenous languages in the area we call ‘Southern Iran” before the arrival of the Persians.  There was a very strong pre-Iranian culture in the Loristan area.
  • Turkic speakers are said to have originated rug designs, but the Qashqa’i, who identify as Turks (they are Turkic speakers), use designs that are not like Turkish ones.
  • He rehearsed the debate about whether rug designs tend to move from urban areas into the countryside or whether designs originated in rural areas.  He seemed to favor an urban to rural flow, but said that there are some designs in south Persian rugs that seem not to come from external sources.
  • One fact that makes a predominant urban —> rural flow more likely is that 99% of rugs made were made for sale; not for maker use only.  Customers would often have design preferences and weavers would move quickly to meet them.
  • So in south Persian rugs, urban carpet art competes with local designs.
  • Some formats, likely gabbeh rugs and bedding bags, seem more likely made for the weavers’ own use.  Some of these seem to exhibit no external designs.  And gabbehs have low knot counts to make them lighter and easier to carry and, so, more likely to be for weaver use.

Opie cited, early, a particular white-dominant Bakhtiari saddle bag set that seems to exhibit no external design inputs.

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O25

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Description of O25 : In his book “Tribal Rugs,” Opie says the “column-like forms in the center of each field panel are noteworthy and appear to be archaic patterns. 

These columns

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are decorated with explicit animal heads that have both eyes and horns…”

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Details of O25.

Click on each of the details of O25 below to get a larger image.

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O25 back

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O25 back closer

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He showed a series of rugs that exhibit various degrees of urban vs non-urban influences.  As he went along, he also talked about ancient design motifs that occur in south Persian rugs.

Slide 1

 

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Comments on Slide 1: Opie started with this Khamseh, three-medallion rug.  It seems urban-influenced with its prominent herati field design (the “herati” example below from a different rug).

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The devices in this rug’s spandrels

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seem vaguely similar to Afshar usages in the field of the rug, below, that are very much urban-based.

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Tribal Rugs, Afshar rug, 12.11

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So the devices in Slide 1 seem to lean toward urban sources.

Slide 2

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Comments on Slide 2:  This rug, Opie said, “is so urban that the name Afshar can be applied only with qualifications.” 

Heavy Kerman influence.  Probably made in a workshop, as the spandrels, that are precise quarters of the central medallion, strongly suggest.

Slide 3

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Comments on Slide 3: A Bakhtiari-Chahar Mahal rug with a “willow” design.  Similar to, but not as good as, 8.21 on page 149 in “Tribal Rugs.”

Slide 4

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Comments on Slide 4:  In “Tribal Rugs” Opie notes that “Qashqa’i weavers have adapted traditional south Persian gabbeh and kilim designs to achieve a new distinctive effects” in the 20th century Qashqa’i gabbeh above.  He considers it to be “one of those made outside workshops for members of the tribe’s elite.”  

It is one of those woven with only three or four rows of wefts between rows of knots.  Most Qashqa’i and Lori gabbehs have between four and twelve weft threads between rows of knots.  This substantially reduced weaving time and, as noted early, reduced the weight of the fabric, making it more portable, hence also more likely woven for use.

Slide 5

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Comments on Slide 5:  Opie sees this Luri rug as a study in the varied use of the very old animal head devices.  You can see the “hooks and the “two-headed” devices in the medallions.

But you need to look for the dots that are eyes in the close-up detail of this piece, below, to see that they are intended to be more that hook forms.

Detail of Slide 5.

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Slide 6

Click to see a larger image.

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Comments on Slide 6:  Opie talked about how pastoral nomadism is so deliberate and purposeful. 

Slide 7

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Comments on Slide 7: How ever moment of most days was devoted to some important task.  Above, a lady spins with a drop spindle.

 

Slide 8

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Comment on Slide 8: How seemingly crude looms were used to weave many things, including the dark coverings of their tents.

 

Slide 9

Click to see a larger image.

