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The Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta: Reviewed by Andrew Hale


Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta

By David and Sue Richardson
Prestel, Munich 2012
470 pp., more than 1,000 colour  & b/w illustrations, notes, bibliography, appendices
Hardbound, £99.00
Reviewed by Andrew Hale

A heavily abridged version of Andrew Hale’s in-depth review of David and Sue Richardson’s Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta appeared in HALI 175, Spring 2012.

The full review, however, contains an additional wealth of valuable information relevant to our appreciation of Central Asian material culture, and is published below with additional illustrations.

www.hali.com/subscriptions Schoolgirls dressed like young women with their teacher taken by Melkov 1928-9. RAS 4076-500

Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta is large in size – 470 pages with more than 1,000 illustrations – and encyclopaedic in scope. The book attempts to cover virtually all forms of Qaraqalpaq material culture from the 19th century to the present. In addition to the rugs and textiles made by the Qaraqalpaqs, it includes detailed descriptions of Qaraqalpaq jewellery, woodwork and architecture, from traditional yurts to Soviet-period apartment blocks. The almost exclusively Qaraqalpaq focus can be awkward at times: Qaraqalpaq material culture, while distinct in some respects, is in other ways strongly influenced by, and derivative of, regional Uzbek and Central Asian/Persian material culture. Nonetheless, this a very valuable work that deals with the physical aspects of Qaraqalpaq culture in minute detail, thanks to the authors’ unstinting energy and single-minded dedication. It is a book that belongs in the collection of anyone with an interest in Central Asian art.

Today there are about 600,000 Qaraqalpaq people. They make up only about a third of the population of the Autonomous Republic of Qaraqalpaq in Uzbekistan; the rest are Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Yomut Turkmen. The Qaraqalpaq language is a branch of Kipchak Turkic, and the Qaraqalpaqs themselves are closely related to neighbouring Kazakhs and Uzbeks. The region where they live – always inhospitable – is now one of the world’s worst ecological nightmares, caused by the Soviet Union’s decision to level forests, drain wetlands and tap the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya that fed the Aral Sea (now shrunken by 90 percent), turning Central Asia into the world’s largest cotton plantation.

The authors describe their first visit to Qaraqalpaqstan in 1996 as ‘a complete disaster’, a journey made in decrepit buses and marked by stays in severely unpleasant Soviet-style hotels accompanied by food poisoning. The Richardsons came primarily to examine the ethnographic collection at the Savitsky Museum in Nukus, but were thwarted by the fumigation for moth infestation that closed both of the museum’s dilapidated buildings.

Undeterred, they returned in 1999 to view the museum’s holdings of costume and yurt decorations. The Richardsons were intrigued by the textiles and other materials, and began a full-time research project investigating all aspects of Qaraqalpaq material culture and history. They found Qaraqalpaq culture poorly represented in English-language publications, and set out to create this exhaustive work, a task of ten years’ duration.

The Richardsons’ goal was to ‘present [the Qaraqalpaqs’] vibrant culture to the Western world on a more scientific footing’. They studied the available sources, translating texts from Qaraqalpaq, Russian, French, German and Turkish and creating a useful ten-page bibliography. They also made regular trips to Qaraqalpaqstan ‘to visit every town and hamlet’. They spent considerable time in Central Asian museums and established connections with academics. Along the way, the authors built a large personal collection of Qaraqalpaq weavings, placing particular emphasis on acquiring pieces with known dates of manufacture or history of ownership.

Most of the people who purchase this book will do so to read the authors’ exhaustive study of Qaraqalpaq textiles, the art for which the Qaraqalpaqs are best known and admired. Many readers will therefore find my criticism of the authors’ approach to history irrelevant. I apologise to these readers, and suggest they skip the first half of this review as it pertains more to the Richardsons’ flawed approach to written sources than to their fieldwork. Textile scholarship worthy of the name cannot exist without a well-founded understanding of the history, economy, social structure, social, familial and communal and religious lives of the textile-making people in question. I suspect that the Richardsons share this belief: they have certainly attempted to provide the reader with a good deal of background.

