GOHAR, an Armenian woman in the Caucasus, wove a devout inscription into a magnificent wool rug of many colors: "I, Gohar, full of sin and weak of soul, with my newly learned hands wove (this rug). Whosoever reads (this) say a word of mercy (to God) for me. In the year 1149."
In 1700 by our calendar, she intended the rug as an offering to an Armenian church.
The rug, with its inscription in Armenian script along a border, helps demonstrate that Armenians were not just rug traders, but weavers. And Gohar's work is a magical, traveling carpet with a history. It was displayed in London's Victoria and Albert Museum in the late 1800s, then disappeared. Gohar's rug mysteriously resurfaced in 1977, was snapped up at a London auction and is now cherished in a private American collection.
Gohar's rug is the centerpiece of the Textile Museum's inviting display, "Weavers, Merchants and Kings: The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia," a traveling show organized by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
There are 55 such texturally pleasing rugs here. But how to tell them from rugs made by other peoples in the Near East? The inscriptions help identify them as Armenian rather than, say, Iranian. Coming from the 18th through the early 20th century, the rugs bear dates and, often, names. (Whether the names are of weaver or patron is often unknown, and the Armenian Rugs Society is collecting string on the subject.)
Also written in Armenian are small messages: "In the year 1909," reads one in brilliant red and blue. "Sop'ia K. Welcome, sit down."
Crosses woven into the rugs show clearly that the weavers were Christian rather than Moslem, as the Armenians were a Christian enclave in a non-Christian part of the world. They were known as well to use a distinctive red dye made from insects, called cochineal dye, unusual in that region.
Using medallions, sunbursts and borders, the overall designs of their rugs are very symmetrical. But interspersed in the designs one finds the occasional camel, or soldier carrying a gun, or birds that stand for human souls, or flowers that show a French influence, or repeated paisley patterns.
Paisley, or "boteh," as it is called by those who study these rugs, is in an evolutionary stage. Often the individual paisley shape looks like a clam out of its shell with its "neck" dangling. Some say the form evolved from the representation of a rosebush. And if you look long enough, you begin to see, in these Armenian rugs, how geometric shapes could have derived from depictions of flowers -- especially when you consider the constraints of weaving, the difficulty of capturing detail with yarn.
WEAVERS, MERCHANTS AND KINGS: THE INSCRIBED RUGS OF ARMENIA -- At the Textile Museum through January 5, 1986.