Rug making is a traditional art form widespread in all regions of Armenia, but the Karabakh carpets, due to theirs features and popularity, represent a separate category. Until the proliferation of synthetic aniline dyes in the 1870s, the rich colors of the Karabakh carpets were made of only natural substances, mostly of plants and minerals, native to that region. Indigo (blueing) was imported from the East and cochineal from the Ararat valley. Some villages and settlements have never accepted synthetic dyes, staying true to their traditional natural methods.
According to Dr. Dickran Kouyumjian, the Director of Armenian Studies Program of California State University, Fresno, various ancient sources testify about carpets and other textiles, skillfully made in Armenia. A unique example among Armenian ancient carpets, the carpet ‘’Gohar’’, which Dr. Dickran Kouyumjian called ‘’the biggest and most exquisite’’, has been made in Karabakh and has a signature identifying the weaver, Gohar, and the date 1700. “Another important carpet woven in 1731 in Artsakh for Catholicos Nerses of Aghuank is preserved in the monastery of St. James in Jerusalem”, states Dr. Dickran Kouyumjian in his article entitled “Armenian Textiles: An Overview”.
In Karabakh, as in other Armenian regions, carpets and rugs were not originally made for sale .They were considered household items and heirlooms not a product. It was considered bad luck to take a carpet out of home. Heirloom carpets had a protective significance and often symbolized fertility.
Karabakh’s carpets are rich with symbols that represent family crests and ancient legends, some dating back to times. Although the carpets have changed a lot for many centuries, most of the ornaments have kept their original look. The most prevalent symbol is dragon. Though the dragon is the common symbol of carpets and rugs throughout the Caucasus, it is largely the result of a large outflow of Armenians from Karabakh in the 18th century, who have founded or revived many towns throughout the region bringing with them their carpet weaving traditions. Another symbol common in Karabakh carpets is medallion. There are five main types of medallions, though several other variations can also be found. They are most likely derived from the crests of prominent clans and meliks (semi-independent princes) who presided over the principalities of Karabakh from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Some of the medallions have the suffix “-berd” (fortress) in their names, which implies that each fortress had its own crest. These include Jraberd (Water fortress), Arevaberd (Sun fortress) and Odtsaberd (Snake fortress), which are composed of swastikas (symbolizing power and eternity) and writhing dragons.
At the beginning of 19th century the Caucasus was joined the Russian Empire and gradually the prevalence of meliks with their historical borders started to weaken. But their traditional medallions, after the fall of those princedoms, stayed long in the art of carpet weaving. Although crests and medallions are relics of the Karabakh historic royalty, many symbols used in ancestral carpets reflect day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of this ancient land. The centerpiece of such rugs is a crowned bull (ox, buffalo), the role of which in the lives of the people of Karabakh was not limited only with agricultural functions. In ancient times the bull was glorified. Even after its death, its skull was put as a talisman in a prominent place in the home. Many carpets also have images of bovine leather and sheep's wool, as well as pagan sacred symbols images. A great number of Karabakh carpets have various symbolic images of eagles, the image of which was perceived as a symbol of power, strength and striving towards infinity.
By the early 20th century the production of hand-loomed rugs and carpets had stopped in the most Armenian cities as a result of massacres and continuous dislocation, when the great part of Armenian precious rugs were lost or destroyed. The art of carpet weaving was passed from generation to generation, and the destruction and separation of families made the continuation of that tradition almost impossible. In Karabakh, however, carpet weaving as an art form and industry, was preserved during the Soviet era.
In the 19th – 20th the carpets of Shoushi were the best in the region and were sold in all neighboring cities. In 1907 in the rug factory of Shoushi 120 women were working. 600-700 rugs were produced a year, most of which were exported to Europe. During the Soviet period the factory was transported to Stepanakert. Today the handmade carpets and rugs are woven not only in Stepanakert and Shoushi but also in surrounding villages, especially in the Nikol Duman House Museum in the Ethnographic District of Tsaghkashat village. These carpets are still popular and have great fame due to their high quality. Currently, the ornaments of Armenian carpets are also used in fashion and design elements. The basic colors that are used in Karabakh carpets are tight and dark tapes of red, blue and brown.