Carpet weaving is a traditional art form common to Armenians of all regions, but Artsakh’s carpets are so distinctive and well known that they are placed in a category of their own.
Until the proliferation of synthetic aniline dyes in the 1870s, the rich colors of Artsakh carpets were produced using only natural substances, mostly plants and minerals native to the region. Indigo was imported from the east and cochineal from the Ararat Valley. Some villages and settlements never embraced synthetic dyes, adhering to their traditional natural methods.
According to Dr. Dickran Kouyumjian, the Director of Armenian Studies Program of California State University in Fresno, various ancient historical sources testify to the existence of fine rugs and other textiles woven in Armenia.
A unique example among the earliest Armenian rugs Dr. Dickran Kouyumjian refers to as “the largest and most exquisite” is “the famous Gohar carpet made in Artsakh with an inscription identifying the weaver, Gohar, and the date 1700.”
“Another important carpet woven in 1731 in Artsakh, for Catholicos Nerses of Aghuank, is preserved in the monastery of St. James in Jerusalem”, states Dr. Dickran Kouyumjian in his article entitled “Armenian Textiles: An Overview”.
In Karabakh, as in other Armenian regions, carpets and rugs were not originally intended for the market. They were considered household items and heirlooms, not commodities. In fact, it was considered bad luck to take a carpet out of a home. Heirloom carpets had a protective significance and were often related to fertility.
Symbols of legends. Karabakh’s carpets are rich with symbols that represent family crests and ancient legends, some dating back to pagan times. Also they have been adapted over the centuries, most ornaments have kept their original meaning. The most prevalent symbol is dragon ("vishap" in Armenian). Though the dragon is now the most common symbol found on carpets and rugs throughout the Caucasus, it is believed that this is largely the result of an outflow of Armenians from Karabakh in the 18th century, who subsequently founded or revived many towns throughout the region and brought their carpet weaving traditions with them.
Another symbol common in Karabakh carpets is a medallion. There are five main types of medallions, though several other variations can also be found. They are most likely derived from the crests of prominent clans and meliks (semi-independent princes) who presided over the principalities of Karabakh from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Some of the medallions have the suffix "–berd" (fortress) in their names, which implies that each fortress had its own crest. These include Jraberd (water fortress), Arevaberd (sun fortress) and Okhtsaberd (snake fortress), which is composed of swastikas that symbolize power and eternity, and writhing dragons.
At the beginning of 19th century, the Caucasus became a part of the Russian Empire. Gradually, the prevalence of meliks ebbed along with their historical borders. But their traditional medallions prevailed in the art of carpet weaving long after the fall of these princedoms.
While crests and medallions are relics of the Karabakh historic royalty, many symbols used in ancestral carpets reflect the everyday lives of inhabitants of this ancient land. The centerpiece of such rugs is a crowned bull, ox or buffalo, the role of which was not limited to merely farming or economic functions in the lives of the Artsakhian people. In ancient times the bull was a revered animal. After death, its skull was affixed in a prominent place in the home as a talisman. Many carpets include representations of bull hide and ram fleece, pagan symbols of sacrifice.
A great number of Karabakh carpets also have various symbolic images of eagles, the image of which symbolizes power, strength and striving towards heaven.
Continuing a tradition. As a result of massacres and continuous displacement, the production of hand-loomed rugs and carpets had all but come to a halt in most Armenian cities by the early 20th century. Many important heirloom Armenian rugs were also lost or destroyed. The art of carpet weaving was passed down from generation to generation, and the destruction and separation of families made it almost impossible for this tradition to continue.
In Karabakh, however, carpet weaving as an art form and industry was upheld during the Soviet era. In the 19th and 20th centuries the carpets of Shoushi were considered the best in the region and were sold in all neighboring cities. In 1907 the carpet factory in Shoushi employed 120 women who produced 600-700 rugs a year, most of which were exported to Europe. During the Soviet era the factory was transplanted to Stepanakert. Today handmade carpets and rugs are woven not only in Stepanakert and Shoushi, but also in surrounding villages, namely the Nikol Duman House Museum in the Ethnographic District of Tsaghkashat village. They are still popular and reputed for their high quality. Nowadays in Shoushi a unique shop-museum of Karabakhian carpets functions, where one can not only admire the beauty of Karabakhian carpets, but also buy them.
Currently, Armenian carpet ornaments are also used in fashion and design. The basic colors that are used in Karabakh carpet making are light and dark reds, blues and browns.