Interview with Peter Alford Andrews – recipient of the Sir Richard Burton Medal, 2022
Peter Alford Andrews with the constant assistance of his wife, Mügül, has taken the study of the Eurasian tent to a totally new level. The material culture of the Eurasian nomad is not as well researched as it should be, and in that culture the home of the nomad, the portable tent, is of central importance. Peter Andrews has devoted most of his life to clarifying its origins, its historical evolution and its endless varieties across Eurasia.
Dr Andrews has been awarded the Sir Richard Burton medal for 2022 along with Pepita Seth and Professor Tim Williams, who we will also be interviewing in the near future.
What attracted you to studying nomadic cultures and their tents in particular?
I was an architect in practice in the 1960’s and was also teaching architecture at the Oxford Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes University. At that time there was an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art called Architecture without Architects. Rudofsky’s catalogue for the exhibition quoted Arthur Upham Pope, the great historian of Persian art, as saying “Nobody had taken tents seriously as architecture,” which I read and thought, why not me? I believed it would be an interesting hobby as a side-line to architecture and something which would bring me into a field quite different to that of urban London.
What does it mean to consider tents seriously as architecture?
You have to understand that architects, if they are properly trained, are interested in the relationship between form and structure; that the form has to grow out of the structural concept. So, I began by considering nomadic tent structures. I began in Morocco because it was nearest, and I spoke French which gave me an entrée into the society. I found that there were in fact quite a wide variety of different tent forms used by nomads, whether Arabs or Berbers, and that these were clearly adapted over many centuries to the kind of use to which they were put, to the materials which were available and the skills which the nomads themselves possessed. These tent forms are highly self-sufficient and nomads generally do not rely on materials from outside the tribal milieu.
I found that the tent is in a constant state of renewal. This was apparent from the varying hues of the goat-hair exteriors, with newer tent-cloths appearing black and shiny whilst older cloths are dryer and fade to a rather non-descript brown. One could read the history of the tent from this change. The weave, too, was porous enough to allow hot air to escape, while still being waterproof. This sort of thing intrigued me. We also noticed how the profile of tents sometimes corresponded to the landscape. In the south-west, and in Mauretania, tents are much more streamlined, with the windward edge close to the sand. Equally, when we first examined trellis-tents (the so-called yurt) among the Türkmen of Khurasan, I learned to admire the way in which the quite complicated frames were prefabricated and standardised in a particular range of sizes, and how the felt covering could be adjusted for the climatic conditions. With thousands of years of experience, nomads have learned to adapt their needs to their environment so that, rather than exploit it, they interact with it, and often use ecological niches that would otherwise be neglected.
How central is the tent is to nomadic life and culture?
To begin with, of course, the nomads make the tents themselves. They have a much more intimate connection to their home than we do.
Men play a relatively small role in creating the home. In almost every nomadic society women are responsible for weaving the tent cloth, or fulling the felt if it is a felt-covered tent. Whether the finished result belongs to the man or the woman of the house depends on the society involved. For example, among the Tuareg it is very much the woman’s property and she can throw the man out at any time she wants! Ownership aside, the tent is also very much the woman’s domain.
The word for tent is, generally speaking, regardless of language, the same word as for home. In Arabic you get ‘bait’, in Turkish ‘ev’, or in Mongolian ‘ger’, all of which words double as both the tent and the home. At the most it’s qualified by an adjective to make it clear to the outsider which you are talking about, so in Turkey you have the ‘topak ev’ which roughly translated is a ‘round domed dwelling’, or in Arabic you get ‘bait sha’r’ meaning ‘the house of hair’.
Was there any precedent for this kind of work before you started your surveys?
