Afghan war carpets: weaving tales of conflicts

After half a century of foreign occupation, war and conflict, craftspersons in Afghanistan are weaving these stories-through age-old methods & modern war symbols-into carpet design.

by Afra SafaPublished on : Apr 23, 2022

A symbol of wealth, prestige and distinction, Persian carpets have been globally recognised and in demand for centuries. The birthplace of these carpets is the ancient land of Persia, which has since been divided into separate countries in modern times. Although the name of Iran, a modern moniker, is still reminiscent of Persia, the Persian carpet, one must note, is that several countries in the Middle East consist of a cohesive cultural unit. The millennia-old cultural interconnectedness means a similar tendency towards certain mutual crafts and arts despite the modern borders. Thus, just like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the other countries separated from this historical unit have a long background of carpet weaving. However, the distinct modern history of each has created different social experiences for their respective people and the crafts that arose from these societies have taken separate forms in terms of ideas, concepts, motifs and patterns.

Details of the Afghan war carpet | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
Details of the Afghan war carpet Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

Another subject that connects these countries is the experience of war. Almost all the countries that were once a part of the cultural region known as Persia have gone through conflict and war in their contemporary history. It is impossible to say which society has better adapted itself to the trauma of war and made a stairway to development and improvement through it. Over 35 years have passed since the last war in Iran, and yet Afghanistan has been traumatised by war since the 19th century and this is still going on. Overlooking the wars with the British in the late 19th century and merely looking at modern history, Afghanistan has been inside the loop of an endless war since 1979 when the Soviet forces invaded this country. The Soviet’s retreat from Afghanistan resulted in years of civil war, the rise of extremist groups and violence until it was succeeded by the invasion of the USA in 2001 and its 20 years of military presence in the region. The final retreat of America from Afghanistan allowed for the Taliban group to once again revive their reign of terror.

Afghan war carpet depicting the events of September 11 | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
Afghan war carpet depicting the events of September 11 Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

This short review of the modern history of Afghanistan is essential for studying its crafts and arts. There are few societies in which so many generations have suffered from constant crisis and successive wars. There are also few crafts that are so entangled with day-to-day experiences as carpet. A carpet is something that is placed inside people's living spaces. It is present both in private spaces like the bedrooms and in communal spaces such as where people receive guests. A consequence of long-term wars is the change in the designs of Afghan carpets from flora and fauna and traditional motifs to warcraft, tanks, arms and battlefields.

Carpet design featuring air strikes | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
Carpet design featuring air strikes Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

The presence of war motifs in Afghan carpets means that war - as a subject matter - has found a place inside the innermost privacy of Afghan homes and that the days and nights of Afghan people have become entangled with experiences caused directly by conflicts. The image of war has been constant for such a long time that it is now a part of Afghan culture.

For studying the motifs of Afghan war carpets one can imagine a timeline.

The first generation of such carpets began slightly after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Some experts believe the Baluch ethnic groups of Herat to be the first who wove such motifs and some others believe the Afghan refugees in Pakistan refugee camps to have started this tradition. At this time the aesthetics of the war carpets were not that different from the traditional ones and the only thing that separates them from their conventional counterparts are the motifs, which can be classified as such:

  • Juxtaposition of tanks, arms, pitchers of water and pots
  • Images of cities under siege by tanks and helicopters
  • The repetition of Kalashnikovs as patterns
  • The repetition of heavy arms such as helicopters and tanks

With the export of war carpets to Europe and the US, the western buyers were fascinated with these new designs, thus, the demand for war carpets surged. In less than a decade the motif of Afghan carpets transformed from flowers and animals to Kalashnikovs, tanks and helicopters to meet the market.

Afghan carpets depicting Kalashnikovs and Russian warcraft | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
Afghan carpets depicting Kalashnikovs and Russian warcraft Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

The second generation of Afghan war carpets belongs to a few years before the Soviet retreat when (Mohammad) Najibullah was the president. In this period men began weaving carpets alongside women. A significant characteristic of the carpets of this time is the use of English words even with wrong spelling. Direct motifs of war are less significant in the carpets of this period. The motifs can be classified as follows:

  • Depictions of the Mujahedeen's (Afghan guerrilla fighters) victory against the Soviet and the retreat of the Russian forces
  • Portraits of political leaders such as Amanullah Khan or guerrilla commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud
  • Depictions of people's protests against Najibullah as a Soviet oriented president
  • Mythical Persian heroes and Farsi poetry
A carpet with the portrait of (left) Amanullah Khan and (right) Ahmad Shah Massoud | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
A carpet with the portrait of (left) Amanullah Khan and (right) Ahmad Shah Massoud Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

The carpets of this period were less wanted by the western buyers but the slight hope caused by the defeat of the Soviets by the Afghan guerrilla fighters created a reprieve in which traditional motifs temporarily returned to the Afghan carpet weaving. Yet the rise of the Taliban terrorist group to power, the years of dread during their sovereignty, followed by the events of the 9/11 and the invasion of the US, affect the lives of the Afghan people once again. Thus, another chapter of war carpets begins.

Afghan carpets depicting the events of September 11 | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
Afghan carpets depicting the events of September 11 Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

The events following the September 11 attacks directly affected the details of Afghan carpet motifs and gave birth to the third generation of war carpets. With the presence of western troops in Afghanistan, weavers try to orient their productions towards their demands. The experts believe that the quality of these carpets deteriorated during this time as more English words with the wrong spelling and unsymmetrical designs appeared on the carpets. Hope for a better future after the fall of the Taliban, heavy American warcraft instead of Russian arms and clear propaganda for the presence of American troops in Afghanistan are observed in the concepts of the carpets during this time, while the original Afghan tradition of carpet weaving almost completely vanished. The traditional carpets with traditional motifs only continue in the remote villages by marginalised women and girls while the men are occupied with weaving war carpets in cities and refugee camps.

 American warcraft designed on the carpet | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
American warcraft designed on the carpet Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

War carpets are the embodiment of the violence of extremist groups and the military presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan; the occupations that have transformed the ancient culture and art of the Afghan people to an extent that is no longer recognisable. A result of the experience of bloodshed, violence and death, the war carpets have reached unprecedented global fame and are in demand more than ever in the western markets and even museums.

The war carpets have reached unprecedented global fame and are in demand more than ever in the western markets and even museums | Persian Carpets | Afghanistan | War Carpets | STIRworld
The war carpets have reached unprecedented global fame and are in demand more than ever in the western markets and even museums Image: Courtesy of Afra Safa

With the recent developments in Afghanistan and the fall of the country into the hands of the Taliban terrorists, the art and culture of this country will encounter a new level of oppression. Just as the presence of foreign western troops had a direct effect on the carpet weaving practice, the new reign of Taliban, their controversy and violence and ideologies will inevitably leave another lasting mark on the crafts of the Afghan people.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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