Introduction: Whenever there is a talk about Carpet (in Persian: Farsh/Ghaali), the first thing which immediately comes to mind is the Persian Carpet. As the famous specialist in Oriental Civilization and Persian Art and Culture, American Professor Arthur Pope, noted: “All around the world, the Persian Carpets are the symbols of poetical luxury, and the precious historical carpets of Isfahan and Kashan are the manifestations of the Iranian genuine and authentic art”. Persian Carpets are traditionally known for their tremendous variety in design, color, size, and weave, and also for the uniqueness of each and every piece produced. Over the years, art scholars and carpet experts have attempted to classify the Persian Carpet designs. The results of their researches have revealed that there are 17 groups of main patterns together with their sub patterns. To name a few, one may recall of the Patterns of Historic Monuments (such as Takht-e-Jamshid, Tagh-e-Bostan, and Tagh-e-Kassra), Shah Abbasi, Spiral, Interconnected Patterns, etc.
It is documented that Iranians more than any other nation have used various sizes and types of Persian Carpets to enrich, decorate, and beautify rooms, halls, historic buildings, religious centers and holy constructions, and many other locations. Most of the hand-made Persian Carpets and Rugs have been recognized as precious artistic works because of their graceful designs and delicate styles and patterns. Many hand-made Persian Carpets and Rugs (in Persian: Ghaalicheh-haa) are also preserved as costly and dear artistic works in museums and private collections all around the world. In this article, the history of carpet weaving in reference to the first Iranians who introduced this valuable artistic work to the world is studied and discussed.
The role of sheep in carpet weaving: Since sheep wool is the main raw material of carpet weaving, one cannot eliminate the role of sheep in this creative work. There are a number of different theories regarding the origins of domestic sheep. However, most sources agree that domesticated sheep flocks originated from Mouflon (Asiatic and European types) and Urial (Asiatic type). The two wild populations of Mouflons are still in existence: the Asiatic Mouflon is still found in the mountains of Asia Minor and southern Iran and the European Mouflon of which the only existing members are on the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. The wild populations of Asiatic Urial are also still found in mountainous regions of northern province of Mazanderan in present-day Iran, and they are called as Wild Rams (in Persian: Ghooch-haa-ye-Vahshi). Sheep were among the first animals domesticated and it is believed that sheep flocks were firstly domesticated in the Iranian plateau and the agriculture and sheep husbandry were among the very first occupations of the inhabitants of the plateau. An archeological site in Iran produced a statuette of a sheep, covered with lots of wool, which suggests that selection of sheep for wool had begun to occur over 6000 years ago in Iran. It should be also noted that in present-day world, there are five categories of sheep breeds, which are Fine Wool Breeds (like Merino sheep), Medium Wool Breeds (like Suffolk sheep), Long Wool Breeds (like Lincoln Sheep), Coarse Wool Breeds (like Persian Sheep), and Crossbred Wool Breeds (like Corriedale Sheep). Among all those breeds, only the wool obtained from Coarse Wool Breed is the best raw material in carpet weaving. It is documented that the first Iranians who lived in the Iranian plateau were in contact with sheep, gradually became familiar with the properties and the utilizations of wool, and they gradually established a kind of rug weaving to cover the floors where they used to reside and live. Those primitive rugs, using sheep wool, replaced the hides of sheep and cattle formerly used as the floor coverings.
Archeological and historical evidences: In the past, Western researchers, based on their relatively reliable evidences, speculated that Egyptian and Assyrian civilizations have been the original centers of world’s carpet weaving. Though Iranians may not claim to have produced the first hand-made carpets, the evidences specially finding carpet named Pazyric (also spelled as Pazirik) proves the great role of Iranians in creating this valuable art. After the discoveries of a group of Russian archeologists headed by Professor Sergei Ivanovich Rodenko, who discovered a knotted carpet among the icebergs in the first half of recent century, the whole assumptions changed totally.