Nevertheless, the authors’ good intentions are undermined by their selective reliance on early travel accounts and the writings of Soviet-period ethnographers and historians. There are two distorting strands in Soviet ethnographic writing. The first is overt Marxism; the other is Orientalism, with the attendant idea that the Islamic world is backward and unchanging, and that only outside influences from the West could spur progress. This latter thread winds through a great many books on textiles. Regrettably, the Richardsons have failed to take advantage of the post-Soviet opening of archives as well as many excellent recent books in Central Asian studies.1 The result is a distorted view of Qaraqalpaq history, ethnology and social organisation that is all the more distressing precisely because the book is extraordinarily good in other ways. There is a danger that the authors’ mistaken general views will be accepted simply because they are surrounded by so much valuable detail.

Detail of Karaqalpak embroidery, 19th century

Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta is divided into four separate sections. Book 1 is an introduction to the origins, history and environment of the Qaraqalpaqs; it includes subjects as disparate as origin myths, Qaraqalpaq DNA, superstitions and religious beliefs.

The Richardsons begin telling the history of the Qaraqalpaq region with a litany of carnage that predates the existence of the Qaraqalpaqs as a distinct people. They provide a political overview of Turko-Mongol Central Asia without cultural content, beginning with Chinggis Khan in the 13thcentury (massacre), Timur/Tamerlane in the 14thcentury (plague and internecine warfare) as well as the 15th (political chaos and the rise of the Uzbeks).

Like other, smaller Turkic ethnicities, the Qaraqalpaqs were formed from earlier tribal aggregations of the steppe in the 16thcentury. As a people they played no part in this earlier history. Although early references are scanty, the Qaraqalpaqs appear first as participants in brief alliances with the Kazakhs and other groups, active as brigands and ranging widely through the lands surrounding the Aral Sea. According to the authors, people called ‘Qaraqalpaq’ may be found from Afghanistan to as far away as Mongolia. The Qaraqalpaqs shared common tribal names with Uzbeks: Mangit, Kungrat, Keneges, Qitay. While Qaraqalpaq and Uzbek subgroups of the same name often lived alongside one another, their relationship is not clear. Though the Qaraqalpaqs have many affinities with Uzbeks, the authors assert that the Qaraqalpaqs differed by being ‘riverine and semi-settled whereas the Uzbek were nomadic’ – an over-generalisation. Certainly the Qaraqalpaqs took part in a whole range of regional economic activities, trying their hands at agriculture but focusing on raising livestock and herding.

The Qaraqalpaqs never achieved a truly dominant position even in their little corner of Central Asia. For example, during the mid-18thcentury they attempted to negotiate with Russia for ‘citizenship’, hoping to obtain trade privileges in exchange for the release of Russian slaves. (One account holds that as many as 1,000 Russian women and children were kidnapped by the Qaraqalpaqs in 1742.) The attempt had ruinous consequences. The Qaraqalpaqs’ claim that ‘Russian citizenship’ excused them from their yearly tribute to the Kazakhs resulted in attacks in which they were massacred, and their cattle seized.2

By the early 19thcentury an unsuccessful Qaraqalpaq rebellion against the then-dominant Khivan Khans ended with their resettlement in the ‘badlands’ of the Aral Sea delta. Those Qaraqalpaqs who had sided with the Khivans were merely relegated to the better of the badlands, while those who resisted were placed in the worst areas.

The authors compare the oppression of the Qaraqalpaqs by fellow Central Asian tribes to the allegedly more benevolent rule by Russians and then Soviets in the late 19thand 20thcenturies. They claim that the dominant Khivans forced ‘enslaved’ Qaraqalpaqs to dig canals, pay high taxes and serve in the army, while Turkmen raided Qaraqalpaq settlements, stole their cattle and even sold them as slaves in Persia.3 Although one member of an 1858 diplomatic mission described some Qaraqalpaqs as being ‘in a prosperous condition’, another refers to:

… these unhappy people, exhausted by labour and by deficiencies and oppressed by the officials of the Khivan Khan, hardly covered by rags in their decrepit clothing – they represent the living picture of misery. (V. Shenurin, Plavanie Aralskoi flotilla v 1858 i 1859 godakh, Morsky Sbornik LIII/5, 1861, p.127.)


