History of Persian Carpets
History of Persian Carpets: From the Nomadic Tribes of Iran to Europe’s Richest
In addition to its gardens and mosaic tiles, Iran (formerly Persia) is famous the world over for the country’s intricate and striking textiles, specifically the handwoven Persian carpet.
(A quick note regarding terms. “Carpet” and “rug” are often used interchangeably. According to Lee Allane’s Tribal Rugs: A Buyer’s Guide [1996, pp. 8-9]: “a carpet is a rug whose surface area is more than 4.4 square metres and whose length is less than 1.5 times its width, i.e…2.74 x 1.83 metres. This distinction is generally confined to Britain and the British Commonwealth[.]” We will use the term “carpet” in this article, unless quoted sources use another term.)
Carpets can now be machine-manufactured to lower cost and appeal to the mass market, but an authentic Persian carpet, with a historic lineage of more than two millennia, is designed and produced by hand. This intricate process can take as long as a year–or even decades.
From Sheep to Persian Carpets
The labour-intensive process in order to create a Persian carpet begins with shearing sheep for their wool. The sheep are grazed by the shepherds of Iran’s nomadic Qashqai and Bakhtiari tribes in Iran’s Fars Province in the southwest region of the country.
The wool is cleaned and the chunks of cleaned wool are fed to a spindle attached to a spinning wheel. As the wheel is spun, the spindle also spins, pulling the wool into a fine, even thread.
The threads are then gathered into bundles and dyed, the bundles boiled for days in vats filled with natural ingredients (including lettuce leaf, walnut skin, cherry stem and pomegranate skin) to give them colour, before they are air-dried. This is followed by months or even years of weaving until a carpet is finished. As Newsweek reports, “A master weaver…will weave only 15 to 20 rugs in a lifetime. Some of the bigger rugs can take more than 60 years to finish.”
The weavers work without a design template, so no two carpets are exactly the same.
Before the Persian carpet adorned the floors of the palaces of kings, the weavers of the nomadic tribes of Iran wove carpets for a practical reason: to protect them from cold and damp weather. The carpets can be wrapped around the body, or placed on the ground as a soft covering.
With the rise of the Safavid Dynasty of Iran under Shah Abbas, the Persian carpets eventually found their way to rich homes throughout Europe, their beauty becoming a source of fascination for artists and noblemen, the Persian carpet forever associated with luxury and prestige. In 2010, the traditional skills of carpet weaving in Fars, Iran was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Let’s look at the Persian carpet’s journey throughout history.
The Scythians and the “Pazyryk carpet”
In 1947, a Russian archaeologist named S.J. Rundenko was excavating a 5th century Scythian tomb in southern Siberia when he uncovered, among other treasures, an almost entirely preserved carpet now known as the “Pazyryk carpet”, which at more than 2,000 years of age is the oldest surviving carpet ever discovered. According to Allane (1996, p. 16), the contents of the tomb were preserved because it was earlier broken into, allowing in water, which then froze during the winter and re-sealed the tomb in ice for millennia.
The Scythians (“SIH-thee-uns”) were an ancient Iranian nomadic tribe of warriors who migrated from Central Asia to Russia in the 7th century BC and founded an empire centred on Crimea. Archaeologists theorise the Pazyryk carpet may have originated from Persepolis (as it has motifs that appear in the ancient city as well), or that the Scythians, an advanced culture, spread weaving skills through trade and migration.
The Persian Carpet as a Centuries-Old Art Form
In any case, ancient texts show that the Persians were widely known for their beautiful carpets. The Greek historian Xenophon writes in his Hellenica (translated to A History of Greece or A History of My Times):
Pharnabazus appeared dressed in clothes that would have been worth a lot of gold. And then his servants came forward to spread down for him the kind of soft rugs on which the Persians sit. (Source: A History of My Times)
The Greek historian Aristobulus described the tomb of Cyrus the Great (559 BC to 530 BC) in Pasargadae near Persepolis in Persia as having “a Babylonian tapestry serv[ing] as a coverlet and purple rugs as a carpet“.
Chinese texts dating back to the Sasanian era (224 to 641 AD) mention the production of sophisticated carpets in Persia. In 628 AD, Emperor Heraclius brought back carpets from the Persian capital of Ctesiphon after the city fell to the Byzantines.
“Spring of Khosrow” Carpet
The fortuitous sealing and later discovery of the Pazyryk carpet is incredible as the materials used to make carpets decay with time, taking with them an incredible wealth of information regarding the culture that produced them.
One of the most famous “lost” carpets is the Baharestan Carpet, also known as the “Spring of Khosrow”. No fragment of it remains now, but it is described in detail in the historical annals of the Muslim scholar Al-Ṭabari. It measured about 84 square feet (7.8 square metres) and was made for the Ctesiphon palace of the Sasanian King Khosrow I, who reigned from 531 to 579 AD. The magnificent carpet, woven from precious materials such as silk, gold, silver, and jewels, depicted a Persian garden in its full splendour in spring.
