Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Weaved Clouds of Central Asia

Writing of this post was inspired by a request from my friend, someone who saw the need in educating, not only the foreign public, but our own youth who is forgetful of our history and cultural heritage. This was meant to be a simple post, but during my research, as I found more and more materials I was immersed in books for hours forgetting that I am merely writing a blog. I made new discoveries for myself, not only about our history, but availability of sources which can always be used at later time (this is in line with my original intention for this blog). It took me three months to write this post from the original date of my friend's request on April 1. First, I had to wait for books to arrive, then those books lead me to others which lead to more delays; then I got sick, and though now I feel better, there are other issues which prevented completion of this post at earlier time. The point here is that I try not to regret what I do no matter how hard it is, as the rewards outweigh everything else. Unlike my previous posts, this one is full of end notes; I had to show my sources, at least because of their number; some of the books are very very cool, some have even been digitized. The last thing I want to say, if you spot a grammatical mistake or historical inaccuracy, I welcome your input. Send me an email by copying the part in question and give your suggestions to Also, if for any reason you wish me to remove your images, let me know, and I will do so asap.

Modern abr design on pure silk known as atlas from my own collection

Few weeks ago, as I rushed from work to pick up my son at his school, I saw an American woman standing by the entrance of the subway. She was attractive in her own way, but what caught my attention was not her looks, but rather her dress. The design of the fabric was so familiar that I could not but help myself to take a picture (image 1). This dress reminded me of what a friend asked me few weeks before when she saw dresses and shoes online with similar design patterns. She wrote, “I need information on the history of Adras and Atlas, it is called Ikat in the rest of the world, but living for so many years in Tajikistan I never heard of this word.” And so began my search, the result of which you are currently reading.

The word ikat in the English language ultimately derives from Malay, the language of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. It refers to an ancient technique of applying color to a bundle of yarn which had been wrapped in specific sections so as to prevent the dye from being absorbed by the entire bundle. This produces a unique textile pattern, which although ancient, is becoming easily recognizable today through fashion revival. The Malay word mengikat means "to bind or tie," but the process is universal, with countries such as Japan, Yemen, and others in South Asia and Central America having their own traditions of this method of dyeing. "Through wide usage, the word ikat has become the generic term for these textiles in the West, regardless of their geographic origin."[1] The word ikat refers to the process as well as to its final product. 

The technique also exists in the traditions of the people of Central Asia, specifically those in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Abrband (or abrbandchi) is a person who prepares bundles of yarn for dyeing. The resulting textile pattern, in its simplest form, looks like colorful clouds that have been weaved onto a piece of cloth; hence the name derives from Tajik abr “cloud” and band “to tie”. As Janet Harvey describes it, “Like clouds, the motifs appear to float unbounded, their edges softly blending into the adjacent colours…Seven colours might commonly be achieved with natural dyes, by dyeing in pure colour and then overdyeing, but abr silks with patterns of nine colours were the most valued.”[2] Silk is the best choice of material for capturing clouds, and the final product of dyed silk in Central Asia is known as atlas. Other textiles also exist, such as adras (from silk and cotton) or baghmal (velvet), but the colors on pure silk are so vibrant and vivid that when young Tajik girls and women wear dresses made from atlas, rainbow pays homage to them. Before I continue about the Central Asian ikats, it is helpful to know about the origins of the material which popularized the dyeing technique.

History of Silk
Silk is a byproduct of an insect and a plant, the development of which was discovered by the Chinese at least three millennia ago. The technique of making silk was unwillingly introduced by China to the world; it was a secret which was smuggled out of the country. Several versions of the story of this historic smuggling persist, but my favorite one is about a Chinese princess who was given as bride to a king of Khotan. Supposedly, before departing her home she was told by her future husband’s envoys that the land she was to make her home had no source of silk. And so, the resourceful princes stealthily hid the eggs of silkworm along with seeds of mulberry in her hair and smuggled them out of China (image 2). The eggs and seeds had to be smuggled simply because silk was then a highly prized commodity and thus a lucrative business. Indeed, the Chinese guarded the secret of silk making for many centuries, as this fiber made and unmade great kingdoms, having been used as bargaining chip during many political negotiations.

