Tomorrow’s Headlines?: Oil & Textiles in Daghestan
Kaitag Embroidery, Daghestan, 18th century, silk thread on cotton (photo courtesy Mehmet Çetinkaya Gallery)
I’m on a Central Asia kick these days and reading some first-rate contemporary “travel” writers who follow in the great 19th-century tradition of Westerners to the East. Last month, I dove into another of Robert Kaplan’s always-rewarding books; his latest, Eastward to Tartary (Tartary being the Victorian identification of the Turkic lands east of the Caspian to the River Oxus, now the Amu Darya, and the longest river in Central Asia). It’s limiting to categorize Kaplan as a travel writer. His insightful “reporting” on a variety of current events provoked by his travels belies the incredible historical and political education one gets as his reader.
On the surface, Tartary is the account of Kaplan’s 1998 journey throughthe many lands of the Byzantium and, later, the Ottoman Empire. We know them as the former Soviet bloc countries—e.g. Hungary, Bulgaria, etc.—and Central Asian republics (the “stans”), as well as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel). The book is anything but superficial. It is an eye-opening discourse on potential flashpoints across the region, where tribal peoples struggle to modernize into nation-states in the face of ancient animosities and a deficit of leadership. Until recently these places received little attention, but given their natural resources (we’re talking oil & gas here), their future might be, as Kaplan notes, “tomorrow’s news.” This prescient observation, noted while the author was in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, is worth quoting in its entirety:
“From what I learned over the next two weeks, I was left with the queasy apprehension that what Vietnam was to the 1960s and 1970s, what Lebanon and Afghanistan were to the 1980s, and what the Balkans were to the 1990s, the Caspian region might be to the first decade of the new century; an explosive region that draws in the Great Powers.”
And this statement near the end of the book had me rechecking the copyright on the book (it is 2000); to my mind it couldn’t have summed up our problem in Iraq any better:
“While there is no hatred so ingrained that it cannot be sedated by prosperity (as Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal once told me), the building of a middle class from a nation of peasants requires strong and wily leadership more than it may require elections.”
So, what does all of this have to do with embroidered panels from Daghestan? Maybe nothing or maybe a lot.
Daghestan is one of the former Soviet republics; now part of the Russian Federation. It sits on the Caspian Sea just north of Azerbaijan and east of Chechnya. It’s a mountainous country with southern flatlands but like a lot of its “stan” cousins, it’s extremely arid. Crops can only be cultivated through irrigation; thus, prior to the modern era, like most of the other Central Asian countries, Daghestan was populated principally by nomadic tribes, who mostly raised livestock. As was true of tribal peoples in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, the Daghestani ethnicities developed their own textile traditions. The Kaitegs (sometimes referred to as Kaytaks) were among the most prominent of tribes and it is their brightly-colored embroideries with anthropomorphic and primal shapes that gained favor among collectors in the West. Unlike the Uzbeki pieces, Kaitags use the embroideries only for ritual occasions—birth, marriage, death.
Based on the country’s strategic location, one can imagine that ethnically diverse peoples tramped through Daghestan; thus similaries in the embroidery can be drawn to the traditions of Persia, China, Turkey.
These beautiful works are in their own contradictory way both serene and fiercely alive. They belie the fact that post-break up Daghestan has had its fair share of troubles. It too struggles in ways not unlike the countries Kaplan visited. (For more detail, I refer you to the linkages below.)
Oh, and I forgot to mention that Daghestan has rich reserves of oil and natural gas.
Kaitag Embroidery, East Caucasus, 18th Century, silk threads on cotton ground (photo courtesy Sotheby’s).
J. Barry O’Connell spongobongo.com
Part II to follow: my thoughts on Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia.