Persian rug history

A Persian rug has a wide variety designs and styles, and trying to organize them in to a category is a very difficult task.

With the passage of time, the materials used in carpets, including wool and cotton, decay. Therefore archaeologists are not able to make any particularly useful discoveries during archaeological excavations, save for special circumstances.

What has remained from early times as evidence of carpet-weaving is nothing more than a few pieces of worn-out rugs. And such fragments do not help very much in recognizing the carpet-weaving characteristics of pre-Seljuk period (13th and 14th centuries AD) in Persia.

Among the oldest pieces discovered are those found in Eastern Turkestan, dating back to the third to fifth centuries AD, and also some of the hand-weavings of the Seljuks of Asia Minor on exhibit in Ala’edin Mosque in Konya and Ashrafoghlu Mosque in Beyshehir, Turkey. These pieces attracted the attention of researchers earlier this century, and now they are kept in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul and the Mowlana Museum in Konya.

In a unique archaeological excavation in 1949 however, the exceptional Pazyryk carpet was discovered among the ices of Pazyryk Valley, in Altai Mountains in Siberia. It was discovered in the grave of a Scythian prince by a group of Russian archaeologists under the supervision of Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko. Radiocarbon testing revealed that Pazyryk carpet was woven in the 5th century BC. This carpet is 1.83×2 meters and has 36 symmetrical knots per cm². The advanced weaving technique used in the Pazyryk carpet indicates a long history of evolution and experience in this art. Most experts believe that the Pazyryk carpet is a late achievement of at least one thousand years of technique evolution and history.

According to this theory the art of carpet-weaving in Iran is at least 3500 years old.

The dyes used to create the colouring are all from plants, roots and other natural substances. Subtle variations in the same colour sometimes occur, particularly in older carpets or those woven by nomadic tribes. Persian carpets are traditionally known for their tremendous variety in design, colour, size, and weave. Moreover, they are known for the uniqueness of each and every rug produced.

The Pazyryk Carpet

A hand-woven carpet was found in the Pazyryk valley in a tumulus dating back to the fifth century BC. This unique piece of art was partly damaged by age and oxidation, but it was preserved in a thick sheet of ice -- which had protected it for twenty-five centuries. Late in 1929, a Russian ethnographic mission led by Rudenko and Griaznov began the excavation of five tumuli dating from the Scllhian period. The tumuli had been discovered in the Pazyryk valley, in the Altai mountains, 5400 feet above sea level, and some six miles from the border of Outer Mongolia. In 1949 during the excavation of the fifth tumulus, a magnificent carpet came to light which today represents the most important piece of evidence in the history of Oriental Carpets. This is the only rug from the Achaemenid period known and preserved up to the present day. Although it was found in a Scjythian burial-mound, most experts attribute it to Persia. Its design is in the same style as the sculptures of Perspolis, The outer of the two principal border bands is decorated with a line of horsemen: seven on each side, twenty-eight in number -- a figure which corresponds to the number of males who carried the throne of Xerxes to Perspolis). Some are mounted, while others walk beside their horses. In the inner principal band there is a line of six elks on each side. The two external guards are decorated, with a succession of small squares containing imaginary creatures, probably griffins. The original colours used for this carpet are not known as they have almost faded away. The Pazyryk carpet is of rare beauty and was woven with great technical skill. The Pazyryk carpet compares favourably with that of the best, work from modern sources. There are about 49 knots per square cm in this carpet and it measures 2.00 cm X 1.83 cm .

The discovery of the Pazyryk carpet leads us therefore, to the belief that in a much more remote epoch than the sixteenth-century Imperial period, carpet-making had gone through an earlier, brilliant phase, in which a very high level of technique and decorative values had been reached.

Unfortunately between this rug and the next discovered carpet there is big gap in time. This does not mean that the production had stopped but rather vanished by nature or destroyed by invasions.

The epicenter of the craft of carpet-making is traditionally Persia and the history of the craft is linked to the history of Persia, sharing its development and fortunes. The other centres of carpet-craft of, whose existence we have concrete proof from the Middle Ages onwards were manifestations of the work of isolated artists, though directly linked to the history of Persian rulers. The first group includes the ancient Caucasian carpets like the so-called Armenian ones and to the second group belong carpets of the Turkish court period, coming from the workshops of Konya, the capital of the Seljuks, a dynasty which ruled Persia for a very long time.

CYRUS AND THE ACHAEMENIAN DYNASTY

It is very likely that Persian nomads knew the use of the knotted carpet even before the time of Cyrus, but almost certainly a true craft did not exist and the function of the carpet was more practical than artistic.

