Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 1989, Page 41a

Book Review

An Introduction to Kurdish Rugs and Other Weavings

By William Eagleton, Interlink Books, New York, 144 pp. $49,95

Reviewed by Kurt Mendenhall

"The American ambassador wants Kurdish rugs," said a Damascene carpet merchant in Suq al-Hamidiya when asked why the price of a particularly interesting item had mysteriously increased. It seemed he was one of the last to catch on to the fact that Kurdish textiles were suddenly in unusual demand, by an individual prepared to pay well for them.

So it was that I learned of the interest that William Eagleton, then ambassador to Syria, had in Kurdish carpets. I never purchased the rug, feeling that to pay the wily dealer more for something that only a few weeks before had been cheaper was too humiliating.

Eagleton, who retired from the US foreign service in late 1988 to become deputy commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in Vienna, is a world authority on Kurdish rugs and weavings. The object of several books near the turn of the century, Kurdish carpets have remained little-known outside a small circle of specialists. While the Kurds have been making carpets for centuries, Eagleton avoids analysis of pieces that predate the memories of the authors of the earlier works. His book concentrates on those pieces produced over the last century whose provenance can be more authoritatively established.

Eagleton's expertise is based on an intimate familiarity with Kurdish culture dating to his service as director of the US Cultural Center in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 1954. Further residence near Kurdish areas, this time in the Iranian Azerbaijani town of Tabriz, from 1959 to 1961, provided him opportunities for further extensive travels among the towns and tribes of the region. His more recent tours of duty as US chief of mission in Baghdad, and as ambassador in Damascus in the 1980s, provided still further opportunities to visit Kurdish weavers. His travels took him to Mardin, the Hakkari, Kars, Erzurum, and Sivas in Turkey; Qamishli and Amouda in the Syrian Jazira; and Erbil in northern Iraq. Although the interdiction of travel to Iran interfered with Eagieton's analysis of Kurdish works from that country, his volume is nonetheless the single most comprehensive work of this kind.

Eagleton has put his historical and political expertise to good use in compiling this informative and beautiful volume. The book's nine chapters and epilogue include two chapters on the Kurdish rugs and weavings of each country Highlights are the 126 full-color photographs of Kurdish rugs, kilims, and bags. Each color plate is accompanied by an analysis giving the region of origin, date, and stylistic information. They were selected from a total of over 500 separate pieces studied by the author.

This is a book for specialist and layman alike. Although the technical discussions of knots, warps, and wefts presuppose a familiarity with Oriental carpets that many readers may not possess, the richness of the illustrations alone will justify the price of the volume for most readers.

For those with a social-scientific bent, the volume provides an excellent precis of Kurdish history and social life, a comprehensive list of Kurdish tribes and their location in four countries, and a brief historical account of their futile quest for statehood.

By placing true works of traditional Middle Eastern arts in historical, geographical, and ethnographic contexts, Ambassador Eagleton has produced a beautiful book equally appropriate in a scholar's library or on a collector's coffee table.


Kurt Mendenhall, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, has traveled extensively in Syria.

Introduction to Kurdish Rugs can be purchased from the AET book club.

 

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