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A HISTORY OF PERSIAN CARPET

To look at a Persian carpet is to gaze into a world of artistic magnificence nurtured for more than 2,500 years. The Iranians were among the first carpet weavers of the ancient civilisations and, through centuries of creativity and ingenuity building upon the talents of the past, achieved a unique degree of excellence.
The carpet is the finest and most exquisite form of expression an Iranian can find and the best specimens available today rank amongst the highest level of art ever attained by mankind.
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.
To trace the history of the Persian carpet is to follow a path of cultural growth of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known. From being simply articles of need, as pure and simple 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, those who looked for signs of wealth or adornment for fine buildings.
Many people in Iran have invested their whole wealth in Persian carpets - often referred to as an Iranian's stocks and shares - and there are underground storage areas in Tehran's bazaar that are full of fine specimens, kept as investments by shrewd businessmen. And for many centuries, of course, the Persian carpet has received international acknowledgment for its artistic splendor. In palaces, famous buildings, rich homes and museums throughout the world a Persian carpet is amongst the most treasured possessions. Thus, today Iran produces more carpets than all the other carpet making centers of the world put together.
The element of luxury with which the Persian carpet is associated today provides a marked contrast with its humble beginnings among the nomadic tribes that at one time wandered the great expanse of Persia in search of their livelihood. Then, it was an article of necessity to protect the tribes from the bitterly cold winters of the country. But out of necessity was born art. Through their bright colors and magical designs, the floor and entrance coverings that protected the tribesmen from the ravages of the weather also brought gay relief to their dour and hardy lives. In those early days the size of the carpet was often small, dependant upon the size of the tent or room in which the people lived.
Besides being an article of furniture, the carpet was also a form of writing for the illiterate tribesmen, setting down their fortunes and setbacks, their aspirations and joys. It also came to be used as a prayer mat by thousands of Muslim believers.
Thus began a process of fatheres handing down their skills to their sons, who built on those skills and in turn handed down the closely guarded family secrets to their offsprings.
To make a carpet in those days required tremendous perseverance. Even when carpet making developed to the stage of workshops, with several employees working on the same carpet, it was a question of months and often years of painstaking work. The leader would dictate throuth a series of chants to the other workers the colour of the individual strands of wool to be knotted. When the time came for the tribe to move on, the loom had to be dismantled and the unfinished carpet folded as best they could. The following season it had to be put again at some new oasis.
Althouth cotton came to be used for the warp and the weft of the carpet, the herds of sheep that surrounded the tribes in their wanderings provided the basic material, wool. The cold mountain climate provided an added advantage in that the wool was finer and had longer fibres than wool from sheep in warmer climes.
A key feature in making the carpets was the bright colours used to form the instricate designs. The manufacture of dyes involved well kept secrets handed down throuth the generations. Insects, plants, roots, barks and other substances found outside the tents and in their wanderings were all used by the ingenious tribesmen.
Before the dyeing process could begin, however, the wool had to be washed and dried in the sun to bleach it. The clean wool was then spun by hand. Since the tribes were constantly on the move and had only small vessels in which to hold the dyes, the dyers were unable to achieve a uniformity in shades, with yarn displaying varying tones of the same colour. The wool was loosely dipped into dyeing vats and left for a time that could he judged only by the expert craftsmen. Then the wool was left to hang without being sqeezed, which would have left an uneven colouring. Later the wool was dried in the sun.
Because the wool and cotton and silk used in marking the carpets arc perishable, very few of the earliest carpets arc now in existance. The earliest knowen Persian carpet was dicovered by Russian Professor Rudenko in 1949 during excavations of burial mounds in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. The carpet had been preserved purely by chance. Soon after it had been placed in the burial mound, grave robbers raided the mound. They ignored the carpet but, throuth the opening they left, water poured into the mound and froze, thus protecting the carpet from decay. Called the Paiyryk rug, the carpet has a woolen pile knotted with Chiordes knot. Its central field is a deep red colour and it has two wide borders, one depicting deer and the other Persian
horseman. It dates from the fifth century B.C. and is now kept in the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad.
Another rug found in the same area, this time with a Senneh knot, dates to the first century B.C. But, long before that, historical records show that the court of Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian monarchy over 2,500 years ago, was bedecked by magnificent carpets. Classical tales recount how Alexander the Great found carpets of a very fine fabric in Cyrus Lomp.
The next great period in the history of Persian carpets came during the sassanian dynasty, from the third to the seventh century A.D. By the 6th century Persian carpets had won international prestige and were being exported to distant lands. And in this time was created one great carpet which was a spectacle of overwhelming splendour. The spring or winter carpet of Khosrow was made for the huge audience hall of the palace at Ctesiphon and depicted a formal garden. It held a political significance as an indication of the power and the resources of the king and its beauty signified the divine role of the king. When the Arabs defeated the Persians and took Ctesiphon, they caned off the carpet as part of thier fabulous booty and it was eventually cut up into small fragments and divided among the victorious soldiers.
Thus began a process of fatheres handing down their skills to their sons, who built on those skills and in turn handed down the closely guarded family secrets to their offsprings.
To make a carpet in those days required tremendous perseverance. Even when carpet making developed to the stage of workshops, with several employees working on the same carpet, it was a question of months and often years of painstaking work. The leader would dictate throuth a series of chants to the other workers the colour of the individual strands of wool to be knotted. When the time came for the tribe to move on, the loom had to be dismantled and the unfinished carpet folded as best they could.
The following season it had to be put again at some new oasis.
Althouth cotton came to be used for the warp and the weft of the carpet, the herds of sheep thut surrounded the tribes in their wanderings provided the basic material, wool. The cold mountain climate provided an added advantage in that the wool was finer and had longer fibres than wool from sheep in warmer climes.
A key feature in making the carpets was the bright colours used to form the instricate designs. The manufacture of dyes involved well kept secrets handed down throuth the generations. Insects, plants, roots, barks and other substances found outside the tents and in their wanderings were all used by the ingenious tribesmen.
