Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tribal Does Not Equal Rural

In the Western world we think of tribal jewelry as primitive, produced in the desert or mountains, far away from cities or larger towns.  But in Central Asia, tribes usually inhabit certain regions of the steppes or mountains or deltas.  Each region will have its urban center where civic matters are addressed and the bulk of the commerce is transacted.

Sometimes the center is the capital of the nation that contains the tribes or at least a part of several tribes.  Tribes do not fit neatly into boundaries.  Think of the native Americans in Alaska or Canada and the Pacific Northwest.  That is the picture in Central Asia.

However, the urban center usually has the greater advantage when the artisan wishes to produce a product with an organic unity, such as an important piece of jewelry.  I have posted several times on the symbols and their meanings expressed in silver and gilded silver jewelry among the Turkoman tribes.  Here is an expression of their reverence for a mountain symbol:
Probably produced from an urban tribal silversmith.

The reason I would guess that the piece in the photo above came from an urban silversmith is that it puts to full use the specialties required to yield a unified expression in silver of the Turkoman mindset regarding the ancestral mountain, the source of the Turkoman people.  First, let me say that this is only half of what the silversmith created as the full expression.  This is one of the hair pieces that a woman wears pinned into her braid or her veil at a point just above each ear.  Such pieces are created in pairs.  I have the piece that matches this one.  

The Turkoman people like replication.  Not only of the symbolic jewelry pieces themselves, so often produced in pairs, but of the motifs carried out inside the exterior expression.  See all the smaller mountain shapes made of silver grains dropped patiently and uniformly again and again expressing the ancestral pyramid shape.  What would you guess the opposite side of this piece looks like?  Surprise!  it looks just like this side.  They are two identical pieces except for the stones in the small rosette, joined to make a hollow silver hair or veil ornament that respects the source of the tribe.  

The pendant in the photo below is a rural piece from Afghanistan (one of the nations that contains a part of a few of the Turkoman tribes).  This pendant reveals its rural craftsmanship in its lack of a specialist to inscribe the water and floral symbols in the center of the plaque.  That part of the piece is amateurish, while the rest of the piece is made at a higher skill level.  

It is nevertheless a charming piece, made of good silver and all the parts are crafted skillfully, except for the inscriptions on the inside plaque.  They appear to be indications of where granulated rosettes and filigree should be placed in order to symbolize water and plants, i. e., life symbols.  It stands in an honored position as folk art.

You can see more detailed information on this piece at

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Great Khan's Coinage in the Gandhara Region

Look on a map and find Mongolia, which is shared between Russia and China, and consider that in what the West calls the Middle Ages, the Mongols ruled the largest empire the world has ever known.  It reached from all of Mongolia, all of China, Russia, all the 'stans (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India - Hindustan), also Armenia, parts of the Balkans and Central Europe, the Holy Land, Turkey, North Africa and the Arabian Gulf.  Under the nominal rule of the Great Khan whose seat was closer to home, there were Khanates (kingdoms) established throughout the empire.

The Shahi Gandhara culture in south Afghanistan-Pakistan became a part of one of the Han, (Khan) Khanates.  The ruler, like other rulers, needed coins; after all, most kings and parliaments do not want to collect tribute (taxes) in the form of eggs or cheese.  The local Khan wanted a proper image for his coinage.  Since every Mongol (Han) conquest had been won from the back of a horse, a horse and a ruler riding it became the natural choice for a symbol of the new ruler in Gandhara.

A coin with a kneeling horse on one side and a rider with a staff mounted on the back of the horse on the opposite side is how the coinage was cast in Gandhara.  Quoting from Wikipedia:

... The Gupta (The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire which existed approximately from 320 to 550 CE and covered much of the Indian Subcontinent.) emperors continued to issue coinage until the 6th century, until waves of invasions from the Huns (Hans, Khans) brought their reign to an end. These Huns themselves issued coinage which was imitated from the earlier prototypes.
Allan & Stern (2008) report on Indian coinage of the Middle Ages:
A notable adaptation of a Hun design was the neat silver coinage of the Shahis of Ghandara, the "bull and horseman" type in the 9th and 10th centuries, (later) extensively imitated by the Muslim conquerors of India and the contemporary minor Hindu dynasties. 

For example, here are the two sides of one of such coins I have in my collection:

The image on the left shows the ruler with a long staff and banner, wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat (in the Gandhara region in the southern part of Afghanistan, that is a very good idea).  
The horse is prancing proudly showing his left leg raised, with a decorated mane and his tail     
 and head carried high.  The image on the right shows the horse kneeling with script above him in an ancient Hindi style.  The horse is already saddled, so it is probably kneeling for the ruler to mount him.  Since in that part of the sub-continent, both camels and elephants knelt to allow the rider to mount, perhaps horses were also trained to kneel?  

To see more particulars on the collection of this coinage that I have, go to 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Turkoman Jewelry Symbols Include Islamic Symbols

As the Mongol conquerors assumed their kingdoms under the great Khan in Central and South Asia in the Late Middle Ages, the Moslem religion was ascendant throughout that region.  The Turkoman people added much of the Moslem spirituality to their own veneration of ancestors and their tribal geographic origins in the symbols of mountains and ancestors: the equilateral triangle mounted on a prayer cylinder with abstract ram's heads decorating the piece.

Up to at least the 1950s, the Turkoman jewelry and their fabric arts were their religious art.  Even their camels and donkeys wore the tribal symbols in silver and sometimes gilded silver jewelry and blankets. The modern-day analog would be the taxi driver who carries the medallion of the name of Allah written in beautiful Arabic calligraphy.  It is doubtful that the medallion could be read, but it is the symbol that all understand as a blessing from Allah.

Our last post was about the Asik, or sometimes written as Asyk, in tripartite form symbolizing the family  but today we can look at a single Asik (my preferred spelling, because it uses the vowel harmony that is typical for the Turkish dialect that I once spoke fairly well).   Here is a photo from a page that tells a fuller story of its symbols:

On the top two gemstones set into the silver you will see crescents and stars, the widely recognized symbol of Islam in its political and religious expression.  The carnelian in the center is an irregular cabochon form.  The gemstone does not show signs of having been replaced, so apparently the original silversmith preferred to use the matching red stone rather than a more golden carnelian that would have been smooth enough to make the intaglio of stars and crescents.  

Of course, the breathtakingly beautiful mosques of Uzbekistan speak above all of the inculturation of the Turkoman to the religion of Islam. 

For more information on Turkoman silver pieces, see my studio at Artfire