Knotted images: lest we forget
rugs from the war in Afghanistan

Knotted images: lest we forget
rugs from the war in Afghanistan

photos: courtesy of till passow

In the first half of the 1980s, a new, extraordinary category of contemporary popular art emerged in Afghanistan, the land along the Hindu Kush mountain range devastated by war with the Soviet Union. For the first time, pictorial motifs of war began to appear on knotted rugs, which Afghan nomads and peasants had traditionally adorned with abstract, geometric designs, floral patterns, and figurative images.

In the first half of the 1980s, a new, extraordinary category of contemporary popular art emerged in Afghanistan, the land along the Hindu Kush mountain range devastated by war with the Soviet Union. For the first time, pictorial motifs of war began to appear on knotted rugs, which Afghan nomads and peasants had traditionally adorned with abstract, geometric designs, floral patterns, and figurative 1 images.

Map of Afghanistan and Pakistan 110 x 190 cm Origin: Baluch Collection: Till Passow, Berlin

Whereas at first helicopters, military airplanes, and hand grenades were diffidently inserted into ornamental compositions or strung together in the border surrounding the central pictorial field, warlike themes soon came to the forefront. Tanks, fighter-bombers, attack helicopters, missiles, cannons, and machine guns were added as individual motifs or grouped together into downright ‘historiographical’ battlefield scenes. A nocturnal attack with successful Afghan warriors taking prisoners is depicted in one image, while the whole arsenal of military vehicles and weapons is proudly displayed in another. The desperate defense led against the militarily superior invading oppressors is documented by contrasting the enemy’s heavy artillery with the Afghans’ simple firearms. The superiority of Western technology and killing machinery thus becomes evident. The Kalashnikov assault rifle (AK-47) serves as the clear symbol of Afghan resistance, becoming man’s weapon par excellence and dominating its own category of small-format rugs. There are pictorial rugs that vividly depict torture and death, commemorate a fallen martyr, illustrate incessant waves of attack, or even show isolated enemy troops being taken captive with their arms raised. Not only the brutal reality and perversion of war in the 1980s and 90s and the invasion of the Americans and international forces is depicted in this way, but these rugs also serve as propaganda for the triumph of jihad (literally ‘a struggle in the path of God’), meaning the struggle for Sunni Islam. The images on the rugs reflect a defensive war – the jihad of the resistance fighters and later the Taliban. Although many have claimed that this reflects a merger between the Pashtun Taliban and al-Qaida, we now know that this is a myth. In fact, there were and still are considerable tensions between both movements, which often pursue different objectives.

Map of Afghanistan and Pakistan. 110 x 90 cm Origin: Baluch . Collection: Till Passow, Berlin

In addition to grim and ominous scenarios, there are motifs that symbolise traditional Afghan values and can be interpreted as an expression of hope and a desire for peace. These include images of mosques as symbols of the beliefs of normative Islam, trees, water pitchers, teapots as well as flowers and animals. Map rugs with the national borders of Afghanistan epito­mise the rights of the Afghan people to their own territory – without aggression and political interfer­ence from outside.

When viewing Muslim art or works from the Islamic era, Western observers become preoccupied with the art’s alleged lack of images. Unfortunately, this prejudice obfuscates an appreciation for Islamic aesthetics, in which – with all due respect to ornamen­tation – a ‘lack of images’ only comes up in religious contexts. In normative Islam, this has to do with the fact that in the Quran God (Allah) is described as the (sole) ‘creator’ (Surah 59:24). Similar to other mono­theistic religions, only God has the right to create living beings. Creating images that might resemble nature or human beings could blasphemously imitate God’s act of creation and even lead to idolatry, even though such works would always be imperfect.3 A clear rejection of images first appears in the hadith, the compilation of teachings by the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), for example in the much cited saying:

Tanks and helicopters. 197 x 101 cm. Origin: Zakani Baloch/West.Afghanistan Collection: Till Passow, Berlin. 2015

”Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture”. Yet it is only the official legal code of Islam that shuns and rejects images. Only Islamic fundamentalists, particularly followers of strict, puritanical revival movements such as the Salafi, Wahhabi, and Taliban, are truly iconoclastic. Western observers would be well advised to look at works of Muslim art and material culture with a more open and unbiased attitude since the official ban on images was often circumvented and ignored at court (miniature paintings, for example) and in folk cultures. To this day, genuine iconophilia is still found in popular Shia Islam, which is characterised more by mystic beliefs, as well as in many other genres of folk art. For this reason, it comes as no surprise that modern images are seen in recent Afghan rugs.

