Recognition and identification of kilims
Forms, patterns and types
THE RANGE of colours and compositions found in kilims is enormous, from intricate
designs in natural, undyed wool to simple, vividly coloured geometric patterns. Kilim
owners are often able to trace the origins of their rugs back to a particular tribe, area or
town, and many styles can be clearly and easily identified once you know what to look
for. The great charm of kilims is that you do not need to be a learned rug expert or
academic to be able to spot certain characteristics and pinpoint their origins.
The exact sources of many types are still far from clear, and are debated hotly by
collectors, dealers and owners alike. In the Middle East and Central Asia, history is
enshrined in the oral tradition of tribal folklore, and few tribes \have enjoyed peace and
stability for any lenght of time — a situation which militates against a rigid and academic
This chapter will begin with a look at ways of interpreting the ancient symbols and
motifs found on kilims, and with a description of the more unusual forms, such as prayer
rugs, bags and runners, that are sometimes available in the West. Finally, there is a
comprehensive guide to every major kilim type, starting in Anatolia and moving east
towards Afghanistan, following the zig-zag path of the ancient trade routes, describing
the colours, patterns and materials used in antique, old and new rugs from all the main
areas of production.
Motifs and symbolism
The opening words of th Koran are ‘There is no God but God’—everything in Islam
derives from God and everything represents him, with the result that symbolism in
Islamic art is subjective and implicit, and is open to many interpretations. It is certain that
many of the symbols that are commonly used in kilims pre-date Islam by many centuries,
going back to the very origins of ﬂatweaves in pre- Islamic Central Asia, and to the
Animistic and Shamanistic traditions and beliefs of the early pastoral nomads in the
The rise of the Islamic faith brought strictures against many of the ancient images used
in all forms of art and crafts. The belief that only God can create a living thing was strictly
enforcd, and the idolatry of early Animistic beliefs was rigorously suppressed. However,
representational art was not forbidden by the Koran, only idolatry, so the dividing line
between forbidden and acceptable images was, as always, indistinct.
Weavers avoided the taboo of reproducing the animate, but still incorporated
pre—Islamic symbols that had been in use for generations, passed down like folk—tales.
Such symbols have survived the test of time, and formed a language of their own.
There is no representation of the Deity in Islam, either in the form of the written word, or
through the depiction of people (man being made in God's image). An early Christian
tapestry might show God, or the disciples, or tell a story of
war and heroism, and contain lifelike images of ﬂowers,
trees and animals. The textile would recreate light, shade
and a degree of perspective and would attempt to disguise
its own form and structure by presenting an illusory
Not so an Islamic textile. In Islamic art some figurative
forms, human and animal, are permitted, but in many cases
it is considered disrespectful to walk over them, thus
precluding their use in knotted rugs and kilims.
For the tribal weavers, however, connections with their
natural environment, with their animals and with their
family groups are very strong and deeply rooted, and will
override religious taboo, so that recognizable objects are
depicted in their rugs, but these will never be seen to form
part of a complete, pseudo—realistic picture. Art for art's
sake is a concept alien to Islam, but kilims are practical as
well as decorative, so they are of a high order within the
definition of Islamic art.
The motifs and designs on a kilim often hold the key to
its age and origins, and can develop out of many different
inﬂuences and disciplines —for instance, the different
weaving techniques often determine the style of the motifs
used. Slitweave produces abstract, stepped or crenellated
patterns, usually diamond-shaped or triangular; cicim and
zilli produce geometric, brocaded ‘medallions’ in the field
of the rug; weft—faced patterning gives a narrow band of
geometric and ﬂoral patterns across the width of the rug,
and soumak is able to produce ﬂowing patterns,
representing recognizable images with some accuracy.
Kilim weavers have, over the generations, developed ways
of combining weaving techniques to achieve more
complicated and elaborate designs.
There are two factors other than religion that inﬂuence
the designs that a weaver will choose for her kilim. One is
the discipline of the weaving techniques themselves, which
produce mostly abstract patterns; the other is the natural
environment in which the weaver lives, and from which she
will adapt motifs to represent lakes, rivers, ﬂowers, petals,
trees and leaves, or domestic animals (sheep, goats and
camels), wild animals and insects (snakes, scorpions and
spiders). She will incorporate images from her own
household, such as a kettle, teapot, ewer, comb, beater or
lamp, as well as, more recently, objects of Western ~
inﬂuence, including cars and bikes and, most recently,
even helicopters and automatic riﬂes.