Location of weaving craft changed from Nile coasts and Dajleh and Forat Rivers to Iran and Central Asia. In fact, in a unique archaeological excavation in 1949, in a place called Pazyric Valley (80 km to Mongolia border, among Altai mountain ranges in southwestern Siberia), Professor Rodenko and his group discovered a knotted carpet in the frozen graves of a Scythian prince. Radiocarbon testing revealed that Pazyric carpet was woven about 2500 years ago. This carpet is 1.83×2 meters and has 36 symmetrical knots per sq cm, which is woven in copper-brown and light green colors. Although it was found in a Scythian burial-mound, most experts attribute it to Iran. Its margin images are doubtlessly very similar to common shapes in Achamenid period (550-330 BC) and Persepolis’ images. The outer of the four principal border bands is decorated with a line of horsemen: seven on each side, twenty-eight in number, or a figure which corresponds to the number of males who carried the throne of Xerxes to Persepolis. Some are mounted, while others walk beside their horses. In central ground of this carpet, there are four-winged star shapes, which are exactly the same as the objects discovered in Lorestan, a historic territory of western Iran amidst the Zagros Mountains.
In addition to the archeological finds, the historical records also show that the court of Cyrus the Great (reigned 559-529 BC), who founded the Persian Empire over 2500 years ago, was bedecked by magnificent carpets, which indicates that Iranians knew about the use of knotted carpets, and their flocks of sheep provided them with high quality and durable wool for this purpose. It is very likely that Iranian 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. Some researchers claimed that at the time of the conquest of Sardis (546 BC) and Babylon (539 BC), Cyrus the Great came into contact with the artistic works of Babylon, refused to allow it to be thrown away. It was probably he who introduced the art of carpet weaving into Persian Empire. It is reported that the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who died in 529 BC and was buried at Pasargade, was covered with precious carpets. Classical tales also recount how Alexander, the Greek invader, found carpets of a very fine fabric in the Cyrus tomb. Professor Arthur Pope, has noted, "Greek resources refer to the carpets of the Achamenid era which are woven with golden threads. This is almost verified in Avesta, where reference is made to the golden-thread mats”.
Carpet weaving in Sassanid era: Historical evidences confirm that carpet weaving was flourished during Sassanid era (224-651 AD). Professor Pope has documented that, "Some of the carpets of the Sassanid era were definitely wool-made and once Dastjerd was taken over by the Roman Ruler Heraculis in 628 BC, a variety of thick and soft carpets were observed among the obtained valuable spoils of war". It should be noted that Professor Pope refers to Dastjerd (also spelled as Dastgerd), which is a region in Isfahan province in the present-day Iran. Though, there is also a place named Dastgerd in the Khorasaan province of Iran which is the birthplace of Nader Shah, the founder of Afsharid dynasty.
A Chinese Almanac which belongs to 590 to 617 AD (short time before the fall of Sassanid dynasty) has recorded the existence of the carpet among Iranian commodities and indicated that the Sassanid carpets contained images adorned with gold and valuable stones. The same glittery adorning style was used in a large carpet with Garden design. That carpet used to cover the floor of great hall of Ctesiphon Palace (in Persian: Kakh-e-Tisfoun) and was known as the Carpet of Spring Garden (in Persian: Farsh-e-Bahaarestan). This carpet has passed into history as the most precious of all time. Made during the reign of Khosrow I (531-579) the carpet was 90 feet square. Its description has been recorded as follows: "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 color stones". Alas, the Arab invaders cut this magnificent carpet into many pieces, which were then sold separately.
Carpet weaving in Iran after Arabs invasion: As Iran became a part of Muslim world in 642, the carpet weaving declined in Iran. Because of racial and tribal reasons, Arabs did not need any carpet or floor-covering. In fact, there was no type of luxurious carpets among Arabs. This decline lasted only until the time of Omavid and Abbasid Caliphs, who decorated their dreamy palaces with precious and magnificent Persian Carpets.