Image 2. Chinese princess (center) smuggling silkworm and mulberry seeds in her hair. © Trustees of the British Museum

In addition to being used in political negotiations, silk was also exported for sale in large quantities. In fact, silk traversed great lengths along the earliest trade routes of the ancient world reaching as far as Rome from China. In 115 BCE, “Mithridates II of Parthia made an alliance with Wu Ti, the great Han emperor of China [and] for the first time [the two kingdoms were] within direct commercial reach of one another.”[3] The treaty linked existing trading networks of China and its frontiers with those of Central Asia; before there was the Silk Road, there was a Lapis Road which only existed west of Central Asia and as far as Egypt. Connection of the two trade networks may have been triggered by another event twelve years after the treaty of Parthians and Chinese.

In 103 BCE, embassy of Emperor Wu Ti arrived in the kingdom of Ta-yüan (settled) in Ferghana Valley. Wu, concerned about the Hsiung-nu (nomadic) incursions from the north, sent an embassy to the Central Asian kingdom in search of horses, but his request was refused; in fact, the Chinese envoy was ambushed on their way home by the inhabitants of Ta-yüan. Emperor Wu would not allow such humiliation to pass, so “He gathered together a great army, including engineers to divert rivers, and horticulturalists to plant alfalfa for the horses, and sent them through some of the most hostile territory on earth on a three-thousand-mile round trip to Ferghana. A herd of steeds was finally brought back, and so was inaugurated the trail from China to the West which would develop in time into the well-trodden and celebrated trade route known today as the Silk Road.”[4]

The term “silk road” is a misnomer, as there was more than one road through which merchants and their wares traversed. In fact, the Silk Roads were a network of routes which connected many cities throughout the kingdoms located between ancient China, Egypt and Rome. Remarkably, the term “silk road” was coined many centuries after the demise of this network, and by a Austrian scholar no less.[5] Nonetheless, this name fittingly highlights one of the most important items of trade not only in the ancient world, but in middle ages too.

Take for example the year 53 BC in a place, known to the Romans as Carrhae, then already inhabited for over two millennia. It was here that General Crassus, who marched ambitiously against the Parthian empire, was soundly defeated in the famous battle. The cause? “Crassus and his men were deeply impressed by the sight of the brilliantly dyed silk banners of the Parthian cavalry.”[6] Yes, you read that right! the victory of the Parthian horse riders owed partially, if not entirely, to such a seemingly simple thing as a silk banner. As Robert Collins explains:

For a time the Romans doggedly held their ground. Then just at noon when the sun was high[est], the Parthians staged their coup. As they charged the Romans with their drums sounding, they unfurled their banners. These were of a gleaming, shimmering material such as Roman had never seen before, brilliant in color, embroidered with gold. Shining like fire, the banners spelled power and invincibility. The Romans - exhausted and suffering from wounds and thirst, their "invincible" testudo shattered - broke ranks in terror before this awesome sight and fled.[7]

This obviously was not the end of the Roman Empire, but it is interesting to see how such a delicate material as silk played such an important role in as brutal a place as a battlefield. Since we are on a topic of wars and silk, let us now examine how another people were awed, and history transformed, by the diversity of Chinese silks. The year was 1215, or as Chinese would have it, the Year of the Pig. The place was Zhongdu, the seat of the Golden Khan of Jurchids, which corresponds to modern Beijing. Genghis Khan dealt a final blow to this northern Chinese kingdom and laid claim to its resources and wares. Thus, the Mongols for the first time saw the riches of their settled neighbors—silk not least of all. According to Jack Weatherford:

“A river of brightly colored silk flowed out of China. It was as though Genghis Khan had rerouted all the different twisting channels of the Silk Route, combined them into one large stream, and redirected it northward to spill out across the Mongol steppes. The caravans of camels and oxcarts carried so much of the precious cloth that the Mongols used silk to wrap their other goods and as packing material. They threw away their rawhide ropes and used twisted cords of silk instead. They bundled robes embroidered with silver and golden thread in the designs of blooming peonies, flying cranes, breaking waves, and mythical beasts, and they packed silk slippers sewn with tiny pearls. The Mongols filled carts with silk rugs, wall hangings, pillows, carried bolts of raw silk, silken threads, and cloth worked into every imaginable type of clothing or decorations and in more colors than the Mongol language could identify.”[8]

