GABBA (gava in Kurdish and Lori, Īzadpanāh, s.v.; ḵersak in Baḵtīārī, Digard, pp. 128-31), a hand-woven pile rug of coarse quality and medium size (90 x 150 cm or larger) characterized by an abstract design that relies upon open fields of color and a playfulness with geometry. This kind of rug is common among the tribes of the Zagros (Kurdish, Lori-speaking ethnic groups, Qašqāʾīs). The first known reference to gabba is found in a farmān by Shah Ṭahmāsp (r. 930-84/1524-76) dating to the middle of the 16th century (Opie, 1992, p. 124). Gabbas were said to have originated in Lorestān (mainly from the Ḵorramābād, Borūjerd, and Alīgūdarz regions), whence its use and production spread northward among the Kurds as far as Sanandaj, Nehāvand, Bījār, Kabūdarāhang, and southward in Fārs among the Qašqāʾīs (Tanāvolī, 1977; Tanavoli and Amanolahi; Opie) and as far as Šūl, a village on the edge of the Bušehr province which was reputed to produce the best gabbas. Typically, there is minimal pattern with an occasional stick figure or simply stylized animals on a gabba.

With the exception of the old gabba-ye šīrī, representing a lion, of the Darrašūrī tribe (q.v.; Tanāvolī, 1983), the traditional tribal gabbas are loose and coarsely woven. They have long pile, low knot density, and many rows of weft between each row of knots. The knotting can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Colors derive from undyed wool, šīrī (cream), šotorī (light brown), and sīāh (black, in small quantity, in the form of small flower motifs), from natural dyestuffs derived from plant materials gathered by women and children. Dyed colors show subtle variations that result from the dye-bath and methods used to impart color to the wool yarns prior to weaving. The essential features of the gabba are its small size and soft texture, its comfort (thickness of the pile), and its natural colors.

A gabba is basically the rug of a single person, usually a woman (Digard, p. 174), who carries in it from place to place her hearth, mašk (goatskin sack for carrying water), loom, cradle, etc.; sometimes a fur rug (taḵt-e pūst) or a felt rug (namad, see FELT) performs the same function. A gabba may also be taken to the ḥammām as a mat or used to cover the back of a mount instead of a saddle.

Traditionally, gabbas were woven for local domestic use, not for sale. In particular, the long pile and floppy handle made them useful as sleeping blankets. The increased interest in gabbas among Western collectors since the 1980s and a shared aesthetic with minimalism and the color field movement in modern art, as well as a contemporary appreciation of the charm of gabba rugs, have led to higher demand which has spawned commercial manufacture in India and elsewhere, often using synthetic dyes, for the home-furnishing markets in Europe and the United States. In Persia, the weavers of some tribes (especially among the Qašqāʾīs) have been working exclusively for foreign markets. Demands of merchants who look for new motifs, and the fact that gabba designs were little developed and elaborated, caused the weavers to take liberties with their models and make bold improvisations (Opie, passim). In the same manner as, or at least to the same extent as, the rugs made at the end of the 19th century did (Helfgott), gabbas offer a significant example of traditional production in which foreign demand has rekindled interest resulting in radical design and functional transformations, while rejuvenating a pre-capitalist sector of the Persian economy.

A further impetus was given to the fashion for gabbas with the appearance of Moḥsen Maḵmalbāf’s film Gabbeh (1996). The rug appears as a recurrent symbolic motif, celebrating life and color against the morbid forces of darkness and explores both the transience and effervescence of life by focusing on a tribal girl named Gabbeh. The film is imbued with a lyrical romanticism far removed from the everyday realities of tribal life.

It is mainly recent collectors and dealers in Germany and Italy who have taken the lead in providing information about gabba. Very few works, either on carpets (e.g., Eagleton) or the tribes (e.g., Beck; Mortensen), mention gabba, and the subject has not received critical scrutiny in academic circles. This is because gabbas, like all tribal rugs (Helfgott, pp. 161-72), were long considered, in the tribes as well as in international trade, to be too coarse to be offered for sale. Moreover, works that make passing reference to gabba too often erroneously attribute to it uses that it does not have or misleadingly label as gabbas what are in fact large carpets with elaborated motifs (a Lor carpet of 137 by 206 cm, a Baḵtīārī of 104 by 413 cm, and two Qašqāʾī of 152 by 224 cm and 124 by 264 cm in Opie; a Baḵtīārī of more than four meters in Sadighi and Hawkes).

