The Afghan War Rugs

The weavers in Iran, in particular Tabriz, are very well known for their exquisite weaving of picturesque carpets. They can literally weave any picture to perfection! These pieces are beautiful, so fine, so skilfully woven that you just want to hang on your wall and allow it to take your breath away every time you look at it.

A neighbour to Iran that has been part of the Persian Empire for centuries, Afghanistan, also started making picturesque carpets, but theirs are very different in subject. The Afghan weavers are also known for their fine weaving skills, but during the decade of Soviet invasion in the country, their topic of choice became their daily lives and what they observed. Call it a silent witness, call it defiance, call it social media of the day, call it realism art. Whatever you call it, it was their tale to tell through their weaving. Changing from their traditional pattern to the realities of war was their way of coping with what was happening around them and being able to still make a living.

For centuries weavers have known how to weave symbolism into their carpets in disguise during periods of regime or religious changes. Take for instance the all too popular 8 leafed flowers that are found in almost every carpet, this used to be the 8 point star of Mithraism revered as a holy symbol but banned once the Mithraic followers were persecuted. The sickle leaf was once a fish, also a holy Mithraic symbol. So too did the Afghan weavers disguise the objects of war in their carpets.

At first they included gentle representations of bombs, hand grenades, etc. in between their traditional designs. Those who noticed it was not in favour of this display of war in art, because the face of war is never comfortable to look at. But once the historical value of these pieces became apparent, its appeal grew, especially in the West. Soon the subtle designs changed into blunt, truthful “pictures”/mirrors of what the general Afghani populace were experiencing. To put the picture into perspective here: An estimated 2 million Afghan civilian deaths occurred, 5–10 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, 2 million more were displaced within the country.

Firearms, tanks, helicopters, explosions, they were all put on display in the new Afghan rugs. Once the Western market demanded more, maps of Afghanistan and English wording, such as the names of the weaponry and region, were also included. Because many of the weavers are not skilled English speakers the spelling is often wrong and that adds to the specialness of these creations.

After the Russians left there were much internal turmoil in Afghanistan and later when the USA started spreading propaganda for change, after 2001, a new wave of Afghan War Carpets saw the light. This time with pictures of the Twin Towers burning. Again it was not something people wanted to see, but the Afghans used the flyers dropped by the USA as their framework for these carpets. It is difficult to see ourselves reflected back to us, but sometimes we need to look at us as the human collective and what we do to each other. The Afghans have captured their war into their art and so cemented it in time as a reminder to us all.

Pictured here is an Afghan War Rug in the Ghorbany Private Collection