Armenia guards ancient carpet-weaving traditions

ECHMIADZIN, Armenia: The smell of wool hangs thick in the air at a small studio in Armenia's ancient spiritual centre of Echmiadzin as women fashion carpets by hand using methods passed down through generations.

“I love weaving carpets, the process takes away me somewhere and I become oblivious to everything and think only of beautiful things,” said one of them, deaf-mute Narine Badalian, using sign language translated by an interpreter.

“You have to really concentrate in order not to make a mistake. If you do even one knot incorrectly, the whole design won't work out,” said her colleague Nazik Karapetian without lifting her eyes as an image of a stone cross took shape beneath her busy fingers.
People in Armenia, as in other Caucasus and Central Asian countries, have been making carpets since pre-Christian times.
Armenian designs are usually multicoloured and geometric, and sometimes bear symbols traditionally believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits.
The Echmiadzin-based studio was set up as a charity project to employ impoverished women and refugees who fled neighbouring Azerbaijan during the 1990s war between the ex-Soviet neighbours over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh.
But it also has another major difference -- it aims to use authentic traditional methods and tools and to be environmentally friendly.
Wool for the rugs is processed without chemical dyes by elderly refugees in remote villages than sent to Echmiadzin to be woven into what one of charity project's leaders Grigor Babakhanian calls “eco-carpets.”
In order to produce ecologically pure carpets, we decided to confine ourselves to eight natural colours of sheep's wool, and not to dye it,” Babakhanian explained.
“Our goal is to give work to elderly women who became refugees during the Karabakh war, to train young people in the art of carpet-making and to revive traditional carpet-making techniques,” he said.
Dozens of refugees have already been trained in hand-weaving by Babakhanian's Cross of Armenian Unity charity foundation and it is hoped that sales of the rugs will help to finance other refugee programmes.
Major Armenian manufacturing companies also produce carpets using traditional methods and designs, but the demand for handmade items has fallen in recent years due to their rising cost, with many consumers preferring cheaper machine-made rugs.
The authorities introduced tax breaks for handmade carpet manufacturers two years ago in an attempt to help sustain the industry. “The development of carpet-making is of cultural and social significance for Armenia, rather than economic,” said Hayk Mirzoian, an official at the country's economy ministry.
The carpets made by the women in Echmiadzin -- a former capital that is still home to the head of Armenia's Christian church -- are decorated with symbols derived from religious monuments and ancient manuscripts.
“Our carpets advocate the national culture and national traditions,” said Babakhanian.
His brother Gevorg, who creates the designs, said the use of pure materials and spiritual imagery means that the finished products are infused with “positive energy”.
Although the concept of “eco-carpets” may be new in Armenia, time-honoured carpet-making techniques are not dying out, suggests ethnographer Ashgunj Pogosian -- although they remain in need of constant protection.
“The traditions of Armenian carpet-making must be preserved and handed on to future generations because they are part of our people's historical and cultural heritage, they are part of our national image, just like songs, the language and the alphabet,” he said.
For Babakhanian, the uniqueness of the handmade work is also part of its appeal.

“Every carpet tells a different story,” he said.