July 1985

Baluch nomads, Meshed, 1973,
photo by Paul Shaper

Pile Rugs of the Baluch and their Neighbors

Pile rugs are an important part of the material culture of Central Asian peoples. The attraction that emanates from these textiles inspires us to learn more about the people that produce them.

[This five-part article originally appeared in print in Volume 5/4 of Oriental Rug Review, July 1985, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission. Translated from German by Lola Froehlich, August, 1981. Reviewed by Dr. Wegner, May, 1985]


Traditional patterns and colors, the way to combine them, as well as the material and the techniques of production are often determined by the ethnic origin of the weavers. This background also explains the way in which man and his product reflect foreign influences. This aspect for the Baluch and their rugs shall be studied in the following series.

History and Geographical Distribution of the Baluch

Exact dates concerning the history of the Baluch are rare. Conclusions about their origin are all based on linguistic studies. According to these, Baluch is a separate Indo-European language with relations to the Middle Persian, the Kurdish and the Parthian languages. This indicates an original home south of the Caspian Sea (Elfenbein 1960:1038). History mentions the Baluch for the first time as nomads in the area of Kirman, which was conquered by the Arabs in 644. In response to the expansion of the Seljuks the Baluch began to evade and retreat to the southeast at the end of the 10th century. Continuous massive raids by the Baluch into Khorassan and Sistan triggered counter attacks during which they suffered heavy losses. Their defeat at Khabis by Mas’ud of Ghazna was very probably decisive; forcing the majority of the Baluch to move through Sistan into the area that is today known as Baluchistan (Frye 1960:1036). In the east, at the coast of the Indian Ocean called Mekran, they came upon the Djat and further north upon the Brahu’i nomads, who were partly absorbed by the Baluch1. Until the 17th century groups of these eastern Baluch spread into Sindh and further into Pandjab. There they are mentioned among the troops that helped the Mogul emperor Homayun to conquer Delhi (Frye 1960:1036). It is interesting to note that the Baluch never formed influential political organizations, as we know of them from Turks and Turkomans. But even subtribes and clans kept kept their total independence to the point of fierce battles developing among themselves.

The accompanying map explains the actual distribution of the Baluch, though incompletely, and does not tell us anything about the history of the Baluch north of Sistan, in a hundreds of kilometers wide strip, east and west of today’s Iranian/Afghan border, and up to the Soviet Turkmen Republic. The history of those Baluch is, however, of utmost interest, since only they, who actually live outside the geographical region of Baluchistan, have a tradition of pile weaving. The patterns in their rugs lead us to the question why these “north” Baluch do not utilize typical Baluch motifs as they are used by their southern brothers, but rather apply ethnologically foreign Turkoman designs. Among those designs are, especially in older rugs, very attractive tribal guls. The answer to that may lie in the fact that these Baluch had close contacts to Turkoman tribes whose tribal device they had to learn to reproduce as soon as they fell under Turkoman rule (Moshkova 1948:32). A hint at the possibility of very early contacts can be found in Moinuddin Isifizari’s “Rauzat ul Jannatfi-‘l-ausaf-i-Madinat-‘l-Herat” (Tate 1977:367 and Bijarani 1974:285). According to this, the Baluch nomads constituted already in the 14th century a great part of the population in the area north of Herat and up to the region of Badghiz. Oral history (Yate 1888 and Wegner 1978:287) underlines the above report. With all required discretion one can imagine how Baluch from Sistan came into this region that up until the 19th century always had been influenced by Turkomans. Without doubt, later on Baluch groups came also from Sistan to the north. That is during the reign of Nadir Shah (1736 to 1747), who was Safavi governor of Sistan at the beginning of his career. In 1740 he freed North Khorassan from Uzbeks and Turkomans during his successful expeditions against Bokhara and Khiva (Sykes II 1963:263). After his death, however, many of those regions came again under Uzbek and Turkoman domain (Vambery II 1969:150). Consequently, the population there became once again very dependent on the Turkomans. This development may have caused a gradual migration back towards Sistan by parts of the Baluch, during which smaller groups settled in the area of today’s Khorassan, where they are still living.

Baluch nomadic tribespeople camped in the Murghab River area entertain a recruiting officer from one side or the other during the Russian Civil War, c. 1921.