The Seljukid era (1038-1194 AD) has been considered to be of a great importance in the history of Persian Carpet. The Seljuk women were skilful carpet weavers using Turkish knots. In the provinces of Azerbaijan and Hamadan where Seljuk influence was strongest and longest lasting, the Turkish knot has been used up to this day. In the Turkish (or Ghiordes) knot the yarn is taken twice around two adjacent warp threads and the ends are drawn out between these two threads. In the Persian (or Sinneh) Knot, the wool thread forms a single turn about the warp thread. One end comes out over this thread and the other over the next warp thread. Unfortunately, there is no carpet sample left from Saljukid era. However, their similarities to the carpets of Aladdin Mosque in Seljuk Capital of Konia (also spelled as Ghoonieh), in Ashrafoghlu Mosque in Beyshehir, in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul and in the Mowlana Museum in Konya (all located in Turkey) should be noticed.
When the Mongols invaded Iran in 1220, they found many Iranian homes and tents boasting local carpets. For the next two centuries, the artistic life of the country, including carpet weaving, declined under the influence and devastation of the Mongols. However, among his few graces, the conqueror Tamerlane's son, Shah Rokh (1409-1446), put great emphasis on Persian Carpet and outstanding works began to appear once more from court subsidized looms. The lavish royal support guaranteed the highest skills and the finest materials. Once more the quality of this art form began to improve significantly. Though, the carpets in this period were decorated with simple motifs, which were mainly geometric in style.
The Persian Carpet reached its zenith during the reign of the Safvids in the 16th century. Indeed the first concrete proofs of this craft date back to this period. Approximately 1500 examples are preserved in various museums and in private collections worldwide. Shah Tahmasb who reigned from 1524 to 1567, was a person devoted to, and a great patron of all the Persian Arts. His royal palace, first at Tabriz and later at Ghazvin, was frequented by miniaturists, painters, and many others familiar with artistic works. Shah Tahmasb did not establish a court workshop for carpet weaving, and preferred the art evolve contemporarily in all the parts of the country, 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 era 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 those locations some splendid examples of Persian Carpets were made, which the Shah sent one of them as a gift to the Suleiman the Magnificent. Among the examples which have been preserved from that period are the carpet kept in the mosque of Ardabil. During the reign of Shah Abbas (1587-1629), commerce and crafts prospered in Iran. Shah Abbas encouraged contacts and trade with Europe and transformed his new capital Isfahan, into one of the most glorious cities of Safavid Empire. Shah Abbas established a royal carpet factory and hired artisans to prepare designs to be made by master craftsmen. Most of these carpets were made of silk, with gold and silver threads adding even more embellishment. Two of the best know carpets (one large, and one small) of the Safavid period; dated 1539 come from the Mosque of Ardebil. Many experts believe that these carpets represent the culmination of achievement in carpet design. The large carpet is now kept in London's Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK while the small one is displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum in the USA.
Shah Abbas also developed the use of gold and silver thread carpet, culminating in the great coronation carpet, now held in the Rosenburg Castle, Copenhagen, Denmark. This particular piece has a perfect velvet-like pile and a gleaming gold background. Of course, these carpets were made exclusively for the high court and the great nobles, and were protected as closely as any golden treasure. Increased demand, from the great royal courts of Europe for these gold and silver threaded carpets led to a growing and highly successful export industry. A large number went to Poland after King Sigmund's merchants traveled to Iran to acquire carpets. King Louis XIV of France even sent his own craftsmen to Iran to learn the trade. The court period of the Persian Carpet ended with the Afghan invasion in 1722.
Carpet weaving in Iran after Safavid era and during Pahlavi era: Approximately about two centuries, from the fall of Safavid dynasty until Reza Shah founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, nothing was done to improve various activities associated with the carpet production in Iran.
