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Photo Album: Armenia & Georgia, May 2016

Following the success of the first HALI Tour to Armenia and Georgia in September 2015, Ben Evans and Rachel Meek returned with another group of international guests for nine days in May 2016. Below is an account of the most recent of these tours. An abridged version will appear in HALI 188. Please view textiles, rugs and other items from the Tour in the photo album above.

After Ben Evans’ first visit to Armenia to attend a carpet conference in 2013 (HALI 179, pp. 92-103), he recognised the potential of drawing the attention of a wider audience to the importance and variety of textiles there by taking HALI Tours to the region. Thirteen guests joined the first of these in Yerevan in September 2015 for a round trip of some 600 miles, also crossing into neighbouring Georgia for a day. This consolidated and enriched our understanding of Armenia and Georgia as nations with complex histories, rich weaving traditions and populations long involved in the production and trade of textiles. So we returned a second time with a slightly larger group, a slightly longer tour and more time scheduled in the tantalising Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where nineteen guests assembled on 7 May 2016.

An air of accomplished and easy-going cultural activity pervades the city, enthusiastically cultivated by a young generation of post-Soviet Georgians. Among the picturesque crumbling architecture scoped out from the glass elevators of our high-rise hotel is the State Silk Museum. There gilded silk moths decorate the interior coving and collections of cocoons, vintage photographs and the leaves of the mulberry tree recall the building’s original incarnation as part of the Caucasian Sericulture Station built in 1887-1891.

Gilded silk moth ornamentation in the stairwell at The State Silk Museum, Tbilisi

Gilded silk moth ornamentation in the stairwell at The State Silk Museum, Tbilisi

At the Museum of Fine Arts, many examples of finely granulated goldwork represent highly advanced civilisations inhabiting the Georgia region over 2000 years ago. We were met by Irina Koshoridze, a figure integral to the Tbilisi textile scene. She is the curator of the Islamic collection there, as well as director of the State Museum of Folk and Applied Arts. She introduced Qajar paintings showing Kashmir shawls as part of Persian court costume before guiding us behind the scenes to see just such textiles, carpets and hefty Qajar ceramic tile fragments in the stores. At her other museum is a comprehensive collection of exquisitely executed field drawings and photographs with applied colour made by Jūlijs Straume, a 19th-century researcher working for the Russian empire. The project was commissioned in order to investigate the commercial potential of existing local craft practices and forms an invaluable database, predating the often misleading place names that have come to be used for rug design attribution. Point papers show the translation of medieval stone carving motifs taken from Georgian Christian architecture into knotted carpet designs with an Arts & Crafts aesthetic destined for international expositions.

Viewing the archives with Director, Irine Koshoridze at the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art

Viewing the archives with Director, Irine Koshoridze at the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art

Cashmere shawl (detail), 19th century, in the stores at Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts, Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi

Kasshmir shawl (detail), 19th century, in the stores at Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts, Georgian National Museum, Tbilisi

Despite all these visual feasts, it became apparent at mealtimes and in conversation with the dynamic Georgian guide Tamara Natenadze that much of Georgia’s growing tourism industry is fed by the pull of its excellent cuisine. It boasts appealing slow-food credentials and endemic natural wines, fermented the traditional way in giant ceramic qvevri vessels buried in the ground. An invite to handle a private collection of Tushetian kilims and intricately embroidered Khevian indigo costumes at the home of Irina’s close friend and colleague, Nino Kipshidze, provided our first opportunity to sample such wine, which was served directly from the house cellar by the vigneron herself. Another was accompanied by a pre-dinner lecture on folk costume presented by Luarsab Togonidze, the owner of Restaurant Arzaphesha and author of Traditional Georgian Attire, who then transitioned into the crucial role of toastmaster and partook in powerful mid-banquet performances of polyphonic songs.

Private collection of Tushetian kilims on the veranda at the house of Nino Kipshidze, Tbilisi

Private collection of Tushetian kilims on the veranda at the house of Nino Kipshidze, Tbilisi

Visits to the 7th-century Jvari monastery and 11th-century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral at Mtskheta as well as the Open Air Museum of Ethnography provided a view of domestic and early Christian Georgian architecture before we were driven south to meet our Armenian guide, Vladimir Grigoryan. Over the border the landscape becomes mountainous and substantial traces of Soviet industry remain. There was a noticeable increase in the number of encounters with potholes in roads and rugs in collections; the village of Gavar by Lake Sevan delivered both. The team at the county Museum of Ethnography and Carpets provided the first of many warm welcomes at Armenian institutions. They showed off vintage photographs, felts, a charming salt bag and 19th-20th-century village rugs, including a cryptic pictorial design of chained bears led by priest figures.

