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Oriental Rugs

Updated on April 23, 2010
Photo by Herman Brinkman
Photo by Herman Brinkman

As soon as man had established elementary command of his environment, and even before he had attained a modest leisure, he undertook to fashion objects which would, in addition to utility, have beauty and meaning. From the rhythms and symmetries that he found in himself and the world about him, he created harmonious and arresting patterns which were, in the first instance, devices to propitiate the vast power which encompassed him, on which his ever-precarious life depended. This power, which was but vaguely apprehended, was evasive of control, and the patterns, to be effective, had to be imbued with emotional force, if they were to have appeal, energy, excitement and significance.

By the late Paleolithic period (roughly 30 to 15,000 B.C.) man had already acquired astonishing mastery of plastic forms, shown especially in the carved stone and bone figurines; and he had achieved even more surprising ability to depict graphically some of the forms that especially concerned him, notably animals which he hunted for his sustenance.

His formal patterns at that time were still rudimentary, expressions of the mind's efforts to work out basic abstract relations; by the middle of the fifth millennium B.C. he was decorating pottery with superb, vital designs, which, as sheer decoration, still excite pur admiration.

From that time on, in far-spaced parts of the world, man lavished effort and skill on beautifying as much of his immediate world as he could compass. Geometric patterns of force and distinction, like those on the pottery, ornamented also the walls of the early chalcolithic village at Telli-Bakun (near Persepolis in Persia). Virtually every household there made its own pottery; and, as the Copper and Bronze Ages develop, we see tools and weapons being made as expressive and beautiful as possible. In the course of the ages there is nothing with which man has surrounded himself, that he has not thus beautified. Each period, region, and culture has had its own superiorities, depending on the character of the setting, the cultural inheritance and the nature of life, in each instance.

Now in one place and time, now in another, every one of the objects of practical use has been brought to a supreme standard of aesthetic excellence : pottery itself, attaining beauty in many styles and techniques, from prehistoric time to the present and practically the world around; arms and armor, from the daggers and helmet of Sumer (2500 B.C.) to European masterpieces (c. 1480 A.D.) ; jewelry, in almost all periods; gaming pieces, elegantly inlaid in Sumer, carved in powerful forms for the chess-boards of Baghdad caliphs; pictorial fabrics, from the wea-vings of Sidon and Babylon to the European wall tapestries of fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe; fine furniture, whether for Tutankhamen or Georgian kings; Chinese ritual vessels and Cellini ceremonial salt-cellars; canoes, paddles and shields in Polynesia—these are but a scattered few of the objects which, in all ages, have reached high standards of artistic achievement, in some cases successfully challenging, in life-enhancing power and joy, the more famous arts, like painting. Thus, the primal and persistent instinct to beautify everything that man uses, now partly frustrated and everywhere menaced by an over-mechanized age, was universal and essential.

Oriental rugs, to be fully understood, must be seen as one expression of this fundamental human need. The finest examples demonstrate how simple materials devoted to a humble use can attain value and beauty, and command the tribute of admiration and of wealth. The perfection and extraordinary beauty of the great carpets of relatively modern times are no sudden achievement, but the result of a long and slowly developed historical process covering a vast expanse of time and slowly maturing taste and experience. A rudimentary knowledge of this history is indispensable for the full enjoyment of even contemporary weavings. Rugs have been woven, to our certain knowledge, for at least three thousand years, and have been worthy exponents of the finest culture of many times and regions.

Some kind of floor covering was needed as soon as man began making houses. Even if the beaten earth floors were coated with lime and polished, in the Near East further protection against hard, dusty, or cold floors was needed. Thickly strewn rushes provided the simplest and most obvious solution. . In the Near East this crude rush covering, following the model of basket work—one of man's earliest arts—would, sooner or later, have suggested a plaited rush fabric, and at Qalat Jarmo (probably about 6000 B.C.), Professor Robert John Braidwood recently discovered floors completely covered with reeds and "odd fragments of reed mats appeared." A tablet from Ur (3rd dynasty, c. 2100 B.C.) mentions a reed mat, approximately 10 1/2 by 18 feet. Basketry, one of man's earliest inventions, would have furnished the model. The earliest competitor to reed mats for this purpose would have been animal-skins and flagstones, but the mats would have had many advantages. Killing and skinning a wild beast was not a safe or simple operation then; besides, primitive skin curing offered only very poor protection against decay and insect invasion, and bare flagstones were not too easy to procure and hardly met obvious needs for comfort.

The subsequent history of plaited reed mats indicates what an important art it became. By medieval times in the Near East they had attained a finesse and beauty that give them high status as works of art commanding high prices. Individual centers of production became famous for their work: Tiberias, Palestine; Cairo, North Africa; and in the 10th century there was an exceptional and very costly mat at Hebron. In south India even today mats are woven of astonishing refinement, flexibility, beauty of texture, and richness of color. The excellencies of these rush mats are nothing that could have been borrowed from other fabrics, but represent the utmost development of the possibilities of this specific material.

However beautiful they were, the limitations of size, durability and design precluded them from pre-empting the field. Wool and silk offered exclusive advantages, both practical and aesthetic.

With the domestication of wool-bearing animals, probably about 7000 B.C., came the development of spinning and weaving, and the next step would be the adaptation of this versatile, newly available material to all sorts of domestic uses. Reed mats into which tufts of wool were tied, close enough together to make a continuous surface, would be agreeable under foot or to sit on, and likewise as covers for sleeping. The Kirghiz tribes today fasten thick wool tufts into a coarse foundation.

By 800 B.C. the Assyrian palaces were furnished with handsome carpets with the general format of field and border relations which was standard ever after except for the Far East. Some patterns, like the alternate lotus blossom and bud, reappear in the classical carpets of the 16th and 17th centuries in Persia; others, like the border rows of detached rosettes, are characteristic of certain east Caucasus carpets. Both of these patterns were derived from Egypt. Babylonian carpets were famous from Greece and Rome to Persia. Some of these were lavishly enriched with gold thread and were thick and soft. At the other end of Asia, pile carpets were developed before the beginning of the Christian era; and fragments, datable 3 A.D., now in the Hermitage (Museum, Leningrad), thick, of deep indigo-blue, were recovered from Noin Ula (Mongolia), and similar fragments, dating from the 5th or 6th century have been found in Chinese Turkestan. The strands are wrapped around one warp fhread. The more complicated true knotting was developed later probably by Central Asian nomads whose rough life called for a more solid fabric than the loose tie-in could provide. Flat stitch weavings of intricate and varied geometrical patterns were also found in Noin Ula, and the styles, if not the techniques, continued in Central Asia to the present.

By late Sasanian times (6th-7th century A.D.) written records (Chinese) tell the story of an important rug industry in Persia and Central Asia that specialized in costly woolen dance rugs. We know what they were like, for carefully rendered representations appear in murals of Buddhist caves at Ton Huang, in northwestern China. The borders are typical of the Sasanian style, pearled bands; field patterns comprise chiefly coursing animals.

Arab documents preserve the description of the most famous and sumptuous of all floor coverings, a prodigious carpet representing eternal spring, woven in the 6th century for King Khosrau II, one of the greatest monarchs of the Sasanian dynasty. It lay on the floor of the audience hall, a vast and lofty chamber, in the palace of Ctesiphon, which even in ruins is still impressive. Judging from the prices received for fragments, when the carpet was cut up to be distributed as booty and sold after the Islamic conquest, the whole thing must have represented an investment roughly equivalent to $200,000,000.

It was an incredibly magnificent representation of a formal garden, running brooks, and" paths defining flower beds in multiple colors, worked in countless jewels. The earth and the brook banks were executed in gold; the running water was made of crystal-clear stones (diamonds?); gravel paths were executed with thousands of large pearls. The outer border of the entire carpet was a wide band of solid emeralds representing barley fields. The jewels used for this one piece constituted a substantial portion of the treasure of one of the richest monarchs who ever reigned. It served as a political document, proclaiming the glory and might of the great king, and warning enemies and traitors alike that it would be imprudent to challenge a sovereign with such resources. But it was also a work of art, not only extravagantly luxurious, but also undoubtedly of overwhelming beauty. Moreover, it was, as well, a religious document, demonstrating to all the glory of Paradise, the perfect and eternal timeless garden, the ideal of happiness and perfection, and the ultimate goal of the blessed.

The carpet, like the place it adorned, exercised a never-ending influence on the art of Iran; and garden carpets, agreeing in general plan with the description of this one, have been woven ever since.

A recognition of the principal classes—Spanish, North African, Egyptian, Asia Minor, Caucasus, Persian, Indian, Central Asiatic, Chinese —is preliminary to any serious study of rugs. These classes, especially Caucasus, Persian, and Central Asiatic, comprise numerous distinguishable types. But to give a precise name to each particular kind (few experts can name over a hundred different kinds), is not sufficient even if the names be correct. Moreover, for many pieces, no sure provenance can be given, and the nomenclature of 19th century rugs and those of current production is almost hopelessly confused. Many names represent merely dealers' designations, some taken from shipping points, some gratuitous adoptions of flattering names, like "Princess Bokhara," which have no local meaning. Other such names describe uses— prayer rug, bath rug, grave rug. Others indicate sizes, format, or the subject (garden rug, hunting rug, etc.) ; still other names are sheer inventions. We speak of a dozen different kinds of Caucasus rugs only because we do not know enough to recognize the work of 30 or 40 other producing centers, and the same is equally true of the varied output of the Kurdish districts. Some regions no longer produce rugs, and there remains no sure guide to what they made when they were weaving.

Naming, then, is only a prelude to knowledge, a starting point, and a clue. More interesting and more important for a real understanding is a knowledge of the people who made and used the rugs, their cultural origins, their habitat and manner of life.

  • How did their patterns originate and what meaning do they have?
  • How did they develop their standards of taste and beauty? What do these rugs tell about population movements and stylistic interchanges ?
  • What were the conditions of production? How did the local materials—wools, water, dyes—affect the final result?
  • What were the economic factors? What their relations to other industries, and what their rank as works of art?

These are the questions that must be answered if we are really to understand Oriental rugs.

Scores of books and hundreds of articles have been written about rugs, many superficial and superfluous, others indispensable for serious students; but all put together they are no substitute for persistent and systematic observation of the actual fabrics or some of the almost perfect colored illustrations. It may almost be said that in proportion as a carpet is great, its design is complex, subtle, and surprising. The general scheme must be recognized, and how it controls and organizes the subordinate elements, the component patterns individually identified and appraised and their interrelations traced, and the ensemble then reintegrated with a full appreciation of its character as a whole. Without such methodical, analytical exploration a carpet remains only a jungle of patterns and a pleasant kaleidoscope of color. Most observers respond first to the color; clear tones and rich polychromatic harmonies make a direct emotional appeal. Even the color compositions, however, are not obvious. How one tone offsets or re-enforces another, the shrewd and subtle skill with which areas are distinguished or blended, the enhancement that can be achieved by minor intermediate tones, and inconspicuous but vital color dissonances—all this invites and repays the most meticulous observation.

Textures, too, contribute to the expression and character. A luxurious velvety texture, or one thin and mat like an old parchment, or deep and rugged—each at once arouses our tactile sense and the appropriate feelings. Some designs and some colors are enhanced by fineness of weave, others call for thickness and weight. Some types ought to be frankly coarse. A few styles deliberately utilize texture contrasts, notably that between smooth silk and the glitter of metal, or the sparkle of cotton against light-absorbent wool.