Afghan pictorial rugs with motifs of war and peace are woven by semi-nomadic groups such as the Baluch, Taymani, Turkmen, and Uzbek since the early 1980s. Traditional patterns, which mainly appear in the borders, as well as colour combination correspond to the styles of the respective ethnic groups, tribes, and clans. The Baluch tribes whose rugs are predominantly sold at the bazaar in Herat, live near the Iranian border, north of Herat. The Taymani are also found in western Afghanistan, southeast of Herat, and make up the largest group of the four (chahar) Chahar Aimak tribes, whose origins appear to be very heterogeneous. Taymani rugs are mostly offered at the bazaar in Shindand, south of Herat. In the course of the Afghan war with the Soviet Union, particularly smallformat rugs, for instance with Kalashnikov motifs, were mass-produced in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Such rugs are still produced in Pakistan, for example by Turkmen refugees who migrated from northern Afghanistan.

Rug with depictions of mosques. 147 x 85 cm. Origin: Taymani/West Afghanistan Collection: Till Passow, Berlin

The innovation of designing and producing ‘war rugs’ took place in the region northwest of Herat and spread to other parts of western Afghanistan. It is no coincidence that most of these rugs come from a geographic area whose pictorial traditions are closely linked with the art of the Persian Qajar dynasty Oate 18th to early 20th century). Modern inspiration came from various sources including popular paintings on trucks, photos in calendars, political posters, and even tiny pictures on matchboxes. It is also highly likely that film and television provided plenty of ideas.

Although the traumatic experience of war served as the impetus for developing this art form – with war literally knotted into the fabric of everyday society and thus turning these rugs into a form of visualised history – these rugs soon began to have a commercial focus. The freedom fighters not only used the documentary ‘resistance art’ to indict their invaders, but sometimes also hung up these rugs as heroicpropaganda in their homes and offices. The rugs were also marketed at the main trading hub for rugs in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan. To this day, many families hailing from Afghanistan and now living in the northwest of Pakistan still earn a living from the production of these rugs. Some of the rugs, such as the popular small-format map and Kalashnikov rugs as well as portrait rugs inspired by photos of war hero Ahmad Shah Masoud have gone into serial production. Apart from wealthy Afghans, who purchased such wall rugs as historic mementos of the war, Arab customers were also particularly fond of the action scenes. Similar motifs might have prompted journalists, collectors of military memorabilia, and soldiers to purchase these rugs. Several international museums have acquired contemporary Afghan rugs with war motifs for their collections. In Germany, for instance, the Five Continents’ Museum in Munich is home to a large and representative selection. These rugs have also captured the interest of a number of private collectors such as Hans-Werner Mohm and Till Passow. Today Afghan war rugs from the 1980s and 1990s are coveted collector’s items that have become quite difficult to find.

Among the pictorial rugs from the last 20 years knotted after the actual phase of Afghan war rugs, there are also some that depict historic sites such as the famous Minaret of Jam and the two destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan. To some extent, the depictions of war machines emphasise the threat to this cultural heritage. A new and apparently highly marketable pictorial motif is the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. What is striking in this context is the inclusion of the medium of photography. Rugs with topographical views of cities and mountain landscapes are still being woven with war motifs, but are not as dominant as they were in the 1980s and 90s. The colours of some rugs continue to be reminiscent of nruve art, while others – as in the earlier pieces – adopt the pictorial form of the comic. In this late phase, the pictorial form of the early, highly imaginative war rugs seems to be noticeably canonised and geared towards the criteria of media communications.5 They appeal to a touristy class of buyers made up of development experts, journalists, and soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Attack on the Twin Towers with maps. 96 x 67 cm. Origin: Probab!J from an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan Collection: Till Passow, Berlin. 2015