At the present day the Karakalpaks are among the poorest of the Turkestan races, and the occupation of the Amu district by Russia can scarcely fail to benefit them very materially [a sentiment with which the authors seem to agree]. (See Major Herbert Wood, The Shores of the Aral, London, 1876, pp.190–1.)

There is an old Uzbek saying: ‘Better to be a dog in a Kazakh encampment than the youngest brother in an Uzbek family.’ The authors’ political and social analysis appears to rest on the analogous proposal that the Qaraqalpaqs are better off as ‘dogs’ in the Russian or Soviet camp than as the youngest and weakest ‘brothers’ in the Uzbek family.

The authors view the Qaraqalpaqs as a special case in which Russian colonialism was a positive development, and argue that they must be considered separately from their neighbours.

The material culture of the Qaraqalpaqs suffered dreadfully under the Khivan Uzbeks and was only saved thanks to the timely intervention of the Russians. It enjoyed a strong revival from the end of the 19th century up to the onset of full collectivisation, and the majority of the items in museums and private collections today date from this period, especially the most productive years between 1910 and the early 1930s.

The authors take the position that, until the early 20thcentury, most Qaraqalpaqs lived a subsistence existence and did not produce anything of value. Any art was made for the elite. This perspective does not take into account the fact that the years between 1910 and the early 1930s are among the darkest periods in Central Asian history. War, famine, the loss of herds, forced collectivisation and severe political repression are hardly ingredients for cultural revival.

Perhaps the authors are correct, and there was almost no widespread Qaraqalpaq artistic culture before the late 19thcentury; but this idea runs counter to the broad critical consensus that the quality of textiles and other essential forms of Central Asian material culture declined after the establishment of Russian colonial rule and particularly after the 1890s. At that time, vibrant natural dyes were supplanted by less harmonious synthetic colours and the highly inventive, fluid patterns of earlier times became stiff and repetitive.

The book’s premise is that Russian colonisation granted the Qaraqalpaqs stability and freedom from oppression by their neighbours for the first time, thus giving them the ability to develop a distinct cultural aesthetic. The authors feel that the Qaraqalpaqs were held back not only by their predatory Khivan neighbours but also by their own religious and tribal leaders, who were furthermore a drain on the struggling Qaraqalpaq underclass. Once freed from the burden of taxation and exploitation by their own society, ordinary Qaraqalpaqs rose above mere subsistence, able (according to the authors) to afford cheap Russian trade cloth for the first time. For the authors, 1910–30 is the richest period of textile production, and the 1970s constituted a ‘Golden Age’ whereby Qaraqalpaq families obtained Soviet-style apartments and a few even owned a car. In other words, the more the Qaraqalpaqs surrendered their culture, the more they benefited materially.

By 1884 some Qaraqalpaqs were abandoning their yurts and cattle and swimming across the Amu Darya to seek Russian citizenship. (A Report to the Governor-General of Turkestan, 25 April 1884, Tatyana Alexandrovna Zhdanko, Ocherki istoricheskoy etnografi karakalpakov, Trudy Instituta Etnografia im. N. N. Miklukho-Maklaya, Novaya Seriya, vol ix, Moskow-Leningrad, 1950, p.155)

This ludicrous skewing of political history fails even to consider the possibility that self-rule by Central Asians might be preferable to foreign political domination and the resulting violent suppression of indigenous political and social organisations, destruction of sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry across Central Asia, and deliberate denigration of religion, language and other aspects of traditional culture.

The authors reiterate the politically motivated Soviet line that Islam was a ‘thin veneer’ over older, primitive beliefs. They cover the subject of Islam in Qaraqalpaq society in three brisk paragraphs that don’t even mention religious practice. Religion is either trivialised or deemed the reactionary tool of a wealthy religious aristocracy. The Young Khivans, a progressive political group that attempted to introduce modern reforms, are described as ‘conservative Jadidists who sought the introduction of Muslim rule’, rightfully removed from power by Bolshevik forces. (The only photograph of religious activity is from a stage play.)