In light of this background, it becomes clear that Turkoman influences made the pile rug weaving tradition among these Baluch not only possible but even caused it. All of this was a slow development over a long span of time because Baluch have tended to hold on to their traditions in spite of constant and sometimes aggressive foreign influences from their neighbors, who have outnumbered them by far, and who have been very conscious of their own traditions. Up to today many groups of Khorassan Baluch have preserved not only their own language and own family structure but also some other customs, for example, the form of their tents. This points to the fact that the introduction and the spread of originally unknown technique of pile rug weaving, the adoption and modification of foreign Turkoman symbolism, and the development of the Baluch’s own patterns started a long time before and not at the time of Nadir Shah, as is often assumed (Edwards 1953:185; Eiland 1976:75).

Flat-weave Fabrics and Pile-weave Rugs

It needs to be pointed out that, contrary to widespread opinion, there is no old tradition of pile rug weaving in Baluchistan itself (Imp. Gaz. Ind. 1908). Besides that, another kind of geometrical design dominates there. Up to today embroidered patterns from Sar-had (southern Persian Baluchistan) resemble ornaments on Baluch tombs near Thatta (“Chaukandi-Tombs”), which date back to the middle of the 18th century (Zajadacz-Hastenrath 1978:3foll.). Likewise, forms and colors of embroideries from Mejran (Pakistan Baluchistan) do not reflect any distinct Turk ornaments as do similar pieces from Baluch areas from Sistan on to the north.

The Baluch of Baluchistan have, however, a long tradition in the making of pileless fabrics (IMP. Gaz. Ind. 1908; Konieczny 1979). Mainly saddle bags and storage sacks are flat-woven. For rare floor coverings, woven pieces, about 80cm wide, are sewn together lengthwise so that pieces of 160x300cm are obtained. Very often they have small white and/or red geometric patterns in horizontal rows on a mostly very dark background.

The borderline between the pile rug and the pileless rug weaving Khorassan Baluch and the only pileless rug weaving Baluchistan Baluch ran around the middle of this century through Iran, approximately from the area around Iranshar in the south of the Lut Desert, to the east through the northern part of the region of Kwash, and on across today’s Iranian-Pakistani border, through the area south of Quetta toward Kelat. It is obvious that this border, considering the mobility of the Baluch, cannot be very rigid. Due to the growing construction of roads and highways, especially in Iran in the last decades, this border might have been shifted further to the south in the same measure as modern commercial demand has created new cottage industries in areas that were inaccessible up to then.

It is more difficult to determine the borders of the east Persian/west Afghan territory of the pile rug weaving Baluch towards the other directions. To the east their number diminishes gradually towards a north-south zone, which goes roughly from Quetta in today’s Pakistan, to the Amu Darya River in northeast Afghanistan. Single clans were, however, still to be found in northwest Pakistan, India, and even in the western part of Chinese Turkestan.

In the north they reach into the Soviet Turkmen Republic (Pikulin 1959) where, according to Russian information (1933), about 10,000 Baluch were settled in kholkhoes (Benningsen 1960:1036; Gafferberg 1969). There, pile rugs are probably no longer produced in great numbers.

Only very few Baluch are to be found west of the deserts Lut and Kavir, in northwest Iran. Some products of the Shahsavan point to the possibility that also Baluch did partake in the development of this recent and rather heterogeneous formation.

Fig. 1. Mushwani Baluch, Northest Afghanistan, c. 1920.

Identification of Baluch Tribes

In recent years growing government authority in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and especially in Persian Khorassan has limited the freedom and mobility of the Baluch. It is, nevertheless, difficult to identify specific clans over a longer period of time. Even the name of the Nahru’i, a tribe that was mentioned several times in history (Pottinger 1816:56; Bijarani 1974:287; Tate 1977:341-354) is hardly remembered among Khorassan Baluch nowadays even though they themselves probably belonged to that tribe originally. It seems that today some tribes still like to rename themselves after their Khans, who were of singlemost importance to them. One example are the Salar-Khani. The part that returned, however, adopted the name Said-Mohammed-Khani. In 1954 they consisted of 400 people and possessed about 20,000 sheep and more than 1,000 camels. The Khodadad-Khani, who settled about 100 kilometers northwest of the latter, are supposedly a splinter group of the Salar-Khani. Edwards (1953:185) calls the Salar-Khani, also Kurkheili, a name that was no longer in use ten years later.