Before the dyeing process could begin, however, the wool had to be washed and dried in the sun to bleach it. The clean wool was then spun by hand. Since the tribes were constantly on the move and had only small vessels in which to hold the dyes, the dyers were unable to achieve a uniformity in shades, with yarn displaying varying tones of the same colour. The wool was loosely dipped into dyeing vats and left for a time that could he judged only by the expert craftsmen. Then the wool was left to hang without being sqeezed, which would have left an uneven colouring. Later the wool was dried in the sun.
Because the wool and cotton and silk used in marking the carpets arc perishable, very few of the earliest carpets arc now in existance. The earliest knowen Persian carpet was dicovered by Russian Professor Rudenko in 1949 during excavations of burial mounds in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. The carpet had been preserved purely by chance. Soon after it had been placed in the burial mound, grave robbers raided the mound. They ignored the carpet but, throuth the opening they left, water poured into the mound and froze, thus protecting the carpet from decay. Called the Paiyryk rug, the carpet has a woolen pile knotted with Chiordes knot. Its central field is a deep red colour and it has two wide borders, one depicting deer and the other Persian horseman. It dates from the fifth century B.C. and is now kept in the Hermitage
Museum of Leningrad.
Another rug found in the same area, this time with a Senneh knot, dates to the first century B.C. But, long before that, historical records show that the court of Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian monarchy over 2,500 years ago, was bedecked by magnificent carpets. Classical tales recount how Alexander the Great found carpets of a very fine fabric in Cyrus Lomp.
The next great period in the history of Persian carpets came during the sassanian dynasty, from the third to the seventh century A.D. By the 6th century Persian carpets had won international prestige and were being exported to distant lands. And in this time was created one great carpet which was a spectacle of overwhelming splendour. The spring or winter carpet of Khosrow was made for the huge audience hall of the palace at Ctesiphon and depicted a formal garden. It held a political significance as an indication of the power and the resources of the king and its beauty signified the divine role of the king. When the Arabs defeated the Persians and took Ctesiphon, they caned off the carpet as part of thier fabulous booty and it was eventually cut up into small fragments and divided among the victorious soldiers.
Yet its magnificance lived on, inspiring subsequent history, poetry and art and helping to sustain Persian morale for centuries. It also provided a source of inspiration for subsequent carpets but, althoLith many have tried, not even the most skilled have been able to equal its spellbinding design.
After the fall of the Sassanian dynasty, from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, Persian carpet weaving become a rather spasmodic industry in many parts, althouth there is evidence of a large industry surviving on the South Caspian coast in Gilan and Mazandaran in the eighth and ninth centuries with a sizeable export of prayer rugs. Organized production was also reported in the northwest towns of Bargari, Mukhan, Arjig, Nachshirvan and Khoy and in the south, in Khuzcstan and Fars.
Certainly when the Mongols invaded the country in the 13th century they found many Persian homes and tents boasting local carpets. But for the next two centuries, the artistic life of the country, including carpet weaving, declined under the influence of the devastation wreaked by the Mongols. But, among his few graces, the conqueror Tamerlane spared artisans from his bloody havoc and had them sent to his palaces in Turkistan. Under his successor art began to flourish once more. His son Shah Rokh put a great emphasis on Persian carpets and outstanding specimens began to appear once more from court subsidized looms. The lavish royal support guaranteed the highest skills and he finest materials money could buy. Once more the art was for a great climax.
The climax came with the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century. When Shah lsmail occupied the throne in 1499 he began laying the foundation for what was to become a national industry that was the envy of surrounding countries. The most famous of the kings of this era, Shah Abbas, more than any one transformed the industry, bringing it from the tents of the wandering nomads into the towns and cities. In Isfahan, which he made his capital, he established a royal carpet factory and hired artisans to prepare designs to be made by master craftsmen. He charged officers of the crown to ensure that the integrity of the industry was maintained and in this period the art of carpet weaving once again achieved monumental proportions. The best knowen carpets of the period, dated 1539, come from the mosque of Ardebil and, in the opinion many experts, represent the summit of achievement in carpet design. A complex star medallion dominates a rich system of stems and blossoms on a vivid indigo field. The larger of the two is now kept in London's Victoria and Albert Museum while the other can be seen at the Los Angeles Country Museum. Excellent silk animal rugs were woven in Kashan while, to the north of Isfahan, weavers turned out the distinctive vase carpets. Rugs of great beauty were also woven in Kerman, Yazd, Fars and khuzestan. Shah Abbas also developed the use of gold and silver thread carpet, culminating in the great coronatio carpet now held in the Roscnburg Castle, Copenhagen, which has a perfect velvet?like pile and gleaming gold background.
These carpets, of course, were made for the court and the great nobles, and were protected as well as any golden treasure. They had special custodians and, even when they were brought out for state and other special occasions, were usually covered with another light fabric to protect them from wear.
Growing demand from the great royal courts of Europe for these gold and silver threaded carpets led to a great export industry. A large number went to Poland aftre King Sigmund specially sent merchants to Persia to acquire them. King Louis XIV of France even sent his own craftsmen to Persia to learn the trade.
As the 17th century wore on there was an increasing demand for luxury and refinement. A set of silk carpets woven to surround the sacrophagus of Shah Abbas II achieved such a rare quality that many mistook them for velvet. But they were the last really high achievement in carpet making from that era in Persian history. Somehow, inspiration steadily began to slacken and, as the court became increasingly impoverished, the quality of the craftsmanship began to fall away.
When Shah Abbas' capital city of Isfahan was sacked in 1722 a magnificent period in the history
not only of carpet weaving but of art itself came dramatically to an end. The great carpet weaving fell back into the hands of the wandering nomads who had maintained their centuries-old traditions and skills, apart from a few centres, principally Josheghan, Kerman, Mashad and Azarbaijan. Even the low school rugs these centres produced were in danger of being ruined as an art by the growing demand from the West in the mid 19th century for quantity at the expense of quality. Cheap dyes, low quality wool, chemical washing and even meaningless designs supplied by the European importers brought the industry almost to its knees.
After sporadic and largely an successful efforts to stop the rot, the gavernement took drastic action and confiscated the carpets in which cheap days and low quality wool had been used. The dye Masters soon came to their senses, with it began a new era of revival for the carpet crafts. The Iran Carpet Company and a school of design were stablished in Tehran to restore the integrity of Art and to study and buid the great works of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Art of Carpet weaving during the Safavid period
(1499-1 722)

