Beshir carpets -- Slave carpets?

As carpet dealers/-collectors/-connoisseurs we just love to connect a carpet to a place or a people. It gives us some insight into how and why rugs are made the way they are and it helps us place a value on it that might be highly influenced by its origins. These days there are more and more antique rugs on the market, than say 200 years ago, and as life goes there are sometimes pieces that we call a certain name, but the origin of it remains a mystery to us, especially when the certain carpets are no longer produced. Nothing thrills us more than to piece the puzzle together bit by bit and eventually reach that “aha” moment where we can say with certainty: THIS IS WHO MADE IT and now the whole pattern and design makes just so much more sense! Through the ages many tribes ceased to exist - either by extinction, integration or genocide; sometimes their place of origin changes and forces them to migrate; all of this has an irrevocable effect on their arts and crafts that changes with them and remain as definite proof of their existence.

One of these carpet groups that is still a bit puzzling in the carpet world is the Beshir carpets. They are called Beshir because it is believed that they were made in a small village next to the Amu Darya river bank that was called Beshir. They are, however, no longer produced and haven’t been for over 100 years, but it is known that they made their way through Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. They are highly collectible and thus they cause much speculation and discussions as to whom could have made them. Not all histories of peoples are written down but the carpets serve as the silent voice of a people that existed and produced them.

The Beshir tribe has been linked to the Ersari Turkmens, but the link doesn’t appear to be that clear. The designs in the Beshir carpets are entirely different from other Turkmen carpets, they used a reddish brown as opposed to the trademark deep red of the Turkmen, their designs were larger and less compact and they wove the carpets with an asymmetrical/Persian knot which opens to the right as opposed to the Turkmen Turkish knot or Persian knot that opens to the left. This is highly unusual. so to satisfy our curiosity we decided to dig deeper and here is what we found.

The Ersari tribes lived in the modern day Balkan province of Turkmenistan up to the around the 17th century when a large majority of them moved eastward, after the drying up of the Uzboy channel. If the Beshir tribe was indeed a member of the larger Ersari tribe, the Balkan province would be a good starting point. Who else lived there and when?

The Balkan province borders Iran so it would be fair to expect some influences flowing upwards and downwards. The earliest mention of a tribe in that region is that of the Turanians 2400 BCE in the Farvardin yashts. The Avesta mentions many old tribes including the Tuiryas (Turanians) as enemies of the Airyas (Aryans, associated with the Iranian people). Two more tribes mentioned as living in the Balkan province are the Sarmatians and the Dahae. Around the 6th century with arrival of Turks in the area the term Turanian and Turkic became interchangeable even though there is no relation between the two.

From around 1800 BC other people called the Andronovo culture started moving westward from Siberia towards the current day Balkan province of Turkmenistan. They were a flourishing society and covered a vast area. After them, from the late 2nd millennium BC, the Scythian tribes, along with Cimmerians, Sarmatians and Alans populated the steppes north of the Black Sea and also formed the Indo-Scythian Empire in the modern day Balkan province. These Scythians is the same tribe that produced the oldest surviving carpet – the Pazyryk carpet – now in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. The Scythians and the Sarmatians would eventually dissolve into the Germanic, Gothic and Proto-Slavic cultures.

From the Achaemenid Era up to the Khwarazmian Dynasty the Balkan province remained part of the Persian Empire (or whatever name it was called at different times). It became the “Khanate of Khiva that existed in the historical region of Khwarezm from 1511 to 1920, except for a period of Afsharid occupation by Nadir Shah between 1740–1746. It covered present western Uzbekistan, southwestern Kazakhstan and much of Turkmenistan before Russian arrival at the second half of the 19th century. The discovery of gold on the banks of the Amu Darya during the reign of Russia's Peter the Great, together with the desire of the Russian Empire to open a trade route to India, prompted an armed trade expedition to the region in 1717-18, led by Prince Alexander Bekovich-Cherkassky and consisting of 750-4,000 men. Upon receiving the men, the Khivan khan, Shir Ghazi, set up camp under the pretence of goodwill, then ambushed and slaughtered the envoys, leaving ten alive to send back.”

It could have been at this time that the Ersari Turkic tribes started migrating eastward. The British and Russians tried many times thereafter to annex the area, but it would ultimately be the Russians who would succeed when they set up a permanent presence from 1848. This could also explain why the Beshir carpets ceased to be produced. The people either moved away or ceased to exist. In 1924 after its last Kungrad Kahn abdicated it was incorporated into the Soviet Union until 1991 when it became Turkmenistan officially. Apart from the empires that occupied the territory there were many influences from the Khalaj, Igdi, Sogdians and Kara Tatars.

Up to now we discussed the historical traces and possible influences in the region, but it still is not enough information to find out who wove the Beshir carpets. Shervin Ghorbany started to investigate this mystery without any predetermined conclusions and with a more forensic approach which led him to the following theory:

1 – Beshir carpets in the beginning, 17th century examples, were woven with a freer, less dense design than its successors. This already gives some clues to Shervin that we are probably dealing with a Persian tribe as opposed to a Turkic tribe of the region.

2 – The more recent Beshir carpets became denser in design and the patterns became smaller, which proves that the carpets became Turkemenized, however, the overall style of the carpet remains Persian and therefore lots of scholars call it Persianized Turkman carpets. There is a big difference in how we look at this category carpet. Shervin looks at it as originally Persian tribal carpets that became Turkemenized versus the general accepted idea that it was Turkman carpets that became Persianite over time.

3 – The colour of the Beshir carpets is vastly different than the rest of the Turkman carpets. In Shervin’s point of view there was someone amongst the weavers with the knowledge on dyeing wool according to Persian custom and/or it was a label for a specific group of people that made these carpets amongst the Turkic tribes. To understand this point you should understand that during history groups of people were often prohibited from using certain colours either in their clothing or art, or they were forced to wear or use certain colours as identification. This usually occurred when they were regarded as an inferior race or class, or oppressed.

4 – Besides the points in No. 3, the majority of the Beshir carpets are wide runners. It looks like the people that made these carpets did not have the freedom or the space to make any other size or shape carpets. It could also indicate that they did not live like the normal Turkman in a tent, because there isn’t even a band carpet (normally used to drape around the nomadic tents) available in the Beshir carpets.

5 – Considering all these points, Shervin is of the opinion that we might be dealing with a tribe that was held captive for many years in the Turkman territories – the current Balkan Province.

6 – According to the history the Tekke Turkman were well known raiders in the Balkan Province, then the Khanate of Khiva, who regularly attacked villages and caravans and would then sell the occupants as slaves in Khiva. Majority of these unlucky traveller/merchants/residents were Persians. There were also some Russian slaves but they were in the minority. The treatment of the Persian slaves are well documented as horrific and inhumane. They were definitely regarded as a lesser class than the general populace in the area.

Could these Persian slaves have been responsible for weaving the Beshir that so closely resembled some Persian designs and colouring, and using the Persian knot (opening to the right)? According to accounts they were kept outside so the Beshir could have been their weaving for their own personal use as carpets to live on, sleep on and eat on; which could explain the fact that the Beshir carpets are mostly wide runners. The Russians and British became very involved in the area with freeing slaves towards the late 19th century which could explain why the Beshir is no longer woven since then. The Persian slaves were freed and they took their secrets with them.
By Shervin & Vanessa Ghorbany