The Devil is in the detail


Here are three versions of the figure stabbing the devil motif. The first is Plate 1 in The Rugs of War catalogue, the second is sent in by Kevin Sudeith, the third by Graham Gower. We know of a fourth version – Plate 38 “Der Krieg im Leben der Nomaden” in Frembgen and Mohm (see bibliography). It’s clearly a story with a contemporary relevance – but what is its history? Surely such a complex pictorial narrative has pre-war precedents?

Version 1


We’ve called this extraordinary image “The Story of Jahan Bahksh” which we’ve derived from the various translations of its text. (I’ll post the most complete transcription and comment on the problems of translation in due course.) My question remains: does anyone know the origins of the Jahan Bakhsh story?

Version 2


Kevin comments:

I interpret the image on this rug, which is slightly different from the image on your rug, symbolically. The mujihadeen is riding one devil while killing another. It is sort of a parable for the Afghan/Soviet war. The jihadi is using the perceived US devil to kill the Soviet devil. How these guys can make such a deal with a perceived devil is beyond me. Such moral relativism seems contradictory to the absolutist interpretation of Islamic ethics practiced by these jihadis. These rugs are definitely from the Soviet era. It shows, in very clear terms, the perceived mission of the mujahideen, of killing the devil.

Version 3

From the Gower Collection

Graham comments:

A rug with a message. Showing are Afghan government soldiers with their camels and helicopter transport. Significantly the central feature of the rug show a Russian soldier (note the boots) portrayed as the devil and being slain. Around the edge forming an impressive border is a line of tanks. In this rug the only concession to traditional patterning are the saddlebags. This is a well woven rug using quality wool. Shows signs of use and most likely has seen domestic use before being sold to the market. Size 5ft. 2 inches x 3ft. 3 inches.


Updated to add: other posts relevant to this discussion can be found in the search results for “Rostam” and in the Modern Narratives category; click on the post titles to open the images.


2 Responses to “The Devil is in the detail”

  1. kevin sudeith Says:

    Excellent work Nigel. The comparison you have done with these three rugs is exactly the type of discourse I always hoped would develop around war rugs on the internet.

  2. kevin sudeith Says:

    Tangential observation about devil image:

    In Parviz Tanavoli’s book, “Kings, Heroes, and Lovers” (Scorpion Publishing, London 1994) the first 10 plates show images of kings on their thrones which appear to be supported by horned figures, very much like the right side, standing figures in Graham’s and my rugs.

    On p.18 Tanavoli traces the rug images of king on throne to the Marble Throne, a.k.a., “The Throne of Soloman”. It was built around 1804 in Tehran. The shah who commissioned it wanted to evoke the legendary splendor of Soloman’s throne which was reputed to be carried into the sky by demons and angels. Hence demons were wrought supporting the marble throne and thereby the rugs depicting the throne.

    The rugs using this image come from Hamadan. Do you think it is reasonable to think a single image, like this horned demon, can traverse the distance from Hamadan to Herat?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: