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October 22, 2010

How to Read a War Carpet

The most controversial and confronting of the many categories of Afghan “war carpets” made since the Soviet invasion in 1979 were those which first appeared in early 2002 and which memorialized the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Hundreds, maybe thousands of these small mats were made out of poor quality materials, reportedly produced in the regions to the north of Kabul. They were made in an attempt to cash in on the anticipated numbers of foreigners appearing in Afghanistan in the wake of Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO-led ISAF operations, which began to impact on Afghan society from November 2001 onwards.

The original version of this carpet was so precise that it could have been designed on Photoshop. (It probably was.) These mats were made by hand, each probably taking three or four weeks on a loom with continuous cotton wefts. The weaver would finish one, roll down six inches, and start the next one, in what was probably the most exploitative of circumstances. In 2007 there were still similar examples on Chicken Street which had not yet been cut apart, and at first glance it was hard to believe they were not the product of some kind of mechanical reproduction. They are in fact still woven by hand, in the laborious pixel-by-pixel knotted pile method, as have oriental carpets for thousands of years.

This is the archetype of a 21st century souvenir artefact. Before they were to be found in rug stores in the west, in early 2002 they had already appeared on eBay, at premium prices, marketed by online dealers based in Pakistan. When the market realised how many had been produced, the price plummeted, and within a year they could be bought for the (inflated) price of shipping plus a dollar.  However once they appeared in the flea markets of New York, a controversy arose which raged around their motivation or intent.

While objectively their iconography had been designed to appeal to the west, ostensibly to recognize the horror of the act, and the heroism of the survivors, for some the sense of communal grief was so strong that they could not be seen as other than opportunistic and exploitative. Despite the fact that they sold well, and had attracted significant publicity, the dealer who first sold them came under virulent and threatening criticism from a range of political positions.

Here’s how you read the war carpet in its original form:

• The twin towers of the World Trade Centre are depicted in quite precise isometric perspective, with the impacts of the two airliners, left and right, just as they had been seen around the world on television and other media.

• The date and the flight details of the two airliners are also precisely written in English (“first impact”, “second impact”).

• The towers are montaged over the map of Afghanistan, colored green, the sacred color of Islam. The foreground band of the montage is derived from a US-produced propaganda leaflet, showing the two flags of the USA and Afghanistan united by the white dove of peace.

• USA is written vertically between the base of the towers, just above the obliquely rendered deck of one of the US aircraft supercarriers involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. The carrier showes fighter planes taking off, plus a Tomahawk missile rising up on the right hand side of the field. The missile is headed, presumably, for Tora Bora or the other sites targeted as al-Qaeda strongholds.

• The letters USA are repeated on the deck of the carrier. The first generation of these rugs (the most precisely-rendered versions) also included the headline “THE TERRORISM WAR IN AMERICA” and “AFGHANISTAN”. Thus the language, format, and iconography are all designed to appeal sympathetically to a foreign audience.

Eight years later another version of the carpet has appeared, now held in a private collection in Montreal. Such is the nature of the manual reproduction of Afghan carpets that a carpet is copied from another, over and over again. In this process images change, are simplified, and morph into new forms. The people (often children) who make the twentieth (or hundredth) copy of a design are therefore likely to have no idea of the significance of the iconography or motifs they are laboriously reproducing.

In this case we see the culmination of a process of progressive abstraction, where the maker has clearly lost contact with almost all of the significant references made by the original design. Generations of reproduction produced by copying from previous copies has resulted in an almost incomprehensible outcome – with three towers, missiles proliferating as a row of flower-shaped forms, helicopters flying upside down, text disintegrating.

This is, in a sense, tradition in action. Forms and motifs have dissolved into pattern. Tradition has reverted to its norm.

Nigel Lendon is an artist, curator, historian and cultural critic at the Australian National University. Together with Tim Bonyhady he holds an Australian Research Council grant to research the tradition of Afghan war carpets. He authors two blogs, Iconophilia ( and Rugs of War ( Further information on the Afghan war carpet tradition may be found at the site for Max Allen’s Battleground exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada  ( and at Kevin Sudeith’s (

  • Karen H.

    I’ve been fascinated by these rugs since seeing “antique” USSR invasion rugs on ebay, but never considered the dilution, or better, evolution of lore as they are made over the years or even who, beyond an adult, might be making them. Very interesting.

  • g

    I saw a collection of these several years ago, and found them fascinating.

  • acm

    are the images in the wrong order? the “original” at the top is the one with three towers and incomprehensible writing…

    • Michael Shaw


      You have thoroughly upheld my faith in The Bag today, and our frequent tagline: Reading the Pictures. Yes, the photos were in the wrong order. And thank goodness. Nigel must have thought I was blind, or something, when I wrote to him and said I couldn’t see the dove!”

      I hereby proclaim you the Bag’s “reader of the week.”

  • Ten Bears

    Nice analogy on ‘cultural dilution’, or the theory of trickle-down cultural diffusion. Those ‘9/11 Insiders’ were certainly thorough.

  • quincyscott

    Are those poppy flowers?

    • Nigel Lendon

      sometimes. But in this case, flower-like is about as specific as I’d like to be…

  • bill

    I gotta’ ask about the size. My first thought in seeing these was prayer rugs, for kneeling during Islamic prayers. Or are these large room-size carpets, as typically ascribed to “Persian rugs”?

    • Nigel Lendon

      Thanks Bill, these ones are small (610 x 810 mm), “mats” really, although some war carpets are the size of a room.

  • bystander

    Is that dove carrying an olive branch or an RPG launcher? I’d like to think olive branch, but it would be insightful of the rug’s creator to imagine that the US does “peace” differently.

  • Wayne Dickson

    Rachel Maddow showed some of these when she was in the not-really-a-nation Afghanistan, right? Didn’t she buy one? That was my first encounter.

    Reminds me of the evolution? “devolution”? of mss. from ancient times. Errors, inevitably. Influence of changes in religious belief, ideology, competence, etc.

    The above suggestions about reasons for the changes are interesting and no doubt relevant. But I’d like to have someone do a serious academic research study of the stuff.

    • momly

      Wayne, I thought that, too.

      I wonder how much reverence is given to these rugs. If they are nothing more than souvenirs, then probably not much and so the errors don’t make the much difference.

      But if the item is given a lot of reverence, the “errors” become enshrined.

  • Katherine Hunter

    weaving is with a continuous warp, not a continuous weft / warp is the threads placed on the loom / weft is the threads woven through them.

    • Nigel Lendon

      True, these are woollen knotted pile on a cotton warp and a woollen weft…

  • Wayne Dickson

    Ha! You’d have aced the relevant test in my intro to Humanities course, Katherine! :-)

    But, mischievously, I liked throwing in “woof,” as a way of teasing electronic nerds whose minds were tilted slightly by familiarity with “woofers” and “tweeters.”

    You sent me on a pleasant nostalgia trip.

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