Afghan Rugs and Carpets: Rugs from Afghanistan

baluch kilim mixed technique
Baluch kilim, mixed technique, about 6 by 9 feet. By “mixed technique” we mean it was woven in a combination of flat-weave and knotting.

Afghan rugs are genuine, often charming — and usually phenomenally inexpensive.

At present, it is very hard to sort out which ‘Afghan’ rugs are actually made in Afghanistan, and which are made in Pakistan by Afghan refugees. At least a million Afghans, including hundreds of thousands of rug-weavers, fled Afghanistan during its war with the Soviet Union and subsequent civil war, settling especially in Pakistan and Iran. To my knowledge, very few rugs are shipped directly from Afghanistan to the United States or Europe today. Instead, most are transported to Pakistan, then shipped abroad. So both Afghan rugs made in Pakistan, and Afghan rugs made in Afghanistan, are shipped from Pakistan, often making it impossible to sort out where a particular Afghan rug is actually woven. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Presumably at some time many of the refugees will return to Afghanistan and resume rugmaking there. For the purposes of this discussion, we will assume that all rugs made by Afghans not known to have been produced elsewhere were made in Afghanistan.

Andraskan Afghan Rug
Andraskan Afghan rug, about 3 by 6 ft. Andraskands feature peculiar, elongated human and animal figures. Often their dyes bleed, so many of these rugs have been spoiled.

In relation to the West, most Afghan villages really are remote. They have been made even less accessible by incessant war. Consequently, Afghan weavers have not been subject to much pressure from Western markets to manufacture for Western tastes. Most Afghan weavers make rugs that are about the same as those they have woven for decades. That is the good news, and the bad: good because it is, after all, pleasing that some weavers have retained ties to their own traditions, but bad because the products of the past several decades to which weavers have remained faithful are far inferior to earlier weavings. I cannot say that weavers in Afghanistan have contributed greatly to the rug renaissance, but, goodness knows, that is understandable in light of the chaotic conditions brought on by the invasion of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and Afghanistan’s subsequent, interminable civil war. In any case, Afghan rugs are genuine, often charming — and usually phenomenally inexpensive.

afghan serapi pacific collection
This Serapi rug was woven and finished in Afghanistan by a small production called Pacific Collections. Natural dyes and handspun wool.

The quintessential Afghan rug of the past fifty years is a wool-on-wool product with a repeated octagonal figure (often inaccurately called elephant’s foot) on a red field. In the trade it is called simply Afghan or Dulatabad. Afghans are made by Turkmen weavers in northern Afghanistan. A hundred years ago the guls (as the octagonal figures are properly called) were large — often 16 inches wide in bigger rugs. Guls have become smaller over the years until today they most often are no more than several inches across. As the guls have shrunk, so has the range of colors in the rugs. Today most Afghans contain only two colors: a rather bright red and a blue so deep that it looks black. Still, Afghans have survived because they are basically so appealing. They are still popular with Afghan people, including the many who have emigrated to the West.

One of the most exotic and distinctive of all Oriental rugs is the Shindand or Adraskand (named after neighboring villages), woven near Harat in western Afghanistan. Strangely elongated human and animal figures are their signature look.

Another staple of Afghanistan is Baluchi rugs, most notably Baluchi prayer rugs. Made by Baluchi people, especially in western Afghanistan near Herat, Baluchi prayer rugs can be muddy-looking rugs of almost no merit, or charming little tribal pieces. Virtually all are made on wool foundations with synthetic dyes, and measure about 2′ 8″ by 4′ 7″. In recent years I have had occasion to look through container loads of five or six thousand pieces to pick out my favorite two hundred. The best have lustrous wool, good body, balanced color, stable dyes, and interesting designs. At around $200 each, they seem like great bargains to me.

Afghan war rug
Afghan war rug woven in 1992.

A new genre of rug has appeared in the past fifteen years: the Baluchi War Rug. These rugs, which may be nearly any dimension but are usually prayer-rug size, depict scenes from the everyday life of the Afghan people. Sadly, of late that means scenes involving fighter planes, helicopters, machine guns, troop transports, and the like.

We tend to think of Oriental rug design as locked in tradition, passed down from mother to daughter. Certainly everything about making rugs in the Middle East and Asia is conservative. Techniques and designs are slow to change, and no rugmaker is sitting beside her tent ‘doing her own thing’. But rug design is not static, cast in stone by some progenitor. Witness the war rugs. To me, the miracle of these pieces is that weavers are able to incorporate bizarre elements into them, such as machine guns, and still they still manage to look like Oriental rugs! But it must be said that most, and possibly all, are made with dyes and fabrics of doubtful quality.

