WRITER: Warren Singh-Bartlett
Whether it’s the region’s largest collection of Caucasian carpets is up for argument. What isn’t in dispute is that Aziz Bassoul’s collection is one of the most complete.
It is true that the region’s most famous carpets – the one in which Cleopatra was wrapped, the one on which Aladdin flew and, of course, the one that graced Hitler’s office (a copy, don’t worry) – were Persian. But in the last decade or so, it’s the complicated and heavily florid Persian’s more austere, geometric sibling, the Caucasian that has increasingly turned heads.
“I’ve heard of owners of Persian rugs selling them to buy Caucasians,” Aziz Bassoul explains to me, as we leaf through a commemorative catalogue from an exhibition he took part in some years ago. “People tend to live in smaller apartments, these days.”
But size isn’t why this collector collects Caucasians. Bassoul’s passion for this lesser-known category of carpets is entirely personal. He likes their vibrancy, the range of colours and the way they offset each other. He enjoys their (relative) simplicity and bold geometries as well as their tradition of deliberate imperfection, a Sufi inheritance widespread in the world of Middle Eastern carpet making, which is most overtly expressed in Caucasian rugs.
The fact that, in addition to being a manageable size and better suited to contemporary interiors, Caucasian rugs are rising rapidly in value because they are more rare, probably doesn’t hurt, either.
“You can find old Persians, from the 15th or 16th century in many museums,” he continues, as we linger over a photo of particularly lovely Azeri Talish, a rare green ‘met-hane’, or ‘plain field carpet’ from the late 19th century. “The Caucasians you find usually date from no earlier than the late 18th century.”
Partly, this is because fewer of them have been made – the craft appears to have come to this mountainous region relatively late. Partly, it’s because so many have been destroyed. The main carpet-producing states of the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Dagestan have extremely turbulent histories. Mostly, it’s because when the region was part of the Soviet Union, this hearthside industry was reorganised along more proletarian lines.
Post-1925 Caucasian carpets were still, for the most part, hand-knotted but churned out in factories to satisfy mass demand, they were produced in such quantity and with increasing reliance on artificial dyes, that their traditional aspect was hollowed out and lost, long before machines finally replaced living weavers.
Finally, Bassoul tells me, he likes Caucasians because unlike Persians, which traditionally focus on depictions of garden paradises, organic geometries and the occasional animal or human scene, they use geometric, tribal patterns that were village and sometimes family specific.
“Mothers taught their daughters, passing on the tradition,” he continues, making me think immediately of the patterns Palestinian women once embroidered on their dresses, which could be used to identify the village they came from. “It was different from place to place, so there’s a lot of variety.”
The comprehensive nature of his collection aside, Bassoul’s interest in carpets is relatively recent. Growing up around “mostly Persian carpets” as a child, he says that for a long time, he thought of them more as décor. This is why, when he did begin to collect art, he began with his first love, Southeast Asian art and specifically that of the Khmer kingdoms of the 8th to the 13th centuries.
This passion, though still very much alive – Bassoul hopes one day to put his collection on display – was more a result of happenstance. An engineer with Beirut’s C.A.T. conglomerate since 1973, he was reassigned to Europe at the beginning of the civil war and soon after, was posted to Malaysia, where he oversaw the establishment of the company’s Asian arm. It was here that he began to develop his love of Khmer art.
Then in 1996, happenstance once again reshaped his life. Reassigned to Beirut after over two decades away and no longer in direct contact with Southeast Asia, an interest in carpets began to emerge. When I ask him why he changed direction, Bassoul pauses.
“You know, I think I now trace it back to a family meeting when I was 18. It was decided I was going to university in France and the family had met to discuss how to pay the tuition,” he explains. “My grandfather, the patriarch, said nothing until the end, then he stood up and said ‘Aziz will go to France even if I have to sell all the rugs in the house!’ It really struck me. I think that was when I first realised those carpets weren’t just furniture.”
A few initial purchases made at auction houses in Paris piqued his interest and soon, he threw himself into creating a collection. Attracted by the wider range of colours and the intricate geometries (“probably the engineer in me”), he focused on what was then a less appreciated branch of carpets, on traditional rather than contemporary rugs and on complete pieces, rather than fragments.
Composed of just over one hundred pieces today, Bassoul’s collection is fluid. His aim is not to have the biggest but rather, the most comprehensive collection. So over the years, carpets have been bought and sold as better examples have become available. This constant process of revision has left him with what, in the words of one of the region’s oldest purveyors of Caucasian carpets, is the most ‘refined’ collection. Which is not to say complete. An early adopter of Moghans, a type of Caucasian even less collectible at the time than the others, the carpet that has still managed to get away and which Bassoul says would make the ideal addition to his Koubas, Karabakhs, Shirvans and Gendjes - is a Star Kazak. A particularly complicated design that is believed not to have been produced since the late 19th century, it is the apogee of Caucasians. A particularly fine example exchanged hands for north of 180,000 USD in the late 1990s. Though rarely up for sale, he hopes that one day, one will belong to him, too.
It would be naïve to say that Bassoul is not aware of the monetary value of his collection. But value alone does not define his selections. First and foremost, he is a collector of the heart, choosing his carpets for the way they will add to his collection and for the pleasure, rather than any financial return, they will bring.
After an initial purchasing spurt, he now collects more slowly. Typically, he buys two or three pieces a year, reselling any carpets that are made superfluous or superseded by the new additions. With no room to display them all, most are kept carefully rolled up in storage vaults, regularly sprayed to keep moths and other carpet-munchers at bay.
Would he consider, I ask, putting them on public display? The shadow of a smile creeps across Bassoul’s face. “I have dreamt of opening a museum for my rugs. It would be great to find someone who’d be willing to help me make that happen,” he says, adding that one of the reasons he’s regularly loaned his collection for exhibition has been to share its beauty and his passion with a wider audience. “I don’t have any room left to put anything new at home but I keep buying. It would be a real pity to keep them all rolled up like sardines in a safe, wouldn’t it?”
WHO Aziz Bassoul
WHAT Caucasian carpets
WHY This rare and expansive collection is one of the most complete in the region and the hundred-odd pieces have been collected over the course of 17 years.