During the reign of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, the arts of calligraphy, gilding, tiling, painting, miniatures, architecture and carpet weaving approached their highest previous level. In this period, the Iranian artists created very interesting designs that since have been imitated in many carpet weaving countries. The ability of the master weavers of the Safavid period was so complete and sophisticated that since then only a limited number of designers have been able to re-create the original Safavid motifs. The master weavers of the Safavid dynasty created about one-thousand, five hundred carpets and rugs, some of which are magnificent masterpieces known all over the world.
The Safavid kings, such as Shah Tahmasb (1524-1587) and Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629), patronised these master weavers. They set up many weaving workshops in
Kashan, Esfahan, Tabriz, Ghazvin, Kerman, and Josheghan and in other suitable areas of Iran.
Diaries of well-known European travellers such us Tavernier, Chardin and others who visited Iran in this period wrote extensively of the carpets weaving in Iran. Their travel essays provide excellent source material of that era. In that period, the simple and rustic profession evolved into the art and elegant technique of carpet weaving.
Persian carpets became very popular in European nations and the elegant technique of carpet weaving. Persian carpets became very popular in European nations and large quantities of carpets started to flow towards the European markets.
The main categories of carpets in the Safavid era are classified by their design as follows:
Medallion, vase, hunting scenery, tree and shrub, Harati, garden.