Afghanistan has always produced an abundance of kilims (flat-woven rugs) and still does. It does seem, though, as if the diversity reaching the West is far less now than it was two decades ago. One type is produced in enormous quantity: the ubiquitous Maimana kilim from the north. Maimanas are sold in prodigious numbers in America, especially in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they resonate to the South West architecture and lifestyle. Maimanas are woven in a slit-tapestry weave, a type of kilim weaving that leaves characteristic small (up to three-quarters of an inch) gaps or slits between areas where one color leaves off and another begins. Their wool is rather coarse. In nearly thirty years I have seen only one that I was certain was made from natural dyes. They come in most sizes, though true 8 by 10s and 9 by 12s are rare. Maimanas are phenomenally inexpensive — from $6 to $10 per sq. ft. — but care should be taken in choosing them. At worst, they are murky-looking things with runny dyes, scratchy, lusterless wool, a loose weave, and areas of bright, clearly synthetic dye — and at the very worst they smell alarmingly of dung, presumably due to unwise choices in the finishing process. At best, they have good body, clear, harmonious color, good wool, and a pleasant aspect.

mauri silk rug detail

There is a small quantity of finely knotted rugs on silk foundations in the market, some with wool pile and others with silk. These are often called silk-warp Mauri rugs. I have known for years that these pieces are made in the capital city of Kabul in a workshop on Chicken Street, but only recently have I learned that they are (or at least were) made by Hazara weavers, and in particular by relatives of a gentleman well known and respected in Kabul: Haji Yusef. In 1985, the United Nations sponsored a natural dye project in Kabul and these rugs probably evolved from that project. One line of silk-warp Mauris is made in classic Turkmen Dulatabad designs with very small guls. Another line, usually with a silk pile as well as a silk foundation, is in designs that suggest the architecture of mosques. I see others whose designs are a mystery to me. They are often impressive rugs, but one must examine many of them to find one that is 100 percent pleasing.

Hundreds of Afghan immigrants living in the U.S. are involved in the Oriental rug business, and many frequent the Middle East in search of merchandise. Most buy rugs from the Pakistani camps and import them into America. A few are now involved in designing rugs themselves and commissioning them to be made in Pakistan. One such Afghan-American is Ahmad Ahmadi from Ariana Rugs and Kilims (not to be confused with Aryana Tribal Rugs) in Los Angeles. What is more unusual, Mr. Ahmadi has successfully commissioned rugs made in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was surprised when he showed me a good-looking Ushak-like carpet that he produced there.

This is the first I have heard of new-era rugs being made in Afghanistan. I can only assume that such production will be sporadic until conditions in Afghanistan improve. Even before the dust from American bunker bombs had settled, Afghan refugees began abandoning immigrant camps in Pakistan to return home, but much of the Afghan infrastructure has been destroyed. There are only poor roads to bring rugs to market. There is insufficient water to wash rugs with. There are no buildings in which to weave carpets longer than about twelve feet. Real estate is terribly expensive. Essentially there is no air industry for business travel or for exporting carpets. Moreover, living in Afghanistan is dangerous. Nearly every day innocent people get shot, not only in the counryside, but in the cities as well.

Afghan rug IM International
A 9 by 12 ft rug from I.M. International. A few years ago we would have assumed this was made by Afghans in Pakistan. Now it is nearly as likely to have been made in Afghanistan.

Thousands have turned around and made their way back to the Pakistani camps, which are at least stable. The rug industry there, which had been shattered by the loss of Afghan weavers, is recovering. Other Afghans are remaining in Afghanistan and doing the best they can to establish rug productions. They manage. Some weave rugs in Afghanistan and truck them to Pakistan for finishing and for export. Having to cross a border with rugs creates other problems. One friend of ours had had 500 rugs seized at the border, and he will no doubt be regularly shaken down for ‘baksheesh.’

I think there is a lesson for us in this difficult situation. Oriental rugs are made, not born. We shouldn’t take them for granted. It often seems to me a miracle that they are woven at all and find their way to our floors.

74 Comments

  1. generic user icon
    Jim October 21, 2012

    Hi all,

    I’m considering purchasing a wool traditional Afghan rug. In some places, I’ve read that the fringe should tie directly into the rug without any area in between. In some photos of high quality rugs and in some tutorials, there is an inch or two of wool between the fringe and the weaving…seems to be the bottom of the mat on which the rug is woven. Please advise if this is an indicator of poor quality or it is simply part of the traditional design.

