The history of Persian Carpet -a culmination of artistic magnificence- dates back to 2,500 years ago.
The Iranians were among the pioneer carpet weavers of the ancient civilizations, having achieved a superlative degree of perfection through centuries of creativity and ingenuity. The skill of carpet weaving has been handed down by fathers to their sons, who built upon those skills and in turn handed them down to their offspring as a closely guarded family secret. To trace the history of Persian carpet is to follow a path of cultural growth of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen.
From being simple articles of need, floor and entrance coverings to protect the nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp, the increasing beauty of the carpets found them new owners – kings and noblemen, who looked upon them as signs of wealth, prestige and distinction.
To look at a Persian carpet is to gaze into a world of artistic magnificence nurtured for more then 2,500 years. The Iranians were among the first carpet weaver of the ancient civilizations and, through centuries of creativity and ingenuity building upon the talents of the past, achieved a unique degree of excellence.
Even today, with Iranians increasingly being swallowed up in the whirlpool of a fast expanding industrial, urban society, the Persian association with the carpet is as strong as ever. An Iranian’s home is bare and soulless without it, a reflection on the deep rooted bond between the people and their national art.
Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov in 1949 discovered the oldest known “knotted” carpet in the Pazyryk valley, about 5000 feet up on the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Dating back to the fifth century BCE the Pazyryk carpet is of rare beauty and woven with great technical skill. It was found preserved in the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, which were 2400 to 2500 years old, it is now kept in the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad. Another rug found in the same area, dates back to the first century BCE.
The first documented evidence on the existence of Persian carpets came from Chinese texts dating back to the Sassanid period (224 – 641 CE). There is, though, in Greek historiography earlier written evidence on the existence, value, and quality of Persian carpets.
This art underwent many changes in various eras of the Iranian history to an extent that it passed an upward trend before the Islamic era until the Mongols invasion of Iran. After the invasion, the art began to grow again during the reign of the Mongol dynasties of Timurid and Ilkhanid.
With the passage of time, the materials used in carpets, including wool, silk and cotton, decay.
Therefore archaeologists are rarely able to make any particularly useful discoveries during archaeological excavations. What has remained from early times as evidence of carpet-weaving is nothing more than a few pieces of worn-out carpets. Such fragments do not help very much in recognizing the carpet-weaving characteristics of pre-Seljuk period (13th and 14th centuries AD) in Persia.
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 I was made for the main audience hall of the Sasanians imperial Palace at Ctesiphon in Sasanian province of Khvârvarân (nowadays Iraq). It was 450 feet (140 m) long and 90 feet (27 m) wide and depicted a formal garden. In 7th century CE With occupation of the Sasanian capital, Tuspawn, the Baharestan carpet was taken by the Arabs, cut into small fragments and divided among the victorious soldiers as booty.
According to historians, the famous Tāqdis throne was covered with 30 special carpets representing 30 days of a month and four other carpets representing the four seasons of a year.
When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC, he was struck by its splendour, and it was probably he who introduced the art of carpet making into Persia. However, historical records show that magnificent carpets adorned the court of Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago.
It is also said that the tomb of Cyrus, who was buried at Pasargade near Persepolis, was covered with precious carpets. Even before his time, it is very likely that Persian nomads knew about the use of Knotted carpets. Their herds of sheep and goats provided them with high quality and durable wool for this purpose.
In 628 CE, the Emperor Heraclius brought back a variety of carpets from the conquest of Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital. The Arabs also conquered Ctesiphon in 637 CE, and among the spoils brought back were said to be many carpets, one of which was the famous garden carpet, the “Spring time of Khosro”. This carpet has passed into history as the most precious of all time. Made during the reign of Khosro I (531 – 579 CE) the carpet was 90 Feet square.
The Arab historians’ description is as follows: “The border was a magnificent flower bed of blue, red, white, yellow and green stones; in the background the color 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 color stones”. However, the Arabs cut this magnificent carpet into many pieces, which were then sold separately.