Medallion carpet

Medallion carpets are one of the earliest designs attributed to the beginning of the Safavid dynasty. If one quarter of the medallion or similar shape is repeated on four sides of the field, the design is further designated as a ?Corner medallion?.
Flower and foliage, animals, birds, trees, shrubs and many others motifs can be woven into the background, angles and the medallion of carpet. For a better understanding of the medallion carpet, we study two famous carpets woven with this design.

1. The Ardabil shirin carpet
One of the most famous carpets in the medallion category is the Ardabil Carpet. It was woven in the first twenty years of the Safavid dynasty. In view of its marvellous colours and the fineness of its warp and weft, this carpet is one of the great masterpieces of carpet weaving.
This Carpet was brought to London by Ziegler?s, an English Firm which was the first European note need better word financier of carpets in Iran since 1883. Ziegler?s sold it for (pound) 2000 to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The size is 11.52x5.34 metres; knots per sq. metres are 517000.
The warp and the weft are of silk and the pile is of wool, the following lines are woven into this carpet.
?I have no retreat in the world other than this threshold, my head has no other protection than this archway the work of a servant of the Court, Maghsoud Kashani in the year 946?
(1539).
There is no unanimity of opinion on the origin of this Carpet. A number of experts believe that this carpet was woven under the orders of Shah Tahmasb for the shrine of Sheikh Safi (great grandfather of the Safavid Family) in Aradabil, under the supervision of an able craftsman, Maghsoud Kashani.
However some historians do not agree to this version and insist that it was one of the treasures of the Museum of Imam Reza ( Eighth Imam of Sciite Moslem religion), in Mashhad and was probably woven to decorate the Shrine of Imam Reza.

2. The wave of the sea carpet
In the period of the Safavid dynasty, many Portuguese merchants traded in the southern ports of Iran, especially to Bandar Abbas. They usually ordered their carpets there, and the reason why these carpets are known as ?Portuguese? is derived from this fact. Until now only eight pieces of this category have been distinguished. The experts presume that the source and origin of these carpets were either in the south of Iran or in India. One of the most famous samples of this group known as Mowje Darya (wave of the sea), is kept in the Osterreichisches Museum fur Angewandte Kunst in Vienna.

