Afghan Rugs: Why Are Stories in Carpet Form So Enthralling?

US troops left Afghanistan last month, almost 20 years since the invasion in the War on Terror – another chapter in the Central Asian country’s troubled history of revolution, occupation, and civil war. 

Afghanistan has suffered through long decades of war; conflict with the Soviet Union, civil war, and 13 years of a U.S.-led NATO combat mission. Among the political, economic, and cultural impacts of this violence, there’s an artistic transformation.

War and conflict have long had a role in the production of art. Today, there are many artists actively engaging with contemporary wars and their resulting traumas.

More than three decades of war and military intervention in Afghanistan has emerged a surprising textile phenomenon—war rugs. A mash-up of centuries-old techniques and modern symbols of war visually stunning rugs are woven by Afghan women.

The conflict has damaged Afghanistan’s once-thriving carpet industry, but weavers are tapping into the bloody past to boost their fortunes. The weavers replaced floral designs with helicopters, tanks, soldiers, and machine guns.

Women of Central Asia have been weaving hand-made rugs of intricate design for thousands of years. But in 1979, the carpets began to change radically. The Soviet invasion’s effects impacted everyday life so deeply that people began to incorporate icons of war into their carpets.

Since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 Afghanistan has been in a state of near-constant conflict, and this strife is woven into the fabric — literally — of the woolen rugs. Helicopters, tanks, Kalashnikovs, grenades, bombers, and even drones form the designs, in place of the traditional patterns.

War rugs—which can take up to one year to weave—make up just 1% of the rugs produced in Afghanistan and are not exhibited often in the United States.

While the exact origin of Afghan war rugs is unknown, many historians trace the tradition to the mid-20th century, after the 1947 invention of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan weavers found that combat-inspired rugs were marketable to Russian troops, and later, beginning in 2001, to American troops.

Despite the war, ancient pattern techniques that can take months or years to complete are still passed from mother to daughter. Testimony from the makers of these carpets is difficult to obtain, as many of these works remain unattributed, and the female weavers lack easy access to modes of international communication.

In the carpets’ compositions, perspectival viewpoints merge and flatten to integrate three-dimensional forms with maps and repeating decorative patterns. Some of the rug designs are based on Charbagh, a quadrilateral layout inspired by the four gardens of Paradise described in the Qur’an. Another genre of rugs depicts national maps of Afghanistan, which may have been influenced by Alighiero Boetti’s map series.

War rugs are a phenomenon unique to Afghanistan. Bordering six different countries, Afghanistan’s diverse history is rich with languages, art forms, and culture. Many of these rugs depict the Soviet invasion in 1979, the 1996 Taliban government takeover, and the resultant United Nations and NATO involvement. The most recent rugs depict events following the tragedies of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. military invasion.

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