Yet the sedentary life of Chinese civilization had an adverse effect on the nomadic Mongols; eventually, they all succumbed to the lavish lifestyle of city dwellers and were seduced, in particular, by silk. The branch of the Mongol empire that ruled in Persia under the title of Ilkhan for almost eighty years after the death of Genghis Khan was known to have taken the use of silk to new, excessive heights:

All through Ilkhanid times the Mongols’ tents were more gorgeous than cities. Silk came into its own. There were silk tents raised on gold-plated and gold-nailed pillars; tents that became throne-rooms and ministries, tents that two hundred men could barely erect in twenty days. Silk lined the wagons of the Mongol princes, and was routinely demanded in tribute. A gold-woven fabric named nasij was especially prized, and skilled weavers were moved into the Mongol heartland from Samarkand and Heart to create it. Genghis Khan himself had marvelled at his silk-clad women, glittering ‘like a red-hot fire’, and Marco Polo described the whole court of Kublai Khan assembling in identical coloured silks, according to the feast-day.[9]

Genghis Khan, whose heirs established the largest contiguous empire in history, was able to achieve what Alexander the Great could not; he built a bridge between East and West. His empire stretched from the shores of the Pacific to the walls of Vienna, through the mountains of Badakhshon and across the Syrian deserts.

For a time, after all the destruction wrought by the Mongol army in pursuit of empire, a peaceful period lasted long enough for the rebuilding process to take place. Economic boom was the most visible feature of this period, as caravans, laden with heavy loads, traveled from one end of the Mongol empire to another without having to worry about bandits and robbers. But all good things come to an end, and the Mongol empire began to disintegrate within a few generations after the death of the legendary Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan. With the expulsion of Mongols from China by year 1368, the Ming dynasty closed its borders for good; this saw the decline of silk exports out of China. In fact, the Silk Road in general began to decline in its importance as European powers discovered littoral trade routes. In Central Asia, silk was still produced, but only for local markets.

The last descendants of Genghis Khan in Central Asia were the Manghits, whose rule ended with the coming of Bolsheviks. The founder of this Uzbek dynasty was Shah Murad, who reestablished silk industry in Zarafshon Valley in 1770s. “From this date forward the provision of sumptuous cloths for the ruling families of the oasis towns gave renumerative [sic] employment to textile craftsworkers. Of all the extravagant adornments commissioned for the Emirs, it was the ikat-dyed silks, and above all the ikat-dyed silk velvets, that became renowned worldwide.”[10] It is here and at this time where our story picks up.

Silk in Central Asia
The capital of the Manghit dynasty was established in the ancient city of Bukhara, which in the medieval times acquired title of Bukhoroi Sharif (Noble Bukhara) due to its importance as cultural and religious center. About the same time as the Manghits established their rule in Central Asia, two other kingdoms found their place to the west and east of Emirate of Bukhara; they were the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand, respectively. By middle of the 1800s, both khanates ceased to exist, having been conquered by the expanding armies of the Tsar of Russia who feared the encroaching power of the English crown. Bukhara was left to fend off on its own, a kingdom between the two empires. It is for this reason, Richard N. Frye notes that “Under the Özbek rulers, Bukhara experienced a revival, but it was local, without influence on Iran or the Arab world.”[11]

Part of this revival included production of silk and the resurgence of the abr design on textiles. Silk was no longer the fabric of elites, as Arminius Vambery noted during his travels of the region in 1860s, "The wretched poverty among the inhabitants of Central Asia is shown in nothing more strongly than in their dress, and the eye is with difficulty accustomed to the simple cotton stuff, or silks of glaring colours, in which every one is clothed, man and woman, young and old.”[12] If you are wondering how the people distinguished the poor from the rich, here is the best description given by Olaf Olufsen who traveled in Central Asia in late 1890s:

As a rule, the fairly well-to-do citizen wears two caftans, one over the other, the officials always, and if the Bokharan wants to make much of a guest he puts on both 4, 5 and 6, according to his means. Thus one day when I visited the Divambegi of Bokhara unannounced, he only wore the common two caftans, but after having exchanged the usual, ever so long salutations, he immediately ordered several fine caftans to be fetched which a servant put on him, while he observed to me: “I put on these, because you, my dear guest, have arrived.” By degrees he had become a real mountain of rustling silk, so that he was hardly able to sit down.[13]