The book’s regional history is similarly distorted. The Khivan Khan, Sayyid Muhammad Rahim Badur II, is portrayed as a medieval-style bully who rebuffed a treaty of friendship offered by the ‘enlightened’ Russian Governor-General Konstantin P. von Kaufmann. In fact, readers might be surprised to learn that the Khan is a hero in today’s Khwarezm. Although Khiva was isolated, even for the region, the Khan was an open-minded ruler for his time, a patron of the arts who sponsored the first system of musical notation in Central Asia. In 1874, the Khan imported one of the first lithographic printing presses in Central Asia and embarked on an ambitious publication project, printing historical accounts and poetry – including some of his own. He promoted the work of the court historian Bayani, whose alternative account of the Russian attack on Khiva seems not to have been considered by the Richardsons. The Khan’s library was one of the greatest in Central Asia (until it was looted by von Kaufmann’s army), and was open to all scholars and students, including Russians. The Khivans maintained an archive and even a rough census, which was also taken by the Russians.4

By reducing Central Asian history to a struggle between well-meaning Russians and venal local rulers, the authors obscure the complexity of the late 19th-century history. Certainly, the Khivans repressed Qaraqalpaq rebellions, sometimes with great brutality. The Russians engaged in punitive expeditions for the same reasons. The infamous General Skobelev, who ordered the massacre of thousands of Tekke Turkmen men, women and children after the surrender of Geok Tepe, explained in a letter to Lord Curzon: ‘I hold it as a principle that in Asia the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy.’

The Russian conquest of Central Asia was not inspired by disinterested benevolence. Russian authorities levelled Central Asian villages suspected of resistance, rebuilt them and turned them over to Russian settlers. The Qaraqalpaqs did benefit briefly from Russian pacification of the countryside but were unable to move from the Aral Sea badlands. The best land was reserved for the hundreds of thousands of settlers who poured in from Russia and the Ukraine and pushed nomads from their traditional pastures.

Fabrics and Weaving

In the remaining three books, however, the reader can truly appreciate Qaraqalpaqs of the Aral Delta as an exhaustive catalogue of virtually the whole of Qaraqalpaq material culture. Unlike many Western authors on textiles, who rely on a narrow connoisseurship, the Richardsons have adopted an inclusive, democratic approach to the arts of the Qaraqalpaqs.

The authors begin with a discussion of locally available raw materials, including a well-documented chapter on natural dyes. There were few sheep, horses or camels in the Aral region. Only goats and cattle could survive the swarms of mosquitoes and gadflies that bred in the marshlands and made life miserable from spring to autumn. The Qaraqalpaqs were dependent upon the neighbouring Qazaq for most of their camel- and sheep’s wool. The marshes were a rich source of plant fibres that were used to make yurt screens, mats, sacks, fishing nets and rope. Silk was produced in small quantities but was used only for embroidery, never woven. The few silk fabrics possessed by Qaraqalpaqs came mostly from Khiva.

There is an exhaustive study of the various Qaraqalpaq weaving practices. Textile weaving on both the traditional o’rmek and qozaq looms is minutely described and illustrated using archival and modern photographs. The authors combed through early travellers’ accounts for any documentation of weaving. They are intimately familiar with weaving technology and provide lucid explanations of confusing and intricate processes. The looms and tools involved in weaving are identified by their use and their Qaraqalpaq names. The book lists Qaraqalpaq words for weaving techniques, looms and materials, which are almost identical to Uzbek, Persian (Tajik) and Qazaq terms, demonstrating shared traditions among these groups.

Alasha-polishers in workshop in Shımbay, Karakalpakstan. The friction caused by the constant movement of the head, in this case wooden but usually glass or stone, was an important part of the ikat-glazing process. QRSM KK 8336

Connoisseurs might be tempted to skip the chapter on locally woven textiles and move onto the sections on ikat, embroidery and carpets. Although the fabrics are humble (plain woven b’oz, striped alasha and fine camel-wool shal), the descriptions are interesting and based on thorough historical research and good technical analysis. The book contains two hitherto unpublished archival photographs of alacha polishers, along with photographs of polishing heads – the best illustration of the process I have seen.


