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By Raana Haider


"Where thy carpet lies is thy home"

A Persian proverb



Isfahan.gif (483570 bytes)"A thing of beauty is a joy forever." An overworked cliché it is; yet few earthly items epitomize the aptness of the saying than a Persian carpet. After all, even Cleopatra had her self rolled out of a carpet before Julius Caesar. These mirrors of creativity, these masterpieces are art forms uniquely made to be trod on.

 Carpet-making is a channel for expressing the craftsman's talent for controlling exuberance and imagination in both design and color. It is an exercise undertaken by a genius. John Ruskin, the nineteenth century English art critic, philosopher and reformer once remarked that "Fine art is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man go together".

Carpet-weaving is also a popular art and to a great extent, a tribal expression of art. A Persian carpet has been defined as a hand-woven carpet or rug produced in Iran and characterized by fine warps and filling yarns, unusually tight, even pile made with the Sehna knot and a variety of floral, foliate, animal and avian designs woven in rich, harmonious colors.

The word carpet is derived from "carpere" meaning 'to pluck or seize' in Latin; implying the plucking of wool. The word reflects the fact that traditionally for centuries wool has been used for making carpets. Out of necessity was born art. The numerous nomadic tribes that once wandered the great expanse of land created floor and wall coverings to protect themselves from the bitter winters of a forbidding landscape. There are mountains with snow-covered peaks and rocky slopes accompanied by fierce winds. There are also areas of parched wilderness where nomads roamed from oasis to oasis in search of waterholes for themselves and their flocks of sheep, goats and camels. 

Warm colors and artistic designs provided some relief in an otherwise harsh environment. Carpets in the tents were sat on, slept on, used as door coverings and wall hangings and used to keep warm. Carpets were also used as barter in exchange for other necessities of life. They were essential items in a constant battle for survival. Carpets evolved over time from being an item of basic necessity to one of wealth, conspicuous consumption and investment. Persian carpets are popularly known as an Iranian's 'stocks and shares'. In times of need, they can be sold off. Persian carpets (a matter of the purse) have also become an integral part of affluent interior decor globally. 

From the tents of nomads to the palaces of potentates, Persian carpets have a colorful history. A most prized possession, it was originally treasured for the immense measure of beauty and warmth that they brought to surroundings of extreme harshness. Persian carpets were regular features of the caravan trade that passed through the region. A major center of the flourishing commerce was Tabriz in Azerbaijan in the northwest of Iran. Tabriz was a gateway to the West, since it lay on one of the principal trade routes from Iran to Anatolia and then onwards to Europe. The city of Tabriz was also the terminus of the Silk Route from China. Amin Maalouf the Lebanese writer in 'Samarkand' has one of his characters sine the Praises of the city of Tabriz. 

"Tabriz deserves more than one hurried day. How can you come this far without agreeing to spend an idle day or two in the labyrinths of the largest bazaar in the orient or without going to see the ruins of the Blue Mosque which was mentioned in the Thousand and One Nights?" To the East lay the towns of Mashad in the Khorasan province and Herat, oasis towns en route to Turkestan and China. This was also the Carpet Route that for centuries passed through ancient Iran. There are two major traditions in the carpet industry; Oriental and Western.

The older is Oriental including carpets from Central Asia, Middle East, Sub-Continent, China and North Africa. The Western tradition is derived from the Oriental and was established much later. Marco Polo the Venetian traveler of the thirteenth century judged that Asia Minor produced "the best and handsomest carpets in the world." The carpet trade with the West took off in the sixteenth century. In the West, carpets were originally used as coverings for beds, chests, tables and other furniture. Only since the early eighteenth century were carpets associated with floors. The reasoning appears to be that these works of art were too precious to be left on the floor to be walked on. They deserved to be shown off as objects of art.

Achaemenid Carpet from Pazyryk



Achaemenid Carpet Pazyryk.jpg (102513 bytes)

  (Click to enlarge)

Professor Rudenko discovered the earliest known Oriental carpet in 1949 during archaeological excavations of burial mounds in the Altai Mountains in Siberia.  The carpet dates back to the fifth century BCE of Achaemenid dynasty.  It is recognized as the oldest  surviving carpet in the world.  Robbers raided the tomb but left aside the carpet. Through the opening, water froze and the carpet was mercifully preserved. This ancient carpet is known as the Pazyryk carpet.  Its central field is a deep red color and it has two wide borders, one depicting deer and the other Persian horseman. The Pazyryk carpet hangs at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Historical records show that the Achaemenian court of Cyrus the Great at Pasargade was decked with magnificent carpets. This was over 2500 years ago. Alexander II of Macedonia is said to have been dazzled by the carpets in the tomb area of Cyrus the Great at Pasargade.

