A Note on Ersari Group Turkmen Weavings. By Peter Poullada
Most of the weavings commonly assigned to the Ersari Turkmen are in fact a highly eclectic and heterogeneous group of textiles. Showing remarkable variety in both design and techniques, the weavings attributed to the Ersari represent one of the last frontiers of textile research and an area full of misunderstandings among Turkmen collectors. Studies by Koenig, Thompson, Moshkova and Eiland have pointed out the stylistic and technical inconsistency of the pieces commonly labeled Ersari. To summarize some of what is known and what is still to be debated and clarified.
The Ersari appear to have been one of the major components of the Sayin Khan-Salor tribal confederacy whose Yurt, (nomadic territory) in the late 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, stretched from the Balkhan mountains to the Mangishlaq peninsula and north to the Emba river. The label Sayin Khani, given to these Turkmen by the Safavid Persians referred to their emergence from the breakup of the Golden Horde, (founded by Chingiz Khan's grandson Batu, known as the Sayin Khan), in order to differentiate their origins from tribes that came from the territories of Hulegu (Iran) or Chaghatay (Trans-Oxanian Central Asia). The Sayin Khani Turkmen appear to have been a loosely organized confederation of tribes said to be divided, in typical Turco-Mongol fashion, into two parts, the Ichki (inner) and Tashki (outer), Salor. Along with the Tekke, Saryk and Yomut, the Ersari were said to be part of the Tashki although our main source for this information, Abu'l Ghazi, the Uzbek Khan of Khiva in the 17th century, does not indicate whether the term Tashki refers to an organizational, military or purely geographical meaning. We do know, however, that sometime in the 17th century, due perhaps, in part to the drying up of the western Uzboy channel of the AmuDarya, the Ersari and elements of other tribes associated with them (like the Qizil Ayaq, and the Ali Eli) moved east to the banks of the main course of the Amu Darya between Kelif and Chardjui. Later in the 18th and early 19th centuries, in response to political pressures and military defeats, groups of Salor, Saryqs and Chodor fled to the same regions along the banks of the middle reaches of the Amu Darya which had become refuge areas for tribes pushed out of Manqishlaq and Khwarezm (Khiva).
The creation of this new middle Amu Darya Yurt, (whose members came to be known as Lebab or Lab-e-Ab Turkmen, meaning "riverside Turkmen") led to several special features that are expressed in the weavings of the Ersari Group: First, the use of designs associated with many other tribes, in keeping with the assimilation and mixing of the Ersari with Salors, Saryqs etc. Secondly, the tribes settled along the right bank of the AmuDarya (the north) came under the political, commercial and cultural control of the Khanate of Bukhara whose court and urban culture created demand for larger scale ceremonial weavings (as opposed to dowry and other utilitarian nomadic weavings) and which exerted design influence over the weaving communities. Bukharan influence may also have encouraged the right bank Ersari to become semi-nomads with permanent settlements (Qishlaq) in the regions of Beshir, Burdalyk etc. This had the further effect, by the mid 19th century of allowing these weaving communities to become much more economically dependent on carpet production than the more nomadic groups to the west. Thirdly, because the middle Amy Darya Ersari groups were within the territories of the Khanate of Bukhara they were not as directly effected by the conquests and colonization by the Russians in the last quarter of the 19th century as their fellow Turkmen in Khiva, Merv and the Akhal oases. this may have allowed some of the left bank Ersari to preserve for longer their nomadic weaving tradition, slowed the commercialization of their production and delayed the adoption of the synthetic dyes which became so prevalent by the turn of the century among the Tekke and Yomut. finally the conquest of Central Asia by the Bolsheviks in the 1920's and even into the early 1930's led to a substantial migration of Ersari and other Lebab Turkmen from the Middle Amu Darya Yurt to join their brethren in northern Afghanistan, where they took up semi-nomadic lifestyle especially around the towns of Andkhoy, Aqcha and Shibergan. This resulted in even more realignments of clan and tribal linkages and in mixing and confusing of weaving traditions and designs. For this reason 20th century Afghan Ersari, even including semi-antique production form the 1920's and 1930's when large number of carpets seem to have begun to be exported, is highly eclectic and difficult to attribute with much certainty to specific clans or sub-tribes. The last point to note about Ersari textiles is that unlike Tekke, Yomut, Salor or Saryq, the weavings we now call Ersari are relatively under-represented in the major Russian collections like Bogolyubov and Dudin, and thus are less accessible to study. This is true of both the left-bank nomadic tradition weavings and the right-bank more urban influenced pieces that are commonly given the "Beshir" label. For all of the reasons given here, and above all for their beauty and variety, the Ersari Group of Turkmen weavings are very worthy of our attention.