Persia's supreme carpets are unchallengeable. Rugs of other regions occasionally attain superlative excellence in specific qualities. In finesse of weaving and in the depth of certain colors, especially reds, Indian court carpets of the 17th century are not equaled. In the use of greens combined with cherry red, and patterning in mosaic style, the great Cairene carpets of the 15th century are unrivaled. And the Turkish court looms in the 16th century produced large carpets, as well as some small prayer rugs, with new qualities of elegance, luxury, and fineness, which likewise stand alone in their own class.
But honors go to Persia for the highest, longest sustained, and most varied excellencies, and for the origination of major compositions, as well as many individual motives. The colors of the great Persian carpets, while somewhat subdued in comparison with some other types, are distinguished by subtleties of harmony, and the happy solution of self-imposed polychromatic problems which weavers in other countries never even attempted. Moreover, the great Persian carpets are charged with an imagination and a poetry, a depth of feeling and a contagious power, which set them apart from all other great fabrics except a few of the finest Gothic tapestries.
The Safavid a purely, Persian Dynasty, ushered in by the dashing young Shah Ismail (1501-1523), inaugurated a brilliant renaissance of Persian art and culture, and the Augustan reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524-1577) saw a magnificent culmination of all the decorative arts. The court carpets produced during these reigns are as varied as available artist-designers were numerous, so that they almost defy classification.
Of the score of supreme creations, each highly individual, three are particularly famous. The great Hunting Carpet in Milan, dated 1521 and signed by Ghiyath ud-Din Jami, has an immense star-medallion in rich scarlet against a deep blue field covered with latticework foliage, and in this appear hunting episodes and many beasts. The Ardabil Carpet, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, signed by Mak-soud of Kashan and dated 1539, also has a dominating medallion, but in rich golden yellow, on a lustrous dark blue field which is overlaid with an exuberant mass of foliation and blossoms on curving stems creating an impression of vital abundance. The silk Hunting Carpet in the Austrian State Collection, in Vienna, once the property of Peter the Great, obviously after a cartoon by a master miniaturist, has realistic but highly decorative hunting scenes, and a magnificent border showing angels in Paradise, the most remarkable border on any surviving carpet. The Milan carpet was probably made in Northwest Persia; the Ardabil Carpet perhaps in Tabriz on royal looms; the Austrian state carpet was almost certainly woven in Kashan.
Northwest Persia produced some noble carpets, with a large central pattern and often with ribbon-like cloudbands enriching an array of plant patterns; probably these were made in the Karabagh region. We also can assign a few carpets of this time with considerable confidence to the first Safavid capital, Tabriz. We know that important carpets were likewise woven at Sultanieh, Dergesin, and Hamadan, but it is almost impossible to assign any of the early pieces to any one of these centers; and, on the other hand, some of the finest pieces of the period cannot be placed with sufficient evidence in any region.
The large central medallion characteristic of the Northwest Persia style is related to the medallions which ornament the peak of the dome and some of the smaller vaults in contemporary Persian mosques. These motives, circular or pointed ovoid, miracles of energy and richness, had been developing since the first millennium b.c. Some are symbols of the sun, combined with pools—sun and water, the two essentials of fertility which was the major theme of West Asiatic art, century after century, and was still dominant in Safavid carpet conceptions. From this dominant focal point develop complex systems of graceful swinging stems, bursting into manifold bloom, the whole depicting, as carpet design had from at least the time of Khosrau, the Paradise garden.
Lesser carpets, of town and tribespeople alike, reflect, usually somewhat dimly, but still recognizably and beautifully, this garden theme, which was expressed in many forms and idioms.
Five other types produced in the 16th century and on through the reign of the virile Shah Abbas I (1586-1628) also can be identified and located. Several large, and more than a dozen small carpets of silk, predominantly in tones of ruby red, of a weaving finesse that challenges velvet, are pretty clearly the work of the city of Kashan in Central Persia, long famous for its fine textiles and especially noted for velvets.
The most famous of all Persian carpet types is the so-called Isfahans. Actually, these were woven in the vicinity of Herat, some 600 miles to the east of Isfahan; but the name of Shah Abbas' famous and beautiful capital carried overtones of glamor that the dealers found irresistible. The class, readily recognizable, have almost always a red field, ranging in shade from glowing claret to rose du Barry (though a few are blue), covered with a scrolling lacework of fine-leaved vines emphasized with rich palmettes, and a green—usually rather bluish-green border ornamented with lotus and pomegranate palmettes, combined with lanceolate leaves. This originally genuinely great style, at its best graceful, elegant, rich, came to be in too great demand both locally and in Europe, so that it degenerated into perfunctory repetition, and became, as a result, inert and dull, a sad plagiarism on a great name.
A particularly noble type, of which unfortunately only a few survive intact, go by the unsuitable name of "Vase" carpets because the floral profusion, in most examples, issues from a series of vases at spaced intervals, which derive ultimately from the Vase of the Water-of-Life holding a cosmic tree, a fertility symbol that had become current in the third millennium b.c. The type probably originated in Kerman and was carried to fulfillment in the court looms of Joshaghan Ghali, not far from Isfahan, in the reign of Shah Abbas I, who seems to have preferred them for his palaces.
These highly characteristic and individual carpets are especially significant because they continue one of the great styles of Persian art which has frequently been underestimated. For Persian artists have not been concerned only with the finesse and elegance for which they have been most famous. At all periods they have also been capable of monumentality and grandeur, whether in architecture, poetry, or textiles; these carpets, long and narrow, with a heavy, compact, double warp which gives them boardlike stiffness, have on a red, blue, or rarely white ground, a multiplicity of exceedingly varied, richly constructed, conventionalized blooms, of huge scale, sometimes as much as three feet in diameter, interspersed with millefleurs, the whole controlled by a half-concealed, double ogival lattice system which gives stability and order to the close-crowded fertility outburst.
A sharply contrasted product of this same period (chiefly the reign of Shah Abbas I), of sensational luxuriousness and exquisite color, are the so-called "Polonaise" carpets. These are woven of silk, enriched with gold and silver thread, which is usually inlaid in a basket weave so it creates a heavily embossed metal plating effect They are nearly all in high key: bright salmon, foam and pistache green, soft taupe for quiet counterplay, daffodil-yellow for sunlight gleaming against cerulean blue. This style probably originated in Kashan and was carried on in the court looms of Isfahan. It was miscalled "Polish" by European "experts" because of the number of examples in Polish noble families (bearing their coats of arms), for whom these rugs had been woven to order in Persia.
Harmoniously assembled, the delicious colors make at first an overwhelming impression, but a closer examination does not sustain the first evaluation. Compared to the classical carpets, the designs tend to be a little weak and are often rather confused. They lack clafity of definition, and no longer show the requisite delicacy of the fine tendrils laid out in sweeping even curves, which are essential to the perfection of the earlier pieces. We miss the multiple levels of patterning; all is in comparatively simple one-dimensional sequence. Austerity, grandeur, architectural and poetic depth have given way to sheer opulence.
Persian carpet weaving maintained its supremacy through the 19th century. Honest and beautiful rugs were woven in Shiraz, Kerman, Birjand, Mashhad (Meshed), Tabriz, the villages of Central Persia, Joshaghan, Feraghan and Saruk, and in larger towns like Sultanabad and Hamadan. And interesting tribal rugs were woven throughout Kurdistan (Bijar, Sehna, Sauj-Bulak), as well as by more southern tribes like the Bakhtiaris and Lurs.