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Comments on Slide 9: He cited the famous film “Grass.”  It documented a long Bakhtiari migration in the 1920s of 50,000 people and their animals.  Above, they are crossing a treacherous river.

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He said it shows what incredible things humans can accomplish together.

Slide 10

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Comments on Slide 10:  Another white-predominant Bakhtiari bag set, shown laid out flat with the front side up.  No external design devices on the flat-woven fields or the pile bottoms on the bottoms of both bags.  This kind of south Persian weaving was less likely to show urban influence.

 

Slide 11

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Comments on Slide 11:  This is a complete, rectangular Bakhtiari, cargo bag and would have been woven for the weavers’ own use.  It has the white-dominant side panel field designs and an unusual and colorful “top” panel in this image (which is actually the bottom when in use). 

Something not visible in this image is the fact that the end panels in such Bakhtiari bags are pointed at the top end. This is not true of similar Shahsavan cargo bags.  (We will see such a pointed Bakhtiairi cargo bag end panel later.)

 

Slide 12

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Comments on Slide 12: Slide 12 is similar to and may be the same piece shown at 025 above but is shown here for a different purpose.  Look at the side border in the image above and then at the detail of it below.

 

Slide 13

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Comments on Slide 13:  The stacked serpent heads on the band above represent hundreds of years of design progression.  Opie seems to say that the version of this border on the 1930s Bakhtiari bag, above is “older” that than the “S” border in the 14th century”Dragon and Phoenix rug” in Slide 14 below.

 

Slide 14

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Comments on Slide 14: The “Dragon and Phoenix” rug, Anatolian and 15th century, has a repeating “S” border, probably based on proto-typical metal hooks in Slide 15 below.

 

Slide 15

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Comments on Slide 15: Opie said such symbols were used by people to relate and indicate what peoples’ myths are.  Of course, often, that meaning is no longer available.

In his “Tribal Rugs” volume, Opie gives a series of “S” motifs that begin with the “Iranian bronze” above, of an “uncertain period,” and end with the border in the detail image of O25 below.

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Slide 16

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Comment on Slide 16: Khamseh.  Opie said, joking, that he buys Khamseh”chicken” rugs and sells “bird” rugs.

He said that he thinks bird devices represent something else from the past (he noted that some “bird” rugs show “serpent” devices over the birds).

Slide 17 is a detail image that shows this “serpent over bird” motif.

Slide 17

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Slide 18

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Comment on Slide 18:  The detail above is a unique instance of birds and lions in the field of a Khamseh rug (page 203 in Tribal Rugs).  Opie said this usage makes this rug one of the rarest of Khamseh weavings.

Slide 19

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Opie said that Slide 19 is of a Qashqua’i lion rug dated to the late 19th century.

He said that “lion” motifs seem to have been picked up from other cultures.  Although there were once lions in Persia, Opie said, the use of lion figures in royal Persian art concluded with Alexander the Great’s invasion and that there has been no external market for “lion rugs” until quite recently.  (Note: Parviz Tanavoli makes a different argument.)

Lion forms also occur in south Persian burial sites.

Slide 20

Click on image below to see two lions in the background and one in the foreground.

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Opie said that lions: are visible in graves of Bakhtiari warriors and aristocrats.  These are similar to some he shows in “Tribal Rugs.”

Slide 21

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Comments on Slide 21: This is a lion-decorated cup similar to one Opie shows in “Tribal Rugs.”  That one he dates as from the fourth to the sixth century B.C.

Slide 22

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Comments on Slide 22: This bull figure, holding an urn is 5,000 years old and Persian.  Another instance of design elements that occur on ancient metal work.

Slide 23

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Comments on Slide 23:  The two-headed bronze from Luristan in the first milenium, B.C. also occurs in other cultures e.g Lithuania. We don’t knot where the ancestral tribes learned this motif, but a strikingly similar device occurs in Slide 24 from a 19th century Khamseh rug.