A further example are the Ghara’i Baluch. They settled down in the territory of the Ghara’i tribe about 150 years ago and called themselves after their protectors. Similarly, the name of the Djanbeghi, neighbors of the Said-Mohammed-Djanbeghi, neighbors of the Said-Mohammed-Khani, could allude to a former dependence of a subdivision of the Herzegi with the same name. The Herzegi are a sub-tribe of the Saryk Turkoman. Also, the name of the Tshu(b)dari in the area of Kashmar reminds us of the Tshaudor (Choudor) Turkoman.

These observations explains why it is with little success today to search for the Baluch tribal names that were gathered by, among others, Pottinger (1816), Bellow (1891), and Tate (1910). It also shows why among Baluch it is far more difficult to attribute certain rug patterns to a clearer definable group of pile rug weavers than it is among Turkomans. It seems more meaningful to classify the patterns according to the geographical regions in which thay are most often found.

Fig. 2. Fath’ollahi Baluch, Sistan, with Afshar medallion, c. 1890.

The Ethnic Environment of the Baluch

A regional classification allows us to also include those pattern modifications that originated in the same area that are, however, obviously not made by Baluch, but were developed when their producers learned the technique of knotting carpets from the Baluch (Wegner 1964:147; ibid. 1978:288, 292). These circumstances could be studied closer in some “Djulghe”, valleys, east of Turbett-i-Heidari between 1950 and 1960. Besides a multitude of Baluch clans, some semi-nomad village communities were found here which had immigrated from the farther east lying main territory of the Timuri around 1800 (Maitland 1975:416) and lived under a “tribal” name of their own. Among those “immigrants” the Moreidari and their subdivision, the Sarbuzi, the El-Khani, and the Boruti in the Djulghe Khaf have traditional independent pattern variants. In the further north situated Djulghe Barkharz appear the Porbuzi and the Seldjuqi as original Timuri, and in the even further north Djulghe Djam, the Sangtshuli. Only the Moghulzadeh in the Djulghe Khaf and the Mokhtari maintain that they are not Baluch. The classification of the Yaqub-Khani is also unsure because they consider themselves Baluch (Edwards 1953:187), as well as Timuri. Today the Timuri are mainly to be found in west Afghanistan. Ethnologically they do not belong to the Iranian people. Their original home in the region of Bokhara makes a Turk/Mongol derivation more probable than an Arab one claimed for reason of alleged greater distinction (Maitland 1975:416). The Afghan Timuri produce pile rugs, too. Many of their tribal devices can, however, not be sufficiently identified. Apart from the Yaqub-Khani, who are also to be found in Afghanistan, the sub-tribes of the Kaudani (also Kuduani), the Shir-Khani, and the Zakani have acquired a good reputation as pile rug weavers (Janata 1975:10 and 1978:11).

The Bah’luri also are one of the main foreign family units among the Baluch. They are to be found in northeast and east Khorassan, between Tayabad and Gha’in, as well as in Afghanistan. They were still camel-raising nomads around 1950. According to their tradition they are originally west Iranian Turks. Thet were resettled to Khorassan by Shah Abbas (1587-1628) because they were notorious trouble-makers. In their pile rugs they have modified elements of Baluch patterns so much that the inner relation to the typical Baluch symbolism of these motifs is missing.

Pile rugs with Baluch features, cruder though and not as plentiful, are also found among the Firuskuni and Taimani. They live today as farmers and semi nomads in rather confined areas in west Afghanistan: north and east of Herat, and south down to the region of Adreskand. The Djamshidi live here also. According to Janata (oral information, 1979), the question arises whether their sub-tribe, the Maududi, is identical with the Mush(a)wani, whose typical pile-weave rugs (Fig. 1) were mentioned in more recent publications (Eiland 1976:79). About 250 Djamshidi moved into the area of Meshhed in Persian north Khorassan only after 1885 (Janata 1978:11). Firuzkuhi are also still to be found in Iran, in the area south of Nishapur (Bellew 1973:59). Presumably they stayed behind when their tribe, which had been resettled their by Nadir Shah, returned to their former Afghan pastures after the death of Nadir Shah. These peoples are partly of Iranian, partly of Turk-Mongol origin and belong to the loose confederation of the Tsharar Aimaq (Chahar Aimaq). “The Four Peoples.” Sometimes the above mentioned Timuri are also said to be one of those.

We do not know of any pile rugs made by the three first mentioned peoples before 1900. And there are no pieces in which natural dyes are used exclusively. This leads us to the conclusion that they learned how to knot rugs in very recent times, probably from the neighboring Baluch.

