Kaitag Embroideries, Textile Art from Daghestan


The Designs

The strongly coloured designs include rich combinations of sun signs, sun birds, sun bursts, octagons, cosmic columns, horns, crosses, fantastic crab-like beasts, elk, reindeer, fat swordfish, dragons, amoebae-like shapes, masks and even foetuses. Some have hieroglyphic motifs, and there are what appear to be stylised Hebrew or Arabic letters, both possibly derived from the historical evolution of the Kaitag. There are also versions of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs plausibly derived from talismans in Egyptian-Arab alchemy books. Many of the motifs found on the embroideries occur on local tombstones and carved wooden spoon boxes. Some versions and motifs of the embroideries are fairly similar to those found on Kazak and other rugs from nearby northern Azerbaijan.

It is evident that the embroideries contain a variety of design elements of great antiquity. Some of these came to Daghestan at different periods of its history, and others are of ancient local origin. The continuity of design tradition makes it very difficult to date the earlier embroideries. It would be misleading to attempt to ascribe dates to the embroideries on the basis of their archaic designs alone, since such designs seem to have survived until recent times in other media in Daghestan.

For now, the origin of the designs must remain an unsolved mystery of an almost isolated artistic eruption in a small region. Its continuation into the early years of this century is indicated by some examples with yarn dyed with garish chemical colours, the use of synthetic cloth and the recollections of old women in the villages where the embroideries were found.

Their design bravado, shimmering colour density and assured juxtapositioning of colour and texture give the embroideries a contemporary significance. These designs have a confidence and verve that evoke a sense of recognition and pleasure in an audience far removed in history and culture from their original owners, to whom they were evidently of powerful totemic significance. Indeed, the more abstract among the embroideries stand on a par with the work of 20th century Western masters such as Klee and Matisse. Most of the Kaitag embroideries do not relate directly to other embroideries or textiles. It is, therefore, necessary to look further afield for their diverse sources.

  Similarities to ancient felts
It seems likely that the two-dimensional 'cut-out' or stencil-style designs found on the embroideries derive from the stylised motifs found on felt appliques or mosaics. While the earliest stencilled designs are found on the Pazyryk felt appliques, circa 400 BC, in Ottoman art they first appeared in late 15th century ceramic designs. The stencil style is found in many other materials in Asia, such as rugs, carved stone and wood and embroideries. The embroideries' decoration is similar to much local carved stonework found in central Daghestan. The stencil style also appears in Andi and Kumyk felt-mosaic work from northern Daghestan and in some Kazak and other Caucasian knotted woollen rugs produced in northern Azerbaijan. Visually, the cut-out style results in an effect that can be termed design-background inversion. Thus many designs on the embroideries are both embroidered in silk and also appear etched in the spaces of ground cloth between other silk motifs.


Traditional symbolic designs
In addition to imported and distant sources, some indigenous design derivations can be identified. There are naturalistic sources, such as humans, animals, plants and stones, and overtly ritualistic designs derived from surviving pre-Islamic animism and nature worship. Both types of design are found together on the same embroideries. The naturalistic designs include representations of men, babies, hands against the evil eye and other anatomical parts, such as legs, phalluses and wombs. Animal designs depict representations of horses, sheep, eagles, birds, elk, camels, bull and ram horns, serpents and dragons, among many others. Among the plant forms, a variety of unidentifiable or stylised flowers can be seen as well as the tulips, pomegranates, acanthus leaves and vine leaves of the Ottoman or Byzantine traditions. Local eroded rocks with amoeba-like forms may also have been an inspiration for the embroiderer.

The more ritualistic designs probably derive from both the pre-Islamic and the Islamo-Christian traditions. The former include a range of microcosmic symbols: the sun sign, like a spinning pinwheel; the primal mound; the cosmic axis, often indicated by horned totems; thunderbolts, often suggested by serrated bands; and the heavenly canopy, represented by the ubiquitous scrolling around the spandrels. Similar use of protective talismans is still found today in Daghestan in blue tattoos and painted felt devil masks.

  Links with the decoration of tombstones
Many of the designs, excluding the Ottoman group, also appear in relief carvings on tombstones of the Kaitag region, and embroideries and tombstones from certain localities are related. Whether or not the tombs are strictly Muslim is also open to question. It would be unusual for Islamic tombstones not to carry an inscription, so where there is none, it may be that the tomb was pre-Islamic (in many parts of Daghestan, Islam was not fully adopted until the 19th century). On these pre-Islamic tombstones a range of motifs is often mixed together on a single stone, which include most of the designs found on the embroideries.


Islamic and Christian influences
A number of the embroideries are versions, probably copies, of designs also found on the widely exported 16th to 18th century Ottoman woven silks and velvets. That there should have been Ottoman influence is not surprising, because Derbent was under direct Ottoman rule from 1575 until 1602. There was much trade between Derbent and the Ottoman empire until the first Russian conquest in 1722, and intermittently thereafter until the third Russian-Ottoman war broke out in 1828. The Ottoman-influenced Kaitag embroideries include both large-scale, carnation and ogival lattice designs.

In addition to the local versions of Ottoman woven silks and velvets, there are Islamic and Christian designs which were presumably copied from books, ceramics, woodwork, metalwork, carpets or carved stonework. Christian influence may be responsible for the variety of crosses: simple, with tau finials, trefoil finials, lobed, and Coptic stepped crosses. The pearled roundels favoured by the Byzantines and, later, the Seljuks also appear. The Islamic tradition inspired calligraphy-based forms, rosettes, arabesques, eight-pointed stars and carpet tile designs. Cloudbands, while originally a Chinese design, would also have reached the region as part of the Islamic tradition, found in blue and white Persian plates that form the wedding dowry in nearby Koubachi village, which in turn adopted the design from Chinese sources. Hieroglyphic designs may have been drawn from occult texts in Arabic. Several embroidery designs also appear similar to Kazak and other Caucasian rugs, but it is not convincing that the similarities are sufficiently related to form a link.

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text and images © Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul, and textile-art, London, 2007:
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