The Hidden Legacy of the Kazakhs

By Karina Duebner – HALI magazine (March/April 2004)

Central Asia’s textile traditions are well chronicled. Turkmen carpets, Uzbek embroideries and Kirghiz felts have each found a devout following among scholars and collectors. Yet the textiles of Kazakhstan have largely been ignored. Most commonly blamed for this neglect is a lack of antique weavings from the Kazakhs. However, the great quantity of 20th century Kazakh rugs implies a carpet weaving tradition and raises the inevitable question: Why have no old pieces survived? I suggest that many have been attributed to the Kirghiz instead.

There is a long history of confusing all things Kazakh and Kirghiz. Until the 1930s, Russians and Westerners officially used the name “Kirghiz” to describe the Kazakh people, and the term “Kara Kirghiz” (Black Kirghiz) to refer to the actual Kirghiz. While the difference between the two may seem apparent to us today, it is easy to understand the initial confusion. The relationship between the Kazakhs and the Kirghiz is best compared with that between the Germans and the Austrians – they share a language, common roots, and many customs. It is difficult for an outsider to distinguish between their dialects or to tell them apart by their looks. Despite having developed as separate peoples for more than 500 years, the Kazakhs’ and the Kirghiz’ common origins are still evident today in the overlap of many tribal names – Kangli, Kipchak, and Naiman to name a few. The semantic confusion of past centuries created a wake of wrongly attributed pieces which to this day has not been rectified. For example, ethnographic photographs taken at the turn of the 19th century by Dudin and Prokudin-Gorski still carry their original “Kirghiz” title despite obvious clues that the subject matter is actually Kazakh . One therefore wonders to what degree the same misnomers apply to carpets and textiles.

Western understanding of “Kirghiz” carpets has so far heavily relied on a handful of Soviet publications that all fall back on the carpet collections of Andrei Bogolyubov and Samuil Dudin for historical reference. Generally considered the pioneers of Central Asian rug studies, Bogolyubov and Dudin compiled their carpets independent of each other between 1899 and 1902. Neither labelled any of their pieces “Kazakh”, probably due to the fact that the official name for the Kazakhs was still “Kirghiz” at the time. Bogolyubov, like most rug collectors today, did not purchase his carpets at the places of their production but rather in the bazaars of Central Asian cities. A carpet sold to him in Samarkand as a “Kirghiz from the Kangli tribe” could, therefore, be either the product of the Kangli of the Ichkilik group (a Kirghiz tribe living 400 kilometres east of Samarkand) or the Kangli of the Great Horde (a Kazakh tribe living 400 kilometres to the north). Similarly, a “Kipchak felt” could be attributed to either the Kirghiz Kipchak of the Ichkilik, or the Kazakh Kipchak of the Middle Horde, both of whom produce comparable felt rugs to this day. In the case of Dudin, the absence of Kazakh textiles from his records is even more suspect. Unlike Bogolyubov, he had made it his policy to collect not only pieces he liked but also such that were representative of each region he travelled to. Since we know that Dudin visited Kazakhstan at least twice it seems unlikely that his collection contained no Kazakh pieces.

In addition to Bogolyubov and Dudin, Soviet publications all draw from the works of pre-revolutionary Russian researchers Semyonov and Felkerzam. Although both Semyonov and Felkerzam recorded “Kirghiz carpet weaving” in the Syr Darya and Jeti Su regions (Kazakhstan) as well as in the Fergana valley (Kirghizstan), Soviet scholars chose to ignore the references to the Kazakhs and to concentrate their efforts solely on the Kirghiz. In part this is only illustrates how Kazakhstan has always held less allure as a field of study for 20th century Russian scholars than the rest of Central Asia (probably for being “too close to home”). A recent visit to the State Library in Moscow, for instance, revealed that not even a Kazakh-Russian dictionary was held there (for every other Central Asian language and even dialect at least two different editions were held). In this context it is perhaps less surprising that none of the rug authorities from Moscow and St Petersburg ever conducted field research in Kazakhstan, let alone wrote about Kazakh textiles. The only published research that exists is the work of two Kazakh ethnographers, Mukanov and Margulan, written in Russian in the 1970s and 1980s and never published outside of Kazakhstan . Since their books were targeted at the general public and covered the whole spectrum of applied arts, discussions of textiles are rather generic and contain no information on the actual weavers, their tribes or their customs.

The Kazakhs emerged in the mid-15th century from an alliance between various Mongol and Turkic tribes that joined in rebellion against the powerful Uzbek khanate which ruled Central Asia at the time. What was initially a military confederation of tribes, rather than a nation, soon came to control most of the present-day Kazakh territories (an area the size of Western Europe) where a rival Kazakh khanate was set up. In the early 16th century the Kazakhs split into their three distinctive hordes in accordance with the three natural geographic areas of their land. The tribes of the Great Horde conducted their migration in the south of Kazakhstan, those of the Middle Horde in central and eastern Kazakhstan, and those of the Small Horde in western Kazakhstan. To this day there are eleven main tribes in the Great Horde (Dulat, Kangli, Alban, Suan, Jalair, Ysty, Sregli, Shanishkli, Shoprashti, Oshakti), six in the Middle Horde (Argyn, Naiman, Kipchak, Kerei, Uak, Tarakt) and three in the Small Horde (Alimuli, Baiuli, Jetiru).