Staff and Director, Museum of Ethnography & Carpets, Gavar, Armenia

Staff and Director, Museum of Ethnography & Carpets, Gavar, Armenia

At Haghpat Monastery and Noratus Cemetary, khachkar stones carry exquisitely carved winged crosses with elaborate knotted designs like those in illuminated manuscripts at the Matenadaran in Yerevan. Research conducted at this rich repository is supporting a revival and exploration of cultural heritage as seen at Lake Sevan where Cilicia, a well-journeyed replica of a 13th-century merchant sailing vessel is currently docked, and at a spellbinding performance on old-style instruments by the Traditional Armenian Music Ensemble. We were privileged to have special access to view precious fragments of early Indian and Sasanian textiles used in medieval book bindings that attest to Armenia’s pivotal position along the historic Silk Route. These were revealed by Professor Levon Choogaszian, who later delivered a lecture on early Armenian textiles depicted in manuscripts and contemporary works.

Armenian Traditional Music Ensemble performance at Hovannes Sharambeyan Museum of Folk Arts, Yerevan

Armenian Traditional Music Ensemble performance at Hovannes Sharambeyan Museum of Folk Arts, Yerevan

The imposing windowless walls of the Museum of Sardarapat, designed in 1978 as part of a memorial complex by Rafael Israelyan, are like most buildings in Yerevan, built from tufa—a widespread local igneous stone favoured for its insulating properties. Within them are memorable carpets and ethnographic materials, including a 17th-century, red-ground dragon carpet and an 18th-century Afshan-design carpet (HALI 179 p.95), ceramic salt cellars, Armenian folk costume and a wool saddle cover with peacock-tailed quadrupeds in extra warp wrapping and weft-float brocade technique. In honour of the HALI Tour visit, a special temporary presentation of sophisticated woven basket fragments and fragile archaeological textiles discovered in Areni Cave in the Vayots Dzor region was also on show.

Rug on the loom with design taken from 18th century embroidery in the Etchmiadzin Treasury, Megerian Carpets Factory, Yerevan

Rug on the loom with design taken from 18th century embroidery in the Etchmiadzin Treasury, Megerian Carpets Factory, Yerevan

The continuation of Armenia’s weaving tradition was observed at Megarian Rugs where rug restoration and modern production take place using naturally dyed, handspun wool. We came across a jubilant Canadian-Armenian wedding party having a photo opportunity at Garni Temple on the way to the atmospheric Geghard Monastery, carved into the cliffs of hills above the city. At the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the curator of the museum, Father Asoghik Karapetyan, graced us with entry to the treasury, not normally open to the public. A staggering array of objects donated to the Armenian Church from a diaspora scattered around the world were brought to life by his enlightening commentary on 18th-century Indian chintz altar hangings and other ecclesiastical textiles (HALI 186, pp.62-73). Aintab and Marash needlework, tablet-woven belts and other little-known costumes and embroideries impressed at both the National Museum and the Folk Art Museum in Yerevan where there was a special presentation of embroideries by modern folk master, Arpi Avdalyan.

Lavash bread baking at the Silk Road Hotel, Yerevan

Lavash bread baking at the Silk Road Hotel, Yerevan

HALI Tour group 2016 at the Silk Road Hotel, Yerevan

HALI Tour group 2016 at the Silk Road Hotel, Yerevan

Special thanks must be directed to Tatev Muradyan for her ongoing assistance. She is curator at the Folk Art Museum museum and manager of the Silk Road Hotel and Folk Arts Hub in Yerevan, where fresh tonir-baked lavash was served at a generous farewell lunch, sponsored by the hotel’s US-based owner Levon der Bedrossian and the Armenian Rug Society. Her enthusiasm and dedication to promoting textiles and cultural heritage with integrity are shared by HALI.

During the tour it became clear that while many of the most sought-after Caucasian rugs have now left the lands of their origin, many other notable and little-known textiles that share design elements with those carpets do remain in Armenia and Georgia; countries where rugs and textile traditions continue to be considered a vital element of the national identity. Although Mount Ararat stayed concealed behind stubborn cloud for the duration the 2016 tour, many guests agreed that this provided a welcome motive to schedule a return to view the dramatic Yerevan skyline on another, clearer day.

Lunch at Cafe Littera, Tbilisi

Lunch at Cafe Littera in the courtyard garden of the Writer’s House of Georgia, Tbilisi

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

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