The Karakalpaks developed a unique and colourful material culture, which expressed itself primarily through people's costume and dwellings.

Traditional Karakalpak Bridal Costume

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Karakalpak society was highly stratified between a rich minority, composed of tribal and clan leaders (known as bays), religious leaders and other officials, and an extremely poor majority of peasants and labourers. This is not just a reiteration of Soviet propaganda. The analysis of taxation and land records appropriated by the Russians immediately after the conquest of Khiva in 1873 clearly shows that some Karakalpaks owned huge tracts of land and enormous numbers of livestock. The majority of ordinary people, however, held either very small plots of land or no land whatsoever. The average peasant plot was about two tanaps in size - bearly enough to support a single person. Many families were locked into feudal servitude, effectively tied to the land, their labour being rewarded solely in the form of food and basic lodgings.

Within such a society, only the wealthy could afford to maintain a proper level of traditional Karakalpak material culture. Their material needs were provided by small numbers of specialist craftsmen and craftswomen - embroiderers, weavers, jewellers, wood carvers, and so on.

Ordinary people had to utilize the natural resources available within the delta along with every scrap of thread or material they could muster. The Karakalpaks in the marshes of the northern delta were fishermen and cattle-breeders, while those settled in the southern part of the delta were involved with irrigated agriculture. Rushes and shiy, a tall rush-like grass, were readily available, as was wood from pollarded willow (qara tal and aq tal) or from fast-growing poplar. Agricultural products included leather, horn, cotton, hemp, goat's hair and some silk raised on leaves from locally grown mulberry trees. Gourds and pumpkins could be hollowed out for containers. However, sheep's wool was not readily available and had to be purchased from Qazaq or Turkmen nomads who inhabited the fringes of the Aral delta.

During the 17th and 18th centuries small quantities of English textiles found their way into Central Asia, especially fine cottom muslins and red-dyed English broadcloth. Anthony Jenkinson, one of the first English merchants to visit the lower Amu Darya in 1558, actually reported selling four "kersies" of English woollen cloth in Urgench. During the second half of the 19th century, Russian manufactured textiles became increasingly available from local bazaars in Shımbay, Qon'ırat and Xojeli - fine cotton muslin, plain machine-made cottons, colourful floral printed cottons and felted woollen textiles, generally available in red and black colours. Known locally in Karakalpak as qızıl ushıga and qara ushıga, or in Russian as krasni sukno and chernyi sukno, these textiles had become highly prized by local people, but were relatively very expensive and so could only be purchased in small quantities. During the final quarter of the 19th century an increasing variety of synthetic dyes reached these same bazaars and began to displace the use of traditional homemade vegetable and mineral dyes.

Visit our sister site, which uses the correct transliteration, Qaraqalpaq, rather than the Russian transliteration, Karakalpak.

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