Nomads and their culture in Iran and Kazakhstan

First a reminder that there are a LOT of talks about textiles coming up in the next ten days! Subjects include American Coverlets for Rug Lovers, Asia: Continuing Textile Tradition, Rugs of the Golden Triangle, Jain temple and shrine hangings, Asian Textiles in Portuguese Collections, and Kesa robes in Japan. Full details of all of these talks and links to register for them can be found in my previous blog.

Image courtesy of IMDB

Next Wednesday, 24 February, the London-based Oriental Rug and Textile Society (ORTS) will be screening a 1976 film entitled People of the Wind about Bakhtiari migrations. This film is a sequel to Grass, a classic silent film made in 1925 by three Americans who made their way across Turkey and Iraq to meet the Bakhtiari in their winter quarters and follow them and their flocks over swollen rivers and up over snow-covered mountain passes to reach their summer pastures.  Following the same route with descendants of the same people, People of the Wind shows what has changed and what has stayed the same over the intervening decades.

“There are two hundred miles of raging rivers and dangerous mountains to cross. There are no towns, no roads, no bridges. There is no turning back. The Bakhtiari migration is one of the most hazardous tests of human endurance known to mankind. Every year, 500,000 men, women and children – along with one million animals – struggle for eight gruelling weeks to scale the massive Zagros Mountains in Iran – a range which is as high as the Alps and as broad as Switzerland – to reach their summer pastures. The film’s astonishing widescreen photography and brilliantly recorded soundtrack take the viewer out onto the dangerous precipices of the Zardeh Kuh mountain and into the icy waters of the Cholbar River.” – Fiona Kelleghan.

Antony Wynn wearing elements of Bakhtiari dress

The film will be presented by Antony Wynn, author of Three Camels to Smyrna, who lived in rural Iran for many years. The film will be shown via a Zoom link at 1800 GMT. ORTS members will automatically receive a link. Non-members are also very welcome to view this and should send an email to receive their link to the event.

A short trailer for this Academy-award nominated documentary can be viewed here.

Spindle bag, ca. 1935. Western Iran, Bakhtiari tribe. ©Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 2017-18 the Metropolitan Museum held an exhibition on woven containers entitled Portable Storage: Tribal Weavings from the Collection of William and Inger Ginsberg.  This looked at the bags not only as textiles, but also how they are used, who made them, the techniques they used etc. The section on the tribes gives more information about the Bakhtiari (and others), as well as some great examples of their textiles.

Camel chest band (detail), Qashqa’i people. Collection of Fred Mushkat.

Those interested in learning more about the weavings of the nomadic peoples of Iran might be interested in signing up for this event hosted by the Textile Museum on 24 April at 11:00 EDT which is 16:00 in the UK. Fred Mushkat, author of Weavings of Nomads in Iran: Warp-faced Bands and Related Textiles, “will provide an introduction to these weavings, focusing on different warp-faced structures, how and why these structures were used, which nomads made them and how to distinguish one nomadic group’s work from another. ” – Textile Museum website.

A nomadic family during their migration. © Newsha Tavakolian

Why Iran’s nomads are fading away, with text by Thomas Erdbrink and wonderful photographs by Newsha Tavakolian, is a very thought-provoking article on the difficulties faced by Iranian nomads today.

There are over a million nomads in Iran, and for many years they have followed a traditional lifestyle which involved moving their animals along ancient routes to cool pastures in the Zagreb mountains every spring. Now many transport their belongings on trucks instead of horseback. The number of black tents being set up in the pastures is dwindling year on year as young people sell off their flocks and move to the towns. One of the main reasons for this change seems to be the desire for education. As one woman put it “I won’t let my daughters marry a nomad,” she said. “Our lifestyle is horrible. I want them to live in a city and study.” Do click through the slideshow near the beginning of the article for extra images and information.

Turning now to a different group of nomads, I found this interview with Alun Thomas, author of Nomads and Soviet Rule, Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin, fascinating. In his book Dr Thomas “shows how Soviet policy was informed by both an anti-colonial spirit and an imperialist impulse, by nationalism as well as communism, and above all by a lethal self-confidence in the Communist Party’s ability to transform the lives of nomads and harness the agricultural potential of their landscape.” I was particularly struck by his statement (in the interview) that “The nomadic tendency to migrate made some land seem unoccupied or under-utilized, but to nomads, this land was essential to their wellbeing. In contrast, the Soviet Union took its borders very seriously, but for nomads, these borders were trivial annoyances at best and obstacles to their survival at worst.” It reminded me of another book I read several years ago which lingered long in the memory.

That book was The Silent Steppe by Mukhamet Shayakhmetov. This autobiography traces the life of the author from a young boy as a Kazakh nomad under Stalin to middle age, and how his life changed when his father was blacklisted as a kulak. I remember being struck by his shock when he was told he could no longer attend school. A very good review of this book by Georgia de Chamberet can be found here.

 A group of women and children in a yurt. S.M. Dudin. 1899. Kazakhstan, Semipalatinsk Oblast (Saumal-kul). MAE RAS ©МАЭ РАН 2021

Finally, Voices on Central Asia has an interesting article by Snezhana Atanova entitled Along the Route of Samuil Dudin’s Expedition: Clothing, Yurt and Decorative-Applied Art of the Kazakhs of the late 19th Century. In it we get to understand more of the nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakhs – a lifestyle that was soon under threat with 48% of the livestock in Kazakhstan dying in the winter of 1931, and 1.2 million people dying of starvation in the great famine of 1932-34. There are some excellent photographs, showing many aspects of Kazakh material culture, to accompany the text.

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  1. Pingback: Textiles from Japan, Africa, Bolivia, Tibet, Iran…….. | Oxford Asian Textile Group blog

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