At the time of the conquest of Sardis (546 BC) and Babylon (539 BC) the Achaemenian culture was still at its dawn. Confirmation of this is the fact that Cyrus, struck by the splendour of Babylon, refused to allow it to be sacked. It was probably he who introduced the art of carpet- making into Persia. Its said that tomb of Cyrus, who died in 529 BC and was buried at Pasargade, was covered with precious carpets.

THE SASSANID DYNASTY ( 224 AD - 641AD )

There are documents on the existence of carpets during the period of the Sassanid dynasty. The production of carpets in Persia is in fact mentioned in Chinese texts of the period. Moreover, the Emperor Heradius in AD 628 brought back a variety of carpets from the sack of Ctesiphone, the Sassanian capital. Among the spoils brought back by the Arabs who conquered Ctesiphone in 636 were said to be many carpets, among which was the famous and magnificent garden carpet called 'The Spring time of Chosroes'. This carpet has passed into history as the most precious of all time. It was made during the reign of Chosroes 1 (531 AD - 578), a Sassanid king known as Anushirvn. The Springtime of Chosroes, was exceptional. The whole design represents a garden in springtime to illustrate the spring during the winter time for the monarch and was described by Arab historians thus: ' 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 coloured stones.

PERSIA UNDER THE CALIPH OF BAGHDAD (661 - 861 AD)

The Sassanid dynasty was followed by a long period during which Persia was under the rule of Caliphs of Baghdad. There is not sufficient historic documentation to establish that knotted carpets were made at the time in Persia. As a powerful local dynasty did not exist, it is very unlikely that high quality carpets were made. On the other hand, the testimony of Arab historians confirms that the craft was not extinguished and that in addition to the carpets made by nomads, there were very probably some carpets of very real artistic value made. This period has influenced the future of this craftsmanship. The integration of Persian and Islamic cultures could be seen in the designs of golden time of Safavid rulers.

THE MINOR DYNASTIES (861-1037)

The dominance of the Caliphs of Baghdad was followed by a period of no less than two centuries during which some Persian dynasties succeeded in obtaining relative independence and in regaining power over their own land. There is no certain information about the craft of carpet - making during these two centuries.

PERSIA UNDER THE SELJUK TURKS (1037 - l194)

After the period of domination and control by the Arab Caliphates, Persia was conquered by the Seljuks, a Turkish people named after their founder. Seljuk domination was of great importance in the history of Persian carpets, the Seljuk in fact being very sensitive to all arts. Their womenfolk ,were skillful carpet makers , using Turkish knots. In the provinces of Azerbaijan and Hamdan where Seljuk influence was strongest and the longest lasting, the Turkish knot is used to this day. There are no existing carpets to help us to know more about this period.

In this period lived the two best-known Persian poets : Abolghasem Firdusi and Hakim Omar Khayyam their writings (Shah Nameh and Rubiat Khayyam) are an endless source of inspiration to the designers of pictorial carpets at the present time in Iran (the modern name for Persia).

MONGOL DOMINATION (1220-1449)

In the latter part of the twelfth century Seljuk power gradually came to an end and Persia came under the domination of the Shah of Khiva who reigned over Kharezm, a central Asian state situated along the lower reaches of the Amu Darya river.

This period was short, as in 1219 Persia, was devastated by the invasion of Genghis Khan. The Mongols were savage people and certainly knew nothing of any of the Persian arts. Very probably during this period carpet-making was carried out only by nomadic tribes. However, in the time the Mongols came under the influence of the coventry they had conquered. The palace of Tabriz, belonging to the leader Ghazan Khan (1295 - 1304) who was the last Mongol leader to be converted to Islam, had paved floors covered with carpets. There are no existing carpets to help us to know more about this period.

THE SAFAVID DYNASTY (1499 -1722)

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Mongol dynasties gradually lost control of Persia. In the western region, they were superseded by the Turkoman tribe of the White Sheep (Ag - Goinlo), and their Emlr Uzun Hassan set himself up in Tabriz in a palace where the paved floors were covered with carpets. At the same time, the last Mongol rulers were embellishing the palaces of Herat with carpets. This was an important turning point in Persia's history because, after more than seven centuries of foreign domination, a national dynasty ,was in a position to gain power and take control.

In fact, in 1499 Shah Ismail 1(1499 - 1524) drove out the White Sheep tribe and founded the Savafid dynasty. In the course of a few years, by means of a few expeditions sent out from Tabriz, Shah Ismaeil succeeded in conquering almost all of Persia which thus came to be conquered once more by a local dynasty. Liberation from the foreign yoke created a new ferment in the whole country and all Persian art saw a period of renaissance. Shah Ismaeil was sensitive to this movement and facilitated the renaissance of the arts as well as gaining the sympathy of the people. The great miniaturists such as Bihzad and the others lived at court with honours reserved for high dignitaries.

