Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Samarkand's Magic Carpets

uzbekistan tours, uzbekistan art craft tours, uzbekistan cuisine
Suzanna Fatyan
Suzanna Fatyan, one of Uzbekistan's finest tour guides, has contributed several pieces on this website about Samarkand as well as about Uzbek cuisine. In this article she describes the story of the remarkable family that runs the Samarkand silk carpet workshop.

Visiting workshops is an exciting part of any journey. First, because it allows a traveller to observe the magical process of creation; second, because you start understanding the volume of human energy and expertise spent for things that sometimes seem rather simple. Finally, in the workshops, you have the chance to meet artisans whose hearts and minds are totally dedicated to their craft.

Samarkand is the perfect place for such meetings. Sometimes I feel that interesting people agreed to gather here at the same time, to charm a traveller with their incredible art, knowledge, and charisma.

And it is natural, because Samarkand is the heart of the Great Silk Road, a spacious caravanserai  where merchants and craftsmen met and had long, philosophical debates under the shadow of a plane tree, sipping green tea before they started discussing their business.

Detail of exquisite pure silk carpet. Image: Janet Richardson
The workshop that always impresses travellers is known as Samarkand Bukhara Ipak Gilami, which means Samarkand Bukhara Silk Carpets. It is run by the family of Haji Mohammad Ewaz Badghisi, whose life history could inspire a novel.

For Haji Baba, of Turkmen background, the weaving of rugs is not a job, it is his life. Ancestors of Haji Baba dedicated three hundred years to this art. Moreover, this dedication accompanied him and his family during the most difficult periods of their life. And they experienced many.

In the early 20th century Central Asia was annexed to the Soviet Union and Haji Baba's family had to leave their Turkmen homeland and move to Afghanistan to avoid expropriation of their property and the banning of their art: weaving was considered private entrepreneurship.

In Afghanistan, Haji Baba worked hard to preserve authentic Central Asian designs and weaving secrets.  Moreover, he did everything to tell the world about the art of Central Asia. Haji Baba even lectured at university in the United States, where he shared his knowledge about natural vegetable dyes and carpets. However, a peaceful life in Afghanistan and opportunities to create there were also interrupted, first by the Soviet invasion in 1978, then by the domination of the Taliban in 1992.

samarkand silk carpets, uzbekistan silk carpets, uzbekistan art craft tours
Haji Baba holding madder plant and madder root - used for red dye
Thus in 1992 Haji Baba's family left Afghanistan and settled in independent Uzbekistan, where the new government supported initiatives on the Revival of Lost Arts.  Haji Baba opened a school-workshop in Samarkand to teach everyone interested in the art of carpet creation: from unwrapping the cocoon, spinning and dyeing silk through to weaving a masterpiece. Haji Baba preserved weaving traditions and passed these traditions with love and respect to his large and friendly family.

His son, Abdullah, and daughter, Zainab, take care of the workshop today.  Instantly they charm you with their energy and passion and then with their encyclopedic knowledge and sense of humour.  Between them they speak 10 languages. They show you every corner of the workshop so you can become a weaving expert.

Firstly you are invited to the dyeing area where you learn everything about the birth of silk and creating the colours. All carpets produced here are 100% silk and the threads are coloured using natural, vegetable dyes. Nearby is the garden where madder is grown. There are bags of walnut shells, onion skins and pomegranate skins.

Then you see the weaving process: you go upstairs and find yourself in a large room where you feel as if you came for a party at your closest friend’s house, albeit a rather unusual house. Because there are looms all around.  The atmosphere is so cosy you feel as if everyone is related to each other.

samarkand silk carpets, uzbekistan silk carpets, uzbekistan art craft tours
Brother & sister Abdullah & Zainab, who manage the workshop
Most weavers in the workshop are women, which is symbolic. In the past our grandmothers served as the main keepers of traditions.

Weaving skills were crucial to a nomadic lifestyle. First, because every piece of furniture and decoration in a yurt was woven. Second, women prepared special carpets before their wedding; after marriage they served as yurt doors and floor coverings and demonstrated the skill of the maker.

For women living in the cities it was necessary to prepare suzani as part of the dowry. These decorated walls, dastarkhan (the traditional space where food is eaten) in the house, niches in the walls for personal belongings and many more purposes. From the designs and colours of the rugs and suzani you could can learn about the origin of the piece as well as the dreams and fears of its owners.

Frequently they are decorated with symbols and amulets to attract fortune, wealth, fertility and to turn away the evil eye. In the past, every pattern in the carpet belonged to a certain tribe. Now when we talk about patterns we remember their origins and analyze their symbolism.

samarkand silk carpets, uzbekistan silk carpets, uzbekistan art craft tours
Clara - indispensable part of the carpet team
Then you will be invited to the show room and served a cup of tea and traditional candies. Here you will see wondrous carpet after carpet in gorgeous patterns and colours, kilims, and suzani (from cushion covers,  table runners and bed covers).

Please do not fear that you may be pressured into a purchase. That is not their way. The family enjoys watching your pleasure as you view the beauty of the designs, the harmony of the colours and the quality of the weaving.

For a moment you forget where you are:  you start dreaming, you close your eyes and feel as if you are in an Oriental palace far away from reality and routine. If you travel in summer I recommend you lie down on a silk carpet to feel its cool, delicate, tender touch. (I should let you know that the family makes it very easy for you to purchase carpets - credit cards are accepted and shipping can be arranged).

The workshop is a fair employer. All staff undergo a three-month training program. They work five days a week, eight hours and day and have guaranteed annual and maternity leave. There are opportunities for women, after having children, to embroider suzanis at home if they prefer.

samarkand silk carpets, uzbekistan silk carpets, uzbekistan art craft tours
A stunning silk carpet designed like a suzani

Usually a carpet is woven by two or three women - they chose with whom they wish to work, as it ensures a convivial spirit at the loom as well as faster completion of the carpet. The workshops are light and airy and staff take regular breaks.

A visit to Samarkand is incomplete without stopping by Haji Baba's workshop, at 12A Hojom Street Samarkand. It is open seven days a  week. Phone them on +998 66 2352273 or ask your tour guide to bring you there.

And of course a visit there is included in Uzbek Journeys tours.

Contact Suzanna via email at susanna202001(at)yahoo(dot)com          

Read all Suzanna's articles and restaurant reviews.

Related posts:
Symbols in Stitches: Uzbek Suzanis
Suzanis as Upholstery: the Brilliance of Bokja Design

The light, airy weaving room at the Samarkand silk carpet workshop. Image: Richard Marshall