From afar, the ornate rug looks like a blur of colour and nondescript geometric patterns. But a closer look reveals the unmistakable shapes of helicopters, tanks and weapons.

The Oriental carpet from war-torn Afghanistan exemplifies a traditional craft with a modern twist. It's one of more than 60 on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia through July (“Battleground — War Rugs from Afghanistan” and at www.penn.museum).

U.S. and Canadian soldiers buy many of the rugs as souvenirs, and the textiles show the intersection of art, commerce, tourism and war, experts say.

“People who are in pretty severe circumstances will make what sells,” exhibit curator Max Allen said.

For centuries, rug-makers have woven colourful threads to depict flowers, animals and other elements of nature. Carpets are a major Afghan export as well as a staple in local homes, where they are considered furniture, Allen said.

Customary designs are still prevalent, but a subset with battle themes began to emerge during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he said. It continued when American soldiers invaded after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Some rugs incorporate subtle imagery visible only upon close inspection- trapezoidal shapes come into focus as tanks and irregular geometric outlines become rows of assault rifles or aircraft. The dimensions of those pieces, combined with their delicate patterns and high quality, lead Allen to believe they were made for natives.

Other rugs are flashier, with crude maps of the country labelled in English, huge fighter jets, soldiers, even planes flying into the World Trade Center. Many are doormat size, woven of cheaper material and made to appeal to foreigners. Still, Allen described the carpets as “important cultural documents.” He first noticed one at a rug store in Toronto about 10 years ago, and has since bought hundreds.

The collection in the Philadelphia exhibit, first displayed at the Textile Museum of Canada, was mostly acquired on eBay, he said. “Like any textile tradition, I knew they would come and go,” Allen told The Associated Press. “I thought, ‘I better start accumulating them.'” Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, owns a 160-year-old traditional carpet and two small war rugs given to him by Afghan colleagues. He described them as bearing the American and Afghan flags and some kind of battle equipment.

Post-9/11 rugs are more about pleasing buyers than protesting conflict, but now-hard-to-find Soviet-era carpets were genuine expressions of suffering, he said. Many were made and sold in Pakistan, where Afghan refugees lived in camps; the market niche for war rugs developed soon after, said Gouttierre. Eventually, the battle imagery may recede, he said.

“Right now, they know they have a ready market,” Gouttierre said. “When the market disappears, you'll probably see a decline in the subjects and a return to the traditional patterns.”

Today, online searches for rugs yield prices from about $80 to a few thousand dollars, depending on the size, quality, condition and dealer.

Brian Spooner, a professor of anthropology at Penn, said the rugs “are a product of the vastly increased rate of social change Afghans have experienced” since the Soviets invaded in late 1979. “Before that, Afghans were relatively isolated from the change that had already taken off in many parts of the world,” Spooner said. “They are unlikely to be isolated in the future.”

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