One of the most memorable and charming sights from my 2016 trip to Iran were the Qashqai sheep–some of which wandered through the villages like pets. Their wool was so distinctive– like matted cotton candy–and I witnessed first-hand the long fibers of the pelts that lend the wool used to make Gabbehs such density and strength. Multi-colored, with darker hair on their faces than on their bodies, the sheep were also awfully cute. The breed, Karakul, is one of the world’s oldest domesticated animals, dating back 4,000 years to Babylonian times.
I was reminded of the Karakul and the symbiotic bond between human beings and domesticated animals on a trip to Chile, where I encountered alpacas. For some 5,000 years, alpacas have been specifically bred for wool––rather than as work animals like their larger, close relatives, the llama. Revered for its softness, luster, and warmth, alpaca is a luxury fiber used to make everything from the traditional Chilean ponchos, to whispery scarves, to Giorgio Armani suits. One distinct difference between alpaca and wool is the absence of lanolin. An alpaca rug would show stains and be difficult to clean, unlike a Gabbeh.
Both Karakul and alpaca thrive in the extreme climates their human caretakers inhabit, growing thicker wool the higher in altitude they live, which in turn yields an even warmer fiber. Both species have remained pure––as in, not cross-bred or genetically manipulated. Seeing these animals reminded me that elements of ancient cultures still roam among us and enhance our lives in modern times.