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    Richard November 16, 2012

    Jim,
    Many tribes in Afghanistan add an embellishment at the end of their carpets. Sometimes this is a flat weave of kilim or Soumak. This end finish is very desirable. I think what you are talking about is machine made carpets where the fringe is just sewn into the end of the carpet. If you do a Google image search of **fringe on machine made carpet** you should get the picture .

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    Carrie November 17, 2012

    My father has been in afghanistan for 7 years now and he is finally home for good. He brought home 4 of these afghanistan rugs and he wants to sell them. He says they are worth 400-1000 dollars a piece… wanted to know if anyone knows where I can sell them for him and get a decent amount? Thanks!

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    Albert November 19, 2012

    I’m currently in Afhanistan and I’m very interesting in purchasing a couple of rugs. I’m currently negotiating the price for 2 rugs(started at$1100).Now, I find it extremely suspicious how the bazaar dealer knocked-off $300 after 2 days of negotiating the price.Can I e-mail you the rug pics with dimensions?thanks

  5. generic user icon
    Albert November 19, 2012

    Maybe you can give me an estimated fair value for the 2 rugs I’m currently looking at purchasing.

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    marj November 28, 2012

    i have a afganistan 25/49 w/4 camels and ababy w/ aboy w/tassales bought in 1985? it looks like camel hair maybe.my email address is mmpurcella@yahoo.com how much

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    Jon December 17, 2012

    I’m in Afghanistan right now and I bought a rug I was told it is 100% silk I’m a little skeptical and hope I didn’t over pay. How can I confirm it is silk without burning or bleaching it?

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    Patricia February 22, 2013

    Hello,
    I too am currenly in Afghanistan and would like to purchase a carpet (or two) to take home. I have read all the entries and hoped you could tell me what kinds of questions I should ask the shop keepers to try to determine if they are authentic. My only access is to those shops that are on the military base. Thank you.

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    Iren April 21, 2013

    I’m trying to find information about a wool blanket from the Kandahar Woolen Factory. Mostly trying to place the age of it. The tag, mostly in Farsi, is black with gold letters about 2×1.5 inches says, “Kandahar woolen Factory and had the picture of a goat on the left bottom. Any info would be much appreciated.

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    MSG Cartledge July 23, 2013

    I am a soldier currently in western afghanistan, Shindand to be exact. I have befriend an interpreter and he has picked me up several types of afghan rugs , bags and Kilims and 1 kazak prayer rug abou 40 years old in great shape, I am now trying to get some camel neck bands, saddle bags, flank decorations and salt bags, all of wich I want to be semi antique or antique., also tent bands and jailers. What are your thoughts on these items, and I would like to send you pics and get Your thoughts on my current purchases. Thanks, take care!

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    Toni January 16, 2014

    I have afghan elephant paw design 5 by 8 good condition can you give me value the rug was brought in Bahrain or Pakistan in the 90’s it is 100% wool pile believed to be about 40 to 50 years old
    Tfufla2@yahoo.com

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    suhrob February 16, 2014

    hi, to answer some questions, yes there is no afghan silk carpets. most vendors just say what ever so you buy it. always buy from reputable vendors. best afghan carpet is the red small octegon shape called khoja roshnaii. the best is type of that is foladi type. people often only think of knots per inch. but also see if the lines are straight on all sides of the carpet or it is a perfect square or rectangle. also take a white fabric, wet it with your tongue and run it across the carpet. if you see color, then the rug has been painted. move on. afghan carpets range from $80 per meter to $400 per meter which is khoja roshnaii’s folaadi type. a 2×3 meter carpet is a 6 meter carpet. depending on quality it shoudl ran from $80×6=$480 to $4800. you can find bargains but these are the normal ranges. need more info or recommendation contact suhrob@aol.com

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    suhrob February 16, 2014

    also, there are very few old carpets left. they are all new. old carpets if they are best quality fly out to western countries to fetch higher prices. do not believe when they say it is old!!! btw, 6 meter carpet above should be $480 – $2400 not $4800. sorry. also, best kilim is the Herati Maliki kilim. you know it is different just by looking at it. if you are not convinced it is beautiful, it is not Maliki. also, be careful of people who want to help you. they get their own cut and give you crap. BUY FROM REPUTABLE VENDORS! if they don’t have a bill or receipt that does not describe the carpet you just bought and does not have further information on the bill they are NOT a reputable place.

