Carpet weaving builds sustainable livelihoods for women in the remote mountain communities of Azerbaijan
The intricacy, precision, and complexity of Azerbaijani carpets makes it difficult to believe they’re the work of human hands.
Kamala Nesrullayeva, a third generation carpet-weaver from Lahij village in the mountains of Azerbaijan, was taught to weave when she was 5 years old. She set up her loom atop her mother’s dowry rug – a rug knitted by her
grandmother. As her son sits at Kamala’s loom to show his weaving skills, 4 generations of Azeri culture is captured in the moment.
A carpet with no equal
The traditional art of Azerbaijani carpet-weaving dates back to the 2nd millennium BCE and is mentioned in the writings of Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon, and travellers from across the Middle East and Asia, including Xuan Tes Ank and Al-Movsudi.
In the 5th century BCE, Herodotus, a contemporary of Thucydides, Socrates, and Euripides – and known today as ‘The Father of History’ - spoke of the advanced skills evident in Azeri rug dyeing.
The 10th century BCE Arab historian Al Mugaddasi wrote ‘their carpets have no equals in the world’.
In the 13th century, Marco Polo talked about the unique fabrics produced in Tabriz. He also wrote in his memoirs that numerous fabrics, carpets, and weaving techniques unseen anywhere else in the world were being made and sold in the traditional
markets of Azerbaijan.
The Great Silk Road
Azerbaijan is situated along one of the main routes of the Silk Road, at the crossroads of civilisations, cultures, and religions. Sitting between Europe and Asia, the Silk Road played an enormous role in the establishment and development of the Azerbaijani carpet.
The Azerbaijani carpet can be interpreted as a complex, multi-layered product of intra- and intercultural interactions that developed over many centuries between the lands and cultures situated along the Silk Road.
The goods and products of Azerbaijani towns and settlements spread along the Silk Road with great success, and its towns were long known as centres of culture, science and education. Oil, carpets, raw silk, silk fabrics, cotton, weapons, dried fruits, salt, precious stones, jewellery, alum, saffron, natural dyes, polychrome pottery, wooden utensils, non-ferrous metals, sturgeon and caviar, and ironwood were the main exports of Azerbaijan.
Weaving together these disparate strands of raw materials and classical motifs, Azerbaijan carpets now serve as beautiful emblem of multiculturalism. In 2007, the President of Azerbaijan, in signing a presidential decree that declared carpet weaving a cultural asset and a great national interest for Azerbaijan, noted:
‘I think that by common efforts we need to promote the values of multiculturalism. I know that there are different ideas about that - sometimes, pessimistic ideas. But there are positive examples of multiculturalism. Azerbaijan is one of them’.
This recognition was shared by UNESCO, which added ‘Traditional art of Azerbaijani carpet weaving in the Republic of Azerbaijan’ to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.
Through centuries of development, the Azerbaijani Carpet has incorporated the social, cultural, and artistic values of various periods in the history of Azerbaijan, providing the Azerbaijani people with a tangible symbol of their cultural
and historical continuity.
Carpets are widely used in the daily life of local people throughout Azerbaijan to this day; they are used to cover floors, walls, and roofs of houses. Special carpets are often woven for prayer, wedding ceremonies, mourning rituals, or the birth of a child.
Because of their intermingling of the classical and the quotidian, the foreign and the familiar, carpet-weaving now comprises a unique, central part of Azerbaijani communities’ daily way of life and customs. ‘Xalçam harada, yurdum orada’ – ‘where my carpet is, there is my house’ is an Azerbaijani saying.
Produced predominantly by women, carpet-weaving is a family tradition transmitted to new generations both orally and through practice. As tradition goes, the weaving is undertaken during winter, as extended family members assemble, each to perform their portion of creative work, with girls learning from their mothers and grandmothers, and wives assisting their mothers-in-law.
‘Xalçam harada, yurdum orada’ –
‘where my carpet is, there is my house’
From the Mountains to the Marketplace
Unfortunately, rural families face serious constraints in monetising their products, including the distribution and delivery of their products to a wider range of customers through large retail chains. Compounding the difficulties in bringing products to market, a lack of certification processes and marketing skills impact the competitiveness and profitability of family businesses.
