126. A Silk ‘Samarkand’ Pictorial Saf

Khotan region, late 18th or 19th century
Size: 4.20 × 1.63 metres

There are three carpets known woven with this unusual, and so far unexplained design. The second example is in the collection of Parviz Tanavoli in Tehran, which he published in Hali magazine, and the other in a private collection in Madrid.

The significance of the figural design of this carpet is only one of the enigmas it presents. Why, for example, are there three carpets with this identical design, and nothing else that remotely resembles them? Do the figures ‘1210’ found on each example represent a date (equivalent to 1795 ad), and if so why is it written in Western numerals? Why is the man dressed in Russian or Caucasian costume, when the carpet was woven far to the East in Khotan? Is the sheep pregnant, and why does it have cloven hooves? Why is the border full of serpents? Parviz Tanavoli analyses these different details in the Hali article, but can offer no answer to the question of what it means, beyond a suggestion that it is a cultural expression of the Silk Route. He was unaware at the time of writing of the existence of the other two examples.

There are, nevertheless, further clues. Firstly, all three carpets are made of silk; they are luxury products, and therefore they must have been specifically commissioned. This is not a typical carpet design that can be sold to anyone in the bazaar. As a result, every detail must have a specific significance. The so-called ‘saf’ arrangement of multiple arches usually has a religious significance representing the mihrab for prayer, and carpets with this arrangement were typically woven for mosques or other religious buildings.

The vast area stretching from Eastern Turkestan where these carpets were made, to the Caucasus where the man’s costume probably belongs, is, culturally speaking, fairly homogenous. Along with music and carpet-weaving, the main cultural expression has always been story-telling. The Ashiks, traditional story-tellers, travelled to the towns and villages reciting the great epics and stories in their repertoire. The potency of this tradition was revealed when the Epic of Gilgamesh was deciphered from twelve cuneiform tablets excavated in Mesopotamia, and it was found that the version recited by the Ashiks had hardly changed over 4000 years. It is to this tradition that the subject-matter of this carpet surely belongs, illustrating one of the age-old Central Asian stories. The hand gesture of the man suggests he represents a story-teller. On one level, stories were recited as public entertainment; on another, they were credited with encapsulating a deep tradition of wisdom. Such a story is The Man, the Snake and the Stone, of which this may well represent a variation (see: Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams, Octagon Press, 1988.) ‘When you describe something that has happened once,’ say the story-tellers, ‘you may be describing something that is true. What we are describing is happening over and over again, all of the time, and represents something that is truer than true.’