Nearly thirty-five years of war have left their mark on Afghanistan’s visual culture – both in the area of print and digital media as well as in the imagery on our rugs. As images of remembrance, these war rugs have an unusual and enduring relevance. Their designers and producers have become visual historians. The contemporary documents that they have knotted” … irritate Western viewing habits, which are still based on the imaginary worlds of One Thousand and One Nights. It isn’t just that they break a taboo by turning something that is evil for us into decorative art; they also react to a life-threatening status quo in our modern times with a way of thinking and a production process from a pre-industrial time, thus appearing to integrate the present into the past.”6 Rolf Sachsse adds yet another way to interpret these Afghan rugs, “Between art and handicraft, media politics and commercial art, they take on the function of an artefact: a memorial to the past with reference to tradition and what had grown over a long period of time, yet designed for quick consumption and global distribution in terms of production and economics. This type of media has existed many times in the past, and it is they that serve as a rather significant source of contemporary his­tory.”


a)         This text is a slightly modified version of an article with the same title, which the author already published in the following catalogues: Passow, Till & Thomas Wild (Ed.). 2015. Geknilpftes Gedachtnis – Krieg in afghanischer Teppichkunst. Knotted Memories – War in Afghan rug art. Bertin: WILD Teppich- & Textilkunst. pp. XVI-XIX. And, Matern, Tobias & Christine Stelzig (Ed.). 2013. Augenblick Afghanistan. Angst und Sehnsucht in einem versehrten Land. Munich: Five Continents’ Museum in Munich, formerly called Staatliches Museum fur Volkerkunde Munchen ). pp. 77-81.

b)         Similar pictorial rugs depicting historic monuments were knotted in Iran (Tabriz) towards the end of the 19th century.

Works Cited

1.         Frembgen, Jurgen Wasim & Hans Werner Mohm. 2000. Lebensbaum und Kalaschnikov. Krieg und Frieden im Spiegel afghanischer Bildteppiche. Blieskastel: Gallenstein.

Sachsse, Rolf. 2006. “Geknupfter und gewebter Krieg. Militarische Motive auf afghanischen Teppichen”. Zeithistorische Forschungenl Studies in Contemporary History. Online edition 3/2. <>.

Mascelloni, Enrico. 2009. War Rugs. The Nightmare of Modernism. Geneva: Skira.

Bohning, Walter. 1993. Afghanische Teppiche mil Kriegsmotiven. Catalogue. Edition: Saladin. Wiesloch. (These rugs now belong to the collections of the Five Continents’ Museum in Munich].

2.         Cf. van Linschoten, Alex Strick & Felix Kuehn. 2012. An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan. London: C. Hurst.

3.         Frembgen, Jurgen Wasim. 2003. “Bilderverbot und figurale Darstellungen”. Nahrung fur die Seele – Wellen des Islam. Munich: Five Continents’ Museum. p 112-126

4.         Parsons, R.D. 1983/1987/1999. The Carpets of Afghanistan. Series Oriental Rugs, Vol. 3. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club. p 145.

5.         Sachsse, Geknilpfter und gewebter Krieg, p 3-6.

6.         Frembgen, Jurgen Wasimin. 2011. Serious Games. Krieg – Medien -Kunst/War-Media-Art. Beil, Ralf and Antje Ehmann (Eds). Darmstadt: Halje Gantz. p 36.

Prof. Dr Jurgen Wasim Frembgen, Islamicist, anthropologist and writer, is Senior Curator of the Islamic Collection at the Museum Fiinf Kontinente in Munich as well as Professor for History of the Religion and Culture of Islam at the Institute of Near and Middle Eastern Studies/University of Munich. He has published extensively on South and West Asia, focusing particularly on Pakistan. In addition to his academic writing, he writes narratives on his ethnographic experiences in Pakistan, for instance The Closed Valley. With Fierce Friends in the Pakistani Himalaya (2014), among others, all published by OUP/Pakistan.

Leading Image : Teen Ta/war in Karachi. 120 x 207 cm. Origin: West Afghanistan. Collection: Till Passow, Berlin. 2015 This interesting pictorial rug apparent!) shows a high!J abstract views ef the harbour city ef Karachi in Pakistan, home to ma,ry Pashtuns, including some from Afghanistan. In fact, todqy Karachi is the city with the largest Pashtun population.

photos: courtesy of till passow In the first half of the 1980s, a new, extraordinary category of contemporary popular art emerged in Afghanistan, the land along the Hindu Kush mountain range devastated by war with the Soviet Union. For the first time, pictorial motifs of war began to appear on knotted rugs, which Afghan nomads…

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