Buying a Caucasian Carpet 101
When you travel with a backpack and a limited amount of cash, buying a carpet it probably not very high on your list. Of course not! And neither may be shopping. But then, we are past the age of thirty, we have a home that we’re trying to fill tastefully with little mementos of our trips, so a carpet makes a very nice and useful souvenir. And this time, we were in search of a nice, authentic and reasonably priced Caucasian carpet.
Rugs and carpets make great souvenirs
I’ve brought back in the past a Kashmiri carpet from India, an inexpensive Jarapa (rug made from rags) from Andalucia, and one of my favourite carpets is a threadbare but beautifully coloured Persian rug from a Tennants Auction in Yorkshire.
Although we have reasonably priced carpet stores here in Europe, bringing a nice bit for your house from your travels is nicer, right? When you put your feet on it every day it might remind you of the good time you had in faraway lands… So while I shop very little back home, on holiday I keep an eye out for beautiful and useful things for home when I travel, and I usually come home laden with stuff. My recent trips to Greece and Israel are no exception. Don’t even get me started on shopping in Japan, Morocco or Thailand (and the USA ca. 1997)… these are the best countries for shopping I’ve had the pleasure to visit so far.
So, while on holiday in Armenia and Georgia, I kept an eye out for nice textiles, especially carpets. I marked a few shops in my map app, and set off right after arriving in Yerevan.
We had just travelled for 18 hours, checked into the Ibis Yerevan, had a nap, and then… went out on a little exploration stroll. Around the corner was a small carpet shop on the first floor of an old apartment building, called Postoyan Carpets. We were still a dazed from our long trip via Riga, Tbilisi and a very bumpy transit to Yerevan, and suffered from severe sleep deprivation. While the friendly owner rolled out carpet after carpet, we had trouble taking in our new surroundings and decided now was not the time to go shopping. We thanked him and decided to go forth and compare the textile offerings of Armenia.
What carpets are available in the Caucasus?
The Caucasus region, being part of the ancient Silk Road, has a long established tradition of carpet weaving, with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia all producing carpets. Unlike their neighbours Iran and Turney, Caucasian carpets are somewhat less well-known. I know little about Azerbaijan carpets, but carpet weaving is the most popular folk art of the Azeri people, and if you want a carpet from the regions, it’s worth checking them out, too.
Much of the Armenian traditional carpet weaving is done in the disputed region of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Other carpets come from Lori and the North of Armenia. Since Megherian Carpets of Yerevan has been re-established, carpets of a traditional style are woven in Yerevan, but the patterns are often ancient and of different regional styles. In short, carpet weaving is still very much alive in Armenia. Most designs are very geometrical and generally colourful, with sheep wool and mostly natural colours used. You can distinguish between pile carpets (all sizes, usually quite short pile) and woven kilims and woven and emboidered flat carpets called soumak.
In Georgia (which is much larger than Armenia), carpet weaving seems much more of a bygone tradition, and most carpets we saw were either vintage or Azeri. Carpet weaving just doesn’t seem to be so much alive in Georgia now.
Where to buy your souvenir carpet?
It is best to check what styles are available at which prices, and to familiarize yourself with customs regulations. In Armenia, you can export one or two new carpets without problems. Old rugs are considered cultural goods. You may need permission from the Ministry of Culture in Yerevan to export them. As a rule of thumb, consider anything older than 40-50 years a national treasure where permission may be required. A good shop should be able to advise you and issue you with a receipt with details of age, provenance and price of the rug.
We started our trip on Armenia and literally fell into a small carpet shop in our neighbourhood. The carpets were were so beautiful, so we started researching carpet opportunities.
We started off with a trip to Megherian Carpets. This is a moderately-sized carpet manufacture in the outskirts of Yerevan. Don’t be stupid like us and let a taxi take you there for an inflated price! It should cost 1000-2000 AMD from the city centre. You can also reach it fairly easily by public transport. Either take a trolleybus the Metro to Garegin Nzhdehi Square then walk 10min (bit higgledy-piggledy, you may have to ask, the area felt perfectly safe to talk around) or a bus or trolleybus to the Yerevan Mall. Yes, I’m rubbish and did not write the bus routes down, though I believe the trolleybus might have been Line 1. At the time of writing, the bus routes were not yet in GoogleMaps. Anyway – it is totally easy to see the factory individually without a tour.
Megherian Carpets Tour
When we arrived, we were greeted by the security guard, who called a guide, who then gave us a private tour of the small museum (where you have some small displays about how carpets are made, along with some stunning antique rugs), are shown a small manufacture and then led to the showroom, of course! I presume their manufacture is much larger than the small production facility that we visited, as their showroom was filled to the brim with wonderful carpets, all handmade, all looking exceptionally high quality.
