Venetian Red in Berlin: Ethnological Arts from Azerbaijan

By LIZ HAGER

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet, 19th century, silk, metallic thread

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet (detail)

Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, and social structure of the ethnic, racial and national divisions of humanity. Simply put, ethnologists interpret the output—whether language, artifacts, social customs—of various families of man.  By the mid-19th century, Europeans were captivated by the Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, both ancient and contemporary. So much so, that the term “Orientalist” was coined to describe the people who studied these cultures.

Though perhaps not as well-known as their English counterparts, German “Orientalists,” such as  Albert van Le Coq and his contemporaries were actively digging in the Sahara, the Levant and Chinese Turkistan. Like the British, they ultimately “liberated”  huge caches of artifacts from their resting places with the result that an exceptionally good collection of ethnologic art resides in Berlin.

For anyone with an interest in the tribal arts, a visit to the Ethnologisches Museum is a compulsory stop. Founded in 1873, the composite Museum (several separate collections have been merged under one roof) boasts over 500,000 artifacts, representing peoples from every continent, including North America, although only a fraction of the collection is on display at any given time. Still, the serious student could spend hours, if not days, properly absorbing it all.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that (for now) the Museum is located in Dahlem, an idyllic spot southwest of the city center, which has retained its leafy village origins, despite being within city limits. Or that Die Brücke, the Museum of the German Expressionist movement, is a short walk up the road.

Although on a pilgrimage specifically to see the Kizil Cave frescos, I nonetheless wound up spending much additional time (though not nearly enough) in the comprehensive Oceanic collection and a temporary exhibit—”Azerbaijan—Land of Fires.” Apparently the first of its kind in Europe, this exhibition features 5,000 years of Azeri ethnographic arts; it encompasses not only household and decorative items, but fine arts.

The nation state of Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. Beginning in the 6th century the Turkic tribes, migrating in vast numbers from the Mongolian steppe, overpowered local populations throughout Central Asia. Azerbaijan was no exception. The term “Azerbaijan” refers to the dominant Turkic tribe in the region, but derives from a root word—Azer—”fire keeper,” because the local population were fire worshippers.  By the early 20th century observers in the capital, Baku, noted the effects of the ever present smoke from fires pluming out of the city’s numerous oil derricks.

The tribal arts of Azerbaijan generally reflect either Iranian or Turkic traditions, although some Russian traditions were absorbed when the country came under Soviet control in the early 20th century. In the case of textiles, like other Turkic peoples, Azeris use embroidery to decorate many household objects—cushions, covers, wall panels, details of clothing, purses, comb cases, etc. Typically artisans embroidered intricate geometric or fanciful floral and fauna motifs on cotton or velvet using “chain” or “satin” stich techniques in silk or metallic threads. In the above detail, the chain stitching is particularly evident.  The wide use of spangles tends to differentiate Azeri embroideries from others, although this aspect is not well demonstrated by the example above.

Embroidery Craftsmen, Azerbaijan—Yelizavetpol Province, late 19th century
(Photo courtesy Russian Museum of Ethnography)

Wider Connections

Berlin Ethnographisches Museum
Azerbaijan State Museum
Azerbaijan History
More embroideries
Tom Reiss—The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, the absolutely fascinating story of Essad Bey, a Jew from the Caucasus, born in the first throes of the Russian Revolution, he styled himself a Muslim prince.

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