In the 8th century A.D. Azarbaijan Province was among the largest centers of carpet and rough carpet (ziloo) weaving in Iran. The Province of Tabarestan, besides paying taxes, sent 600 carpets to the courts of caliphs in Baghdad every year. At that time, the main items exported from that region were carpets, and small carpets for saying prayers. Furthermore, the carpets of Khorassan, Sistan and Bukhara, because of their prominent designs and motifs were on high demands among purchasers.
During the reigns of the Seljuq and Ilkhanate dynasties, carpet weaving was still a booming business so much so that a mosque built by Ghazan Khan in Tabriz, northwestern Iran, was covered with superb Persian carpets. Sheep were specially bred to produce fine wool for weaving carpets. Carpet designs depicted by miniature paintings belonging to the Timurid era lend proof to the development of this industry at that time. There is also another miniature painting of that time available which depicts the process of carpet weaving.
The earliest surviving of the Persian carpets from this period is of a Safavid (1501-1736) carpet known as the Ardabil Carpet, currently in V&A Museum in London. This most famous of Persian carpets has been the subject of endless copies ranging in size from small carpets to full scale carpets. There is an ‘Ardabil’ at 10 Downing Street and even Hitler had an ‘Ardabil’ in his office in Berlin.
The carpets are woven in 1539-40 according to the dated inscriptions. The foundation is of silk and the pile of wool with a knot density at 300-350 knots per square inch (470-540.000 knots per square meters). The sizes of the carpets are 34 1/2 feet by 17 1/2 feet (10, 5 meters x 5, 3 meters).
There is much variety among classical Persian carpets of the 16th and 17th century. There are numerous sub-regions that contribute distinctive designs to Persian carpets of this period such as Tabriz and Lavar Kerman. Common motifs include scrolling vine networks, arabesques, palmettes, cloud bands, medallions, and overlapping geometric compartments rather than animals and humans. Figural designs are particularly popular in the Iranian market and are not nearly as common in carpets exported to the west.
After the period of domination by the Arab Caliphates, a Turkish tribe, named after their founder, Seljok conquered Persia. Their domination (1038 – 1194 CE) was of great importance in the history of Persian carpets. The Seljuk women were skilful carpet makers using Turkish knots. In the provinces of Azerbaijan and Hamadan where Seljuk influence was strongest and longest lasting, the Turkish knot is used to this day.
In the Turkish (or Ghiordes) knot the yarn is taken twice around two adjacent warp threads and the ends are drawn out between these two threads.
In the Persian (or Sinneh) Knot, the wool thread forms a single turn about the warp thread. One end comes out over this thread and the other over the next warp thread.
The Mongol conquest and control of Persia (1220 – 1449) was initially brutal. However, they soon came under the influence of the Persians. The palace of Tabriz, belonging to the Ilkhan leader, Ghazan Khan (1295 – 1304) had paved floors covered with precious carpets. The Monghol ruler Shah Rokh (1409 – 1446) contributed to the reconstruction of much that was destroyed by the Mongols and encouraged all the artistic activities of the region. However, the carpets in this period were decorated with simple motifs, which were mainly geometric in style.
The Persian carpet reached its zenith during the reign of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century. Indeed the first concrete proofs of this craft date back to this period. Approximately 1500 examples are preserved in various museums and in private collections worldwide. During the reign of Shah Abbas (1587 – 1629), commerce and crafts prospered in Persia. Shah Abbas encouraged contacts and trade with Europe and transformed his new capital Esfahan, into one of the most glorious cities of Persia. He also created a court workshop for carpets where skilled designers and craftsmen set to work to create splendid specimens.
Most of these carpets were made of silk, with gold and silver threads adding even more embellishment. Two of the best know carpets of the Safavid period; dated 1539 come from the mosque of Ardebil. Many experts believe that these carpets represent the culmination of achievement in carpet design. The larger of the two carpets in now kept in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum while the other is displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum.
The court period of the Persian carpet ended with the Afghan invasion in 1722. The Afghans destroyed Esfahan, yet their domination lasted for only a short period and in 1736, a young Chieftain from Khorasan, Nader Khan became the Shah of Persia. Through the whole course of his reign, all the country’s forces were utilized in campaigns against the Afghans, the Turks, and the Russians.