In the cities, craft centres were created for the manufacture of carpets. To these centres came the most skilled village craftsmen who, under the guidance of the miniaturist, wove the knotted carpets for which Persia is famous.

The accession to power of the Safavid rulers is therefore of great importance in the history of Persian carpets. Moreover, it is from this period that the first concrete proofs of this craft are dated. In fact, about 1,500 examples from this period are preserved in various museums and in private collections. Shah Ismaeil, was succeeded in 1524 by his son Shah Tahmasp, was only twelve years of age. Shah Tahmasp, was devoted to, and a great patron of, all the Persian arts. His royal palace, first at Tabriz and later at Kasvin, was frequented by mirdaturists and painters, It seems that Shah Tahmasp did not create a court workshop for carpets, preferring that this art should evolve contemporarily in all the centres of Persia, evidently under the control of artists and craftsmen from his court.

In spite of the lack of an effective court workshop, the most beautiful examples of the Safavid period were made during his long reign. The best carpets of this epoch came from Kashan, Tabriz and Isfahan . According to a Hungarian Ambassador to the court of Tahmasp, in this locality were made some splendid examples which the Shah sent as a gift to the Suleiman the Magnificent. Among the examples which have come down to us from the period of the reign of Shah Tahmasp are the carpet discovered in the mosque of Ardebil and the hunting carpet. Shah Tahnasp reigned until 1567. After a turbulent period lasting for some ten years, Shah Abbas the Great (1587 - 1629) seized power. During the reign of this Shah, Persia went through a period of calm and national unity. Commerce and crafts prospered, trade was established with the great European states, and thus gifts to rulers and ambassadors and through trade exchange, the Persian carpet penetrated into Europe and in a few years acquired great fame. In 1590 Shah Abbas moved his Capital to Isfahan where, around a large square (Midane Shah) which served as a polo ground, he constructed a magnificent royal palace (Aali Gapo) and two splendid mosques. Shah Abbas also created at Isfahan a court workshop for carpets where skilled designers and craftsmen set to work to create magnificent specimens.

These were almost always in silk and often contained gold and silver thread as well. At the death of Shah Abbas (1629) Shah Safi (1629 -1642) came to the throne. He was succeeded by the Shah Abbas II, Shah Suleiman and Sultan Hussein. During this period Persia found itself involved in various wars against the Turks, and consequently the arts underwent a progressive decline. In 1722 the Afghans invaded Persia and occupied and destroyed Isfahan. They ended the Safavid dynasty and the court period of the Persian carpet.

FROM THE AFGHAN INVASION TO THE PAHLEVI DYNASTY

Afghan domination lasted ten years and ended with the victory of a clever leader, a native of Khorassan, Nadir Gholi who, in 1736, was named Shah of Persia. The reign of Nader Shah lasted ten years, during which all the forces of the country were utilised in victorious campaigns against the Turks, the Russians and the Afghans. At the death of Nader Shah (1747) there followed several turbulent years until the prince of the Luri tribe, Karim Khan Zand , took power and had himself nominated ruler of the Kingdom of Persia, establishing his capital at Shiraz.

During the reign of Karim Khan Zand (1750 - 1799) no carpets of great value were made in the city workshops and the tradition of tiff craft was continued solely by the nomads.

After the death of Karim Khan, Persia ,vent through a period of disorder until Agha Mohammed Khan Qajar (1786) took power and founded the dynasty of the Qajar which lasted up to 1925. They transferred the capital to Tehran.

During the Qajar the trade and craftsmanship regained their importance, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century because of the merchants of Tabriz who had begun to export to Europe through Istanbul. At the end of nineteenth century some European and American companies set up their businesses in Persia and organised craft production destined for western markets. In 1925, Reza Shah took power from the Qajars and founded the Pahlevi dynasty (1925 - 1979). He encouraged the craft of carpet making and created Imperial workshops. These workshops produced some of the masterpieces for his palaces in Tehran which are already considered museum pieces. His son Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, followed his father's policy and promoted this art by opening the Tehran Museum and facilitating the export and trade.

The Pahlevi rule was ended in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The present government in Iran is trying to keep this tradition going on by organising annual seminars on carpets, inviting the curators of all the world's great museums to participate in the seminars which are large scale and well planned. The carpet museum in Tehran is awe-inspiring, and anyone who has the opportunity to visit should definitely do so.