War rugs are traditional Persian or Oriental rugs featuring images such as helicopters, tanks, guns, bombs, and weapons. They primarily come from Afghanistan and were first woven in about 1980. In the last decades of the 20th century, these strange images began showing up in traditional rugs woven by Afghans. Instead of the usual patterns, knots outlined tanks, missiles, and fighter jets — iconography that had become a familiar sight in those war-torn areas. In the earliest of these rugs, chequer-patterned helicopters hover over images of animal-filled parks and palatial buildings, themes adapted from classic models. One could say that these depictions were in the style of Alighiero Boetti, a conceptual artist and the first to commission the topic of war maps on rugs, which took on a life of its own over the subsequent years. The rugs have since developed a cult niche.

For example, if you ask the Pakistani vendors, they will tell you all about the 10 Tank War Rug styles from Mazare Sharif, typified by two columns of tanks in a guns-up formation. When the Soviets retreated, their tanks stood in this non-aggressive manner. These rugs celebrate the Afghan victory over the Soviets. They are also interesting because they reveal how the war motifs have become abstracted from the more realistic ones on the earlier rugs; they’ve shifted from a normal appearance towards the gull-like form found on traditional rugs from this region.

Dealer and collector Kevin Sudeith has created warrug.com, a prime resource for war rug enthusiasts. Some of the rugs are destined for private collections or are on loan to museums or galleries. They have been international commodities for some time; those shown here are unusually ambitious in terms of scale and design. Regions, towns, families, and weavers all have their own border designs, which has made this a good way to identify and group the rugs.