SFBARS Passages, the exhibition of Armenian rugs with inscriptions that just ended at the Presidio, is quite an eye opener.  Armenian inscriptions are commonly associated with certain types of Karabagh rugs, especially bold pictoral rugs with large, realistically drawn animals--a type well represented in this exhibition.  Also frequently found with Armenian inscriptions are some other types of familiar Karabagh rugs, especially those with sunburst and cloudband designs.  A third special class of rugs consists of the splendid, extremely finely woven rugs made in workshops in Istanbul by Armenian weavers.  (See "Zareh's Legacy," by George F. Farrow in Hali 58 and "Master Weavers of Istanbul" by Pamela Bensoussan, Hali 26.)  A large finely woven rug in a Moghul design represents this type.

What this exhibition reveals, however, is a number of rugs with Armenian inscriptions with designs not usually thought of as Armenian.  Among these surprises can be found a rug with standard Belouchi color and design, two rugs with the "Salor" turreted gul and two "Seichur" type rugs--one with the Bidjov pattern and one with the so-called "cabbage" or rose design.  (In fact, given that so many of the exhibited rugs contain realistically drawn large flowers, one must ask if these could be considered typical Armenian production.)  One exhibited rug, a classic Malayer in color and weave and one typically Lilihan clearly indicate that Armenian weavers were not only prevalent throughout many of the rug weaving areas of the Caucasus, but also Persia and Kurdistan.

The rugs date from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  The oldest rug in the show, a Ladik Prayer rug fragment from the 17th century with a partial upside down inscription, seems to show a human figure in the spandrel, a very unusual motif in a Ladik. Among the pretty 19th century rugs we can see Chelaberd (sunburst design) rugs, Kasim Ushags, Lesghi star rugs, Cloud bands, and Lenkorans.  Curiously, the Pictoral rugs in this exhibition are all dated between 1906 and 1924.  Most of these contain rather strident colors, but the rugs themselves make up for questionable dyes because of the interest they present as genuine folk art.  Among the many animals can be found charming horses, some with riders and some wearing horse blankets, dogs, including St. Bernard dogs, an occasional Lion, a dragon being put to death by St. Patrick, a number of birds, including peacocks and parrots, and a number of deer.  Some of these rugs tell stories from the bible.  Others, such as a rug dated 1928 and inscribed with the words Lenin and "workers of the world unite" tell a political rather than religious tale,

It was a pleasure to have Dr. Murray Eiland share his considerable knowledge of Armenian rugs during his walkthrough of the exhibition for SFBARS members.  In answer to a question from the audience, he said that most of the inscriptions, as the name of the exhibition implies, are indicative of important "passages" of the weavers families--perhaps a marriage, death, birth or other ceremonial event.  He believes that given the fact that depicting the human form is considered sacrilegious in many Islamic areas, Caucasian rugs with obvious human forms might logically be considered to be [Christian] Armenian.  Many of the rugs in the exhibit do, indeed, contain human figures, often clearly delineating masculine attributes.  One large rug depicting numerous animals and human figures probably was woven for the occasion of a marriage ceremony. Another fascinating rug with a long Armenian inscription contains what to most rug collectors would seem to be an Islamic prayer niche, but not only is there a cross atop the niche, but within the niche appears a scale, perhaps symbolizing the weighing of Christian souls.  Indeed many of the rugs contain crosses--from simple small white crosses to more complex cruciform medallions.

Dr. Eiland mentioned that the French Aubusson tradition could well have been the inspiration for the rugs with rose patterns.  These, along with rugs sporting the herati and Mina Khani designs, probably indicate commercial production.  Another interesting fact noted by Dr. Eiland is that the use of Cochineal dye is typical of Armenian rugs.  He further informed us that there are at least 20 known rugs of the sunburst type containing Armenian inscriptions.  He observed that rugs of the type should now be thought to have been woven by Armenian weavers.  He also said that so many Lesghi Star rugs are inscribed (there are two in the show) that the "Lesghi" star should now be called the "Armenian Star."

Dr. Eiland said the great number of flat weaves containing Armenian inscriptions surprised him.  The designs of these varied from rather Baroque "Bessarabian" type designs, to concentric designs, to one with the familiar "race car" motive.

Hillary Dumas