The border was a magnificent flower bed of blue, red, white, yellow and green stones; in the background the colour of the earth was imitated with gold; clear stones like crystals gave the illusion of water; the plants were in silk and the fruits were formed by colour stones. (Al-Tabari, as cited by The Iran Chamber Society)
Ctesiphon, located southeast of present-day Baghdad, served as the capital of the Persian Empire for more than 800 years. It was invaded once by Heraclius and the Byzantines, but finally fell to the Arabs in 637 AD. When the Arabs captured Ctesiphon, the carpet was too large and heavy to be taken out of the palace by the Persians, which resulted in the precious carpet falling into the hands of the invading forces. It was cut into fragments and distributed to the troops.
Seljuk and the Turkish Knot
After the Arabs, a Turkish tribe, called the Seljuk after their founder, conquered Persia and dominated the territory from 1038 to 1194 AD. The Seljuk women were skilful weavers, and their technique of using the symmetrical Turkish knot (also known as the Ghiordes knot) was transferred to Persian weavers, who for centuries had used the Persian (or Sinneh/Senneh) knot. The Persian knot is still preferred in Iran in modern times, but in the provinces of Azerbaijan and Hamadan in Iran, where Seljuk influence was strongest, the Turkish knot is still used to this day.
You can see the difference between the two knots below:
The Persian Carpet under the Safavid Dynasty
Shah Abbas of the Safavid Dynasty is credited for developing the Persian carpet industry that the world knows today. During his reign (1588 to 1629), Ottoman and Uzbek troops were expelled from Iranian soil, and the capital of Iran was transferred from Kazvin (or Qazvin) to Isfahan (or Esfahan). Isfahan, adorned under Shah Abbas’s guidance with mosques, boulevards, and the splendid Naqsh-e Jahan Square, rapidly transformed into a beautiful city.
Beauty and prestige found its way into other facets of Iranian life and culture as the country reached an artistic and commercial “golden age” under Shah Abbas’s reign. The crown monopolised the production and trade of silk (the main material used in carpet production during his reign) and set up royal carpet factories and a court workshop where skilled weavers can work on their designs. This firm support paved the way for a robust carpet-weaving practice, which eventually became a major industry in Iran. The “Shah Abbasi” design was developed during this era, referring to a central pattern consisting of intricate arabesque and lotus-motifs that require high-knot density.
Iran established trade relations with European countries, and the silk Persian carpets, embellished with silver and gold threads, found their way into the homes of wealthy Europeans, and continued to be a point of obsession and fascination among European artists after the Abbasi regency.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Only wealthy patrons could afford fine carpets, which were traded as luxury goods from the Islamic lands to Europe and other parts of the world…Dutch painters from the seventeenth century often include oriental carpets [referring to carpets from the Islamic world] in genre scenes set in the homes of prosperous citizens. Unlike in the East, where carpets are used on the floor, in these works the carpets appear draped on tables[.]”
Joobin Bekhrad (2017) points out that in Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca 1662) “the pitcher in question rests, according to the Met Museum, on a ‘soft and thickly textured Persian carpet.’”
You can also see a carpet covering the table in The Newborn Baby (1675) by Dutch artist Matthijs Naiveu.
The most famous carpets from the Safavid dynasty are the Ardabil Carpets, a pair of carpets dating back to the mid-16th century and which were initially used in the Ardabil Mosque.
The larger of the two carpets is kept in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, while the other is displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum.
The carpet in the V&A Museum measures 10.51 m x 5.34 m (34′ 6″ x 17′ 6″) and features a large, yellow medallion in its centre, surrounded by a ring of pointed oval shapes with a lamp hanging from either end.
The lamps are of different sizes. According to the V&A Museum, this may be in order to create a perspective effect since “if you sat near the small lamp, both would appear to be the same size”, but this kind of play with perspective does not appear in other Persian carpets of the era. Others think this was a deliberate error to show that “perfection belongs to God alone”.
The smaller carpet in the Los Angeles County Museum has lost its borders and portion of its central field. It is believed parts of this carpet have been used to repair the carpet in the V&A Museum.
In 2013, a Persian carpet made auction history. The ancient carpet, dubbed the “Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet” after its previous owner, US Senator William Clark, was purchased by the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha for $33.74 million.
The Modern Persian Carpet Industry
In 2010, the US passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act which revoked, among other things, permission to import “certain foodstuffs and carpets of Iranian origin“. The US sanctions against Iran dates back to 1979 in response to the US hostage crisis and embassy seizure in Tehran, and these later sanctions intended to arrest Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran has denied attempting.
This, and various sanctions imposed by the UN and the EU, greatly affected the international trade of Iran’s carpet industry. Al-Jazeera reported that since 2009, exports of Persian carpets shrank by as much as 33 percent. According to Newsweek, before President Obama lifted the sanctions in 2016, “all Persian rugs—whether antique or brand-new—were banned from entering the U.S., regardless of how long they had been outside Iran. For instance, a Persian rug sold in London that had not been in Iran for more than a century still could not be shipped to the United States.”
“The Persian rug may not be long for this world,” says the New York Times in a May 2016 article, lamenting how modernity may be pushing this art form aside in favour of whatever is faster and cheaper.
No one can tell how the Persian carpet trade will fare in the future, but in any case, the world continues to celebrate and admire this unique expression of Iranian culture and art. The Carpet Museum of Iran in Tehran was established in 1978 “to revive and develop the art of carpet-weaving in the country, and to provide a source to satisfy the need for research about the historical background and evolution of this art”. It offers a peek into the artistry and history woven into the threads of every Persian carpet.
History of Persian Carpets
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