Notes on Origins of Bakhtiyari Motifs
by Carl Strock
  This 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 website.   

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 Luri and Bakhtiyari people, in the fastness of the Zagros mountains, 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 saddlebags that 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 (1989.281.1).


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 us.  


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 Zagros mountains 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?





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