Faced with the stiff challenges of maintaining their competitive advantage in local retail, the rural communities of the Ismayilli and Shamakhi regions continue to rely on simple animal husbandry as their primary source of income. One consequence of this heavy dependence on cattle breeding is overgrazing, which is the primary condition that the GEF-supported Sustainable Land and Forest Management project is trying to address. A key premise of the project is to help local communities implement sustainable land management practices in order to protect the soil and prevent erosion.
The project offered smallholder family businesses in Ismayilli and Shamakhi new avenues for broadening their economic pursuits and delivering locally-produced goods – including carpets - to the market. Through ABAD (Azerbaijan State Agency for Public Service and Social Innovations - Support to Family Business) and its wide range of sales and distribution channels, these families will continue to capitalise on their produce not only within Azerbaijani markets, but internationally as well.
Through the project, sixteen families received integrated business support – with six of these in the rug and carpet manufacturing industry. Looms were delivered as part of project support, and also a set of carpet-making tools and machinery, including a variety of weaving supplies and accessories.
ABAD’s role included assistance with legal compliance for health and safety requirements, logistical and equipment support, quality control throughout the value chain, identification of opportunities for expansion and scaling up of production, highlighting certification schemes (e.g. organic or fair trade labelling) for added value, training to families and communities on technical and legal requirements, development of product names and branding, and laboratory analyses for quality control and certification requirements.
Hands on History
Before the project support, Kamala Nesrullayeva remembers:
‘When the factory where I was working suddenly shut down, we started to randomly sell our carpets to tourists who happened to be in the area. However, since our village is located high in the mountains, tourists do not come that far up here all year round, which makes our sales a realistic possibility only during a certain season of a year. The rest of the time we have no other options but cattle breeding, which is a very exhausting and time-consuming activity. However, now that ABAD and UNDP opened up a new window of opportunities for us, villagers, they help us all day every day for 365 days a year and really try their best to make sure that we move forward with our business aspirations’.
Kamala now has a year-round market for her handmade rugs, and has begun teaching her 9-year old son, Asef, the valuable trade.
“I love making the pattern come to life. I love what I do and I am never fed up. I always hope for more time to do it."
Yegane Eldarova, another local carpet-weaver added: ‘I have been weaving carpets since I was ten. This started just like a personal hobby and a well-rooted family tradition. I have never thought this will turn into something bigger, something that will help me provide for my family financially. But after I joined a group of villagers who were receiving support from ABAD and UNDP, I was able to establish a small business that now has about 100 employees. All of my employees come from nearby villages, and they are all pasture users. We produce several types of carpets, such as Zeyve, Pirebedil, Golu-Jiji, and an ancient one - Gonuk. ABAD supports us with all of the necessary materials’.
A Sustainable Future
In order to support local communities in the high-mountain villages of Ismayilli and Shamakhi in the establishment of alternative sources of income, UNDP teamed up with ABAD to provide integrated business services to families aiming to build on their production potential. Overall, 16 families received capacity-building services, including the selection of products for logistical support, certification, marketing, and branding.
The project focussed on strengthening participants’ knowledge of business development, marketing, basics of production management, and informed logistics for the agricultural industry among rural family households. Simultaneously, collective efforts were aimed at reducing the overgrazing of surrounding lands and forests and promoting sustainable agricultural practices, while contributing to poverty reduction and economic growth in some of the most remote communities in the country.
The project assisted communities in the high mountain villages of Ismayilli and Shamakhi, primarily farmers and pasture users, to access alternative sources of income and reduce their pressure on pasturelands. The result of this joint intervention is that villagers now have the required skill sets to sell their products throughout the wider domestic and international markets.
According to initial estimations by ABAD, for the carpet weavers, project experts expect an estimated 50% increase in profits, based on sales forecasts and initial orders. In addition to economic benefits, the connections to national and international markets also serve to decrease the isolation of remote villages.
For more information on the project, view the project profiles for the Sustainable Land and Forest Management in the Greater Caucasus landscape.
For more information on ABAD, click here.
Story by Andrea Egan, David Angelson, Arzu Jafarli, Zaur Aliyev, Eltekin Omarov / Photos: Andrea Egan for UNDP Azerbaijan and Elgun Alizade and Elkhan Ganiyev for ABAD
Location: Shamakhi Region and Ismayilli Region, Azerbaijan