It wasn’t always the fabric that distinguished the social status of a person, but rather how that fabric was worn. Of all silk products, velvet was the only material that was solely worn by the rich and nobility of Central Asia. Olufsen continues:

To be elegant, the caftans must absolutely rustle, like the silk petticoats of Parisian ladies; consequently heavy silk is very much liked for the garments and if the velvet caftans embroidered with gold are worn over the others, there must always be several of silk within.  Those who cannot afford to buy silk, provide caftans of a sort of glazed hemp stuff that also rustles as long as it is new.
            A man of high rank thus equipped with a real store of caftans, the sleeves of which are, by the way, always twice as long as the arms, is, of course, quite unable to do any work of importance; he is bathed in sweat in summer and can only move slowly, but it is indeed, a sign of a low, social degree to walk at a great pace.[14]

Image 3. These two men were Olufsen's bodyguards during his travels in Bukhara, c. 1890s

Production of Silk
Silk in Central Asia is produced in a pillakashkhona, which literally means “workshop where cocoon is pulled” (from Tajik pilla “cocoon” kashidan “to pull” and khona “house”). Cocoon from which silk is made is produced by a caterpillar known as Bombyx mori. The caterpillar feeds on the leaves of mulberry tree and afterwards spins into a white oval ball, which consist of two elements: fibroin and sericin. Fibroin is an insoluble inner layer of cocoon, and sericin is the outer gluey layer which is soluble.[15] In pillakashkhona, the silk production begins with boiling of cocoon in hot water in order to separate the two elements from which it is made. After boiling, the smooth lustrous filament is pulled from cocoon onto a small wheel (charkhi maida) to even out the fiber. Once evened, the silk is wound onto reels which are then sent to abrbandi workshop.

Thus, the process in Pillakashkhona looks like this:

When the reels of silk are brought from the silk producing workshop to the binders, they are installed on a vertical frame. Threads from each reel are pulled and passed through small holes on a square board with up to forty holes onto a large wheel (charkhi kalon). The small wheels used during the pillakashkhona were often operated by young boys, because they did not require too much effort to turn. In the abrbandi workshop, it is the responsibility of charkhtob (literally “the wheel turner” in Tajik) to operate the large wheel as the silk fibers twist thus producing warped yarn. Afterward, the warps are boiled again in hot water to whiten them and then they are laid on a special table before another skillful master begins his work.

And the process of work in the Abrbandi workshop has the following steps:

Although abrband refers to a person who binds the warped silk, there are actually several masters at work in the abrbandi workshop. A nishonzan is “one who puts the marks” (from Tajik nishon “a mark” and zadan “to hit, to beat”) on the bundles of yarn which are given to abrband. Following the charcoal marks of nishonzan, the abrband carefully prepares the warps for the next skillful master, the rangrez, or “dyer” (from Tajik rang “color” and rekhtan “to pour”). Here are several images dating from 1870s showing the process of making silk in Central Asia.

Image 4. Feeding of mulberry leaves to Bombix mori caterpillar
Image 5. From boiling cauldron onto charkhi maida 
Image 6. Winding silk fibers onto reels.
Image 7. Charkhtob at work, warping the silk yarn
The process of work in both pillakashkhona and abrbandi workshop is not any different today compared to the time when the above images were taken.

Image 8. Cocoon is still boiled in large cauldrons. © Tim Stanley

Image 9. Then it is evened on charkhi maida (though now a bit mechanized). © Tim Stanley

Image 10. Silk fiber is still manually wound onto bobbins . © Tim Stanley

Image 11. And then those bobbins are installed unto a frame to be warped on charkhi kalon© Tim Stanley

Of course there are factories in Central Asia, remnants of the Soviet system, which produce silk and various abr-textiles, but there are also few workshops where old methods of silk production, binding and dyeing are still extant. As the Bolsheviks established themselves in Russia and its peripheries, including Central Asia which at the time was known as Turkestan, they did so in the name of the proletariat. This was the main work force of the Soviet system, which under no circumstances could be associated with the old regimes. Central Asian workshops that produced silk and abr-textiles were established by the nobility, albeit over a century prior to coming of the Soviets, and also because these workshops were based on an ustod-shogird  (teacher-student) system, not unlike the guild systems in Europe and America, they had to be dismantled by the newly established Russian government. But the Russians did not do away with production of silk and abr-textiles altogether; they just turned the workshops into factories and used synthetic instead of natural dyes.