During Reza Shah (1925-1941), Iran Carpet Company was established. First, in 1936 by a decree of the government of Iran, the Eastern Carpet Manufacturing Company (ECMC) was dissolved. ECMC was a non-Iranian property, and was fully operative in the cities of Kerman, Arak and Hamadan. ECMC also owned the sales centers in seven major cities of the world namely London, Paris, New York, Sidney, Constantinople, Buenos Aires and Toronto, while the city of Izmir in Turkey was chosen to be the house of the company’s headquarters. On February 3, 1936, the government of Iran ordered the closure of ECMC in a bid to revive the carpet weaving craftsmanship in the country; and following the order, all activities of that company were closed down and the management of the company, as well as all its assets was handed over to the newly established Iran Carpet Company. Reza Shah also encouraged the craft of carpet making and created Imperial Workshops. Those workshops produced some of the masterpieces for the court palaces in Tehran which are already considered museum pieces. His son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi (reigned 1941-1979), followed the father's suit and promoted the precious artistic works of carpet weaving and established the Tehran Museum of Carpet and in a great degree facilitated the export and trade of Persian Carpet.
Present status of carpet weaving in Iran: The latest statistical data indicates that the rate of occupation in Iran carpet industry is around 2.2 million, which by including the carpet-weavers' families it amounts to 8.8 million persons (14.6 percent of the nation's entire population). Available data also reveals that Iran produces about 5 million square meters (53 million square feet) of woven carpets annually, of which 4 million are exported.
Though Persian Carpets remain the top hand-made carpets in the world; they have unfortunately lost their share in the international market. Presently, the carpet industry of Iran is facing chaos, particularly because various organizations (like Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Industries and Mines, Ministry of Commerce, etc.) compete to handle its affairs. In addition to that, our rivals on the international scene (like China, India and Pakistan) are marketing the carpets with Persian patterns and designs, at the better rates. The fact that Iranian hand-made carpets do not sell well locally or around the world has also made the economic conditions of male and female weavers more suffering and disastrous.
In his article, Ari Siletz noted the difficulties faced by the working group on the carpet industry of Iran and he quoted from an editorial that, “We (carpet industry) did all the work, together hand in hand; with no help from any government...we birthed ourselves. No aid, no support package, no academic courses, no research on our behalf. It was as though they did not see us or take us seriously”.
In their business reports, J. Rezaian and L. Nasseri also reported how the said industry could be affected by the implementation of the US sanctions.
Epilogue: The Persian term for Carpet as Farsh has been literary and figuratively used in many poems by various poets. A collection of those poems selected by this author may be viewed online as the Chain of Poems on Carpet.
Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD
Caroun Website (2000): Online Article on Iran Carpet Company
Day, S. (1966): Great Carpets of the World, ed. & trans., the Vendome Press, USA
Eiland III, M. (1998): Online Article on New Directions for Iranian Carpet (View Iranian.com)
Iran Carpet co Website (2008): Online Articles, News, and Photos as related to Persian Carpets
Nasseri, L. (2010): Online Article on Iran Carpet Industry to Lose US Market to Sanctions
Rezaian, J. (2010): Online Article on Sanctions pull Rug from under Iran
Saadat Noury, M. and Siah Mansour, S. (1983): Principles of Sheep Husbandry, ed., Ashrafi Publications, Tehran, Iran
Saadat Noury, M. (2006): Online Article on Origin of Carpet Weaving
Saadat Noury, M. (2011): Online Chain of Poems on Carpet (in Persian & English)
Siletz, A. (2010): Online Article on Persian Carpet Specialist (View Iranian.com)
Stone, P. (1967): The Oriental Rugs, ed., Washington Univ. Press, USA
Tanavoli, P. (1985): Lion Rugs, ed., Trans Book, New York, USA (View Iranian.com)
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2010): Online Articles on Carpet & Persian Carpets (in Persian & English)
Yassavoli, J. (1996): The Persian Carpets and Rugs (n Persian), 3rd ed., Tehran, Iran
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