John Singer Sargent, the famous American painter said:

"The collection of Italian paintings during Renaissance are not as worthy as a single Persian Carpet"

 

History

Iranian art is best known in the West for its carpets. Europeans had had their first encounter with Persian rugs by at least the 15th century, and the initial impression has never changed; in carpet weaving Iran is considered to have no equal. The earliest-known Iranian carpet, now called Pazyrik after the archeological site in Siberia where it was exhumed from the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, dates from about 500 B.C. the earliest documented evidence of the carpets woven in Sassanid Iran is found in Chinese chronicles. Arab historians report that when the Muslim Arabs conquered the Sassanid capital of Ctesphon in 637, among the fabulous booty they carried away was a carpet of overwhelming splendor, known as Baharestan (the spring garden). It was made for the huge audience hall of Khosrow I’s palace, and depicted a formal garden; the Arabs eventually stripped this magnificent carpet of its jewels and cut it into many pieces, which were sold separately.

The first references to Iranian carpets of the Islamic period belong to the rule of the Seljuke Turks. The Seljuks introduced the Turkish knot in carpet weaving; this knot is used in many parts of Iran to this day, particularly in the provinces of Azerbaijan and Hamedan, where Seljuks influence was the strongest, and where it longest endured. During the 11th_13th centuries, numerous carpet weaving shops existed throughout the country, but only a few samples of their work have survived. Some of the most productive weaving establishments were apparently in Fars. In the 10th century the province was producing carpets, Zilu (a flat-stitch fabric made principally for the prayer rugs), as well as Kilims of superb quality. Fasa was famous for its carpets, and Darabgerd manufactured fine rugs, including embroidered ones. Jahrom was famous for flat, non-pile rugs, which were called Jahromi, and were woven in state-run factories. Fars seems to have remained one of the great centers of carpet weaving in later periods. Thus, Ghazan Khan Ilkhanid is known to have had the majority of the carpets for a group of buildings in his capital made in Shiraz, and judging from the number and size of these buildings, his must have been a very large order.

The glory days of Persian carpets coincide with the accession to power of the Safavid kings. Approximately 1,500 examples from this era are preserved in museums and private collections worldwide. During this period, crafts that had been primarily nomadic were transformed into royal industries by the creation of court workshops.

Once simple utilitarian articles, woven to protect nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp, floor and entrance coverings became objects of exquisite beauty which found new owners- kings and noblemen- who looked upon them as signs of wealth, prestige and distinction. Most of the Safavid kings took a personal interest in carpet weaving, and provided the support and appreciation that called forth the utmost in labor and creativity from the gifted designers and artisans of the day. The two best-known carpets from this period, dated 1539, come from the mausoleum of Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardebili and, in the opinion of many experts, represent the summit of achievement in carpet design.

Both Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas Ӏ are said to have been skilled weavers. Under Shah Abbas, the artists developed the use of gold and silver threads in rugs, of which the great coronation carpet now held in the Rosenberg Castle in Copenhagen is the masterwork.

With the final collapse of the Safavid dynasty as it faced the Afghan invasions, the country entered a troubled period. Little is known about carpet production, since few examples have been preserved. It is obvious that under Karim Khan Zand, a new vocabulary of colors was introduced, with soft pinks, pale blues, and greens predominating, and often used on a white ground.

Carpet weaving regained its importance under the Qajar dynasty. Although many traditional designs were retained, they were expressed in different ways, often smaller in scale than their Safavid prototypes, and employed using a revised range of brighter colors.

Today, carpet weaving remains the most widespread handicraft in Iran. In homes throughout the world a Persian carpet is among the most treasured possessions. Persian carpets are renowned for their richness of color, variety of patterns, and quality of design. Carpets are Iran’s second largest export item, after oil.

Materials and Techniques

Iranian carpets are usually made of wool. In Hamedan and Kurdistan regions, camel hair has also used. Silk is employed to make the most exquisite carpets.

The dyes used to color the wool are of greatest importance. Most traditional dyes are of vegetable or animal origin, but since the late 19th century, chemical dyes have also been widely employed.