Designs and Colors
Whereas the earliest textile designs looked like colorful clouds, giving us the name abrband for the binder of yarn, there are actually so many different motifs that to name them all as abr-textiles may seem misleading. Perhaps for this reason, speakers of the English language had adopted the Malaysian word ikat as it only means “to bind”. The word ikat, as has been mentioned in the beginning of this post, has become a generic term, but in Central Asia abrband is not only “binder of clouds,” he is also binder of flowers, playing instruments, animals, and even tickles. Here is a short list of various motifs which adorn dresses of Central Asian people.

Tajik/Uzbek terms for motifs
ram's horns
cypress tree
bargi karam
cabbage leaves
kui karga, sapsa karga, kora karga
variations of crow's plumage
affectionate term for a teacher (of religious studies)
kychyk or qitiq

Tree of Life

Tajik word gul means flower, but in textile production the word refers to a motif that adorns the fabric’s design. Each motif is unique to a specific region of Central Asia, and each region has its own sources of color dyes. In Bukhara, master dyers predominantly use yellow and red colors, while the dyers of Samarkand employ green, red and indigo in their work. Until the arrival of Russians by mid 1800s, Central Asian dyers used natural dye stuffs such as plants and insects. Namangan was the largest importer of pomegranate skins for black dyes and Kokand was the best source of royan for red colors. The outskirts of Tashkent were abundant source of cochineal insects and isparak flowers. Indigo, as the name suggests, was always imported from India, and in Central Asia the Jewish merchants held the monopoly on trade of this dye.

anorpust (pomegranate skin), gulikhairi (black mallow)
tukhmak (saphora japonica)
royan (madder), asil-ren (cochineal), kyzyl-bakam (sandalwood)
isparak (yellow delphinium), safflower, Senecio
Indigofera tinctora
pugak (mulberry tree sponge)
reds and yellows
Altai lichens

It is difficult to relay in words the beauty of textile with abr designs, and unfortunately photography was in its infancy at the time when artistic traditions in textile industry were being revived all over Central Asia. Nonetheless, here is a set of black and white photographs dating from 1870s, which capture diverse peoples of Central Asia wearing clothes made of abr-textiles.

Image 12. Mainaoi (Tajik), visible on the right shoulder is sanavbar (cypress tree) motif

Image 13. Oghuloi (Uzbek), visible on her left shoulder is either comb or amulet motif

Image 14. Mullo Borukh (Jewish), the left side of his caftan shows a diamond motif

Image 15. Sipora (Jewish), her top coat has abr  patterns

Image 16. A Kirghiz woman at work

Image 17. Tunukoi (Kirghiz-Kazakh), though poorly visible it looks like her dress has large kychyk motifs

Image 18. Said Muhammad Khudoyorkhon, Khan of Kokand. His khalat is full of tickles

Not all the portraits of individuals convincingly show abr-textile clothing. In such a case, it helps to look at few images of groups of people for contrast.

Image 19. Kirghiz wedding procession; two women on both sides of the image are wearing top coats made of abr-textiles

Image 20. Jewish bachelorette party, almost all the girls are wearing clothes made of abr-textiles
Image 21. A Tajik wedding rite of chimiliq (bridal curtain)

On the last image from above, we can see the groom and bride as they are standing in the center flanked on both sides by women wearing abr-dresses. A chimiliq is the curtain that is folded above the group of people, often hung in the corner of the room where the newlyweds will eventually seal their marriage. The fourth woman from right is holding a mirror, into which only the groom and bride are allowed to look; this mirror is symbol of unity, which is believed to capture the essence of each looker, thus after the newlyweds see each other in this mirror, it is then hidden from everyone's sight. This image is my favorite one because it shows diversity of the abr-textiles.

While we are looking at black and white photos, I thought to show you few images that Ole Olufsen captured with his camera during his travels in Bukhara  in 1890s.