Slide 24

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Opie is hopeful that, sometime, evidence may be found to let us determine whether this ancient motif “may have originated locally or could have been imported into the Zagros.” Many Middle Eastern museums contain ancient statues with two heads. 

It might be useful to indicate here that Opie’s frequent references to the Zagos, are not by chance. This reference is to a Zagros mountain region in Iran.  Opie maintains, thoughout his book, that tribes in the Zagros mountains were isolated.  And so, he sees their design usages as likely sources of ancient design motifs.

Sometimes textiles that have animal heads also exhibit another ancient design motif that is used widely all over the world.  Opie used another white dominant Bakhtiari bag set to illustrate this.

Slide 25

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In Slde 27 you can see a species of the endless knot which is part of the motifs in the central part of this vertical array.

Slide 27

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While the endless knot is ancient, Opie said, and occurs in south Persian textiles, it also appears in a number of other cultures.  He said it is not clear how the endless knot motif came into the Zagros.  China, the Copts, in Eygpt, the Vikings, Celtic peoples are all mentioned as possible.

Here is an example of a Persian, endless knot motif, from Peter Stone’s “Oriental Rug Lexicon,” 1997.

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One of Opie’s six examples of the endless knot motif in “Tribal Rugs” is this one.

Slide 28

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Slide 29

Click on the image below to get a larger version.

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Comments on Slide 29:  This Bakhtiari animal trapping from Tribal Rugs has as its dominant design motif in the field of the horizontal panel, a swastika-linked pattern. 

Opie says that swastikas and swastika-linked motifs are, like the endless knot, motifs that are “common property of a variety of nations” scattered throughout Eurasia, China and even the Americas.

Slide 30

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Comments on Slide 30: This large, well-known, Luri bag front, possibly from the early nineteenth century…features a stylized two-headed figure on the back of a horse. 

Slide 31

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Few nomadic woven motifs offer such an intriguing comparison with ancestral art.  Opie said that “This piece and an identical mate are among the rarest nomadic weavings to surface in recent decades.”

Opie had the piece in Slide 30 in the room.  Here, below, are some more images taken of it.

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Slide 32

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Comments on Slide 32: Opie said that Luristan bronzes, made by tribes people living in the Zagros mountains, provide some of the best evidence on ancient south Persian designs and motif.  The image in Slide 32, above, is one end of a complete, decorated harness bit and is one of these Luristan bronzes.

Slide 33

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Comments on Slide 33:  I don’t have in my notes anything specific about this piece, but it is obviously another ancient item of Persian origin that exhibits particular designs.

One of these is, clearly a row of bird’s head near the top.  There are also some deer images. It not clear from this perspective whether a single deer was intended or more likely two deer side-by-side.  At least eight legs on a single deer is unusual.

Slide 34

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Comment on Slide 34:  This image is of a “Fantastic tattooed animal on the body of a tribal chief or shaman.  [From Barrow 2 in the Pazyryk Valley, southern Siberia, fourth century B.C. (After Rudenko)]

In “Tribal Rugs,” Opie quotes Veronique Schlitz who says: “The art of the steppes is a coherent system of signs and operates like a language.  For these peoples…it must have occupied the place of a written language…”  He said that this approach to symbolism enhanced my appreciation of animal-style objects that I encountered in my travels in Iran and Afganistan…

Opie had brought a number of pieces with him.  He dealt with them next. 

There is some redundance with pieces treated in his lecture. In most cases there will be an overall image, then comments on it, followed by a number of detail images of the same piece.

O1

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Comments on O1: This piece is a large Bakhtiairi flatweave (10 ft. X 4 ft) that appeared in Opie’s ‘Tribal Rugs of Southern Iran, 1981 and is described extensively there.

Opie pointed to both its rarity and to its great variation in border and field designs. 

He said that it exhibits a design vocabulary that may hark back to Persian city weaving of the 15th through the 17th centuries.  He said that “old flatweaves like this provide a glimpse into ancestral design traditions.”

Details of O1.