The authors’ case for 19th- to early-20th-century indigenous Khivan ikat production is poorly supported. It appears to rest on travellers’ accounts mentioning that Jews wove ‘half silk stuffs’ or were dyers. In support, the authors briefly quote J. A. MacGahan, who took a keen interest in textiles. What MacGahan stated in full was:

Those wonderful masses of form and colour (that in the sunshine seem to glow and burn with their own light) for which the weavers of Bukhara and Kokan are so renowned are unknown here. Simple stripes of red, yellow, purple and brown, is as far as they have attained in arrangement of colour. (J. A. MacGahan, Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva, 1874, p.313.)

MacGahan makes no mention of Jews and, in any case, the presence of Jewish dyers ought not to lead to a presumption that there was ikat manufacture.5 The Richardsons identify a particular toothpaste-blue-green colour and an ikat pattern with horn or leaf-like forms rising from a central stem as a Khivan ikat style. If these are Khivan, for which there is no substantive evidence, then identical ikats were made widely in the Ferghana Valley region at the same time – and it is known that this style of ikat was exported from the Ferghana Valley to other parts of Central Asia. An illustration of a common type of ikat fabric chapan misidentifies its all-silk shahi ikat as cotton-wefted adras (p.133).


Embroideries are the best-known of the Qaraqalpaq textile arts. They were largely unavailable in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union, when hundreds of embroidered bags and costumes first appeared on the Istanbul market. Many were often represented by textile dealers as Chodor Turkmen or Uzbek embroidery. One item of costume had such an individual form that it maintained its Qaraqalpaq identity: the women’s kiymeshek. Kiymesheks combine an angled cowl that covers the chest and frames the face within a U-shaped opening, with a diamond-shaped cloak that covers the wearer’s back, the tip often extending to the ankles. The front is heavily embroidered in chain stitch, sometimes combined with cross-stitch on a qizil (red) wool backing. The back was usually of adras (silk warp-/cotton-wefted ikat) with an embroidered trim. When worn with the elaborate Qaraqalpaq headdress, the effect is striking.

Soviet writers trace the kiymeshek’s origins back to pre-Islamic Sogdia and Khwarezm, but the authors wisely reject this typically Soviet preference for pre-Islamic origins; instead, they favour a 19th-century dating. They believe the original kiymesheks were made from coarse white cotton and embroidered in cross-stitch, known as aq (white) kiymeschek. They quote a comment by the traveller Ármin Vámbéry in 1863 that ‘the women have a cape like a cloak round the throat’ and assume this was a white kiymeshek, as ‘woolen broadcloth would have been expensive and difficult to access prior to Russian annexation’. They also feel that the rarity and poor condition of surviving white kiymesheks indicate their greater age, and that red-ground kiymsheks date from only the 1880s, when the blessings of Russian administration enabled the Qaraqalpaqs to afford the imported red trade cloth.

Fine mu’yiz nag’is or overhead mantle, Karakalpak, with ikat lining. QSMA 25454

The authors rely on the 1960‒80s fieldwork of Soviet researcher Nina Lobacheva to support the somewhat contradictory arguments that white aq kiyimsheks were worn by women 60 years or older and that they may have been made by the bride as a gift for her mother-in-law (who would reasonably be much younger than 60). The authors also agree with Lobacheva that the white aq kiymeshek was originally a bridal costume but that, after red broadcloth appeared in the late 19th century, the white kiymeshek became the festival costume of the elderly. This account of the precipitate abandonment of traditional bridal costume is confusing and not very convincing, especially since there is a long tradition of red costume being associated with young women’s wear and white costume for aged women throughout Turkic Central Asia. This supposition is based on conjecture drawn from Soviet ethnographic writing. This appears to be a missed opportunity for field research, since although the kiymeshek has not been worn since the 1940s, some elderly sources should remain.

Rare complete Karakalpak aq kiyemeshek, early 20th century. Richardson collection.