During this period, and for several turbulent years after his death in 1747, no carpets of any great value were made, and solely nomads, and craftsmen in small villages continued the tradition of this craft.
In the last quarter of the 19th Century and during the reign of the Qajar rulers trade and craftsmanship regained their importance. Carpet making flourished once more with Tabriz merchants exporting carpets to Europe through Istanbul. At the end of the 19th Century some European and American companies even set up businesses in Persia and organized craft production destined for western markets.
Although carpet production is now mostly mechanized, traditional hand woven carpets are still widely found all around the world, and usually have higher prices than their machine woven counterparts due to them being an artistic presentation. Iran exported $517 million worth of hand woven carpets in 2002. There are an estimated population of 1.2 million weavers in Iran producing carpets for local markets as well as export. In recent times Iranian carpets have come under fierce competition from other countries producing fakes of the original Iranian designs as well as genuine cheaper substitutes.
Most of the problems facing this traditional art is due to absence of patenting and branding the products as well as reduced quality of raw materials in the local market and the consistent loss of original design patterns. The absence of modern R&D is causing rapid decline in the size as well as market value of this art.
Persian carpets can be divided into three groups; Farsh / ‘Qālii’ (sized anything greater than 6×4 feet), Qālicheh (meaning rug, sized 6×4 feet and smaller), and nomadic carpets known as Kilim, (including Zilu, meaning rough carpet).
Wool is the most common material for carpets but cotton is frequently used for the foundation of city and workshop carpets. There are a wide variety in types of wool used for weaving. Those of which include Kork wool, Manchester wool, and in some cases even Camel Hair wool. Silk carpets date back to at least the sixteenth century in Sabzavar and the Seventeenth century in Kashan and Yazd Silk carpets are less common than wool carpets since silk is more expensive and less durable; they tend to increase in value with age. Due to their rarity, value and lack of durability, silk carpets are often displayed on the wall like tapestries rather than being used as floor coverings.
Persian rugs are made up of a layout and a design which in general included one or a number of motifs.
Persian rugs are typically designed using one of three patterns: all-over, central medallion and one-sided. Some abstract unsymmetrical design can be found but most of these can be described as one-sided or unidirectional. There are a number of patterns which are found in Persian and Oriental rugs called ‘motifs’, these designs have different meanings and tend to be used depending on the area the rug was woven although it is not unusual to find more than one motif in a single rug.
The weaving of pile rugs is a difficult and tedious process which, depending on the quality and size of the rug, may take anywhere from a few months to several years to complete.
To begin making a rug, you need a foundation consisting of warps strong, thick threads of cotton, wool or silk which run the length of the rug and wefts similar threads which pass under and over the warps from one side to the other. The warps on either side of the rug are normally combined into one or more cables of varying thickness that are overcast to form the selvedge.
Weaving normally begins by passing a number of wefts through the bottom warp to form a base to start from. Loosely piled knots of dyed wool or silk are then tied around consecutive sets of adjacent warps to create the intricate patterns in the rug. As more rows are tied to the foundation, these knots become the pile of the rug. Between each row of knots, one or more shots of weft are passed to tightly pack down and secure the rows.
Depending on the fineness of the weave, the quality of the materials and the expertise of the weavers, the knot count of a hand made rug can vary anywhere from 16 to 550 knots per square inch.
When the rug is completed, the warp ends form the fringes that may be weft-faced, braided, tasseled, or secured in some other manner.
Looms do not vary greatly in essential details, but they do vary in size and sophistication. The main technical requirement of the loom is to provide the correct tension and the means of dividing the warps into alternate sets of leaves. A shedding device allows the weaver to pass wefts through crossed and uncrossed warps, instead of laboriously threading the weft in and out of the warps.
The simplest form of loom is a horizontal; one that can be staked to the ground or supported by sidepieces on the ground. The necessary tension can be obtained through the use of wedges. This style of loom is ideal for nomadic people as it can be assembled or dismantled and is easily transportable. Rugs produced on horizontal looms are generally fairly small and the weave quality is inferior to those rugs made on a professional standing loom.
