Notes on Origins of Bakhtiyari
by Carl Strock
article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review Vol 14, No. 6
(Aug/Sept, 1994). Copies of this issue may still be available for
purchase - please consult the
Oriental Rug Review
In his book Tribal Rugs, James
Opie opened a new door in the study of
weaving by suggesting that images found on modem
Luri/Balditiyari work might be related
to Luristan bronzes from the first
millennium B.C. He showed ancient Luristan
bronze columns similar in form to the geometric-medallion
columns of recent tribal weaving, and he showed a bronze figure of
two duck heads facing opposite directions, dating from the 8th to
the 7th century B.C., which resembles the
doubleheaded bird figures regularly encountered on
20th-century bags and trappings. It was an engaging thought: The
images employed by modem nomads of the Zagros
mountains might have descended directly from the religious or
artistic images of a little-understood
civilization in those same mountains 2,700 years ago.
There might be an unbroken tradition reaching back that far.
Of course we can't know such a thing, since
links are missing. We have the ancient bronzes, and we have the
modem weaving, but Luristan bronzes
ceased being made about 600 B.C. and tribal weavings more than
about 200 years old have disintegrated and vanished.
James Opie's main
hypothesis, of course, was that the geometric medallion columns of
Luri/Bakhtiyari weaving consisted of
animal-head motifs, similar to those found in the bronzes, and
that these motifs were their eyes and horns
in the process, until European observers eventually took note of
them and ignorantly named them "latch-hooks," for their chance
resemblance to some familiar household hardware.
The validity of that
hypothesis aside, what of the notion of the antiquity of these
images? What of the likelihood that the
Bakhtiyari people, in the fastness of the
have kept alive visual images from the distant past?
I would like to suggest the possibility that
they have kept alive images not just from ancient
Luristan but even from more ancient
Mesopotamia, and specifically that the double-headed and sometimes
double-bodied bird figures might go back to the earliest
civilizations of which we have knowledge. The Metropolitan Museum
of Art displays a white stone figurine from southern Mesopotamia,
dated 2600-2500 B.C., which bears a striking resemblance to images
found on modern Luri/
Bakhtiyari woven work (Illustration
1). It is a bowl supported by duck-like birds, joined at their
bodies, facing in opposite directions, and those birds are so
similar to motifs on 20th century
they could almost have served as models (Illustration 2).
Illustration 1. Mesopotamian
(Sumerian). Double vessel supported by four ducks.
White stone, 4 5/16".
The Metropolitan Museum of
Art, Rogers Fund, 1962 (1962.70.3).
Illustration 2. Detail of side panel of Bakhtiyari
saddlebag, showing double-bodied and double-head bird figures.
Collection of the author.
The museum also displays what it
describes as a mace-head, which consists of a pair of bulls'
heads facing in opposite directions, also from southern
Mesopotamia and dating to 3100-2900 B.C. (Illustration 3). This
takes the two-headed imagery back a few more centuries.
Illustration 3. Southern
Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Jemdet Nasr Period), ca. 3100-2900 B.C.
Mace head with recumbent bulls. Limestone, 4". The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989
It can be taken back further yet if one is a little less
demanding. Some of the so-called spectacle idols unearthed in
northern Mesopotamia are likewise two-headed, and these date to
4000-3000 B.C. (Illustration 4). Unlike the bird figures, they face
forward. It is not inconceivable, however, that the same psychology
that produced them eventually produced, in the course of time, the
heads facing away from each other (Illustration 5).
Illustration 4. A "spectacle Idol" from the Tell
Brak temple in northern Mesopotamia,
3000 B.C. Similar figures have been found at other northern
Mesopotamian sites dating as far back as 4000 B.C. Illustration by
David Kiphuth, after a photograph from
the Iraq Museum, Directorate- General of Antiquities,
Baghdad, Iraq, as shown in The Archeology of Mesopotamia,
by Seton Lloyd, Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978.
It was arresting enough to think that images
used by contemporary nomads might be traceable back 2,700 years, as
James Opie suggested; but these
figurines suggest they might be traceable back still another 2,700
years, that the origins of the double-bird figures might be as
remote in time from the Luristan bronzes
as the Luristan bronzes are from
Illustration 5. Detail of end panel of Bakhtiyari
rakhtekhab or bedding bag with double-
headed bird forms. Collection of the author.
Of course, it is one thing to show the similarity of designs and another to show that the designs are
historically connected. One task is easy and the other next to
impossible. But Mesopotamia — the land between the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq — and the
Zagros mountains of western Iran are not exactly on opposite
sides of the earth from each other. If you stand on an escarpment
above the Euphrates, looking east toward the Tigris, you see the
thin line of the mountains on the horizon. It would
be fanciful to suppose that the civilizations
of the two regions did not impinge on each other over the centuries.
Since it was James Opie
who first suggested the antiquity of Luri/Bakhtiyari
imagery, I asked him what he thought of this possible extension of
his notion, and he replied, "There's a good hypothesis to be made
for carryover of art from Mesopotamia to
Luristan. Assyrian writing is found on a few Luristan
bronzes. Also, the Guti tribe from the
Zagros came down and took over
Babylonia sometime before the 2nd millennium B.C.
"The strongest case in my hypothesis of
Zagros origins for woven motifs can be
made for two-headed animals," he added. "A weaker case exists for
animal-head medallions." And he cautioned,
"It's difficult to ascertain continuity,"
since similar images can pop up independently in different places.
This is certainly true. Thirteenth century
rugs from Konya, central Anatolia,
with borders of linked geometrized serpents, their triangular heads
suggestive of Bakhtiyari animal
heads, may well have I been inspired by early
Zagros motifs. But paired birds with necks entwined, facing
away from each other, are encountered in Indian art, where they
supposedly symbolize marital harmony, and no one has suggested they
stem from the mountains of Persia. A pair of opposing double
roosters, rendered in leather, was retrieved from
Pazyryk, also, along with the famous
pile carpet. Certainly, double-headed animals are not so outlandish
a concept that different peoples would be incapable of conceiving
such a thing independently.
Still, we know that the peoples of Mesopotamia
had dealings with the peoples of the neighboring
over the centuries. We also know that double-headed and double-bodied figures were made as long ago as
4000-3000 B.C. in one area and as recently as yesterday in the other
area. This might be the result of chance, which is not
impossible, or it might be evidence of a continuous tradition, which
can hardly be ruled impossible either.
Exactly what made these images so compelling
that they remained in use over this vast reach of time — or kept
being reinvented — is a subject worth mulling. James
Opie believes, "Ancient peoples lived in
a richer symbolic world by far than we
inhabit," and that in the absence of a written folklore we cannot
understand what the double-bird figures or the animal-head
medallions might have meant to them. Isn't it interesting,
though, that these odd little figures still move some of us
today, 5,000 years after they appeared in Mesopotamia? Who knows
how far back in the mind, or how far
back in time, they might reach?