Such quibbles aside, the chapter on the kiymeshek is invaluable for its publication of a large group of dated, provenanced examples, some even including the name of the embroiderer. Many illustrated kiymesheks were collected in the field by the Richardsons, others come from museum collections. All major design types are named and identified as to rarity.

One of the rarest types of Qaraqalpaq costume is the ko’k ko’ylek (literally: ‘blue dress’). These elegant garments are decorated with cross-stitch embroidery on an indigo-dyed cloth. They have colours and designs very different from those of the kiymeshek. Five of the seven known dresses in formerly Soviet museums are published here; all date to the early 20th century, though their manufacture may go as far back as the 18thcentury.

Dress, ko’k ko’ylek, Karakalpak, ca. 1910. QSMA 6372

A related garment, the aq jegde, is long coat with false sleeves tied in the back. Like the k’ok ko’ylek, it also has cross-stitch embroidery, though the patterns are very spare. These strongly resemble the Uzbek paranja in form: a long, coat-like garment worn as a cape atop the head, sometimes with a veil covering the face. This is the garment that the authors acknowledge may have demonstrated Muslim costume traditions, as it would allow a woman ‘to go outside the home unveiled, retaining some modesty by using one side of the cloak to shield her face from male onlookers’.6

For the Qaraqalpaqs as for others, commercial embroidery-work brought women a degree of financial independence. A Qaraqalpaq saying – ‘If you start at the age of seven you will be in time, if you start at the age of six you will be wealthy’ – indicates the importance of embroidery skills as a source of income as well as prestige. A number of the embroideries in the book are described as having been made for commerce. The authors collected names of women known for making embroidered costumes for sale. Many of the white aq kiymeshek and jegde coats have the rote and mechanical treatment of design associated with commercial production. Others (though there are few in the book) are veritable masterpieces of embroidery, such as the aq jegde coat on page 216. The embroidery on this coat is a free-flowing arrangement of dozens of different designs that has a verve and fluency lacking in most of the embroideries in the book.

White woman’s mantle, aq jegde, decortated with pictorial embroidery, Qarakalpak, early 20th century. QRSM

The authors state that the Qaraqalpaqs are ‘unique among the western Central Asians in having a strong legacy of both cross-stitch and chain-stitch embroidery’, as compared with the Khwarezmian Uzbeks whose main tradition was couched gold-thread embroidery. It is my experience that all the Dashti Qipchak Uzbek groups were masters of both chain and cross-stitch embroidery. I also do not know what the authors mean by ‘a strong legacy’ when there are so few early Qaraqalpaq embroideries on which to base a chronology.

The reader may find it difficult to engage visually with the examples of kiymesheks in the book, in part because they are presented in images too small to have impact. Intact pieces are shown with front folded upside down over the back section and the designer has trimmed costume elements to fit photographs into the page spreads. I am aware how difficult book designers can be, but it would have been better to have shown fewer pieces on a larger scale.


Qaraqalpaq jewellery is said by the authors to be ‘more varied than that of the Turkmen or Qazaqs’. This is a bold statement, especially with respect to Turkmen jewellery, of which the range of forms and styles is vast. Judging by what is shown in the book, Qaraqalpaq jewellery is actually very limited in form, and is some of the most crudely made in all of Central Asia. While Qaraqalpaq jewellery resembles Turkmen jewellery in its use of carnelian set on gilded silver, it lacks the elegance and technical polish of the Turkmen wares. Nevertheless, the authors do a fine job of thoroughly discussing all known jewellery types and provide numerous citations from sources making this section too an important resource for the student of Qaraqalpaq art.


The fourth and final book, ‘Dwellings and Furnishings’, contains descriptions of Qaraqalpaq tents (and then houses) from the 19th century to the present day. Textile-focused readers may skip the sections on ‘The Soviet Farm Collective’ and ‘Urban Planning and the Soviet Apartment’ to reach the long section on the manufacture of yurts and their furnishings. The authors have done an excellent job of describing all types of Qaraqalpaq rug weaving, and provide reliably dated and attributed examples of tent bags, bands and piled carpets.