Vertical looms are undoubtedly more comfortable to operate. These are found more in city weavers and sedentary peoples because they are hard to dismantle and transport. There is no limit to the length of the carpet that can be woven on a vertical loom and there is no restriction to its width.
There are three broad groups of vertical looms, all of which can be modified in a number of ways: the fixed village loom, the Tabriz or Bunyan loom, and the roller beam loom. The fixed village loom is used mainly in Iran and consists of a fixed upper beam and a moveable lower or cloth beam which slots into two sidepieces. The correct tension is created by driving wedges into the slots. The weavers work on an adjustable plank which is raised as the work progresses.
The Tabriz loom, named after the city of Tabriz, is used in North Western Iran. The warps are continuous and pass around behind the loom. Tension is obtained with wedges. The weavers sit on a fixed seat and when a portion of the carpet has been completed, the tension is released and the carpet is pulled down and rolled around the back of the loom. This process continues until the rug is completed, when the warps are severed and the carpet is taken off the loom.
The roller beam loom is a traditional Turkish village loom, but is also found in Iran and India. It consists of two movable beams to which the warps are attached. Both beams are fitted with ratchets or similar locking devices and completed work is rolled on to the lower beam. It is possible to weave very long rugs by these means, and in some areas of Turkey rugs are woven in series.
In order to operate the loom, the weaver needs a number of essential tools: a knife for cutting the yarn as the knots are tied; a comb-like instrument for packing down the wefts; and a pair of shears for trimming the pile. In Tabriz the knife is combined with a hook to tie the knots which lets the weavers produce very fine rugs, as their fingers alone are too thick to do the job.
A small steel comb is sometimes used to comb out the yarn after each row of knots is completed. This both tightens the weave and clarifies the design.
A variety of instruments are used for packing the weft. Some weaving areas in Iran known for producing very fine pieces use additional tools. In Kerman, a saber like instrument is used horizontally inside the shed, and in Bidjar a heavy nail like tool is used. Bidjar is also famous for their wet loom technique, which consists of wetting the warp, weft, and yarn with water throughout the weaving process to make the elements thinner and finer. This allows for tighter weaving. When the rug is complete and dried, the wool and cotton expand to make the rug incredibly dense and strong.
A number of different tools may be used to shear the wool depending on how the rug is trimmed as the rug progresses or when it is complete. Often in Chinese rugs the yarn is trimmed after completion and the trimming is slanted where the color changes, giving an embossed three-dimensional effect.
Two basic knots are used in most Persian Carpets and Oriental rugs: the symmetrical Turkish or Ghiordes knot (used in Turkey, the Caucasus, East Turkmenistan, and some Turkish and Kurdish areas of Iran), and the asymmetrical Persian or Senneh knot (Iran, India, Turkey, Pakistan, China, and Egypt).
To make a Turkish knot, the yarn is passed between two adjacent warps, brought back under one, wrapped around both forming a collar, then pulled through the center so that both ends emerge between the warps.
The Persian knot is used for finer rugs. The yarn is wrapped around only one warp, then passed behind the adjacent warp so that it divides the two ends of the yarn. The Persian knot may open on the left or the right, and rugs woven with this knot are generally more accurate and symmetrical.
Other knots include the Spanish knot looped around single alternate warps so the ends are brought out on either side and the Jufti knot which is tied around four warps instead.
Flat woven carpets are given their color and pattern from the weft which is tightly intertwined with the warp. Rather than an actual pile, the foundation of these rugs gives them their design. The weft is woven between the warp until a new color is needed, it is then looped back and knotted before a new color is implemented.
The most popular of flat-weaves is called the Kilim Kilim rugs (along with jewellery, clothing and animals) are important for the identity and wealth of nomadic tribes-people. In their traditional setting Kilims are used as floor and wall coverings, horse-saddles, storage bags, bedding and cushion covers.
Today, Carpet weaving is by far the most widespread handicraft in Iran. Persian carpets are renowned for their richness of color, variety of spectacular artistic patterns and quality of design. In palaces, famous buildings, mansions and museums of the world, a Persian carpet is amongst the most treasured possession.