The flat-weave products of those groups seem to be of more significance than their pile-weave products. Small and big saddle-bags, old and new ones, all have the same typical patterns, that Janata (1979) and Bolland (1971:169) reported from the Afghan Djamshidi and Firuzkuhi. Such bags were still sold in the bazaars of Meshhed between 1950 and 1960. Since their patterns remotely resemble the ornaments on web-ends of Baluch carpets, dealers sold them as Baluch rugs, locating the place of production however, within a wide area around Meshhed. It can, therefore, be assumed that these fabrics were made by the already mentioned splinter groups of the Tshahar Aimaq in Khorassan. Another proof for that is the fact that none of the pieces, whose provenance was determined, were brought from Afghanistan as personal property of pilgrims and other travellers, and later sold in Meshhed. Tent bands from the Afghan Firuzkuhi remind us of the ornaments of the Pathan Ghilza’i, or even of the Turkoman Beshiri, while the patterns of the Taimani resemble sometimes those of the Mishmast, another nomad Aimaq group in west Afghanistan (Janata 1978:11 and 1979: Fig. 13).

The pile rug weaving group of the so-called Arabs also needs to be mentioned, more because of geographical proximity than because of similarities of their carpets with those of the Baluch. These Arabs are almost without exception villagers, who became sedentary a long time ago, and who derive their name — maybe out of reasons of prestige — from those Arabs who Islamized their homeland in the 7th century. Their main settlements are in the area of Ferdows with Ayask, Arisk, Dohuk, Seghale, and Serayan as the most important pile rug weaving centers in 1951. Motifs, structures, and colors of those farmers’ carpets seldom resemble products made by Baluch from the same area2. Apart from a few exceptions most of the pieces are coarsely knotted, had a long pile and were very colorful. They were a favorite among the rich Arabs from the emirates of the Persian Gulf, who preferred the summer in Iran to that of an even hotter home country. The demand caused an almost assembly-line type of cottage industry , a general degradation of the product, and to a very superficial reproduction of the patterns. We see very crude Afshar designs in the central field and even more so in the borders. These pile rugs must, however, not be confused with other carpets that also have a distinct Afshar influence, that were without doubt made by Baluch in Sistan, about 500 kilometers from Ferdows. In contrast to Arab products, these Sistan Baluch rugs have central fields rich with small, carefully designed motifs and a stepped and/or incised central medallion, similar to those on runners made by southeast Iranian Afshar (Fig. 2.). The main border has an alternating latch-hook pattern, which is favored by some Baluch groups, but is originally a Turkoman pattern (Fig. 3).

Fig. 4. Arabzadeh, Kheibar, Salor gul and “keshmiri” pattern c. 1930.

As a rule the fabric structure of these rugs points to Baluch weavers. Some fabrics from very small groups, who were semi-nomadic at least until 1960, and who call themselves and are called by their neighboring Baluch, Arabzadeh, descendants of the Arabs, show how difficult it is to classify the rugs. In 1955 a group of 50 Arabzadeh could be in close neighborhood to the Moreidari and the Said-Mohammad-Khani in the eastern Djulghe Khaf. The few small pieces they had woven, however, were not distinguished from those made by the Moreidari (Fig. 4).

In order to complete the study of the ethnological environment that influenced the pile-weave products of the Baluch, the Brahu’i and the Shadlu need to be mentioned. As concerns the Brahu’i, it has been said above that the Baluch absorbed many units of them , although they belong to the Dravadian language group of south India. However, independent Brahu’i are still to be found in Sistan (Tate 1977:316, 363), Baluchistan (Imp. Gaz. Ind. 1976:89, 90), in the area of Herat (Snoy 1974:181), and in the Turkmen S.S.R. (Gafferberg 1969:17-18). Pile rug weaving Baluch lived close to them in many of these regions. We do not know of any pieces that can definitely be assigned to the Brahu’i. Maybe their name was transmorgrified to “Barawi,” a group of pile rug weavers that supposedly belong to the Sistan Baluch. Only isolated pieces of their pile rugs with typical, but rather meaningless designs were found.

The Shadlu belong to the Kurdish tribes, which were resettled by Shah Abbas to the northern Khorassan border, as protection against the Uzbeks (Sykes 1963:174). Up until today the Kurds have held on to their Caucasian influenced designs, which they had imported from north-west Persia. They weave easily identifiable long piled runners and rugs of much greater size than are produced by the neighboring Baluch. Between 1950 and 1960 the Shadlu around Budjnurd made saddlebags that cannot be distinguished, neither in the technique nor in the design, from very good Baluch products.

Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V