Karakalpak pile bag face, early 20th century, using a motif commonly found on Yomut weavings. USMH 45-47

I particularly looked forward to this section because there are longstanding gaps in the documentation and study of Qaraqalpaq pile carpets. The earliest publications of pile weavings were two carpets included in the 1909 catalogue of the collection of Governor-General A. A. Bogolyubov. Two years later, the Soviet Orientalist Aleksandr Semenov questioned the Bogolyubov’s attribution, stating that they ‘did not represent the most common “Karakalpak” carpets’ – although he declined to describe what common Qaraqalpaq rugs looked like. (Not much has changed in the rug world in the past 100 years.) In 1946, the ethnographer V. G. Moshkova identified one of the Bogolyubov carpets as Uzbek Turkmen, a finding independently confirmed years later by Dr Jon Thompson in his fieldwork in the area. The other carpet in the Bogolyubov collection is still unidentified but no longer thought to be Qaraqalpaq.

So what are Qaraqalpaq rugs? According to the authors, the most traditional and common Qaraqalpaq pile weavings are small bag faces, symmetrically knotted with goat-hair warps and camel-hair wefts, and typically woven on a narrow o’rmek loom, the weaving orientated from side to side. A few larger carpets have asymmetrical knots, one bag face has both, and one large carpet was woven by a man. The manufacture of larger pile carpets came in the late-19th century when, under the influence of the Turkmen, Qaraqalpaqs adopted the use of the horizontal loom.

The authors state that the Qaraqalpaqs are eclectic in their designs, but I could not identify a single carpet design that was unique to them. Many of the weavings shown appear identical to Uzbek, Turkmen and Kyrgyz bagfaces; they are consistent only in their inconsistency and their highly derivative patterns and design. There is nothing that unites them as a group. The authors believe that the manufacture of large pile carpets began only in the mid-19thcentury. The assimilation of large carpet weaving into widespread practice was ‘interrupted’ by collectivisation in the early 1930s, resulting in ‘a confusing mess of half-and-half designs and variety of weaving structures’. While the carpets’ Qaraqalpaq provenance is of interest, few of the illustrated carpets will appeal to connoisseurs who would be put off by the murky, sometimes faded colours and compressed designs. It is unfortunate that more interesting examples from Western collections were not included.

Wealthy Karakalpak married woman wearing a silk mantle, jipek jegde, and other traditional clothing. Melkov 1928-29, RAS 4076-157


This book would have been enriched by the inclusion of more Qaraqalpaq voices. The 19th-century national poet Berdaq gets only a few lines, Qaraqalpaq epic poetry is critically dissected without a single excerpt and important later writers such as Aral Sea activist Tuepbergen Kaipbergenov are not mentioned. Almost every Central Asian writer from the 1960s on has written about the Aral Sea crisis; it has become a potent symbol of national identity and the harms of Soviet callousness and injustice. Without these voices, it is too easy to imagine that the Qaraqalpaqs have passively accepted their collective disenfranchisement. It may seem a small point, but almost all the photographs are by Westerners, and there is only one photograph from the well-known Khivan court photographer Divanov (on page 447, but uncredited).

For whatever reason, the authors have chosen not to describe their field research, though it is undoubtedly reflected in their detailed cataloguing of all things Qaraqalpaq. Too much ethnographic information has been acquired third-hand, and too many statements by Soviet ethnologists are repeated unquestioned. For example, they write:

The astonishing feature of the traditional Qaraqalpaq wedding was that the young woman continued to live with her parents for up to three or perhaps even five years. While she remained in her village she remained relatively free to have liaisons with other young men … Sometimes the bride gave birth to a child fathered by someone other than her fiancé. This too was not considered abnormal and her child would probably be adopted by her father …

‘Astonishing’ is right. The authors also give an account of a party game in which a boy and girl engage in casual sex, and the Richardsons find no contradiction that, when bride-stealing took place, a girl was considered unmarriageable by anyone but her kidnapper. While it is common for young women to return to the family for several years after being wed as adolescents (and to spend that time engaged in making embroideries for the new home), premarital sex and promiscuity were not acceptable anywhere in Central Asia. It is extraordinary that the authors would accept such claims at face value.

