They tell the story of decades of military conflict
by Peter Suciu
Military history has been a theme in textile design for centuries. Among the most famous examples in the west is the Bayeux Tapestry, the medieval embroidered cloth that depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings.
A more modern example of warfare in textiles exists today in the war rugs of Afghanistan. These hand-spun “Baluch rugs” have been a staple of the nomadic Baluchi people of southwest Afghanistan, eastern Pakistan, and even south eastern Iran. Often confused with “Persian rugs,” these are made of hand spun wool and colored with a natural vegetable dyes that provide the rich and vibrant colors.
The rugs are also known for their unique patterns. Beginning with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, a new tradition of rug began making an appearance. The so-called “war rugs” feature iconic military images. The designs appeared almost immediately after the Soviet Union invaded the country and continued until after the Soviet withdrawal a decade later.
These war rugs featured images of Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, Soviet armored vehicles, helicopters, and fighter jets. These images appeared on rugs of all sizes including the rugs that were used as part of the Muslim call to prayer.
The first war rugs could be traced back to the tribal women of Afghanistan, who wove their personal feelings of resistance into the designs. Thus, it was common to find images of war weaved into the patterns creating what appear to be a spontaneous narrative of life in the war-torn country.
There are tales that the prayer rugs often featured some images — including armored vehicles — as a way to help Mujahideen fighters identify enemy convoys and vehicles. In this way, the rugs could have been similar to the way that American soldiers were issued playing cards during World War II to help identify enemy aircraft and more recently, cards provided during Operation Desert Storm to help identify Iraqi military leadership. Whether the rugs were used in such a way is true or just a fanciful tale, is open for debate. What is true, however, is that the iconic images of the rugs made them very popular — and not just among the Mujahideen.
While the Soviets may have hoped to deliver Communism to Afghanistan in their 1979 invasion, capitalism triumphed. Western aid, including money and arms from the United States, helped turn the tide and eventually drive the Soviets out. Regardless, war rugs were popular souvenirs with Soviet soldiers, foreign journalists, and anyone looking for an iconic piece of a truly one-of-a-kind art. Demand for the rugs became so great that it prompted enterprising businessmen to set up production sites in refugee camps in Pakistan.
WHERE WAS IT MADE?
Determining where a rug was made is difficult, but typically you only need to look as far as the imagery. Rugs with AK-47s usually are from Afghanistan where Soviet soldiers and Mujahideen fighters both used the rugged rifles. Those made in Pakistan tend to depict M-16s, the rifles more commonly seen in the refugee camps.
It has been suggested that in areas where the Soviets had pacified the local population, imagery that included tanks and helicopters were more common. Similar reasoning suggests that in areas of strong resistance, assault rifles were the focus on rugs.
HOW COMMON WERE WAR RUGS?
The rugs reached the zenith of production in the late 1980s and dwindled after the Soviet pull-out. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, the West “discovered” the rugs. After about 1989, the rugs could be found in galleries and rug shops in London and New York. Prices started at around $50 and went up to over $1,000.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the rugs were sold alongside other relics — old uniforms, helmets and equipment — from the seemingly vanquished “Evil Empire.” However, by the late 1990s, war rugs had apparently run their course. Only rarely were they still imported.
The rugs would likely be just a small footnote on that era, but the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States led to America’s “longest war.” Soon, war rugs were back in production. While some rugs were produced during the Afghan Civil War (1996-2001) when the Taliban government fought the United Front (Northern Alliance) for control of the country, production really didn’t reach large scale until after American forces arrived.Many of these were produced in workshops by weavers who were refugees in Pakistan.
These “new” war rugs were not meant to depict the weapons of the enemy, but still featured plenty of iconic images including those of political figures such as Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the United Front, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Among the more controversial of images depicted on the rugs are those that represent the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.
The imagery also evolved and featured more American vehicles, weapons and images. Communist imagery such as a hammer and sickle seldom decorated rugs during the Soviet-era. By contrast, since 2002 there have been many rugs that feature American eagles and flags. It has been argued that this is the resultof many weavers who had been refugees in neighboring Pakistan returned home after the fall of the Taliban.
Many rugs featured designs meant to appeal to American and coalition soldiers. However, the quality of the rugs including the wools and weaves, are not up to the same levels as the earlier rugs.
These new war rugs are now readily available online, such as from auction sites like eBay. Many claim to be “made in Afghanistan,” but are offered for sale in Pakistan. Those interested in the rugs should look to reputable dealers and as with any historic collectible, know that you’re buying the item — not the story.
While often overlooked by militaria collectors, these rugs are both part of the history of the recent conflicts, and much like the Bayeux Tapestry, are able to convey the story of the conflict.