Vase design

The pattern of ?Vase? was probably created in the second half of the 16 century corresponding with the reign of Shah Abbas. In the pattern the field of the carpet is usually divided from side to side by rows of floral lozenges or some other geometrical frames, arranged in lattice forms.
Each individual design contains a Vase or a bunch of flowers. In the same pattern, either a row of animals or hunters on horse back can be found.
The group of ?Vase? rugs is generally subdivided into Arabesque Design, Serrated Leaf, Mehrabi Goldani, repeated Panels and multiple Medallions.
Unlike the Medallion carpets this pattern has a design which is woven in one direction.
Viewed from the opposite direction, the design appears inverted. Experts believe that this pattern was woven in Kerman, Kashan, Esfahan, Tabriz, Yazd and even in Harat. Experts such as Kurt Erdmann and Charles Ellis believe that the design originated in Caucasia, but was perfected in Iran.
Arthur Pope believes that the pattern was created in Josheghan (Central Iran).
Several samples of the ?Vase? are now kept in museums of New York, Hamburg, Paris, Milan, Vienna and Tehran.

Hunting scenery design

A carpet of this design generally depicts hunting with human figures (usually on horseback) or predatory animals pursuing their prey amidst fertile undergrowth of various plant life.
Formal hunting scenes are firmly rooted in the traditions of the Persian Shahs and Princelings who loved to have themselves depicted as noble hunters and horsemen.
A small number of these carpets are connected to the Safavid period.
Numbering eighteen pieces, fourteen were small in size with dimension of approximately 2.50x1.50 m.
These carpets are also decorated with either Corner Medallions made in silk.
The carpets were woven in Kashan.. The finest of the remaining four larger carpets is kept in the museum in Osterreichisches Vienna, Austria. It is extremely elegant, made entirely of silk and brocaded with silver and gold. The size is 6.80x3.20 m. and its knots number about 1.270.000 to each square metre.
Experts believe that Sultan Mahammad, the skilled painter of Shah Tahmasb?s Court, who was a pupil of the celebrated Iranian painter Behzad, designed this incomparable piece.
The animals depicted in these designs included lion, deer, wild ass, etc. Pasturing amidst trees and bushes with huntsmen on horseback or on foot, with bow and arrow.

Tree and Shrub design

In 16 century, by a combination of the ?Medallion? pattern with shapes of animals and trees, the Iranian artist introduced a new design called ?Tree and Shrub?.
The finest carpet of this design is found in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The Medallion of this carpet is in the form of a pool of fish, which is surrounded by trees and branches having beautiful flowers. Experts are of the opinion that all carpets of this category, which were woven in 16 17 and 18 century, originated in Kordestan and from parts of North - Western Iran. Lovely and exquisite samples of this design are kept in the Museum of Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Harati design

The Harati design derives its name from the city oh Harat (part of Persia until the last century but now in Afghanistan).
The design is generally composed of a single floral head, within a diamond framework flanked by four outwardly curling leaves. One of this carpets is now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the other one is in the Museum at Vienna.
?Harflti? design rugs are closely associated with those from Khorasan, Kordestan, Hamedan and Azarbaijan.

Garden design

The design is based on the formal gardens of ancient Persia with their abundance of flora separated by pathways and ornamental ponds.
They sometimes take the form of a palace garden seen from above but more often a garden is simply implied by the juxtaposition of vegetal and foliate forms.
In the classical Persian design of gardens the field of the carpet is divided equally by channels of water into four sections; named ?Chahar bagh? meaning four gardens. Usually, the centre medallion has the form of a pool containing fishes and ducks. The water in the pool and channels are woven in pale blue and beige and on the background of each square are woven birds and shrubs and a cluster of flowers incarnating the lively world of animals.
Some of these carpets are woven in the shape of a Mehrab (a special place in the mosque where the Imam prays) in the others the background has been divided into six sections.
Garden designs are most closely associated with the Kerman weavers of southern Persia and date back to the 17 and early 18 century. Iran is situated in a dry arid region, where in many parts there is an endless expanse of desert mountains.
The people naturally sought the beauty of nature. All the lovely designs such as streams, pools, gardens with trees and birds which are seen in the Persian carpets are an attempt to bring the lush beauty of nature into their lives.

               
 
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