History of Persian Carpets

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Verica Sitnik
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Persian carpets are produced in Iran (and is why they also known as Iranian rugs), an area that in ancient times was part of the Persian Empire. They had an decorative purpose and were an essential part of Persian art and culture.

Persian carpets stand out by their variety, and by their weighty and high-quality materials. With their colorful designs and patterns, they reflect the history of Iran and the Persian Empire. As carpets are subject to use, the beginnings of weaving are unknown. The first floor coverings were mostly made of felt, and is why the technique of weaving is sometimes known as “flat weaving.”

Shah Abbas’ first embassy to Europe by Carlo Caliari, 1595. Doge’s Palace, Venice.

Bookbinding from Collected Works (Kulliyat), 10th century AH/AD 16th, Walters Art Museum. The binding has a blue outer margin.

These early floor coverings were made by tightly interweaving the warp and weft strands, with the technique later developing into a loop weaving process. This is achieved by pulling the weft strings over a gauge rod. There are also hand-woven pile rugs, which are produced by knotting strings and cutting the thread.

The world’s most ancient pile carpet, Pazyryk burial mounds, Altay mountains.The Pazyryk Carpet, Hermitage Museum.

The Pazyryk carpet was made in the 5th century BC, its dimensions are 72 by 79 inches and has 232 symmetrical knots per inch².  The carpet was excavated in 1949 from the grave of a Scythian nobleman in Siberia and remains the oldest known carpet in the world. It is deep red colored and decorated with men on horses, and the borders depict a procession of deer.

Carpet fragment from Esrefoglu Mosque, Beysehir. Seljuk Period, 13th century. Photo Credit

There are also new fragments which are copies of old carpets which were used by the ancient Greeks. Homer (around 750 BC) writes in the Iliad that a “splendid carpet” was used to cover the dead body of Patroclus. Pliny the Elder wrote about carpets, saying that they were invented in Alexandria, but the technical information is not mentioned in Greek and Latin texts. However, the Greek author Xenophon writes about Persian carpets in his book “Anabasis” (around 400 BC), and he describes the carpets as precious and valuable.

Seljuq carpet, 126 by 94 inches, from the Alâeddin Mosque, Konya, 13th century. Photo Credit

 

Hunting Carpet made by Ghyath ud-Din Jami, 1542.

How the Persians wove their carpets and when is currently unknown, but the knowledge of suitable designs for floor coverings was certainly known in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), located between Byzantium and Persia. During the Sasanian period, silk textiles were preserved in European churches, as church treasures, and many of them are found in Tibetan monasteries.

‘Tree of Life,’ late 19th century.

 

One of the “Salting” group of carpets made of wool, silk and metal thread, 16th century. It belongs to a group which for a time were thought to be 19th century Turkish copies of older Persian originals.

The Spring of Khosrow Carpet is the highest artistic level reached by Persian weavers, taken as treasure by the Arabian conquerors in 637 AD. Persia became a part of the Ottoman Empire, and under the Mamluk dynasty large carpets were produced called “Mamluk carpets.” In history, this is the period when the Ottoman conquest of Egypt took place in 1517. Beginning at latest with the Seljuq invasions, these fragments that were found in Fostat, give us an idea of how they may have looked. Between 1219 and 1221, Mongols started to rule Persia, and by the late 13th century, Ghazan Khan ordered the floors of his residence to be covered with carpets. During the time of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1732), the Persian artists produced wonderful carpets. The great designs, art, and craft of carpet weaving can be seen in the fragments that have survived from the late Safavid period.

Watercolor on paper. A Mongol prince is studying the Koran. Illustration of Rashid-ad-Din’s Gami’ at-tawarih. Early 14th century.

 

The Emperor’s Carpet (detail), 16th century,  (warp and weft), wool (pile); asymmetrically knotted pile, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Detail of a Persian Animal carpet, 16th century: Lion and Qilin, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg.

By the late 15th century, the designs of the carpets included floral ornaments, large spirals and tendrils, and depictions of flowers and animals, combining in harmony and rhythm. After this period, there are no significant fragments of Persian carpets. The materials from which the Persian rugs were made are primarily wool and silk; in modern times, they are made from cotton. The fibers of wool and silk were spun on spinning wheels (manual or mechanical), and after that, they were put through a dyeing process. For the process of weaving, a number of essential tools are needed, such as a knife for cutting, a large comb-like instrument with a handle and a pair of shears for trimming. Carpets were produced simultaneously by nomadic tribes, for home use or local sale in villages and towns.

Traditional tools of the craft, used for weaving. Photo credit

 

 Ardabil Carpet, the most famous carpet in the world.

 

Safavid Kerman ‘vase’ carpet fragment, from early 17th century. 

The Ardabil Carpet is the most famous Persian carpet, which in fact is now a combination of two original mats, and today is kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The “Carpet of Wonder” in Muscat required four years of labor, resulting in 12 million hours of work. Six hundred people were working on this rug. The largest handmade carpet in history was produced in Iran, and its dimensions are 60,545.9 square feet. The most expensive Persian ‘vase’ style carpet dates from the 17th century and was sold at auction for $33.8m in London in June 2013.