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Jim said that although these weavers were fluent in weaving a varieties of structure, they often did not know how to repair them (it may not be obvious, but the skills are quite distinctive).  The red vertical strip in the photos above and below demonstrates the kind of crude repairs they could manage.

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O2

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Comments on O2:  In Tribal Rugs, Opie describes this piece as having been woven by Lori-speaking Qashqa’i weavers in the last quarter of the 19th century. 

It is important because it exhibits a variety of animal motifs: lions, peacocks, animal-headed medallions and animal-headed trees.  There are also human figures. These are all traditional tribal motifs. Opie retains a sub-tribal attribution, saying that this piece was made by the “Shekarlu” weaving group.

Details of O2.

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O3

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Comments on O3:  Opie described this as a “bird” rug which incorporates images from other cultures. Estimated to have been woven 1860s-1870s.

Details of O3.

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There are serpent shapes over the backs of birds.  Also animals with floral growths out of their backs.

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And botehs out of animal forms.

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Opie took us next to a very old gabbeh.

O4

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Here is a complete, unencumbered view.

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Opie said this piece if very old and “maybe with no exterior input.”  It has multiple wefts that reduce its weight and for that reason is also the sort likely made for use rather than for market. Estimated to have been woven 1820-1880.

The Qashqua’i seem to have gotten their motifs from the people already there in the areas they came to dominate.

Details of O4.

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Back of O4

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Back of O4 closer.

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O5

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Opie said that this is another “bird” rug that incorporates images from other cultures.  He thinks is very old.  Has serpents over birds and secondary botehs.

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Details of O5.

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O6

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Opies said that O5 is a younger Khamseh, “bird” rug.  One sign of this is that the birds have a fuller shape.

Details of O5.

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O7

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Opie said that this is an interesting rug with indications of how it was made. 

It was, of course, started at the bottom, but pretty quickly the weaver changed the ground color of the field.  Then, half-way up the first center diamond she goes back to the original field color but, on the right side of the diamond, shifts to a red field.

This shifting of ground color continues half halfway up the second diamond, where she moves to a red ground on the left of the diamond, but introduces to a yellow ground on the right. 

She finishes the top half diamond with these two ground colors.

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Details of O7.

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There are again a variety of human and animal devices in the piece, in addition to some “Memling” guls, but an interesting one, Opie pointed out, is a pair of scissors in the detail below.

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O8

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O8 is another rug that invites comments about how it was likely made.  The field changes wildly and there was a consensus that it was made by at least two weavers. 

The way the field changes and the awkward drawing suggests that this is a mother-child effort. 

One sign supporting that is that while, the field has areas of poor drawing (although even there some small devices are well-drawn) the borders are uniformly well-drawn, suggesting the mother in control there.

Wendel said that this was what might be called an “oops” rug, and you could find on Turkotek.com from years ago a salon I designed with that title exploring what the line is between irregularities that actually can enhance the aesthetic quality of a weaving (think of what Kurdish ladies in the 19th century did, with their conventionalizations and use of color, in their renditions of old classic Persian designs) and those that have to be acknowledged simply as poor weaving.

One argument for considering this a successful rug is that Opie bought it…and still has it.

Details of O8.

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Below beginning changes are held up.

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The next rug was one that you could tell Jim Opie liked especially.

O9

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This is a large “tiger” rug.  Wendel Swan said that it is the best of this type he’s ever seen.  Opie said that the border is clearly urban.  Well drawn.  Wonderful color.

Details of O9.

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The detail below and the overall shot above were taken by Wendel Swan.

Notice in the detail below that there seem to be cypress trees in between the boteh devices in the borders.

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O10

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Opie said that O10, above, and O11, below, are both heroic flatwoven rugs.

They are both coarser than is typical of Qashqa’i kilims.  O10 is more finely woven.

Before we look at O11, here are some details of O10.

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And now let’s continue with O11.

O11

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This overall shot of O11 was another taken by Wendel Swan.

It is austere and has a lovely, spare, but organized graphic character.

