Although one would assume that this extraordinary carpet were unique, we are aware of two other examples displaying this highly unusual design. Parviz Tanavoli discusses at length one in a private collection in Tehran but appears to be unaware at the time of the existence of the other two, (Hali 40, pp.14-15); the second is in the Oliver Hoare collection (Hali, Summer 2015, pp.66-67). The third, and present carpet, has recently surfaced in Spain where it had been part of a private collection in Madrid for some years. All three bear the same date and design and appear to be in a similarly well preserved condition. The date is particularly confusing as it can be read as either 1210 or 1910. If it were the Islamic date AH 1210/1795 AD, it does not explain why it would be written in Western numerals. Armenian numerals are similarly written however they would reflect the Christian calendar. Interestingly the example in Tehran had reputedly belonged to several generations of Armenian émigrés before it travelled to Iran. Despite being relatively well informed of their provenance, the overall meaning of the pictorial depictions remains somewhat of an enigma.
Although the present carpet is woven on a silk warp structure the weave remains relatively coarse which is quite typical of carpets woven in the oases town of Samarkand in East Turkestan, as is the rich palette of wine reds, blues and yellows. Other familiar features that are found in the weavings of this region are the Greek Key inner minor stripe that frames each of the four pictorial panels and the fruiting pomegranate trees that are so frequently used with their rich iconography of virility and life. The depiction of the dragon and the tiger, albeit rather comical here, are often depicted in Chinese and Tibetan art and are perceived as highly auspicious characters, rich in iconography. In the 7th century, during the reign of the first King of Tibet, Songsen Gampo, officials sat on tiger skins and wore tiger embroidered bodices while the image of The Mongolian Leading the Tiger, is seen as an ancient symbol of good-luck and was often used to decorate the doorways of those in power and authority, (Mimi Lipton, The Tiger Rugs of Tibet, London, 1988, pp.10-11). The so-called ‘saf’ arrangement of multiple arches usually bears a religious significance representing the mihrab for prayer, and carpets with this arrangement were typically woven for mosques or other religious buildings. The undulating outline that strings the four panels together however seems less architectural but more mountainous in its appearance and therefore quite possibly was used in a more secular surrounding. There are many more less familiar features in the design however, which would include the paired inverted snakes within the border and the male military figure and the heavily pregnant animal.
The costume of the man resembles that of a Russian or Armenian officer wearing boots typical of those worn in the Russian army in the late 19th century, while the soft red hat is similar of those worn by Armenians in the Caucasus. The vast area stretching from Eastern Turkestan where these carpets were woven, to the Caucasus where the man’s costume probably belongs, is, culturally speaking, relatively homogenous. Along with music and carpet-weaving, the main cultural expression has always been story-telling. The Ashiks, traditional story-tellers, travelled to the towns and villages reciting the great epics and stories in their repertoire. It is to this tradition that the subject-matter of this carpet could belong, illustrating one of the age-old Central Asian stories with the hand gesture of the man suggesting that he is the story-teller. On one level, stories were recited as public entertainment; on another, they were credited with encapsulating a deep tradition of wisdom. Such a story is The Man, the Snake and the Stone, of which this may well represent a variation (see: Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams, Octagon Press, 1988.)
The other mysterious image is that of the sheep, or possibly a cow, which appears to be heavily pregnant. Tanavoli suggests that perhaps the figure represents a wealthy man of some authority while the sheep represents his valuable flock and the flanking images of the dragon and the tiger are there to reinforce his strength and power. Alternatively, he suggests that they could simply represent a series of astrological signs that signify his birth, profession and wealth. While we can offer no definitive answer to the overall meaning of this carpet, Tanavoli’s suggestion, that all three carpets were a bespoke commission from a wealthy Armenian Christian who travelled east along the trading Silk Route to East Turkestan, seems plausible.