It actually goes back further than one would think! There was a book published in 1858 by a Captain Godfrey Rhodes who had been in the Crimea (94th Queen’s Regiment) and had seen how the British tents were not really fit for purpose, and would often blow down, whereas the Turkish ones remained standing. He produced a book called Tents and tent-life from the earliest ages to the present time, a remarkably capable book for its time. Closer to the present time, there was a study by two Germans, Ernst Rackow and Werner Caskel, called Das Beduinenzelt. That was compiled by them from information they had gathered from prisoners of war during the first World War. It was an extremely competent effort to which they later added a second part, published in 1938, around the time I was born. It had very good illustrations and they really got to grips with the relation of the structure to the apparent form of the tent, how it could be modified and adapted to different wind directions, how it was furnished, and how the different areas of the tent were prescribed for men and women. Then there was a comprehensive book by Carl Gustav Feilberg, La tente noire, in 1944, but he had been unable to conduct any fieldwork during the war, so it was limited in detail: it was a very useful guide to sources.
There was a body of information that we might regard as more frivolous efforts, such as a wonderful little book called Gipsy Tents and how to use them. A handbook for amateur gipsies, which was published in 1890 by a man called G.R. Lowndes, concerned with the practicalities of building and using tents for recreation.
There were also a series of articles by French ethnographers published partly in Cahiers des arts et techniques de l’Afrique du nord on individual tribes in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. As they were each written separately from each other, the criteria applied in each article was inconsistent. It was an important lead into the kind of standards which I should apply to my own research, that one should be consistent in applying the same gamut of criteria to whatever tribe or people happened to be concerned.
As to the Central Asian tradition, N. Kharuzin had published a wide-ranging study in 1896, distinguishing the Turkic and Mongolian types, but his criteria are now outdated. I learned a great deal from an article by Prof. Andras Róna-Tas on the Qazaq tent (1963), and one by Prof. Ulla Johansen on the word alačyq (alaçıq) (1966), the pair of which introduced me to the interaction of philology, form and history in the Altaic context. Prof. Bivar introduced me to Sir Gerard Clauson, and when his Dictionary came out in 1972, that was the third influence establishing the standards I might aspire to.
What was the academic reception to your work when you started?
Initially, my work was supported by Prof. Otto Koenigsberger, head of the tropical department at the Architectural Association, and he continued to encourage me, but advising me not to publish anything until I had written a thesis.
My thesis, which I undertook at SOAS in 1970, took me 10 years to complete. There was initial difficulty in finding anyone who would accept this as a thesis subject at all! I had initially conceived it as an ethnological exercise, but it became clear that within the disciplines available at SOAS this wasn’t an available option. The head of anthropology, Prof. Fürer-Haimendorf, turned it down, telling me “You are trying to do at the beginning of your life what most people do at the end!” There was in fact considerable prejudice against work on material culture. One academic even dismissed it as “making lists of things”. I had to adapt my aim to a historical study and that entailed a change of direction in so far as I had to read a great many historical sources in quite a few different languages. I was eventually pushed into the direction of Prof. David Bivar – another medallist of yours – who became my supervisor and through him I was put under the aegis of Prof. Mary Boyce, also a RAS medallist, who despite her interest in Zoroastrianism was motivated to sponsor me as tutor. Through them, too, I was taken under the wing of David Stronach, Director of the British Institute of Persian Studies, who encouraged me to work on the tribes in Iran, which we did in 1970 and 1974. I was fortunate, too, in being supported at selection meetings by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who, when someone remarked that they did not see how this fitted in with an established discipline, said “Don’t you see? That is the whole glory of it!”. Upham Pope, to whom I had written, was also encouraging, saying that my taking up the subject was just the kind of thing he hoped to achieve by writing the Survey.
In Iran I found there were several social anthropologists at work on the important groups of nomads, and I was able to use their work to provide context: they also offered me information. Richard Tapper was exceptional in having written a chapter on Şahsevän tents in his thesis, which he gave me.
I was subsequently examined by Tapper, by then head of the school of anthropology at SOAS, and as an art historian, Prof. Robert Hillenbrand. They were very complementary about it, which helped getting it published.