Image 22. Visible on her left side of the coat is a bodom (almond) motif

Image 23. Jewish merchant family in Bukhara. Most of the men are wearing top coats made of bekasab fabric

Bekasab, which is also made in an abrbandi workshop, is a type of stripped fabric made of combination of silk and cotton. Unlike adras or  baghmal, bekasab has a different thickness of warps from which it is made. Men's topcoats (chapon) and floor mats (kurpa) are the most popular use of this material.

pure silk
four harness loom
pure silk
eight harness loom
warp density, 1600-2400
warp density, 2400-4000
two warp system

Next two images are from a different source, but both their location and dates may correspond to the two images made by Olufsen.

Image 24. Town entertainers wearing dresses made of abr-textiles
Image 25. She reminds me of Bukharan nobility as described by Olufsen

Of course if the images above were in color, the "wow" effect would have been greater. Fortunately, we may just have that opportunity in the work of Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky who captured all the colors of weaved clouds through his lens in early 1900s. Here are only few images, which if our imagination allows, we may use to apply to above black and white (or is it sepia) photographs to understand the beauty of abr-textiles to their fullest extent.

Image 26. An official of Emir of Bukhara

Image 27. A Turkmen bride at the entrance of her home

Image 28. Merchant of fabrics whose stall is stacked with silk, cotton and wool textiles

Preservation of Past
We are fortunate enough that old abr-textiles have been preserved in private collections around the world. There are many museums which have exhibited colorful textiles with various abr patterns to the awe of their visitors. What is especially admirable is that these institutions and private collectors publish books of their holdings which contain pages after pages of colorful images of clothing and household items made with abr-designs; books that are available to the general public.

Pip Rau is a world traveler from England; she has a store in Islington, where she displays a large stock of Central Asian textile, especially those with abr designs. Her private collection was on display in Victoria and Albert Museum of London from November 2007 to March 2008. A book titled Central Asian Ikats was the end product of the museum's exhibit.

Abrbandi: Ikats of Central Asia is a publication of the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia, which came out of an exhibition called "Silk Ikats of Central Asia". The exhibit run from July to October of 2009.

The Textile Museum is located in Washington DC. On October 16, 2010, an exhibit titled  "Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats" opened its doors to the visitors in the museum. It run for five months and included some of the awe inspiring abr-textiles from Central Asia dating from the 19th Century.

Also, there is Robert Shaw's collection in Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, a permanent exhibit of Henri Moser's collection at the Historical Museum of Bern, collection of Central Asian textiles in the Hermitage Ethnographic Museum of St. Petersburg, and the best of all, private collection of Guido Goldman, which was the main source of Ikat: Silks of Central Asia, one of the books used in writing of this post.

Not the End
A friend who emailed me asking about "the history of Adras and Atlas" had sent me photographs of various textiles from the bazaars of Khujand, an ancient city on Syr Darya. Our people still produce the textiles, and they still use old techniques and traditional motifs, which only adds to the surprise of seeing foreign word such as ikat labeling what is clearly Tajik style materials and designs. The world is no longer a small place; globalization has brought us very close to each other. And yet, in that closeness, we are often ignorant about our past and frequently forget how we got to where we are. 

When Americans shop at Amazon and Macy's for their bedding collections, or for their shoes and purses at Zara and Payless, they do not know that ikat style merchandise they purchase has been influenced by Central Asians. They do not know about Tajiks and Uzbeks not because they are completely ignorant of the outside world, but because Central Asia today is not very different from Emirate of Bukhara in mid 1800s. For once, although the production of silks did not cease to exist, and in fact, the bazaar stalls are full of colorful textiles, it is still a local enterprise. It is easier to disseminate ideas and traditions but not so easy to establish oneself on international markets. Khujandatlas is one of the well known companies in Tajikistan that "specializes in the production of garments from silk," but no one knows them outside of the region. One consolation is that wherever people go, they always bring something familiar to them, a piece of their home, and for Tajiks this means a wall covering in style of suzani, knitted socks like jurabs, and a dress made of atlas or adras textile.

The following photographs are a good way to conclude this post. I hope you learned something and if you have anything to contribute, I welcome your input. Note: I update this post often with photos; you can submit your images by writing me.

Image 29. Oldest known Central Asian ikat textile. Horiyu-ji, Nara, Japan. Asuka Period, 552-644 AD.