Most extant gabbas date from well into the 20th century, but early dates of acquisition of gabba in The Textile Museum’s collections in Washington suggest 19th century dating for some examples. Some authors believe that gabba represent much older traditions of pile weaving, and that their origins may date to the emergence of this technique in the steppes of Central Asia soon after domestication of sheep.

PLATE I. Gabba, southwestern Persia(?), 19th century. Wool pile on wool warp and weft. 208.5 × 129.5 cm. The Textile Museum R33.00.4. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers.

PLATE II. Gabbas on display at a Qašqāʾī tent in the garmsīr (q.v.). After M. Aḥmadī and M. Maḵmalbāf, Gabba: fīlm-nāma wa ʿaks, Tehran, 1375 Š./1996.

PLATE III. A gabba in a contemporary style. After M. Aḥmadī and M. Maḵmalbāf, Gabba: fīlm-nāma wa ʿaks, Tehran, 1375 Š./1996.



L. Beck, Nomad: A Year in the Life of a Qashqaʾi Tribesman in Iran, London, 1991.

R. D. Biggs, ed., Discoveries from Kurdish Looms, Seattle, 1983.

G. D. Bornet, Gabbeh: The Georges D. Bornet Collection III, Baar, Switzerland, 1995.

A. De Franchis and J. T. Wertime, Lori and Bakhtiyari Flatweaves, Tehran, 1976.

J.-P. Digard, Techniques des nomades Baxtyâri d’Iran, Cambridge and Paris, 1981.

W. Eagleton, An Introduction to Kurdish Rugs and Other Weavings, New York, 1988.

M.-R. Ḥasanbeygī, “Gabba,” Faṣl-nāma-ye ʿašāyerī, no. 6, 1367 Š./1988, pp. 121-26.

L. M. Helfgott, Ties that Bind: A Social History of the Iranian Carpet, Washington and London, 1994.

Ḥ. Īzadpanāh, Farhang-e lorī, Tehran, 1343 Š./1964.

D. W. Martin, “The Gabbehs of Fars: An Abstract Tribal Art,” Hali 5/4, 1983, pp. 462-73.

I. D. Mortensen, Nomads of Luristan: History, Material Culture, and Pastoralism in Western Iran, Copenhagen, 1993.

Museo nazionale della montagna “Duca degli Abruzzi,” I Gabbeh: un’arte tribale astratta tappeti del Sud-Ovest persiano, catalogue of an exhibition, 14 May-26 June, 1988, Cahiers Museomontagna 58, Turin, 1988.

I. C. Neff and C. V. Maggs, Dictionary of Oriental Rugs, London and Johannesburg, 1977.

J. Opie, Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia, Portland, Ore., 1985.

S. Parhām and S. Āzādī, Dastbāfhā-ye ʿašāyerī-e wa rūstāʾī-e Fārs, Tehran, 1365 Š./1986.

H. Reinisch, Gabbeh: The Georges D. Bornet Collection I, Catalogue of an Exhibition at the Graz Kunstlerhaus, 4 April to 20 April 1986, Graz and London, 1986.

T. Sabahi, Splendeurs des tapis d’Orient, Paris, 1987.

H. Sadighi and K. Hawkes, Gabbehs: Stammesteppiche der Bergnomaden am Zagros, Berlin, 1991.

A. Sette, T. Meglioranzi, and L. Zoccatelli, Gabbeh: Tappeti tribali della Persia meridionale, Verona, 1988.

P. F. Stone, The Oriental Rug Lexicon, Seattle, 1996, p. 83.

P. Tanāvolī, Qālīča-ye šīrī-e Fārs, Tehran, 2536 (1356) Š./1977.

Idem, “Gabbeh,” Hali 5/4, 1983, pp. 474-76.

P. Tanavoli and S. Amanolahi, Gabbe: The George D. Bornet Collection II, Baar, Switzerland, 1991.

J. Wertime, “The Names, Types, and Functions of Nomadic Weaving in Iran,” in A. N. Landreau, ed., Yoruk: The Nomadic Weaving Tradition of the Middle East, Pittsburgh, 1978, pp. 23-26.

(Jean-Pierre Digard and Carol Bier)

Originally Published: December 15, 2000

Last Updated: February 2, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. X, Fasc. 3, pp. 237-239