By the sixth century, Persian carpets of wool or silk were renowned in court circles throughout the region. The Bahârestân (spring) carpet of Khosrow was made for the main audience hall of the Shâhigân-i Sepid (White Palace) at Tyspawn (Ctesiphon) in ancient Iranian province of Khvârvarân (now Iraq). It depicted a formal garden. In 7th century CE With occupation of Iranian capital, Tuspawn, the Baharestan carpet was taken by the Arabs, cut into small fragments and divided among the victorious soldiers as booty. 

The Mongols invasion of Iran in the thirteenth century wrought havoc in every artistic domain. Carpet-making went into a sharp decline. Yet later Mongol rulers attracted the best artisans with lavish royal support for their palaces in Central Asia. The apex of the art of carpet-making occurred in the sixteenth century in Iran under the Safavid dynasty. Shah Abbas the Great established a royal carpet factory in his capital Esfahan and hired master craftsmen. 

Esfahan was then 'a paradise of art and beauty'. A unique carpet of the period is known as the Ardebil carpet dated 1539 now in Victoria and Albert Museum, London, was the handwork of Maqsud Kashani, an inhabitant of Kashan.  The masterpiece was made for Sheikh Safi-ud-Din from Ardebil. It is recognized as the second oldest existing Iranian carpet in the world after the Pazryk rug.

A detailed star medallion dominates an elaborate system of stems and flowers on a vivid indigo field. Roger Stevens in 'Land of the Great Sophy' rejoices in the beauty of this woven work of art. "The great Ardebil carpet whose splendid sunburst with its subsidiary satellites is like a vision of the firmament framed in an enormous window..."

Another smaller similar carpet is housed at the Los Angeles County Museum. While the carpet industry dates back to more than 2500 years, only fragments remain of carpets woven earlier than the seventeenth century. As the seventeenth century wore on, there was increasing demand for more luxurious and refined carpets both in Iran and abroad. The peak of artistic attainment then petered off. By the mid-nineteenth century, quality was sacrificed for quantity.

Cheap artificial dyes, low quality wool, chemical washing and poor design combined to poorly affect the carpet industry. Traditionally, sheep wool but also camel and goat hair has been used for the weaving of carpets. Luxury carpets were later woven with silk pile. Simple tools are needed for the hand-manufacture of carpets. So informs us 'Persian Rugs and Carpets'.

"They are a knife, a beater and shears. The knife is used to cut the threads of the knot. It is made entirely of metal and may have a hook at the end of the blade to assist in the formation of the knot. The beater consists of a series of metal blades, the points of which are splayed to form a set of teeth. It is used to tighten the threads of the weft against a line of knots. The wide-bladed flat shears are used to clip the pile of the carpet." Also traditionally, only natural dyes were used for the coloring of wool. Dyeing materials included mineral pigments, insect and animal derivatives and vegetable and plant products, such as, leaves, bark, roots, fruits, flowers and plants. These dyes were much in use till the nineteenth century for the coloring of weaving yarns; although, synthetic dyes came slowly on the scene from as far back as the sixteenth century. The resistance to the use of chemical dye for the wool exists to this day.

 Present-day Persian carpet buyers frequently ask whether the wool is natural vegetable dye or chemical dye. Synthetic dyes became popular for its low-cost and brilliant color. However, the color's durability is limited; the colors fade and deteriorate fast. The use of artificial dyes marked a decline in the quality of carpets. It has to be recognized that the origins of carpet-weaving lay with nomads as a product of necessity. 'Necessity is the Mother of Invention'. It was only over time that the utilitarian nature of the carpet was superseded by its aesthetic value. As both appreciation and market prices rose significantly, slowly some of the production of carpets moved to urban-organized workshops.

Earlier all carpet-weaving had been carried out in scattered nomadic communities. While carpets are both an urban and a nomadic expression of art, kilims/gilims are purely nomadic pursuits. Each carpet-weaving family is known for its carpet designs; motifs, patterns and weaving skills - using gentle roses, brilliant sunshine, resplendent flowers, green leaves, birds... all `divine blessings'. The designs are closely guarded family secrets. Months and years of painstaking work goes into the creation of a single carpet. As Leo Tolstoy declared "Art is not a handicraft, it is a transmission of a feeling that the artist has experienced."



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Keywords: Rugs, Rug, Kilim, Gelim, Gilim, Qali, Ghali, Farsh, Qali, Ziloo, Zilu, Qalicheh



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