Image 30. Ferghana style zigzag (kychyk, tickles) and scorpions motif

Image 31. Chapon with "Pomegranate-flowers suspended from ram's horns, motifs signifying strength and abundance"

Image 32. Part of an adiol (bed cover) shows a bodom (almond) motif

Image 33. Samarkand style male chapon, block designs and colors indicate use of both natural and synthetic dyes
Image 34. An example of shona-gul motif 

Image 35. Central Asians in Moscow, 1931. Courtesy of Special Collections, UC Santa Cruz

My maternal grandmother, Sayora Baqoeva, is sitting behind her friend, whose dress has a modern design, 1949.
The only person in the photo who is wearing abr-textile dress is my great-grandmother, Gulchehra Baqoeva, c. 1950s
The girl in the center is my mother, Gulnor, whose dress matches with her mother's, c. 1960s
My paternal grandmother, Otunoi, during her vacation in 1966
A wedding of my mother's cousin in Dushanbe, c. 1970s.

The graduating class of 1979 of School 34 in Dushanbe.
My parents on their wedding. Father is wearing a bekasab chapon and mother is dressed in atlas, 1980.

My mother is wearing a bit more complex designed atlas, c. 1980s

My maternal grandmother in 2007.
Gulnoz in one of her wedding dresses, July 2003.

Aryana in adras dress standing on a suzani, home, March 2013
On March 24, 2013, as I wrote in my previous posts, Tajiks and their friends came together in celebration of their traditional holiday, Nawruz. This event took place in Brooklyn, New York, in Orion Palace catering hall. Many guests came adorned in their best abr-textile attires. 

Anushervon posing with Aryana, who is wearing atlas dress and pants
Unknown woman wearing old abr design dress. © Dan Culleton
Young lady in old fashion atlas is bored from poor performance of Boboi Dehqon© Dan Culleton

Even black and white atlas looks cheerful. Courtesy of Jamila N.

Farangis (in atlas dress) and Madina (in adras dress) did a better job memorizing their lines (compared to Boboi Dehqon). Courtesy of Madina A.

Nigina's adras dress has very old motifs, but it is designed in modern style. © Dan Culleton

Our friend's niece performed gracefully while dressed in complete adras wardrobe. © Dan Culleton

Our friend's daughter who looks precious in this one color adras dress © Dan Culleton

Old abr-design, in one color, unique and fits her well. Courtesy of Mahina A.

Nasiba's adras dress seems to have two different designs, lovely in either case. © Dan Culleton

Another fine example of old abr-design on atlas. © Dan Culleton
After our Nawruz celebration, some of the guests also attended the Persian Parade in Manhattan.

 Here they are, better representatives of the Tajikistanians on Persian Parade in April 2013. Courtesy of Zach S.

A Tajik girl in Times Square. Courtesy of Kibi M.

Mesmerizing gaze of Tajik girl from Moscow. Courtesy of Anisa S.

Best example of modernity and tradition. Courtesy of Gulrukhsor A.

Bodom motif on adras (silk and cotton), produced in Khujand. Courtesy of Muqaddas P.

Two-colored atlas (silk), produced in Khujand. Courtesy of Muqaddas P.
Rainbow bows before these colors. Courtesy of Nissor Abdourazakov.
A blend of tradition and modernity. Courtesy of Nissor Abdourazakov.
Modern vintage. Courtesy of Diana Ibragimova.
A nomad warrior in peace time. Courtesy of Diana Ibragimova.

Miss "Toqi Party" 2013 in sleeveless "clouds". Courtesy of

A family photo of "Toqi Party" attendees. Courtesy of

Note on images in this blog. DO NOT USE without permission. I own only those images from my personal archives. Those whose names appear in the captions are the rightful owners of their respective images; I received their permission to use it ONLY for this blog.

The following images are from printed and online sources:
Image 2 from British Museum

Image 3 from Olaf Olufsen (see endnotes), page 291.

Images 4-7, 12-21 and 26-28 from the Library of Congress website, which can be located by clicking the numbers indicated in parenthesis:  4(14939), 5(12238), 6(12240), 7(14947), 12(14289), 13(14266), 14(12208), 15(14330), 16(15099), 17(14250), 18(14268), 19(14337), 20(12203), 21(14445), 26(04653), 27(04412), 28(03948).

Images 8-11 from Victioria and Albert Museum

Images 22 and 23 from Olaf Olufsen (see endnotes), pages 288 and 299, respectively.