The prices are relatively high compared to vintage carpets, but the carpets, I admit are wonderful. The carpets we looked at were on sale for about 700-1200 US Dollars. There is also a large restaurant on site mainly geared towards groups -you will need to make a reservation if you’d like to eat there. They used to have a showroom in central Yerevan, but it was closed at the time of writing.
One of the carpets in their showroom was weaved especially for George and Amal Clooney – they have yet had to pick it up, though!
Oh and if you travel back by bus, stop for breakfast, lunch or dinner at the amazing SAS Food Court at 11/1 Arshakunyats Ave, roughly halfway back to the centre. Totally authentic, cheap and quality produce. Bit like eating in a disco, though.
This is a very small basement shop on 32 Tumanyan Street, opposite the well-known “Lavash” Restaurant. The problem with this shop is that pretty much everything is neatly folded up and stacked in shelves, it’s rather dark, the seller didn’t speak any English and didn’t seem to enthusiastic to roll out his wares. Not a great shop for browsing, but I cannot say much about their merchandise because I wasn’t able to see it properly.
This was my favourite shop, and one that had some of my favourite carpets. Comparing a fine wool pile carpet for 1200 USD from Megherian with a pretty fine soumak at a much more budget-friendly level, the soumak won. The while family appears to own this show, and we visited about two or three times (it was near our hotel) and talked to the owner several times, He was happy to show us some less expensive carpets, starting at about 150 EURO, to absolute stunners of backpack-busting size. They sell a mixture of new and vintage carpets, all from Armenia.
When we visited, he had only a few kilims (that were all really large) but a large choice of soumaks (they look like kilims in that they have a flat weave and some embroidery and are alltogether more common than kilims in the Caucasus) and pile rugs of all sizes. The shop may be really small (the smallest we’ve been to) but it’s well lit and you really get the carpet show here – all in a friendly, non-pushy way. We bought two Artsakh soumaks here – not matching but very similar in style. One of them has been on the floor for three months now and is loved by the cats, and looks really stunning and is hard wearing.
Vernissage on a weekday can be a bit of a mixed bag, but for the cheap souvenir, this is the place to go! Also there was a small area (towards Buzand Street and Republic Square) with a lot of carpets…. very nice carpets. If you look for fine vintage Oriental carpets piled on top of a Volga car, come here. We saw a wide range, quality-wise, from about 400-700 US Dollars, and the difference in quality was stunning – I would have gone for the more expensive ones, some of which were non-local Bukhara camel wool carpets, absolutely stunning, As most carpets seem antique or vintage, it is advised to obtain an export permit.
Some places we haven’t been to
This is a young company established in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2013, producing locally, but with a showroom in Yerevan apparantly in existence/ in progress. Several websites give an address of 35 Mashtots Avenue, opposite the opera house, for their Yerevan showroom, but I couldn’t didn’t it. The HQ and main showroom of Karabakh Carpets are in Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh. Again, they have some nice examples of the very geometrical, symbolistic style of the Karabakh rug on their website.
Tufenkian Carpets Yerevan
We only saw a few carpet shops in Tbilisi and none in the other regions we travelled to. So these are the places in Tbilisi we have come across.
Caucasian and Oriental Carpets Gallery
A lovely small antique carpet shop, absolutely stuffed with carpets.
We had by that time already bought two rugs in Armenia, but I may have found some room to stuff another small rug in… the shop is located in King Erekle Street right in the thick of touristy Tbilisi. Very friendly, and also very popular. As the good reviews online show, they must be doing it right. When we visited, we saw mostly older kilims, although they have pile carpets and smaller items as well. In comparison with Armenia, prices seemed somewhat higher, and we didn’t find anything that convinced us to buy rug No.3 but I think they are a fair and dependable option if you’re looking for a carpet in Tbilisi. There is another smaller carpet shop the other side of the Sioni Cathedral, closer to Meidani Square, but it seemed even more touristy.
Tbilisi Carpet Gallery
We did not visit this one, but it is near a branch of Prospero’s Books in Pekini Avenue in Northern Tbilisi, if you’re in the area. They have a tiny website with no prices. If you have been, please let me know what you think!
Dry Bridge Market
We visited on a weekday, and found a fair share of carpets on sale. In general, we just spent little time on the market, and prices were quite high – great to watch, if you want to buy, you either need more time or better negotiation skills. Probably only buy there if you know your rugs.
Okay, folks, that’s the carpet shopping done! I hope my little ramble through the carpet outlets of Tbilisi and Yerevan is of help. If you have any further suggestions on carpets, or know any good resources on Caucasian Carpets, please let me know! Just for starters, I got “Oriental Rugs: A buyers guide” * by Lee Allane which is cheap but useful for newbies to carpets.
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