Due to their close proximity to Russia, the Kazakhs became the first Central Asians to fall to Russian expansion in the mid-18th century (more than a hundred years before the Russian takeover of Turkmen and Uzbek territories). Russian imperial policy in the Kazakh steppe, unlike that pursued in the rest of Central Asia, was marked by relocating three million Russian farmers into a society of five million Kazakh nomads . The resulting shortage of pasture land for the Kazakhs was subsequently solved by the Soviets through forced settlement. The nomadic life style, and with it the production of certain textiles necessitated by a life on the road, almost ceased to exist under Soviet rule.

Kazakh Pile Carpets

Pile carpets, called tukti kilem among the Kazakhs, were woven exclusively by the tribes of the Great Horde. Their annual migration rarely exceeded 300 kilometres (unlike the 700 – 1,000 kilometres covered by the Middle and Small Hordes) and left them with adequate spare time for pile weaving. The Great Horde lives in southern Kazakhstan along the upper reaches of the Syr Darya river, in the Alatau mountains, and the Jeti Su river valleys. Some 30,000 Kazakhs of the Great Horde also live in northern Afghanistan and their carpets have been casually noted in rug literature since the 1970s.

All Kazakh Carpets share several characteristics. Compared to other Central Asian weavings they tend to have a relatively “archaic” look, that is, individual designs are larger and more generously spaced out. The background colour is always a warm shade of red, with patterns executed in earthy shades of blue, yellow, ivory, brown, green and black. Broadly speaking, the Kazakh colour palette is brighter than that of the Turkmen but not as bold as the Uzbeks’.

Apart from standard floor rugs the Kazakhs made a few small, finely woven kali kilem which were intended for the wall and traditionally presented to a girl’s parents as part of the bride prize. Especially large and ornate carpets were called orda kilem in reference to the khan’s quarter, orda, for which they were historically woven. Occasionally, ceremonial covers for the bridal camel (asmaldyk), saddle bags (khorjin), yurt entrance covers (esik japkish), and diverse storage bags (chabadan, dobra, kerme) were also made in pile weave, however, the majority of these articles was made from felt.

Pile rugs were woven on standard ground looms, although some tribes living in the Taraz region are said to have used vertical looms. Wool from the spring sheering was used for both warp and weft and was often mixed with goat hair in Kazakhstan, and yak hair in Afghanistan . Margulan notes that camel hair was sometimes added to the pile for extra softness and sheen. Because of a widespread Kazakh superstition that camel hair should not be stepped on I assume this practice was reserved for special occasion pieces not intended for the floor – like the kali kilem or asmaldyk mentioned earlier. A common characteristic of Kazakh and Kirghiz carpets is their heaviness, a result of rather thick warp and weft yarns as well as high piles of up to 11mm. Mukanov states that both symmetrical and asymmetrical knots were common among the Kazakhs. While this seems to hold true for those carpets woven in Afghanistan, virtually all pieces found within Kazakhstan today show symmetrical knots only.

Unlike the Turkmen, the Kazakhs have no concept of tribal guls. Many of their designs are shared with the Kirghiz and Karakalpak, and to some extent with the Uzbek. By far the most popular Kazakh motif is the ram’s horn (khoshkhar muiz) in all its variations – single, double, cross-shaped or broken. It can make up the entire centre field design of a carpet, adorn borders, or simply supplement another design. As a main design, the ram’s horn appears most often in its large cross-shaped version, tort muiz, which is also very common among the Kirghiz who call it kaikalak. Other popular main designs include the reed screen (shi) and spider (shayan) patterns. Mukanov mentions an ancient Kazakh design he calls “square” (sharshi): “two or three rows of squares, each adorned with ram’s horns at their centres and around their edges .” His description seems to point to a group of carpets currently labelled Kirghiz. For example, Seyfullah Turkkan in Hali 123 showed a 19th century carpet from the Flynn collection which he called a sanduk nuska. Turkkan stated that very little was known about the origin and distribution of this type of carpet, and the answer might well be that they are Kazakh.

Borders show very little variation in their use of designs and are therefore a reliable source of identifying Kazakh carpets. Apart from single and double ram’s horns (synar muiz and khos muiz), they practically always consist of either amulets (tumarsha), yurt walls (kerege), yurt roofs (shanirakh), apple blossoms (alma gul) or dog tails (it khurikh). More stylised versions of the dog tail are often called camel neck (bota moyin) or crutch (baldakh).

Old weavers, ethnologists and the general public in Kazakhstan have all stressed the importance of symbolism to me. I should point out that superstitious beliefs, a remnant of the Kazakh’s ancient shamanistic traditions, still permeate every aspect of modern Kazakh life to a much greater extent than is the case in the rest of Central Asia, where a more orthodox version of Islam is practised. In carpet design, symbols can be broken down into those hoped to bestow good fortunes onto a household and those intended to protect it from bad ones. The ram’s horn and water motifs are considered life bringing symbols of prosperity, while the forty horns and virtually all flower designs symbolize abundance and fertility. Protective symbols, usually found in the border, include amulets, yurt roofs and yurt walls. Sometimes an evil spirit, symbolized by the spider, would be portrayed directly on a carpet to protect its owner from the real thing.