Knotted carpets and kilims share many symbols and
design elements, despite the complete dissimilarity in their
weaving techniques. The Anatolian motif ‘elibelinde’
(meaning ‘hand on hip’) is seen frequently on both ﬂatweave and pile rugs, as are the ‘gol’
(lake) and ‘gul’ (flower)‘f It is difficult to decide whether these motifs first appeared on
kilims and were then transferred to knotted carpets, or vice-versa, although quite
probably their first origins were in ﬂatweaves. Some motifs, however, certainly
originated on knotted carpets and were later used by kilim weavers, such as the flower
A and leaf patterns that are common to north Persian kilims and knotted rugs alike.
Symbols used in all forms of Asian and Islamic art hold a particular fascination for the
West, and there is always a good deal of speculation as to their meaning.
Very often, an original form representing an animate object has evolved through
generations of weaving into a stylized pattern. The Western interpretation of this stylized
motif is easily misdirected since it calls for a thorough understanding of the concepts of
the ancient weavers. Westerners should guard against romanticizing notions of ethnic
symbolism and religious significance, which often confuse the theology and images of
very different cultures. This is further complicated by the various languages, and
religious and ethnic origins of the people in Anatolia, Persia and Central Asia. Over the
years many of the original interpretations of a motif have changed or been forgotten,
different interpretations of the same motif have arisen because of particular local beliefs,
and similar motifs are often given different names in different areas.
Another problem is the tendency for Western eyes to see any and all geometric designs
in flatweaves as stylizations or corruptions of an original curvilinear and more
representational form. Many of the patterns are just geometric forms which have been
given descriptive names by which they can be easily identified. Such names have become
part of the language of the weavers and later been misinterpreted as signifying an original
representational motif. To give an example: the motif used on many Central Asian and
Turkoman kilim borders, the ‘tree’, is a convenient geometric pattern which complies
with all the requisites of slitweave—it has short
slits and a stepped, crenellated design. It is not a
representation of a tree, but it does resemble one,
vaguely, and so it is convenient to give it a name
by which it can be easily identified and described.
More complex, and intriguing, examples of this
are the so-called ‘lover’s quarrel’ and ‘pair of
birds’motifs, or the double—hooked ‘ram’s horns’
and ‘camel’s neck’ symbols.
A pattern or design can also be given different
names and interpretations in different regions. The
narrow guard strip frequently used on many kilims
to separate the field from its major borders is
colloquially known as "a ‘ladder’. The same
feature, when seen on T urkoman carpets from
Central Asia, is known as ‘camel’s teeth’. The
boteh is a very common design element frequently
referred to as a hook, curl, peacock or bird's head,
and the ‘hand motif’, sometimes identified as the
signature of a particular weaver, is often said to be
a representation of the five pillars of Islam, or the
prophet Mohammed and his four Caliphs, or the
hand of Fatima.
Perhaps the most familiar motif used on kilims
and knotted rugs is the ‘Tree of Life’. Closer to the
true nature of symbolism, this Tree of Life has
multiple interpretations and meanings, such as the
presence of water in desert lands, or the family
tree, with the ‘father’ ’ trunk and the ‘child’
branches. Another genuinely symbolic motif is the talismanic evil eye, or ‘nazarlik’, used
to deflect evil and to balance the adverse effects of other motifs on the kilim, such as the
spider or scorpion.
On many modern kilims, made in the last thirty years or so, ancient motifs have been
misrepresented, or given a new twist, because the weaver has not been aware of the
origins of the design she is using. Modern weavers often work from ‘cartoons’ or pictures
of old rugs, recreating them for an enthusiastic Western market. Original motifs will be
modified in this process to suit a pre-ordained shape or weaving technique, and so the
evolution of the ancient design continues under modern conditions.
Prayer kilims The devout Muslim must wash his hands, face and feet, find a ‘pure’
surface and prostrate himself in prayer five times a day. The prayer kilim, with its
distinctive mihrab or ‘prayer niche’ composition, is ideal as a small, transportable and
clean surface that may be laid on the ground, with the top of the mihrab pointing to
Mecca. It must be said that any clean ﬂoor mat, kilim or carpet can be used for prayer, but
the mihrab design provides a specific focus and a link with Islamic spiritual traditions.
