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Gabbeh

"Gabbeh" - Tribal Simplicity or Early Modernism?
by Farzan Navab

Until a few years ago "Gabbeh" rugs were only known to the people of south Persia. The Lurs and Qashqi tribes of south Persia have been making these heavy blanket-like woolen rugs for perhaps 400 years.  There is recorded information about them in travelers' diaries and other such sources. The oldest source is a document from the sixteenth century A.D. In a decree from Shah Tahmasb, the Safavid ruler (1524-1576), concerning a reception to be provided for Humayun, the Mugal emperor of India, who sought refuge in Iran in 1540. The decree reads in part:

"And we have ordered a silk tent to be set up for the kitchen near the royal pavilion and the private quarters, covering the ground with silken carpets from Khorasan, with gabbehs, with felts from Jam, and with suzanis (embroideries)".

The word "Gabbeh" is of Persian origin, and is found in current usage in the dialects of Fars province. According to the definition given for Gabbeh in the standard Persian dictionaries, it is "a kind of carpet with long weft" (meaning long pile).

In more recent times Gabbehs failed to capture the attention of wealthy Iranians or middle class city dwellers, perhaps for the fact that they are much simpler in design than the traditional Persian rugs. Such simplicity, however, gives us a clue as to how and why they were made.

Gabbehs were made and used by tribal nomads of south Persia for their own use. Used either as a tent floor covering or a blanket, they did not need to be elaborate in design. Known for their fantastic imagination and high quality craftsmanship, the weavers of south Persia did not find it necessary to create delicately woven rugs for the floor of their tent. Thus a simpler and more functional rug was created for utilitarian purposes.  The geometry of tribal rugs which remains a recognizable pattern in all such rugs in the Near East was further simplified and a more open space was created. Other tribal symbolism such as animal or human depictions and floral related patterns were incorporated in to the Gabbeh rug designs.

The apparent similarities between Gabbehs and the work of early modernist painters such as Piet Mondrian and other members of the De Stijl movement explains the popularity of Gabbehs in our time.  While acknowledging that such similarities are only superficial, we can not dismiss the need for simplicity which is behind the creation of such obviously different products.

 

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