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    William McKenty April 30, 2014

    I was in Kandahar for two years as a home base, being a geologist I was all over the southern part of the country.

    KAF as it’s known, has a famous boardwalk replete with hockey, basketball and both styles of football.

    The best shop for rugs was/is United Afgan Rugs Ltd. I like rugs, the more ragged the better. I have something like 8 rugs and became good friends with the owner Jahan. His whole staff were/are just the greatest people. I bought actually, hundreds of rugs…. rug coasters, presents for the family. email address…. united_afghan_carpet.ltd@hotmail.com and jan_kaf@yahoo

    There was a wool shortage when i was there. I have rugs made in mazar sharif using belgian wool, one a large elephant footprint rug. i love killem (sp?) which are typically from Herat. I spent alot of time with the boys, dined with them, they taught me pashto and i helped with their english, and i play music for them, live….

    all i can say is i miss them and would recommend them highly, especially in terms of trust.

    names, Omar, Mohamed, ALI, Dor Mohameed, sadeek who works the fabric store next door is a great man! Jahan owns that store as well as others and he was nicknamed The Donald Trump of KAF, even though he never understood who the donald was… lol

    i can be reached at bil@mckenty.us

    douk dey pa haman

    bil

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    Shreedevi Nair-Pal June 27, 2014

    I have two two rugs, both with midnight blue backrounds and animal and bird figures done in camel, brick etc. Where in jAfghanistan would they be from? Could I send you photographs so that you can tell where they were made.
    I bought them in Pakistan as second hand rugs and I love them, but would love to more about them.

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    april December 21, 2014

    Can you appraise these your best guess
    amation

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    Ashish March 8, 2015

    HI,
    I bought an Afghani carpet last year, the seller told me it’s a Chobi carpet with vegetable dies and zegler design, the size is 5″ x 7″ now a couple of days back my 3 yrs old dropped glass of water on it and I realised that blue color and red color have started bleeding and discoloured the off white color. Can you please advise on this as in future what all I should do and can you suggest any treatment, my email address is ashish.sharma@irppl.com

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    MJ August 5, 2015

    I m from Pakistan. A country that is providing home, citizenship, social life, food, business, community and security to many afghans. I have lived in Afghanistan for a year and me, my husband n daughter love kabul. We have a khawaja roshnai rug which was given to us as a gift and we love it. Produced in Afghanistan or Pakistan, everyone knows its afghan carpet as baloch rugs are an art of balochi people (who live in Baluchistan province of Pakistan). A brother from Afghanistan said that Pakistan is getting appreciation for nothing. They r mere carpets and afghans should never forget the non material and material benefits that they owe to Pakistan and Pakistanis. If u r alive, you can produce a rug and weave ‘made in Afghanistan’ behind it. Sorry its not too relevant but I thought I should let the world know how afghans r welcomed here and how their art is appreciated in Pakistan.

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    Brahvi January 28, 2016

    No matter what country the Afghani carpets and rugs are produced in(by Afghanis ofcourse)A collector will always know the difference between an Afghani and a Pakistani carpet.

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    Carpet Expert June 17, 2016

    it is difficult to vary Afghan or Pakistan made carpet, when ever you find carpet made in Pakistan it is carpet weaved by Afghans living in Pakistan or Weaved by Pakistani people who is trained by Afghans. In simple; Afghans are weavers of carpet in both countries but thanks to Pakistan made this industry popular around the world.

    The real inventor of Carpet is Turkmen girl called “Halii” therefore carpet is called in Turkmen language “Khali” خالی.

  21. generic user icon
    Richard June 17, 2016

    Thank you for your post!

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    Mr. David Amadi August 27, 2016

    We are interested to import good quality rugs carpets and hope to read from interested suppliers directly to our email:olilienwuaru@gmail.com. Send the pictures of your rugs to our email box by acrobat format and prices C&F basis Nigeria.
    Mr. David Amadi

  23. generic user icon
    Nazar November 30, 2016

    Thank you Carpets Expert:
    You knew the exact history of afghan carpets Hali.

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    wr March 16, 2017

    For your information Pakistan does not have history of weaving rugs and it is Afghanistan with the best quality hand made rugs but not Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan does not provide anything for Afghanistan such as citizenship, social life, security or anything else and poor Afghans pay a lot of money just to live in nasty Pakistan.

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