Images 24, 25, 30-34 from Janet Harvey (see endnotes), 24(p16), 25(p94), 30(p31), 31(p33), 32(p99), 33(p56), 34(p102).

Images 29 from Gibbon and Hale (see endnotes), page 31.

Image 35 from the Special Collections of the University of Santa Cruz, California


[1] Katherine Fitz Gibbon and Andrew Hale, Ikat: Silks of Central Asia (London: Laurence King Publishing, 1997), 16.
[2] Janet Harvey, Traditional Textiles of Central Asia (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), 93-94.
[3] J. Thorley, “The SilkTrade between China and the Roman Empire at Its Height, ‘Circa’ A.D. 90-130,” Greece & Rome (Cambridge University Press) 18:1 (Apr., 1971), 71 (
[4] Laszlo Torday, Mounted Archers: the Beginnings of Central Asian History (Edinburgh: The Durham Academic Press, 1997), 118-119; Janet Harvey, 8-9.
[5] Ferdinand von Richthofen
[6] Laszlo Torday, 409.
[7] Robert Collins, The Deadly Banners of Carrhae, Silkroad Foundation, (May 28, 2013).
[8] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004), 99-100.
[9] Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 306.
[10] Janet Harvey, 93.
[11] Richard Nelson Frye, Bukhara, The Medieval Achievement (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 193.
[12] Arminius Vambery, Sketches of Central Asia: additional chapters on My Travels, Adventures, and on the Ethnology of Central Asia (London: Wm. H. Allen & Co, 1868), 120-121.
[13] Olaf Olufsen, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country: Journeys and Studies in Bokhara (with a chapter on my voyage on theAmu Darya to Khiva) (London: William Heinemann, 1911), 469. For digital copy of the book click here.
[14] Olufsen, 469-470.
[15] “These two elements are present in the fiber, in the proportion of about 75% parts fibroin C15H26N5O6 to 25% sericin C15H23N5O8” from William F. Leggett, The Story of Silk (New York: Lifetime Editions, 1949), 3-4.


  1. This is very fascinating---and well written again. I was aware that the emirate of Bukhara was a very diverse place, Uzbeks, Jews, and Tajiks living side by side. What happened to the Jewish community in Tajikistan? Are they still there or did most emigrate? It is sad to see the current tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan given the rich cultural connection between the two regions.

  2. Greetings Northern. I hope this finds you well.

    It is indeed a sad state of affairs to see deteriorating relations between the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The worst part is the current politics are slowly affecting the way regular people behave.

    Yes, Bukhara was once glorious, and part of that good fortune was dependent on its diversity of people and ideas. But as the story goes, "this too shall pass," and so it did. Jews of Central Asia had been absorbed by the local peoples of Central Asia and in Bukhara it meant mostly by the Tajiks, and later on by the Uzbeks. Yet, the Jewish community still held on to its own traditions and claimed its own identity. It is interesting to note that for Jews the maternal line is more important, whereas for the Tajiks (and Uzbeks) the paternal lineage plays importance. To the best of my knowledge, there are no "real" Jews left in Tajikistan, at least not families. One or two individuals, but most of them are "chalas" (those whose Jewish parents mixed with locals); currently, most of the Jews in Tajikistan are only those whose fathers were Jewish, which really puts them in a limbo. A lot of families began leaving the country before the collapse of Soviet Union, but the majority of the community left when the war in Tajikistan started; some left to Russia, majority are living in US and Europe, and many are also in Israel. I am in New York City, and here, in one of the boroughs, there is a sizable community of Jews who take their name from the former territories of the Emirate of Bukhara (Bukharian Jews) as oppose to the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in the same city.

  3. Thank you for your reply. This blog is very fascinating, and serves to educate people about our culture.

    How would you say ordinary people are being affected? Is there inter-ethnic animosity within Tajikistan? If so, this is extremely disappointing. Correct me if I am wrong, but hasn't most of the non-Tajik population emigrated due to the war? Are many Russians and Tatars left in the country in this day?

    Also, I found it fascinating that there is a Tajik community in the USA in Brooklyn. Are they mostly ethnic Tajiks or Bukhari Jews? Do the two communities interact much? I know there is a community from Uzbekistan in Queens, but they seem to be ethnically Jewish mostly. Do you have a sense of how big/permanant the Tajik population in New York is?