Since the Bronze Age, the Kyrgyz people have lived as nomadic herdsman, seasonally crisscrossing hills and valleys as they tended their flocks. Originating from the steppes of Siberia, they eventually migrated to the area now known as the Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia, between Kazakhstan and China. The arid, mountainous landscape of this region shaped Kyrgyz life and culture, which changed very little over the centuries following their resettlement there. During the hot summers, Kyrgyz tribes flooded the Alai Valley and the steppes of Turkestan, and in the harsh winters they retreated to the Fergana Valley. They relied on horses, camels, and oxen to transport their scant possessions, often traveling great distances with their supplies, due to the limited natural resources available in the environment. Among the Kyrgyz cargo, one could always find ornate felted carpets—called Ala-Kyiz—which were crafted using techniques developed before recorded history.
Felt arose in Central Asia as societies transitioned from hunter-gatherers to shepherds. The theory goes that, as animals began to be corralled for milking and breeding purposes, humans noticed how sheep shed their wool during the warm seasons, and how, when saturated with urine and trampled by hooves, the wool gradually transformed into felt. Wool fibers are naturally barbed and inclined to stick together. By soaking wool in boiling water and applying a great deal of pressure, it is possible to make felt – a versatile textile material suitable for clothing, blankets, and carpets – no loom required. The Kyrgyz people were masters of the felting process, and felt became their primary medium for artistic expression.
The Kyrgyz Ala-Kyiz carpets are among the earliest developed and longest surviving known carpet typologies, with the same methods and motifs persisting for millennia. Entire families would participate in production. The men were generally in charge of shearing the sheep and preparing the firewood for the boiling process, while women and children cleaned and prepared the wool. And everyone was invited to contribute to the pressing process, which was accomplished by foot or with the help of animals and rolling tools.
Ala-Kyiz carpets are noted for their striking, freeform graphic patterns and their distinct color combinations, which echo the Kyrgyz landscape and belief system. Dyes were sourced primarily from local vegetation, including sorrel leaves, sand acacia, camel burr, black nightshade, pomegranate, walnut, and madder. During the time of the Great Silk Road, traders from Iran and India introduced indigo and cochineal dyes to the region. Because Kyrgyz life was so entwined with their natural environment, their worldview was shamanistic; even after Islam was introduced in the 7th century, the worship of earth and sky deities endured. The rhythmic, ornamental designs of Ala-Kyiz carpets expressed the people’s pagan roots, often through symbols of fertility, such as abstracted, spiraling animal horns.
These carpets were not only ornamental, but also essential to the Kyrgyz survival. Like other nomadic tribes of Central Asia, the Kyrgyz people lived in yurts; a tent-like structure of bent poles tied to form a conical roof, wrapped in collapsible wicker walls, and overlaid with thick felt. A circular opening in the roof allowed light to enter and smoke to escape. The interior walls and floors were covered in carpets, which provided crucial thermal insulation against the extreme elements.
The Ala-Kyiz carpets held a vital place in the lives of Kyrgyz people—at the center of their creative and economic existence—for ten thousand years. By the early 20th century, however, modernization brought sweeping changes that diminished nomadic ways of life and ultimately suppressed the ancient carpet-making traditions in Central Asia. Raffaele Carrieri, owner of Altai Gallery in Milan and specialist in this region’s antique carpets, is on a mission to preserve this history and to enlist collectors to appreciate that which is has been lost. According to Carrieri, “Ala-Kyiz felts are the true ancestors of modern carpets, created before the invention of looms. They are so primordial, and yet they look totally contemporary.” Carrieri has seen collectorship grow as more and more realize that antique examples are no longer available in the local regions, but he believes this growth has as much to do with aesthetic expression as rarity. “The Kyrgyz felts are beyond time, an art form that survived incalculable generations. They carry a visual strength that only a work of art can convey.”