Origins of Kilims

The origins of the kilim are buried so deeply in the past of the human race that we will probably never really know the true story of its genesis. Undoubtedly the greatest obstacle faced when trying to find solid physical evidence as to when and where the earliest kilim rugs were made is the fact that all textiles succumb quickly to the ravages of time and nature, and the further back we probe in time the more hopeless the search becomes.This lack of firm evidence clearly invites speculation, some motivated by well-meant curiosity and impartial academic interest while other conjectures are often driven by less benign cultural, tribal, religious or nationalistic bias. Indeed,as it often happens, proponents of various theories usually dig in their heels - especially when academic reputations are at stake - and their arguments become more acrimonious than enlightening. However, our task is not to prove or disprove any specific hypothesis, but navigating in a sea of supposition and uncertainly to point the search for origins in the directions dictated by reason.


It seems reasonable to suppose that the kilim rug evolved from purely utilitarian, non-decorative,non-symbolic applications of weaving in some remote period of prehistory when the human spirit began to express itself through various forms of arts and crafts. It also appears likely that the first weaves were merely a technological advance over animal skins which were probably already decorated with dyes or beads when weaving was discovered, so it is probable that some patterns of color were incorporated into some of the early products of the weaver's loom. But when and where did the technological and artistic strands come together to result in what we know today as a kilim rug remains unknown.

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In their fine work "KILIM, The Complete Guide" the authors Alistair Hull and Jose Luczyc-Wyhowska relate some of the known historical finds and phases of kilim production, briefly treat origins giving ca. 1000 BC as the probable beginning of the slitweave technique and relate the discoveries at Fostat in Egypt where flat woven textiles dating from the seventh to the eleventh century BC and earlier were found.


Peter Davies, in his slim but thorough volume "The Tribal Eye: Antique Kilims of Anatolia", examines the main theories of kilim origins, says that "By the early to middle second millennium BC slit-weave tapestry seems to have entered Egypt from Syria…" giving E.J.W. Barber's authoritative "Prehistoric Textiles" as the source, and posits that "not until the fourth or third millennium BC does evidence begin to appear for managed flocks of sheep suitable for wool production" of the type suitable for dyeing and thus making polychromatic weavings. He also convincingly argues that as sheep domestication was beginning the animals still had coarse, kempy coats unsuitable for spinning or weaving,coats naturally pigmented in colors ranging "from black and dark brown through reddish and buff or gray". Indirectly Davies seems to admit, however, that "weavings using animal fibers in their natural colors" were possible in that early period.

"...at some point in time after the discovery of the loom and when domesticated sheep were already producing coats suitable for spinning, weaving and dyeing."

It can then be argued that the ancestor of the polychromatic kilim rug could have been just such a weaving of naturally colored animal fibers incorporating, perhaps, geometric motifs or designs of shamanistic significance executed in differently colored strands. What we know of Neolithic art suggests that this is well within the realm of possibility but we are still without solid proof due to the lack of physical evidence. All that can be said now is that a prototype of the polychromatic kilim rug could have evolved from weavings of natural animal fibers at some point in time after the discovery of the loom and when domesticated sheep were already producing coats suitable for spinning, weaving and dyeing.

From Samuel Noah Kramer's "The Sumerians" we know that by 2000 BC "…thousands of tons of wool were worked annually in Ur alone. Tremendous flocks of goats, sheep and lambs were raised to obtain wool…The spindle was used to spin wool, and weaving was done on both horizontal and vertical looms…". In order to have such an advanced state of production at this time the Sumerians - and their precursors in this region - must have been the beneficiaries of a very long process of evolutionary development of sheep farming and cloth manufacture.

Based on the above it can be surmised that the kilim rug tradition could have had its beginnings perhaps as early as the fourth millennium BC. This conjecture, however, is supported by tenuous circumstantial evidence and is primarily based on the probability that the technology and the materials needed were available at the time in question. Placing the kilim's beginnings in the third millennium BC seems to put it more within the realm of probability. Another hypothesis, the "Goddess Theory", seeking to date these origins to Neolithic Anatolia ca. 6000BC seems to be supported by observation that many Anatolian kilim motifs appear to reflect stylized images of the archetypical Mother Goddess rooted in prehistoric Anatolia and other symbols related to that era. This thesis, however, suffered a serious setback when the credibility of purported archaeological evidence presented in support by British archaeologist Dr. James Mellaart was seriously challenged by highly regarded authorities. The search for credible, admissible physical evidence to validate the various theories will undoubtedly continue, but the earliest undisputed proof of kilim rug work found so far is of a much, much later date.


Before focusing attention on this crucial physical evidence a short digression is in order to point out some inadequacies of Western scholarship related to our area of interest. Apparently for reasons as diverse as difficulty of access, language problems, cultural inclinations of scholars and other less obvious factors Western research has shown remarkable reluctance to assess the possibilities of ancient China contributing to the genesis of the kilim rug. Given the geographic proximity of the Chinese civilization to the far-ranging nomad populations nurtured in Central Asia it seems feasible that contact between them could have equipped the nomadic tribes with the technology needed to produce kilim rugs some time before their westward migrations began. That is if we presume the nomadic peoples to have been too primitive themselves to devise the means necessary to make their lives more comfortable and to liven up their tent homes with vivid splashes of color. The above presumption is clearly biased, but, be that as it may, it seems that the complete true story of the Central Asian tribal kilim rug cannot be told until thorough research of a possible "Chinese connection" is undertaken and concluded.

"...the Pazyryk finds included what many authorities believe to be the earliest examples of actual kilims."

When Russian archaeologist S.I. Rudenko excavated grave mounds (kurgans) in the Pazyryk area of the Siberian Altai region in 1946-47 and discovered textile remains well preserved in the permafrost the world-at-large took little notice. Also, only a small circle of specialists was aware of the importance of textile discoveries made on the site of the ancient Phrygian city of Gordion in Anatolia, the mainland of Turkey. Dated to the fifth century BC and 690 BC respectively, these discoveries provided solid evidence of an advanced flatweave technique, while the Pazyryk finds included what many authorities believe to be the earliest examples of actual kilim rugs.

Detail of Pazyryk Carpet  

Detail of Pazyryk Carpet

 

The Pazyryk trove of artifacts revealed such a high level of development and artistic skill of the population which produced them that cultural and nationalistic instincts began the inevitable tug-of-war over the ethnicity of their creators, and this contest continues online. A literature search shows that some relatively impartial authorities on the subject believe the Pazyryk finds give strong support to the theory that weaving originated in Central Asia, but this debatable claim is mentioned only in passing as we have no wish to enter into polemics. However, informed, constructive contributions to this discussion will always be welcome.

The lack of convincing evidence tying the origins of the generic kilim rug, i.e. flatweave, to a specific place and time leads to the conclusion that the technique itself was probably invented independently be various groups in several locations and at different times in the prehistoric era. However, it is widely believed that the kilim, as we define it today, has its origins in the tribal flatweaves of Central Asia.