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Prayer Rug Calls in the Big Guns

By Peter Suciu

Military history has been a theme in textile design for centuries. Among the most famous examples of this in the west is the Bayeux Tapestry, the medieval embroidered cloth that depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and culminated in the Battle of Hastings.

A more modern example of warfare in textiles exists today in the war rugs of Afghanistan. These hand spun Baluch rugs have been a staple of the Baluchi people of south west Afghanistan, eastern Pakistan and even south eastern Iran. Often confused with “Persian rugs,” these are made of hand spun wool and colored with natural vegetable dyes, which provide for rich and often vibrant colors.

The rugs are also known for their resilience and unique patterns – and beginning with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 a new tradition of rug began making an appearance. It was the so-called “war rug,” which featured iconic war images. These designs appeared almost immediately after the Soviet Union invaded the country and continued after the Soviet withdrawal a decade later.

The war rugs featured images of Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, Soviet armored vehicles, even helicopters and fighter planes. These images appeared on rugs of all sizes including – and possibly ironically – the rugs that were used as part of the Muslim call to prayer.

The first rugs could be traced back to the tribal women of Afghanistan, who wove their personal feelings of resistance into the designs. Thus it was common to find images of war weaved into the patterns, and this seemed to be a spontaneous narrative of life in the war-torn country.

There are tales that the prayer rugs often featured some images – including armored vehicles – as a way to help some of the Mujahedeen fighters identify enemy convoys and vehicles. In this way the rugs could have been similar to the way that American soldiers were issued with playing cards during World War II to help identify enemy aircraft and more recently with images of the Iraqi military leadership. Whether the rugs were used in such a way is true or just a fanciful tale is open for debate. What is true is that the iconic images of the rugs made them very popular and not just amongst the Mujahideen.

While the Soviets may have looked to bring Communism to Afghanistan in their 1979 invasion; capitalism triumphed. Not only did Western aid – including money and arms from America – help turn the tide and eventually drove the Soviets out, but war rugs became popular souvenirs with Soviet soldiers, foreign journalists and anyone looking for an iconic piece of truly one-of-a-kind art.

Demand for the rugs was so great that this prompted middlemen and enterprising businessmen to set up production in sites in refugee camps in Pakistan. Determining where a rug was made is difficult, but typically one only needs to look as far as the imagery. Those rugs with AK-47s tended to be from Afghanistan, where Soviet soldiers and Mujahedeen fighters both used the rugged rifles, while those in Pakistan could tend to depict M16s, which were the rifles more commonly seen in the refugee camps.

It was also suggested that in areas where the Soviets had pacified the local population their images, including tanks and helicopters, were more common; whereas in areas of strong resistance the assault rifle was more often than not the focus of the rug.

The rugs likely reached the zenith of production in the late 1980s, but dwindled after 1989 with the Soviet pull-out. The weaving of war rugs in villages all but ceased after the Soviets left Afghanistan. However, the rugs were discovered in the west and found their way into galleries and rug shops in London and New York. Prices started at around $50 and went up to over $1,000.

With the fall of the Soviet Union the rugs were sold alongside other relics – old uniforms, helmets and equipment – from the seemingly vanquished “Evil Empire.” However, by the late 1990s the war rugs had apparently run its course and only rarely were these still imported.

The rugs would likely be just a small footnote on that era, but the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States lead to America’s “longest war” and soon war rugs were back in production. While some rugs were in production during the Afghan Civil War (1996-2001), when the Taliban government fought the United Front (Northern Alliance) for control of the country, production really didn’t ramp up until after American forces arrived.

These new war rugs were not meant to depict the weapons of the enemy but still featured plenty of iconic images including those that depicted political figures such as Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the United Front, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Among the more controversial of images depicted on the maps were the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Many of these rugs were produced in some workshops in the northern part of the country and by weavers who were refugees in Pakistan. The imagery also evolved and featured more American vehicles, weapons and images; seldom seen during the Soviet era were any iconic Communist imagery such as a hammer and sickle, but since 2002 there have been many rugs that feature American eagles and flags. It has been argued that after the fall of the Taliban many weavers – who had been refugees in neighboring Pakistan – returned home.

Clearly a capitalist spirit came with them as many rugs featured designs that were likely there to appeal to American and coalition soldiers. However, the quality of the rugs including the wools and weaves are not up to the same levels as the earlier rugs. The war rugs are now readily available online, such as from auction sites like eBay. Many claim to be “made in Afghanistan,” but are offered for sale in Pakistan.

Those interested in the rugs should look to reputable dealers and as with any historic collectible know that you’re buying the item not the story.

Yet, these rugs are both part of the history of the recent conflicts in the region, and much like the Bayeux Tapestry, are able to convey the story as well.

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