A version of this post was published by Hand/Eye Magazine. Read it here.
With more unique regional patterns than anywhere else on Earth, Azerbaijan is the place to see carpet making. Weaving (or more accurately, knotting) carpets is as much a part of Azeri culture as anything else. Unesco recognised the storytelling value and cultural significance of carpet weaving as part of Azerbaijan’s intangible cultural heritage in 2010, and the art is still practiced throughout the country today – although not as much as it used to be.
One thing Azerbaijani carpet weaving has going for it is demand. Carpets that were once hung on walls for warmth or used during ceremonies are now a popular souvenir. Income from tourist and export sales presumably keeps the market for new carpets afloat, allowing small workshops like the one I visited to stay open. When so many other traditional arts have disappeared with mass-production, it’s nice to know that this laborious handmade process still has value in the eyes of many. (On that note, Azerbaijan has some strict rules about taking carpets out of the country, so you should read-up first if you’re thinking of buying one.)
There are carpet shops all over Baku, but you’ll have to travel out of the city to see carpet weaving done the old-fashioned way. Qadim Quba in the little city of Quba north of Baku is one of the most popular and accessible carpet-making workshops you can visit.
Azerbaijani carpets are made from naturally dyed sheep’s wool and woven by women during the winter months. These are carpets, not kilims, so they’re made by knotting threads in an intricate paint-by-numbers pattern to a base warp. The carpets have a very short pile, so the knotted threads must be compacted tightly before the threads are cut.
At Qadim Quba, they use metal frame looms, with up to six women working in tandem on the one carpet. These are huge-area carpets – other women work individually on small Sajjadah prayer mats.
One thing that surprised me about Qadim Quba was the number of young women working there. Some were listening to music on their iPhones while they worked, others were joined on their workbench by a friend. It’s unusual to see younger generations taking up something like carpet weaving, which anywhere else might be seen as drab or un-lucrative. It’s a great testament to Qadim Quba that wages and demand are both high enough to attract young women to pursue a career in carpet weaving.
How to visit Qadim Quba
Qadim Quba operates Monday to Friday from 8am–5pm, with an hour-long lunch break at noon.
Quba (pronounced ‘Guba’) is located 160km north of Baku. The city is readily accessible by public transportation, with minibuses departing at least hourly from Baku’s main bus terminal (avtovagsal) on Highway 1. The journey to Quba takes about 2.5 hours, including one bathroom break on the road. Tickets cost 4 AZN (2.40 USD) per person.
Taxis wait around the bus station in Quba; a ride downtown shouldn’t cost more than 2 AZN. Qadim Quba is marked on most tourist maps and drivers should know it (if not, ask to go to the nearby Old Town Square). The workshop is three blocks from the Square and Quba’s Tourism Information Office on Heydar Aliyev Prospekti (cnr of Hikmat Huseynov). A large sign hangs over the door – you can’t miss it. If there’s not someone hanging around to greet you, just proceed down the short corridor and you’ll find the workshop area behind the double doors.
The women here seem accustomed to being observed by nosy tourists and for the most part, we just wandered around without much interaction. We asked before we started taking photos and were told (in hand gestures) that it was no problem. English isn’t spoken, so if you want to learn more about the workshop or carpet marking, you’ll need to organise your own guide or translator. Qadim Quba also has a small shop attached. If it’s not already open, the workshop supervisor can turn on the lights for you.
If Qadim Quba is your main reason for visiting Quba (and you’re not travelling onward to Xinaliq), I strongly recommend you only go as a day trip from Baku. There’s no real need to stay overnight, and Quba’s accommodation and food offerings are pretty dismal.
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