Most difficult, but even more rewarding, is the analysis of pattern. The masterpieces of carpet weaving require as much effort for appreciation as any of the temporal arts, like music or poetry. Because the entire area of a rug can be taken in at a glance, it is commonly assumed that the rug has thus been comprehended ; but it is no more possible to understand the quality of a great carpet with one swift look than it would be to hear the full values of a great symphony if it could be run off in a few moments. The great carpet is as carefully planned as an architectural moment, the details are as meticulous as in a sonnet, their internal relations are logical and coherent, and they are frequently charged with poetical allusions. Some of the great 16th century Persian pieces are as complicated as a fugue. Various pattern levels overlie one another, each distinct, complete within itself, at points at variance with other concomitant patterns, but always harmoniously resolved, each with every other and all the others at nodal points, confederate to one glorious end.

The elements that compose these designs should be identified. Their history, complication, degeneration, death, and reissue into new life in other forms is indispensable to full understanding and immensely augments the appreciation of the carpet's beauty. In short, the observer must learn to read a great carpet pattern with the same attention and understanding with which a musician reads a score.

The role of the rugs in the life of the people is an essential part of their character. Rugs were employed not only as floor coverings, but also as blankets, saddlebags or carryalls, for prayer, for gifts, for dowry, tax payments, and commerce. Nomads had rug-woven tent parts. In the great days they were utilized for canopies and wall hangings. For important occasions today the cities of the East are hung, street after street, with the finest rugs, disgorged from shop and household. At the time of the shah of Persia's marriage a few years ago, the entire city of Teheran looked like a gorgeous rug bazaar, turned inside out. The Venetians of the Renaissance knew what a superb setting for notable events Oriental rugs could make, as paintings by Vittore Carpaccio and other Venetians effectively demonstrate.

Carpets, of course, have been from early times an important article of commerce. Famous pieces were sought by monarchs, and caliphs who were ready to wait years and pay fabulous prices. For centuries rugs have been an important item in dowries, of the rich and the modest, of the nomad girl who wove her own, and of the princess for whom the court looms made their finest. Court looms also were used to provide presents for foreign sovereigns and their ambassadors, as well as gifts for royal favorites at home. The great mosques of Islam were once covered with fine carpets. Only a few, however, have escaped the ravages of Western acquisitiveness.

None of the arts of the Orient were developed or maintained in cultural isolation, and the great court carpets of Persia were particularly dependent, not merely on the ancient tradition which provided the general format, the themes, and symbols, but also specifically on other arts. The noble art of calligraphy carried the immense possibilities of the Arabic alphabet to a perfection attained in no other writing. From the 9th century on, especially with the Persians, it had been a consuming passion, and it imposed its own standards of elegance, flexibility, stately rhythms, and expressive detail on all the rest of the arts of design.

Other elements also made their contributions. The really great carpets were designed and executed in royal ateliers attached to the court. Here household weaving, an institution in the Middle East from time immemorial, was expanded to royal scale and standards, and the shops were manned by the most talented artists and craftsmen of the day. These palace looms were supplemented by commercial looms, more or less state subsidized, which supplied nobles, rich merchants, and royal connoisseurs in other countries. In these palace shops most of the arts were practiced together, and as the art of the book was the supreme art of the period, the principal directors and designers in the book-making studios had the authority, as well as the specialized talent.

Thus the models for many of the finest Persian carpets were the beautiful bookcovers of the 15th century, with central medallion and pendants, cartouche borders, and in the field exquisitely involved arabesque and foliate patterns. Suggestions from the bookbinders could be carried out with even richer effects by the illuminators who made the gorgeous title pages of the great Korans and other precious volumes; and for other carpet cartoons, miniaturists were called on, masterly artists who enjoyed wide repute.

These supreme artists, for in their own fields they were never surpassed, united their skills with the craft of carpet weaving, already many centuries old, and weavers, widely recruited, supplied knowledge of materials, dyes, and weaving techniques, without which the most glorious visions of the designers could not have been realized.


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    • BJBenson profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      I own them . I love them. Some times I sleep on them. The handmade rugs are a human need at my house. I hope I never have to live without my rugs.

      Wonderful Hub.


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