Carpets from the Soviet period predominantly feature the star design (juldis) and the likeness-of-the-moon (aishik) stepped medallion pattern. The majority of these rugs were woven in the Turkistan and Chimkent regions, strongholds of the Kangli and Dulat tribes, and were dyed with synthetic colours. Carpets from the 1950s onward often carry a woven-in date and name inscription. Rather than representing the weaver’s signature this name was a dedication to someone, most often a child relation of the weaver. A literary analogy would be the dedications writers include at the beginning of their books. Production stopped in the late 1970s for yet unclear reasons but has seen a tentative revival over the last few years under the sponsorship of Almaty dealers catering to the expatriate community.

Kazakh Flatwoven Carpets

Although mentioned by both Margulan and Mukanov, flatwoven rugs (takhta kilem) are very rare. It appears they were only made by the tribes of the Small Horde. These tribes now live in the north-western parts of Kazakhstan but, as nomads, their migration paths extended south along the Caspian Sea shore where they shared pastures with the Ikdir, Abdal and Yomut Turkmen . It is said they used vertical looms for their kilems, the colours and designs of which resembled those found in pile rugs (although there was greater variation in the background colour with blue and white in addition to the standard red).

Kazakh Tent Bands

Tent bands were such an integral part of yurt life and easy enough to produce that they were woven by all Kazakh tribes. Essentially, there were two types – one functional and one decorative. The up to 50 centimetre wide baskur were wound around the yurt to hold its felt walling in place, while the much narrower bau were used to decorate the inside of the yurt and often had tassels running along the bottom. Tribes of the Small Horde made some tent bands entirely in pile weave, while the Middle and Great Hordes wove mainly flat and combination-technique bands. Tent bands were woven on a special narrow loom which was also employed to weave a number of narrow strips that would then be sewn together to create so called alasha rugs. To achieve the dynamic look of a carpet, alasha were either made from strips of different colours or with designs and pile reliefs.

Kazakh Felts

Most of the references to the Kazakhs in rug literature allude to their Felts. Less time consuming in their production, decorative felts always provided a great practical alternative to carpets. Four different methods were employed for the production of felt – rolling-in, mosaic, applique, and embroidery. Which technique was used depended on a felt’s ultimate function.

Most floor felts were made using the rolling-in technique. In this process wool of one colour was laid in patterns on a foundation of wool of another colour, rolled up together like a cinnamon roll and felted in the usual way. Felts produced this way were called tekemet and used as a basic floor covering hidden from public view by the more precious carpets and decorative felts piled on top of them. It is difficult to distinguish the tekemet of different tribes because they all share the ram’s horn as their sole decorative motif (with the exception of those from the Jeti Su region which feature a local antler design – tarmakhty muiz or bugy muiz). A better indicator of origin is colour combinations. As a rule of thumb, the Middle and Small Hordes used mainly natural, undyed wools – white, brown and black – for their tekemet while the Great Horde also experimented with dyed wools.

Precious decorative floor felts (i.e. such used in place of carpets) were created using the more labour intensive mosaic technique. Here two finished felts of different colours were laid on top of one another and a pattern was cut through both layers, cookie-cutter style. The resulting shapes were exchanged and fitted into the cut-out of the other felt, creating two mirror-images of opposing colours. These jigsaw felts were then each stitched onto a backing of plain felt and the seams around their designs overstitched with coloured cord. The mosaic technique was a specialty of the Middle Horde who used it to create elaborate felts called sirmakh.

Smaller everyday items like storage and saddle bags were made using the applique and embroidery methods in which finished felts were either embellished with thin shapes of dyed felt (in the 20th century replaced with velvet or silk) or embroidered in coloured wools. White was always favoured as a background colour because it symbolised happiness, and white felts were often treated with chalk to maintain their original colour. Some very intricate applique and embroidery work can be found on yurt entrance covers (kiyiz esik) and on small wall hangings called tus kiyiz. While entrance covers stopped being produced with the move from yurts to apartment blocks, the tus kiyiz wall felts, which were traditionally positioned above the yurt’s place of honour, are still widely made today to adorn modern homes.


After much neglect, Kazakh textiles are waiting to engage collectors’ attention. Many old Kazakh carpets might have already found their way into Western private collections, albeit hidden behind a Kirghiz label. For the modern collector it is important to keep in mind that many Kazakh and Kirghiz carpets, like the people who made them, bear a strong resemblance. The fact that most of the older pieces left the places of their production a long time ago has left them with no clear paternity and will make a re-classification more difficult. Further field research needs to be conducted not only in Kazakhstan but also in those countries with significant numbers of ethnic Kazakhs – China, Mongolia, and Afghanistan.

Karina Duebner
HALI Magazine

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