But even the mihrab symbol can be variously interpreted. Its origins can be traced to
the arch that is found at the centre of the wall that faces Mecca in all mosques, and prayer
kilims are therefore sometimes used as mosque door hangings and decorations.
Prayer kilims are found throughout Anatolia, Kurdistan, Khorasan and west
Afghanistan.’ They form an important part of the weaver’s dowry and are often woven for
the head of a family or as a gift to the local mosque. Single-arch prayer kilims are of a
‘common size, about 5 feet by 3 feet, but the shapes of the mihrab vary enormously. There
are, at one extreme, elaborate architectural forms- supported by columns, often with
ornate lamp and tree decorations, such as can be seen in central Anatolian examples.
These contrast with the simplified and almost unnoticeable mihrabs of the west
Afghanistan prayer kilims‘. Kilims featuring multiple arches’: known as ‘saf’, are rare and
exclusive to Anatolia. Their large size, about twelve or fourteen feet long with up to
seven niches in horizontal or vertical rows, implies a family use or a decorative function.
Soffrai and rukorsi These are distinctively shaped kilims, largely woven by Kurdish
and Balouch tribes. Soffrai, in Persian, means ‘small rug’. They take the form of small
runners, above five feet in length and about one-and-a-half feet wide, or squares used as
eating cloths. Both types are easily identifiable by their zig—zag motifs, penetrating two
sides of a plain, madder red or camel-hair field. The borders are frequently of soumak or
‘ knotted work, and these delicate techniques perfectly complement the plain ground.
Soffrai runners are woven by the Balouch as ‘fill—in’ rugs, to lay around the edges of a
large room-sized carpet. Rukorsi kilims, about four feet square, are used as covers for
charcoal braziers or bread ovens. In the depths of winter, layers of felt topped by a
rukorsi kilim make a warm family blanket.
Bags Tapestry-woven bags are made alongside kilims for practical everyday, but very
different uses. Nomadic peoples and settled tribes in villages have little use for furniture,
except for low chairs and tin or wooden chests, so ﬂatwoven bags are used for storage and
transport. Double bags, known as hurgin or khoorjeen in Persian, and heybe in Turkish,
are slung over the shoulder as a small pannier for vegetables and foodstuffs; larger bags,
up to three feet square, are set across the backs of camels and donkeys as saddle packs.
Bedding and clothing bags include the cradle-like maffrash of Anatolia and the Caucasus,
and the pairs of juvals from Khorasan and Afghan Turkestan. Similar to, but smaller than
juvals, the Turkoman jaloor bags have long tassels and, like the juvals, are hung on the
frame of the yurt for storage. Salt bags, namak donneh, are most distinctive in shape, with
a long narrow neck that may be folded over to seal the bag and preserve the valuable
contents from moisture.
Persia. Kilim-producing tribal areas are indicated as follows: a Shahsavan (Ilsavan); b Qashqai; C Kurds;
d Bakhtiari; e Balouch
If oriental carpets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were invariably described
as ‘Turkish’, then ‘Persian’ surely stands today as a much abused term, and erroneous
synonym for all types of carpets and rugs, But there is in fact, no real problem in
identifying authentic Persian kilims, since their varied tribal ancestry has resulted in
sharp colours and strong, abstract patterns, quite different from the fine silk carpets
produced in urban workshops, packed with floral and other figurative designs, and
available everywhere in the West.
The origins of the Persian tribes can be traced back to the greatest empires of Asia.
Persia has been ruled by Achaemenidae, the Greeks, the Sassanian kings, The Arabs, The
Mongols and the Turkomen, finally returning to local control with the Safavid dynasties.
All have left their mark by way of their tribal enclaves scattered about modern—day Iran.
