Carpets from Turkmenistan


The Ersari Turkmen do not belong to the original Turkmen tribes mentioned by Mahmud Kashghari and Rashid al-Din in the 11th and 14th century, as we have already said numerous times. They belong to the Turkmen that establish themselves later on, such as the Tekke, Yomut and Saryk.

Abul Ghazi alluded to this tribe in his history of the Turkmen people (1665) whenever he talks about events relating to the dynasty of Sofiyan Khan (1525 until 1535). The main reason for the clash between the ruler of Khiva and the Turkmen was the killing of his tax collector by the Ersari of Balkan and their refusal to give away some of their sheep as yearly tribute(82).

Abul Ghazi tells a long story, detailing how the 40 collectors (Baratdar) of Sofiyan Khan were killed by the Ersari, and how the Khan forced the Turkmen to pay tribute again. According to his account, the Khan demanded 1,000 sheep for every tax collector killed, a total of 40,000 sheep. Later, other tribes who had nothing to do with these events were also taxed, and an additional 10% tax was levied against them to benefit the kitchen of the Khan.

The Persian historian Iskander Beg Munshi gives a different explanation for this taxation or tribute payment. The actual toll was measured to be one fortieth of the sheep herd kept by the tribe(83). The payment depended on the wealth of the herdsman, which of course was determined by the size of his flock of sheep.

The Ersari were forced to deliver 40,000 sheep(84). If we assume that 16,000 constituted one fortieth of their herd, the Ersari herd must have had 640,000 sheep at that time and that was an enormous amount of wealth.

Without question the climatic and vegetative conditions found in the Balkan region today would make it impossible to amass such a large herd. But at the time of Sofiyan Khan’s rule (1525 until 1535), there was a brook, part of Amu Darya River, that flowed through this area and into the Caspian Sea, creating far better conditions for the rearing of livestock.

Previous to the 16th century the Ersari must have shared Mangyshlak with other Turkmen tribes. We know this because the Uzbek princes Muhammad Kuli and Arab Mohammad, who left the Persian emperor Shah Abbas of Bistam (1586 until 1628) to travel towards Khiva, met 500 to 600 Ersari Turkmen by the Uzboy. The Mangit (Noghay) had previously forced this group out of Mangishlak.

If we are to believe Abul Ghazi’s genealogy (86)**Footnote 85 missing the Ersari traveled south into the Balkan mountains and eastward to the Amu Darya region some time during the rule of Timur’s successor.

It is still unknown for how long they lived in the Balkans but at some point during the 17th century they began to migrate south-east. Abul Ghazi himself reported he was both guest and captive in Persia (mostly Esfahan) and was only able to escape in 1640 after his older brother and ruler of Khiva, Isfandiyar Khan, began to experience military troubles. During his escape he lived with various Turkmen tribes. In the winter of the Year of the Snake(1641) he stayed with the Ersari (the Kizil Ayak) in Meihane, a region belonging to Akhal. This tribe had arrived there three years prior after being forced out of Mangishlak(87). Meihane (or Mihnah or Mayhanah Persian for House of Wine) laid east of Abivard and Ashkabad and was the center of the Khavaran district(88).

From this point on, the Ersari migrated further east towards Chahardjui und Kerki (in the territory of Bokhara) and wandered upstream alongside the Amu Darya into northern Afghanistan. It should not be assumed the Ersari left this area for north Afghanistan only after the Russian colonization of Central Asia, nor was this migration necessarily a result of their growing influence on Bokhara. Some members of this tribe certainly moved into northern Afghanistan before these events: one example of such movement is the migration of Kizil Ayak to Pandeh.

When the Salor entered these regions by the end of the 18th century, after having been forced out of Merv and Yolatan by the Saryk, they displaced the Kizil Ayak implying the Kizil Ayak must have lived there first(89).

Once in northern Afghanistan, the Turkmen (mostly members of the Ersari tribe) conquered territories in the provinces of Herat, Badghis (Kala i Now), Faryab (Maimana), Jawjan (Shibergan), Balkh (Mazar i Sharif), Samangan, and Kunduz, to name only a few. Exact timelines regarding these movements are hard to come by but such information would certainly make the dating of their rugs much easier. After all, the various red hues and colorings have their origin in these territorial changes.

Back in 1970, I pointed out to this important phenomenon(90).

Let us look at Murawiew’s tribal chart again: by the beginning of the 19th century, he lists the Ersari as 100,000 kibitkes strong. The Tekke Turkmen, the most powerful tribe during the 19th century, owned only half as many dome tents(91). If we estimate each tent housed five people, as is generally the custom, we find there were about half a million of Ersari in 1818. In 1864, Hermann Vambery approximates the size of the Ersari tribe to be about 40,000 families, or 200,000 people(92).