On a final note, the book has no glossary or index, making it difficult to find specific terms or items quickly. If the reader wants to know what an irq’aq pattern executed in teris qayiw on the face of a shayqalta is, he must go through the text to find out. (Clue: a shayqalta is the same as the better known chai khalta ‒ the spelling is based upon written Qaraqalpaq).

The authors should be congratulated for the stellar work they have done in cataloguing Qaraqalpaq material culture. Without a doubt, this is a very valuable work. Yet throughout the book, the Qaraqalpaq experience is interpreted and mediated through other writers and ethnographers, almost none of whom are Qaraqalpaq. (Those who are, are Soviet-style academics.) While readers will find the Qaraqalpaq name for every tool and textile in the book, actual Qaraqalpaq voices are strangely absent. After ten years of research and despite its 400-plus pages on virtually every aspect of material culture, the book effectively contains no direct commentary by Qaraqalpaq people. The clock is ticking on opportunities for field research, because so many older inhabitants who recall the times of active textile production are passing away.

Yet this could also be one of the best times to engage with the history and ethnography of Central Asia: there is freedom to travel; archives have opened and long-hidden data is available; and young Central Asians, no longer forced into the false paradigms of Soviet scholarship, are more than ready to enter a dialogue with Western scholars and to take on the study of their own cultures themselves. Onward!



1  See, for example, Jeff Sahadeo, Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent, 2010, Kalpana Sahni, Crucifying the Orient, Russian Orientalism and the Colonization of Caucasus and Central Asia, White Orchid Press, Oslo and Bangkok, 1997.

2  At one time or another, almost every ethnic group in Central Asia attempted to strengthen its military position vis-à-vis its neighbours through an ‘alliance’ in which the group sought Russian citizenship. Various groups of Kazakhs sought Russian citizenship at times. The Tekke Turkomen sought to protect themselves from Russian forces by an alliance with Britain, when the journalist Edmond O’Donovan was ‘embedded’ with them at Merv, even hoisting a hastily stitched version of the Union Jack over his yurt. (Edmund O’Donovan, The Merv Oasis, N.Y., 1883.) The tactic never worked for any of the ethnic groups who attempted it, though one still sees these requests for citizenship as justification for Soviet claims that Russia never colonised Central Asia. At some point, virtually every group had ‘invited’ them in.

3  Why the Sunni Muslim Qaraqalpaqs were allegedly singled out for slavery and taken hundreds of miles to be sold in Shi‘i Muslim Persia by their fellow Sunni Turkmen tribesmen – which would have been an anomaly in the regular pattern of the Central Asian slave trade – is not explored by the authors. It should be noted that their ‘evidence’ for this trade is anecdotal and exclusively from Russian travel sources.

4  Surprisingly, Yuri Bregel’s 1967 study, Documents from the Archives of the Khans of Khiva Concerning the History and Ethnography of the Karakalpaks (in Russian) was not listed in the bibliography, although the authors do include an earlier study based on Khivan documents by P. P. Ivanov.

5  The Richardsons propose that the Jews in Khiva were chala, converts to Islam, ‘whose ancestors had escaped Shi‘i persecution in Persia only to be forcibly converted to Islam by fanatical Bukharans during the eighteenth century’. The other travellers’ accounts indicate that the supposed chala were Jews, since they wore typical Jewish costumes and engaged in ‘distilling brandy chiefly for their own consumption’. Had they actually been Muslim converts, this would have been a serious crime.

6  Although Douglas Northrop’s superlative book Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia (Cornell University, 2004) is listed in the bibliography, the authors do not seem to have absorbed the key role that veiling played as an anti-colonial symbol in early-2oth-century social developments and nationalist aspirations in Central Asia.





An In-Depth Category, C-14 dating if textiles, Caucasian carpets, Chinese & East Turkestan carpets, Chinese art, classical carpets, Indian carpets, Islamic textiles, kazak rugs, kazaks, Mamluk carpets, Musée Historique des Tissus, Museum collections, ottoman acrpets, Qaraqalpaq textikes, Safavid carpets, silk textiles, Spanish Carpets, Turkish carpets, Turkmen carpets, Victoria & Albert Museum

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