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Art Through Time: A Global View

Domestic Life Art: Tent Door Cover (ensi)

» Turkmen (Turkoman) artist
Tent Door Cover (ensi)

Tent Door Cover (ensi)
Artist / Origin: Turkmen (Turkoman) artist
Region: Russia, Central and North Asia
Date: 19th century
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Wool
Medium: Textiles and Fiber Arts
Dimensions: H: approx. 52 in. (132 cm.), W: approx. 60 in. (152 cm.)
Location: De Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
Credit: Courtesy of De Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of George and Marie Hecksher

The Turkmen are an ethnolinguistic group that have lived for centuries in Central Asia and today inhabit Turkmenistan, as well as parts of northern Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan.

Traditionally nomadic or semi-nomadic people, many Turkmen now live sedentary lifestyles.

Textiles have long played an integral part in Turkmen life. Some items had uses tied to particular rituals or rites of passage. Others, however, made up the material landscape of the everyday. Bags, blankets, camel trappings, tent bands, carpets, clothing, and myriad other woven objects were traditionally produced on simple horizontal looms staked to the ground. In general, these items use a knotted pile technique and are characterized by strong designs and deep, rich hues, often in shades of red and brown. However, subtle differences in patterns, colors, yarns, and weaves distinguish works created by different Turkmen groups.

The Turkmen are made up of numerous tribes and sub-tribes, including the Tekke, Chodor, Ensari, Saryk, and Yomut. This piece, called an ensi, is of Turkmen origin, but the particular tribe that made it has not been identified. Although the original function of ensi is contested, since at least the nineteenth century, these rug-like works functioned as tent door coverings. As such, they served to keep out the elements, but also to beautify the interior space of the tent. Ensi bear some of the most complex designs of all Turkmen textiles. This one features a typical four-compartment design created by the intersection of a wide horizontal and vertical band. It also contains popular motifs such as the gül, an octagonal shape, and the eight-pointed star. Although the significance of Turkmen patterns remains largely unknown, many ensi bear marks with talismanic associations, suggesting that they were intended to keep evil out, along with the cold, wind, and dirt.

Expert Perspective:
Jeff Spurr, Islamic and Middle East Specialist, Harvard University Fine Arts Library

“It’s hard to exaggerate the role of textiles, broadly defined, in the lives of the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples of Central Asia since essentially everything about their society was defined by some sort of textile—the felts that were used to cover the yurt; the tent bands that were used inside and out to keep the felts in place; the absence of what we would call, furniture, so that you would have amongst the Turkmen, pile carpets on the floors for people to sit on; the large piles of bedding, which during the day, would be placed at the back of the tent, often with decorative textiles placed in front of them to add life to the interior; the many bags that were used to contain anything needing containing in their cultures; the everyday and ceremonial costumes worn by these people, which gave complex signs as to status, gender, age, and the like. Every function that one can imagine being basic to the lifestyle of these people required typically some sort of textile to sustain it.

To enter a yurt, you would have to move aside either a felt tent flap or, amongst the Turkmen in some cases, the woven pile textile called the ensi. The ensi is a pile, a rectangular pile sort of door, tent door, that varied from Turkoman group to Turkoman group in its specific character. But one can always tell an ensi by its structure, which is highly rectilinear, sometimes confused by people with prayer rugs, given that it has a directional quality with a top and a bottom, and sometimes a little feature that looks slightly niche-like at the top. But like with many things, woven rugs, woven by the Turkmen, when they began to weave heavily for market, in the late nineteenth century, these ensis suddenly grew in size to losing their actual function and simply becoming an appealing rug to sell ultimately to customers in Europe and America.”

Additional Resources

Gillow, John, and Bryan Sentence. World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.

Harvey, Janet. Traditional Textiles of Central Asia. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Kalter, Johannes. Arts and Crafts of Turkestan. London: Thames & Hudson, 1984.

Sumner, Christina, and Guy Petherbridge. Bright Flowers: Textiles and Ceramics of Central Asia. Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Lund Humphries, 2004.

“Tentdoor hanging (ensi) [Turkmenistan, Central Asia] (22.100.42).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. 2006).

The Textile Museum Web site.

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