Traditional Iranian carpets are hand-knotted. Each carpet consists of strings of warp, and thousands of knots constitute the carpet’s weft. The wooden or metal loom, to which the strings of warp are attached, can be installed either vertically or horizontally. After every few knots, the wefts are leveled with a heavy pressing device.

There are two principle knots used: the Turkish knot and the Persian knot. The Turkish knot is done by crochet. The yarn is taken twice around two adjacent warp threads and the ends are drawn out between these two threads. The Turkish knot is very solid, and leaves two wool or silk threads on show, between two threads of chain. The Persian knot is done by hand. The weft 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 Persian knot is used for very fine carpets and leaves only one woolen thread showing. There are between 65 and 330 knots per square inch in finely-knotted carpets. The closer the knots, the finer the design which can be displayed.

Iranian carpets vary greatly in size, and some of the most valuable carpets are woven to repeat the contours of the area which they will cover. Carpets are usually rectangular, though round pieces also occur. The scarcity of round rugs may be due to the fact that weaving in circular form is extremely difficult, since bending a complex composition without serious distortion requires exceptional technical virtuosity.

 

Designs and Motifs

 The value of Iranian carpets is determined to a large extent by their patterns. Before weaving a carpet, a professional weaver usually makes a paper model, representing one quarter of the carpet’s surface; nomads usually improvise while weaving. The carpet consists of the main portion and the margins; the margins, in turn, may be divided into three sections. There is an astonishing variety of patterns in Iranian carpets. Their elaborate composition and minute details reflect a poetic vision of the world and a belief in the efficacy of symbols. Of all the themes which occupy the mind of a Persian carpet designer, the garden is particularly important. The notion of the garden cannot be separated from the idea of Paradise. In the greatest carpets, the garden idea finds its most perfect embodiment.

Another popular design –and the type out of which several of the world’s greatest carpets have emerged – has a complex central medallion. Carpets with prayer niche also constitute a well-defined class. Other common designs are the tree of life, the vase (Shah Abbas’s), the arabesque, the fish, stripes, the four seasons, animals and birds, geometric, floral, and pictorial elements – all with infinite variations.

Two small, homogenous series of Iranian carpets are recognized under foreign proper names. One of these is known as “Sanguszko” and the other; “Polonaise”. The “Sanguszko” type gets its name from the Polish Prince “Sanguszko”, whose collection contains the most outstanding pieces. All of the carpets in this group date from the close of the 16th century. Most have either a great central medallion with pendant bars and escutcheons, or a multiple cartouche scheme. Phoenixes and dragons are also presented, and are the finest to be found in Persian carpet design. A considerable number of floral motifs are also more or less common. This group is also characterized by a distinctive color scheme with lavish gold predominant, standing out against deepest red and darkest blue. The carpets of this class, or at least its best pieces, were woven in Kerman.

The so-called “Polonaise” carpets are distinguished by threads of gold and silver, incorporated into a silk foundation. Most “Polonaise” carpets belong to the late 15th –early 17th century, and were probably woven in Esfahan and Kashan. For a long time, however, because most of the pieces in this class were woven at the order of the Polish court, they became known as “Polonaise”, and many actually believed that these rugs were indeed produced in Poland. Although in the 20th century the true origin of these4 rugs was ascertained, the name remained. Rows of medallions amid a riot of floral decoration against a ground of  silver and gold brocade are the chief motifs of the “Polonaise” rugs. It seems that the carpets were made in pairs, and the placing of the medallions in an off-center arrangement may be because the two carpets were meant to be used together.

Weaving centers

Almost all Iranian settlements, both large and small, have weaving shops, but some places, such as Kashan, Yazd, Esfahan, Tabriz, Kerman, Jowshaqan, Hamedan, and Sanandaj enjoy a particular renown. The so-called Shiraz carpets are a misnomer, for whereas Shiraz is a very important emporium for the buying and selling of carpets, the city itself has no rug workshops; the wares trafficked in it are produced by the nomad Qashqai and Khamseh tribesman. In addition to fine carpets, Iranian nomads also produce Kilims (flat woven rugs) and Gabehs (coarsely-woven, long piled rugs). The designs of Kilims are predominantly geometric, while the motifs of Gabehs are reminiscent of children’s drawings.

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