The distribution, over the centuries, of these immigrants from areas such as Central Asia
and the Caucasus was thrown into disarray by the Persian monarchs of the seventeenth '
and eighteenth centuries. Whole tribes were forcibly uprooted from one end of Persia and settled in some remote border district for political and military reasons. The confusion
caused by the cultural mixtures and the free movement of tribes across frontiers until
relatively recently means that the exact origins of some Persian kilims remain a matter of
Most of the finest Persian kilims that can be found today were woven in the
nineteeenth and early twentieth centuries by Kurdish and Turkic tribes before the
repressive regime of Reza Shah. Kilims were woven for traditional family and domestic
purposes within the villages and encampments of the area's many tribes; the highest
quality ﬂoral patterned kilims were produced in workshops in Senna, the capital of
The policies of the Pahlavi regime, established in 1925, were directly aimed at
reducing the political powers of the tribes of Persia, tribes that were fast dwindling to a
minority amongst the Persians of the towns and cities. Tribal leaders were imprisoned,
firearms confiscated and nomadic groups forcibly settled on marginal lands that could not
support them, or their ﬂocks. For fifteen years after the overthrow of Reza Shah in 1941,
the tribespeople enjoyed a return to self-government and traditional lifestyles. After 1956
and to this day the governments of Iran have continued with a tribal settlement and
emasculation programme that has attempted to create a homogeneous Iranian society.
These actions and the social changes that have occured because of Westernization of the
country have all but destroyed the forces behind the traditional production of kilims,
although they continue to be produced in Persia today on a much smaller scale.
Before the Islamic revolution, and as with Anatolian production, there was a strong
Western commercial and scholarly pressure to re-introduce vegetable dyes and traditional
patterns. Much of this work was concentrated on the weaving of the Qashqai of southern Persia.
Senna Senna, now known as Sanandaj, is the capital of the district called Kurdistan and
gives its name to a group of finely woven kilims of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. The fine ﬂoral patterns were inspired by the embroideries and
brocades of the Safavid period and most were workshop produced for sophisticated urban
Senna kilims are small in size and finely woven in slitweave and eccentric weft
technique, with cotton warps and woollen wefts; motifs are frequently enhanced with
metal or silk threads. The designs often consist of small clusters of ﬂowers, boteh,
running vines, bees and a central diamond cluster of small. ﬂowers known as a Herati
pattern. Persia is not known for its prayer kilims, the sole exception being those made in
Senna, with their distinctive bulbous mihrab. The central field of Senna kilims is ﬂanked
by a series of major and minor borders of leaf, stem and other ﬂoral motifs. The colours
are predominantly blue, red and white. s
Bijar These kilims are woven in the villages and nomadic camps of Kurdistan and are
often naive copies of Senna work. The weave is of coarse cotton and wool, the colours are
bright, and small animal and human figures are often depicted in the field, with charming
Shahsavan (now known as Ilsavan) The Ilsavan are a confederation of the most
important of the Turkic tribes that are found on the north-west Persian border with the
Caucasus. Some of the tribal groups are semi-nomadic, moving from the plains of
Mughan to the summer pastures in the mountains west of Ardabil. Shahsavan means
‘lovers of the Shah’, indicating their mercenary attachment to the Safavid rulers, and these Turkic tribes are descended from the Seljuk Turks of Central Asia. Members of this
confederation include those Caucasian Turks who fled south from the Russians in the late
The Ilsavan are best known for their ceremonial horse blankets, woven in soumak
technique and decorated with horses, deer and birds. Kilims from this area are similar in
design and scale to the southern Caucasian production, differing only in the raw materials
used, and in certain design details. Ilsavan kilims are woven with dark, dry and coarse
wool, a contrast to the fabled soft, fine and ivory—coloured woollen yarn of the Caucasus.
Persian influences are evident in the random scattering of stylized birds, flowers and
human figures in the field of the kilim.
Zarand Kilims woven between the villages of Saveh,
Zarand and Qazvin in central Persia are collectively known
as the Zarand production. They are often the work of
elements of the Turkic llsavan who have settled in the area
in large numbers.
Zarand kilims are all long, narrow and durable, woven
with cotton warps and a heavy woolen weft. Small
slitweave and eccentric weft work are the techniques most
commonly used. Patterns are stylized and ﬂoral, with
running vine and trefoil on the inner and outer borders;
colours are muted blues, creams and browns. More often
than not the ﬂoral motifs group to form a diamond grid
pattern, or two or three medallions.