Opie said that O11 was more coarsely woven that O10.  He said we should note that they were both woven in one piece.

Here are some details of O11.

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There was conversation in the room about the odd square device in the lower center of the field

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Below is a closer look at it.  It is not a patch or repair.  It was woven continuously as part of the original fabric.

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O12

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Opie said this bag set with its attractive, graphically strong field design was woven in the early 20th century by a Qashqa’i (Kashkuli) weaver in the early 20th century. 

It appears in Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia on page 26, opposite a 19th century rug with a similar design.  The latter shows what seems an earlier less conventionalized version of this design.

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O13 and O14 are chantehs.  Made as dowry items or as gifts.

O14

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O15

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This is another white dominant Bakhtiari piece.  It is from a cargo bag like the one shown in Slide 11, above. and demonstrates the observation there that the upper end of such Bakhtiari bags are pointed.

Details of O15.

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O16

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Comment on O16: Qashqa’i.

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O17

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This is a Kashga’i khojin set.  The field has a nice range of color and the back resembles kilims like O11 above.

O17

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This is one half of a Khamseh khorjin set.  Its face is very similar to that of 11.11 on Tribal Rugs, but this piece has a dramatic, colorful back. 

The center of its field motifs include the same small diamond motif with arms in four directions and birds arranged in its four quarters in the same way.  This arrangement also occurs in the detail of a rug in Slide 18 above. 

This rare piece is, itself, 11.12 in Tribal Rugs.

Details of O17.

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O18

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We were pressed for time and Jim, initially, said he wouldn’t discuss O18, (it’s not south Persian) but then was persuaded to do so.

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This was likely done by an amateur weaver.  It is of a dervish with his begging bowl.  It might have been made by the dervish himself.

It’s dated and Jim indicated what it was, but we didn’t capture it.  Maybe you can make it out.

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O19

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 Opie said that O19 was woven by a Lori-speaking group (Shekarlu). The white-ground border frames the field strongly.  Little, vegetal tree forms?

Details of O19

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O20

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Khanseh.  Very symmetrical.  Notes say “special value label.” Meaning not clear.

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Details of O20

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O21

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Comments on O21:  This piece both pile and flatweave. The pile area is along the top in the image above. 

This is a frequent Bakhtiari usage and it is likely what this bag is: Bakhtiari.

In use, the pile area would be at the bottom.  Someone said that this panel was meant to be folded vertically to form a bag. There are south Persian bags that were folded in unexpected ways, but this seems not one of them.  We think this image is of one side (likely the front) of a Bakhtiari bag.

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O22

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Comments on O22:  Bakhtiari salt bag.  Pile at bottom edge.

 

O23

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Comments on O23:  Qashqua’i? Animal heads with eyes.

 

O24

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Comments on O24: Pile.  Multiple animal heads with eyes. Qashqa’i?

 

O25

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Comments on O25;  This piece is, obviously not south Persian.  It is a pile Baluch rug. 

Opie was interested in the fact that while it could not be finished square at the top, the weaver did finished it. 

Comment in the room included the notion that perhaps the irregularity at the top is the result of uneven warp tension and only visible once the finished piece was cut off the loom.

 

O26

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Comments on O26:  This is a pictorial piece with “kabbah” (spellings vary) images.  The Arabic inscription divides a man’s estate.  It is a “will.’  Dated “1335” (1915).

Opie thinks it’s older than 1915.

 

O27

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Comments on O27: The tiny bag above was the last piece Opie showed in Part 1.  Pile with flat-woven top.  Attribution not given in my notes.

Members of the audience had brought a great deal more material.

You can enjoy these latter things using this link: https://rjohnhowe.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/james-opie-on-southwest-persian-rugs-part-2-the-pieces-brought-in/

We will say, again, at the end of Part 2, how grateful we are to Jim to come and share with us his experience and deep knowledge of southwestern Persian rugs and textiles, including a considerable number of pieces from his own collection.

R. John Howe

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