G. I. Karpov cites Abul Ghazi, who claimed the Ersari were descendants of Ogurdjik Alp Salor, who had six sons (three twins) called Berdy/Boka, Ausan/ Kosar, and Yayji/Dingli.

Berdy had two sons: Kulmi and Kul Choji. Arsari Baj, son of Kul Chochi, had three children: Inay Gasi, Seynal Gasi and Mustafa Gasi. Inay Gasi had two sons by the names of Tura and Sukman.

The descendants of Seynal Gasi are the Kara Bekaul; the Olug Tupe are successors of Mustafa Gasi, and the descendants of Gunesh are the modern Ersari tribes. The latter live dispersed throughout the Chaharjui and Kerkin region in the TSSR (Turkmen Socialist Soviet Republic), as well as in Andchoy and Achcha (Afghanistan)(93).

Karpov criticized Abu Ghazi’s chronology by pointing out its contradictions: according to Abu Ghazi, the Ogurdjik Alp Salor is more than sixteen generations removed from Oghuz Khan. Yet he dates Oghuz’s rule 400 years prior to Genghis Khan, and 4,000 years after the prophet Mohammed(94). In either case, as Abul Ghazis says himself, only god knows how many generations have come and gone in the meantime.

The list of 16 generations is restricted to important persons only, so nobody knows how many less prominent families have been omitted from this genealogical inventory(95).

In his dissertation, G. L. Penrose talks about the political and economical intentions of Abul Ghazi’s account of the Turkmen genealogy, which elevates the Ersari (whom he considered allies) by diminishing the Itshki Salor tribe (the inner Salor, who controlled the lucrative trade route that led from Russia through Mangyshlak to Khiva)(96). His description the Itshki Salor is even quite negative: while he claims the Ersari are descendants of the legendary Ogurdjik Alp Salor, he links the Ishki Salor to a narrative of rape and in doing so portrays them as bastards(97).

G.L. Penrose interpreted Abul Ghazi’s intentions and proposed Ghazi intended to win the cooperation of the Turkmen after utterly defeating them. But Abul Ghazi was adverse to the Salor and instead hoped for the Ersari to lead the tribe(98). As far as history tells, they never reached this goal.

Following W. Merk’s description of the Ersari for the year of 1855 (as it was reported by the Afghan Boundary Commission), the tribe consisted of the following(99):


  1. Ulu Tapa(100):
    1. Karaja,
    2. Kisil Ayak,
    3. Abdal,
    4. Itbash,
    5. Misri,
    6. Akadri,
    7. Khatab,
    8. Makri,
    9. Surkhi,
    10. Achi Beg,
    11. Chatrak,
    12. Danaji,
    13. Chaubash(Chubbash).
  2. Gunesh:
    1. Sulaiman,
    2. Chakkir,
    3. Umar,
    4. Safa Bai,
    5. Kawak,
    6. Kubasakhal,
    7. Koinli,
    8. Lumma,
    9. Ark Bator.
  3. Kara:
    1. Islam,
    2. Harum,
    3. Karabainli,
    4. Kanraj,
    5. Jakkash,
    6. Kazan,
    7. Tagan,
    8. Bark,
    9. Okam,
    10. Kuresh,
    11. Aranji,
    12. Mengajak,
    13. Dali,
    14. Yezark,
    15. Chopar.
  4. Bekaul:
    1. Togachi,
    2. Breli,
    3. Saltuk,
    4. Chakmak,
    5. Tabashurli,
    6. Nasimli,
    7. Tazargan,
    8. Chai,
    9. Charkhibgi,
    10. Charshanga

As usual, we should follow up this tribal structure with a disclaimer: it fails to mention certain tribes that are important in regards to the production of rugs, such as the Beshir, and so we should have some doubts. Even the scrupulous historian Gunnar Jarring, from Sweden, omits this tribe from his catalog(101).

First of all, we should mention no work of western literature including G. I. Karpov’s history offers a collection of Turkmen tribes quite as extensive as this one(102). A. N. Pirkulieva, a Riussian ethnographer, did field studies in the central region of the Amu Darya between 1957 and 1963. She confirmed accounts of the “varying weaving traditions of different tribes such as the Tekke, Salor, Saryk, Yomut, Choudor and Ersari (including the Beshir, Arabatshi and others)”(103).

Two names keep surfacing in relation to Ersari rugs, the Kizil Ayak and the Ersari. These are the most known types of carpets produced by Ersari women weavers. Like the Kizil Ayak, the Beshir are part of the Ulug Tapa(104).

To this day not much research has gone into dating Ersari rugs or identifying the many minor tribes involved in their production. I hope using Kizil Ayak and Beshir timelines to determine a rug’s age will be the subject of a future study.