Kaitag Embroideries, Textile Art from Daghestan

Kaitag Embroideries, Textile Art from Daghestan
exhibition at the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Emirgan, Istanbul
19 April to 19 August 2007

The textiles
  Situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, in the mountainous and in parts inaccessible north-eastern region of the Caucasus, once flanked by the Russian and Iranian empires, Daghestan is today the southernmost border republic of the Russian Federation. Over half of the population of 2.5 million lives in 700 lowland and mountain villages. There are 31 distinct ethnic groups, each with its own language. In a mountainous region in the south-west, near Derbent, lives a small multi-ethnic, multi-faith group of people, the Kaitag, who have over the centuries created remarkable and vibrant works of art in the form of small rectangular panels embroidered with vividly coloured silks. While today the Kaitag are a small 'nationality', they were among the first inhabitants mentioned in Arabic sources in the 7th century, and were famous as stubborn warriors until the 1850s.

The Kaitag
  The first recorded settlement of the Kaitag area was by Albani tribes in around 500 BC. Since then the history of the region has been one of constant struggle against successive waves of invaders - Sasanians, Huns, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, the Mongol 'Golden Horde', followed by Timur, the Ottomans, the Iranians and, finally, the Russians. Under Tsarist and Soviet rule Kaitag lost its political identity. Until then the villages were run as free societies with a self-contained pattern of life that preserved an unbroken tradition of design and craft. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Zoroastrian and pagan symbolism were the remarkable legacy of this past.


The art of Kaitag embroideries survives in less than 1,000 examples, dating from the 16th century (under Ottoman influence) through to the 19th century, mostly now in museum and private collections throughout the world. The Kaitag embroiderers were blessed with a special artistry and inspiration beyond that found elsewhere. This was linked in part to their greater awareness of the international silk and textile trade that passed through nearby Derbent on the silk route along the Caspian Sea, bringing a greater volume of different styles and approaches than could have been seen by artisans working in other materials. The vast repertoire of bold designs - from such a small region - that give the Kaitag textiles their beauty and fascination is a result of the history of the region, through which so many different conquerors had passed during the previous two thousand years.

These embroideries were not only once put to practical use as pillow covers but were important for the domestic ritual occasions connected with birth, marriage and death. Babies were protected from the evil eye by placing talismanic embroideries at the head of the cradle with the embroidered side facing inwards. On the first day of a wedding ceremony, the bride would come to the groom's home carrying her jewellery and nuptual presents wrapped in a cloth, again with the embroidered side facing inwards. On death, the custom forbade looking upon the face of the departed so it was covered with a cloth, embroidered side down. The cloth would not be buried but passed from father to son.


The designs
  As with felt making today, the Kaitag panels were embroidered by local specialists and sold to other villagers. They were not made on a frame, as one might expect - often the maker would work crouched over the embroidery, which was laid out on the ground. Many of these textiles were created freehand, and sixteen different stitches have been identified, which show the great versatility and skill of the embroiderers who worked the silk, which was once widely produced in Daghestan. A large variety of natural dyes was also available in the area: at least eleven different yellows came from locally grown plants, and Derbent was famous for exporting the roots of the madder plant, which yielded a range of reds.

Materials and techniques
  Kaitag art speaks to people of diverse cultural traditions. French art-lovers respond to a proto-Matisse style; in Sweden they see ancient Scandinavian art; Australians are reminded of Aboriginal art and in the US they see Abstract Expressionist paintings. Indeed, all these echoes are references to the common experience of the primal appeal of Kaitag embroideries, which is based on shared animist archetypes. This has been reflected by the emergence of collectors from many parts of the world: Turkey, throughout the rest of Europe, the Middle East, Australia, the United States and, of course, Daghestan.


Robert Chenciner is a Senior Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and an Honorary Member of the Daghestan branch of the Academy of Sciences of Russia. In 1986, he was granted permission to travel in Daghestan. His curiosity had been roused by an illustration in a book on the decorative arts of Daghestan by Dimitri Chirkov, published in Moscow. He then discovered a small collection of embroideries in a local museum and after further research in Russian museums, he and Dr. Magomedkhan Magomedkhankov of the Daghestan Scientific Centre of the Academy of Sciences of Russia embarked on a series of journeys through the villages of Daghestan.

The publication in 1993 of this remarkable collection of 47 embroideries in Chenciner's Kaitag Textile Art of Daghestan brought Kaitag textiles to the attention of the world. Since its publication this collection, which represents most of the known patterns, has been presented at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (1994), Christinehof Slott, Sweden (1994), and the Deutsches Textilmuseum, Krefeld, Germany (1995). Other Kaitag exhibitions have been shown in Boston (1994), Sydney and Melbourne (1995). The Sabanci Museum now presents Kaitag Embroideries, Textile Art of Daghestan for the first time in Turkey. 

return to: Two Exhibitions at the Sakip Sabanci Museum

text and images © Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul, and textile-art, London, 2007:
not to be reproduced without permission