As I was finishing the thesis I was faced with the prospect of earning a living to support my family. At that time Thatcher had come into power and started closing down university departments, making it much more difficult to find employment in this country. Ultimately, I was offered a job at the University of Cologne by Ulla Johansen whom I had met some ten years before. The work in Cologne was on ethnic maps of the Middle East and nothing to do with tents at all, so it was during the evenings that I continued to edit and enlarge my thesis. I was lucky enough to get a grant from the J. Paul Getty Trust and it was published in 1999 as Felt Tents and Pavilions: The Nomadic Tradition and its Interaction with Princely Tentage. Mary Boyce wrote me a wonderful letter about it, and I did get very positive reviews from such people as Dr Hedda Reindl-Kiel and Prof. Thomas Allsen, themselves familiar with nomadic cultures, but, alas, the sales never exceeded 200, and the book went chiefly to libraries. Tom Lentz was so pleased with it that he displayed it on the coffee table in his office at the Freer.
Would you consider that your most important contribution?
Well it’s the biggest! It runs to over 1,400 pages across two volumes. The anthropologists, though, consider my work on the ethnic groups in Turkey to be my principal contribution. After my work on Turkey, I published the first part of my Nomad tent Types in the Middle East (Wiesbaden 1997), also in two volumes. The tent project is work still very much in progress, and I hope I last long enough to do justice to the material we gathered in the field.
Did you continue to work at Cologne?
When I had finished my work on ethnic maps in the Middle East, Johansen, who was a turkologist, had herself worked with Turkish nomads, and had a lively interest in what she called ‘materialised culture’, suggested that I should use my information to make a map of the distribution of nomad tent types in the Middle East. I should mention that I had initially been contracted to work for 2.5 years, this was a drastic underestimate; in fact it took five years to compile the map of ethnic groups in Turkey and I was given another three years to complete a book to accompany the map. By the time I left Cologne I had been employed at the University for 25 years! I was regarded as having broken virtually all the records for research employment at a German university (“Du bist eine Legende”). Johansen, my initial employer and principal backer, is someone to whom I owe a great debt. We remained close friends to the end of her life.
Your wife was a strong collaborator in most of your projects, could you tell us more about her contribution to your work?
My wife was extremely proud of her Turkish background, which she tended to interpret in an Ottoman rather than Kemalist light. She had trained at what would be called a finishing school here, but was very much craft-centred so she was a very accomplished embroiderer, seamstress and had a lively interest in textiles. Despite having been brought up in Ankara and Istanbul, she had regularly made summer visits to Gümüşhane in the east, where her family had been sancak beyler. This had accustomed her to rural ways, and a more Azäri variety of Turkish, making her culturally more adaptable. She was also remarkably fearless of authority, even of SAVAK officials, probably because as a small girl she had frequently encountered ministers in the house.
We started our work together on our honeymoon. We got fed up with the hotel we were staying in so left to stay with nomads instead! That of course engendered a certain amount of interest on their part when they learned we were only just married. Although she was from one of the leading families in turkey, she did not suffer from snobbery of any sort and formed quite affectionate relationships with the nomadic women, relationships that developed throughout our work together. This was a huge advantage to my research, since so much of the knowledge we needed to learn lay with the women rather than the men. In return the nomad women profited from her education, and she was often asked about such things as birth-control. Once she showed them that she had skills like theirs, they were much readier to communicate.
We were commissioned to make a model of a Beduin tent for the National Museum of Qatar, which she wove using exactly the original techniques at 1/10th scale: I devised the heddles for the patterned curtains and girths. It was the centre-piece at the Museum in ca. 1975, but has since disappeared.
She had trained as an interior designer and had done some technical drawing in that course but was by no means ‘fluent’. She adapted very rapidly. It got to the point where she was contributing technical drawings for my books; not the perspectives, as they involved a high degree of technical expertise, but the more two-dimensional detail drawings, where she particularly enjoyed doing intricate work. From 1980-81 she accompanied me in India where we had been asked to study surviving court tents by the Calico Museum, Ahmedabad. She traced a great number of textile designs which on our return she worked up into detailed renderings of the various patterns. This work was collated and published as Tentage at the Calico Museum and its Patterns (2015).