Veramin and Garmsar Kilims woven in this region, some
35 miles south—east of Tehran, have diverse tribal origins,
for the towns of Veramin and Garmsar straddle the
east-west trading and migration routes of Central Persia.
Arabs, Kurds, Ilsavan, Lurs, Qashqai and many other tribes
have mingled here, and have settled and established an
important kilim—weaving district.
Veramin and Garmsar kilims are heavy, tightly woven
and large in size, with cotton warps or warps and wefts of
the local dark and relatively coarse wool. Selvedges are
distinctive, forming ridges of dark, cabled warps to the
sides of the kilims; weaving techniques include delicate
slitweave, lines of weft—faced patterning with ‘S’ and rosette
designs, and weft ‘wrapping to highlight the designs.
Compositions include horizontal or diagonally offset bands
of motifs or a field of interlocking designs that converge to
dazzling effect. Garmsar and Veramin kilims have a colour
palette of brilliant reds and blues, and unusual greens and
yellows on a dark ground.
Qashqai The nomadic Qashqai of the Fars district of
south-west Persia are well known for their traditionally
woven kilims. The tribe’s origins can be traced back to the
sixteenth century, when its people formed part of the Turkic hordes who invaded from ‘the north. As a result, some Qashqai kilim patterns can
be directly related to those of the Caucasus.
Once famed for their long annual migration from their winter quarters by the Persian
gulf to their summer pastures in the Zagros mountains, the Qashqai have suffered heavily
under the repressive policies of the Persian governments since 1925. In consequence,
most of the best rugs were woven before the Pahlavi regime, and these older Qashqai
kilims are particularly exciting and satisfying to live with.
Woven during migrations, or at resting—places, Qashqai kilims often display striking
variations and shifts in pattern and colour. Only a small amount of dyed yarn can be
carried by the nomads at any one time, so successive batches of wool for the same kilim
have to be dyed en route, hence the colour variations. The ground looms upon which they
are woven are often packed up and moved while weaving is in progress, so that the
patterns are interestingly varied. ‘
Bakhtiari The Bakhtiari tribes were, until recently, a nomadic group. They migrated
from the plains of west-central Persia into and over the Zagros mountains. Their origins
are obscure and ancient, their language is Persian and only the inaccessibility of their
homelands has ensured the survival of their cultural traditions. Bakhtiari kilims are,
therefore, original in design, retaining their tribal identity and purity.
Weaving techniques are unusual. Double interlock is used, with cotton warps and
woollen wefts, resulting in one—sided, stiff and strong kilims. The rugs are long and
narrow, with clear colours and bright contrasts of yellows, blues, reds and oranges.
Designs most commonly consist of a grid pattern of boxes in the field, or a pattern of
boteh or lozenge shapes, surrounded by several concentric borders. The ends of the
kilims are finished in bands of weft-faced patterning. Horse covers are woven in soumak
technique with striking compositions of animal motifs and bands of colour.
Khorasan This region in the north-east of Persia, bordering Afghanistan and Soviet
Central Asia, is home to the indigenous Balouch and Turkoman tribes as well as groups of
Kurds. These were displaced from their homelands in the Caucasus and Kurdistan by the
Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth century and eventually forced to settle in Khorasan to
defend Persia against the raiding Uzbeks from Central Asia.
The Kurds weave large brocade kilims with stripes and lattice patterns in dark blues
and reds, as well as heavily brocaded and robust bags. It is often difficult to distinguish
these Kurdish weaves from the work of related tribes further west.
Many of the Turkomen of Khorasan are exiles from Soviet Central Asia, such as the
Tekke and Yomut tribes who fled from Imperial Russia in the nineteenth century, and
from the Soviets in the twentieth. Their kilims are distinguished by their deep red ground
onto which are brocaded the characteristic Turkoman guls. Flatweaving is confined to
large dowry brocades, jaloors and pairs of juvals. There are also groups of Balouch
peoples living in Khorasan, thought to be of ancient Persian stock form the central
Kirman region, displaced east and north-east by the Turkic invasions of the eleventh and
twelfth centuries. The Balouch who inhabit this borderland between Iran and Afghanistan
are known as the Rukhshanis, and they produce many kilims commonly identified as
Balouch. By contrast, few kilims are made by the eastern Balouch tribes, the Brahuis of
the deserts of Pakistan Balouchistan.