The Pazyryk carpet: The story behind the oldest rug in the world

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Petra Bjelica
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Over two thousand years ago, in the Pazyryk Valley beneath the grasslands of the vast Ukok Plateau, located in the Altai Mountains region of Russia, where the borders of China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia meet, lived the Scythian peoples.

Partly nomadic, partly settled, these Persian-speaking tribes raised huge herds of horses. They used their horses to pull carriages that they used to move their settlements and to carry luxury goods. In war, the horses made these mounted warriors almost impossible to conquer.

A drawing of Scythian warriors made after figures on an electrum cup found in a kurgan in Crimea.

Intricate gold jewelry is one of the things the Scythians are best remembered for, the second being the size of their royal tombs. Also known as kurgans, these ancient burial mounds, some of which are up to 20-meters, were the final resting places for the Scythian noblemen and their treasures.

As mysterious as the Egyptian pyramids, these kurgans first drew the attention of Russian scientists in the 1920s. The archaeological excavations carried out in 1949 revealed an abundance of historically important items, offering an intriguing insight into the little-known life and culture of the nomadic tribes living in the heart of the southwestern Siberian steppe.

Kurgan in the South Urals, dating from the 4th century BC. Excavated in the summer of 2006, this is the first known kurgan to be completely destroyed and then rebuilt to its original appearance.

Since the Scythians dug their tombs deep in the permafrost and covered the deceased with piles of timber and stone, all findings were unearthed in remarkably preserved condition. Among these amazing findings were mummies with tattooed flesh and hair, silk tunics, cloth saddles, a full-sized chariot, decorative figurines, and an intact carpet.

A Scythian comb (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).

Made sometime in the 5th century BC, this carpet is known as the Pazyryk carpet and is the world’s oldest carpet. The fine weaving and elaborate pictorial design indicate a long history of experience in weaving. Woven in the technique of the symmetrical double knot or the so-called Turkish knot, this marvelous rug is 1.83×2 meters and has 36 symmetrical knots per cm2 (or more than 1,250,000 knots).

The Pazyryk carpet: its origin may be unknown, but its beauty is timeless

According to the depiction at the St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum where this exhibit is housed today, the Pazyryk carpet’s decoration is rich and varied: “The central field is occupied by 24 cross-shaped figures, each of which consists of four stylized lotus buds.

This composition is framed by a border of griffins, followed by a border of twenty-four fallow deer. The widest border contains representations of workhorses and men.”

A Pazyryk horseman.

The combination of yellow, blue and red threads and the level of technical sophistication make it clear that the Pazyryk carpet belongs to a very old artistic tradition. However, since the Pazyryk Valley was located between active trade routes spanning the ancient world, it remains unknown up to present day if that tradition belonged to the Scythians or was borrowed from neighbors.

Scythia: the approximate extent of Eastern Iranian languages and people in Middle Iranian times in the 1st century BC

The discoverer of the Pazyryk carpet, Sergei Rudenko, assumed that is was an artifact from the Achaemenid Empire. Most carpet scholars think that it most likely came from Central Asia, either from Persia or Armenia. However, its exact origin is still a mystery since both Persia and Armenia have long traditions of carpet weaving, although the horses represented on the rug are nearly identical to equestrians on a frieze in the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. Furthermore, not many believe that the carpet could have been woven in a nomadic setting, nor by the Scythians whose design was never known to be particularly sophisticated and elegant.

Today, countless replicas of the Pazyryk carpet are produced by crafty weavers all over the world, using natural dyes and handspun wool.