When we married I had warned her that I was just starting a large project, which she agreed to help me with. We worked together for 40 years in the field and she embraced the project wholeheartedly, though she did occasionally reproach me saying that when she had agreed she hadn’t realised that it would take a lifetime!
Did you have many other collaborators?
For our work in Morocco in the 1960s, we were helped by an architect colleague, Anton Jansz, who was an extremely fluent draughtsman, and worked up many of my measured sketches into publishable drawings, particularly those done in Iran.
Susan Parker had been a student of mine at Oxford and during our first collaboration in 1970, she drew a perspective of a Şahsevän tent for me. Such drawings are time-consuming and costly but Susan became extremely good at setting up the perspectives; she has done a large number for me and we continue to work together. When I was working in Germany I employed students from the architecture school in Cologne, particularly Oliver Schmitt who, with a very fine eye, became very good at doing sections of felt tents.
All these efforts required careful instructions and checking, which before the days of computers and e-mail, led to heavy use of the fax.
How has your work been received outside of academia?
There is an equally lively reception on the part of tent-makers. The first was Dr Bill Coperthwaite, who set up the Yurt Foundation in Maine, and became a close friend. One of the most well-known and competent tent makers, Hal Wynne-Jones, wrote a review of my book calling it the ‘tent makers bible.’ Another group who call themselves ‘Spirits Intent’ invited us to join the first “Yurt-Makers’ Conference” in the Ardèche. We have remained in touch for twenty years now and they share their developments with me as I do with them. Today, ‘Yurts’ have become fashionable as places to holiday. In Scotland there is even someone who makes Qırgız tents.
As we worked in Turkey and Iran we realised that we had an unusual opportunity to pay attention to the rugs and other furnishings woven by the nomads, so as a by-product of the tent study we were able to record a good many of these. On our return we found there was a very lively interest in this information, so we were taken up by the ‘ruggies’ in London and in Germany: I did my best to contextualise the use of these textiles, which was little understood by the collectors.
How have nomadic cultures been affected by changes in society? What is the state of nomadic culture today?
It’s a mixed picture. To some extent the detrimental changes I anticipated at the start of my career have taken place. In the Middle East governments have traditionally been inimical to nomads, as they are difficult to control, and can’t be taxed. This is very evident in Turkey where the government still hasn’t grasped the fact that nomads are using the terrain in an ecologically sustainable way, and would rather try to settle them, often unsuccessfully, in unsympathetic concrete blocks with very little greenery, which the nomads hate and usually desert within a couple of years. In Iran, Reza Shah had forbidden the making and use of nomad tents, though by the 1970s the next Shah’s government, through the tribal office in Shiraz, had begun to experiment with encouraging nomad activity. Iran hasn’t seen a collapse of nomadic life, since the Islamic Republic regards nomads as an underprivileged group and therefore worthy of a degree of support, allowing them to continue the use of their migration routes and to some extent traditional tents. Lois Beck has done recent field work among the Qaşqay and from what I gather from her writings they are managing to maintain their traditional pattern of life.
From my point of view the nomadic tradition has degraded. The tents which are now being used are hybrid things with a lot of polythene sheets and terylene ropes. Goat-hair tent cloth used in Arabia is woven in Rajasthan. In some Central Asian republics, though, there is an effort to encourage certain material aspects of nomadic life. At Bishkek in Qırgızstan there is an open-air display of prize-winning tents built by different craftsmen, and the roof-wheel of a trellis-tent actually figures on the national flag. In Mongolia many are turning to a nomadic way of life following the collapse of the Soviet urbanisation project, and though most of the tents being made are done so through mass production in government workshops, some remarkably fine “presentation” specimens are being made at Qaraqorum.