Treasures of the Black Tent
Tribal Rugs and Dowry Weavings of the Persian and Central Asian Nomads
By Brian MacDonald  (8th March  2022)

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More by luck than judgement, our first lecture back in the hall at Alton College (after all the Zoom lectures that became part of our lives through the past two years of covid) was one with an especial bonus: our speaker brought along examples of exactly what he was talking about: antique tribal rugs from central Asian nomads. It provided a huge talking point at the end of the evening, as we all enjoyed taking a closer look at the patterns, pictures and designs we had just learned about in Brian MacDonald’s fascinating talk. It was no surprise that most members rated the talk outstanding.

We were taken on a journey than began in Outer Mongolia in the fifth century BC and followed the 11th century migrations from Turkmenistan, the cradle of weaving, into the Caucasus, Persia and Afghanistan. These are all areas with nomadic tribes for whom weaving rugs and prayer mats is the principal occupation of the women, and they teach their children on simple looms from a young age. Many of the photographic illustrations were Brian MacDonald’s own: he spent several years following the tribes in search of carpets to buy and trade. He explained how nowadays they are mainly found in the west as the skills as well the numbers available have declined, but in his early life he met and made friends with tribes who were delighted to teach him their exceptional skills.

The rugs are used for the walls as well as the floors of the Black Tents which are home to these people as they move across the land with their livestock. The tribal weavings we saw illustrate the skill of the women who produce exquisite works of woven art, using vegetable colours and age-old designs whilst living and travelling in primitive conditions and hostile landscapes. Each tribe has its signature style, and we could see these in many of the examples Brian brought along. The tribal weavings of the 19th century and earlier represent the pinnacle of achievement and area a wonderful free expression of the art of the weaver. They are, not surprisingly, highly desirable and collectable works of woven art today.

Many of our members were so entranced by the subject that they took the opportunity to purchase a copy of Brian MacDonald’s book (which he signed for them!) so that they could continue to enjoy the experience of the evening. His long-established shop in Gloucestershire might also be added to our list of places worth a visit: https://www.brianmacdonaldantiquerugs.co.uk/

Vanessa MacMahon

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