Antique Oriental Rugs History
The history of antique oriental rugs cannot be separated from the political, economic and cultural contexts in which they were made, used and traded. Each antique carpet reveals a story about its maker, the traditions of a village, the lives of nomadic tribes and even the whims of kings. Each is woven of not only patterns and color, but of time and events. The history of carpets is an integral part of the history of Asia, Europe, the Middle East and India.
Scholars are not able to pinpoint when or where carpets were first produced. Archeological materials and ancient texts document loom weaving as early as 1500 B.C., but preservation of textile materials is rare. Wall paintings and other artifacts depict scenes in which carpets were being made or used, but the earliest carpet known to exist is dated to between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.
Traditions of weaving Antique Oriental Rugs
Although great cities flourished with the rise and fall of empires throughout the history of Asia, the majority of people lived a nomadic life. These peoples, moving between pastures through the seasons with their flocks, probably began the traditions of weaving and design that have continued for thousands of years to this day. The designs narrate life ways: colors derived from plants and herbs, motifs reflecting nature or spiritual beliefs, and events occurring in the weaver's life. Each carpet is unique for this reason, telling a story of seasons, geography, beliefs and events.
Carpet design reflects traditions in weaving, color and pattern that can be attributed to specific regions, cultures and time periods. Patterns used when weaving antique oriental rugs were passed down from one generation to the next, yet innovation also occurred. Contact with outsiders is reflected sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously.
The quality of yarns used by weavers throughout Asia Minor and the Middle East are unsurpassed. Sheep wool, goat hair, cotton, silk and camel hair are the primary yarns used throughout the centuries. In tribal rugs, the wool used is often from their own sheep. High quality wool has a high lanolin content, producing a sheen and providing flexibility, which results in a long-lasting, beautiful work of art.
Two major traditions of pile carpet weaving developed, one in Turkey extending east through the Caucasus and parts of western Asia, the other in Persia, eastern Iran, Afghanistan, India and central Asia. Specific motifs, patterns, colors and methods of knotting are associated with each area. The Turkish or Ghiordes knot, also known as the symmetrical or double knot, wraps the weft thread around two strands of the warp, then is brought back between the two warps. The Persian or Sennah knot, also called the asymmetrical or single knot, wraps the weft thread around one warp, then under an adjacent warp. The colors and motifs woven into a pattern by these knots form the design of the carpet.
Trade and the Silk Road
The well-established routes that traversed central Asia crossed some of the most hostile, rugged areas on earth. Trade across Europe and Asia has been documented as early as 2500 B.C. Trade routes through the Arabian Peninsula, Asia Minor and China linked east and west. Trade involved not only tangible goods, but intangibles as well: art, religion, technology and also disease.
Perhaps the most famous network is the Silk Road, extending from eastern China through Mongolia, India, Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, the Bosphorus and into Europe. Two major routes, one north and one south, linked a series of towns, cities, oases and caravanserai. Although the Silk Road officially opened in 139 B.C. to transport silk from China to Rome, silk was already known far from China, indicating that trade between China and areas west was in place much earlier. Trade continued along this route to approximately 1400 A.D., until changing economic conditions contributed to its disuse.
A large part of Asia Minor, the steppes and Eastern Europe was controlled from approximately the 8th to the 2nd century B.C. by the Scythians, a confederation of pastoral nomads who were also renowned as skilled horsemen. A tomb of a Scythian king found in the Altai Mountains of Russia yielded important archeological information when excavated in the first half of the twentieth century. Several pieces of textiles were recovered, including the Pazyryk Carpet, dated to the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. by radiocarbon dating. Preservation was excellent because several tombs had filled with water and frozen, creating a stable environment that kept the contents from deteriorating.
This woolen pile carpet was woven with great skill, approximately 240 knots per square inch, in the Turkish knotting style. The designs, in three fields, portray a central panel of stylized lotus flowers bordered by two distinct perimeters. The outer band contains horsemen, some mounted and some walking beside their mounts. The inner contains representations of elk. The colors are still discernible as reds, greens, yellow and blues.
Many scholars have analyzed the motifs, techniques of construction and dyes used in this carpet. Some suggest that the motifs reflect Assyrian and Persian art. Some suggest that the origins of the dyes may be from the Tarim Basin, in what was east Turkestan. Although its cultural origins remain a subject of debate, the Pazyryk Carpet illustrates a well-established tradition of pile weaving by the 4th century B.C. It is housed in the Hermitage Museum.
Urumqi and the Tarim Basin
The Tarim Basin lies at the crossroads of Eurasia, traversed by several branches of the Silk Road. A small pile carpet from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum in Urumqi was reported in the Oriental Rug Review. Found during excavations of tombs in the area, radiocarbon analysis dates it as 2290 to 1715 years old, corresponding to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). The designs are stylized organic motifs including a leaf and possibly a human form, each set in its own cell defined by a continuous running line that turns at right angles, forming a three-sided square. The cultural origins of this carpet may lie with the Sakas.
The carpet measures approximately 2 feet, 4 inches per side. The author thought it to be of Turkish knotting, approximately 30 knots per square inch, although he was not allowed to examine it closely. The colors are well-preserved: vivid blue, rust red, black and yellow-green. This carpet is included in the exhibit, "Secrets of the Silk Road," touring the United States as of this writing in 2010.
Traditions of Anatolian Carpet Weaving and Design
The conventions of weaving and design that is included in the tradition of Turkish carpets cover a wide geographic and cultural area including Anatolia, Turkmenistan, the Caucasus and East Turkestan. In contrast to the flowing designs of Persian carpets, Anatolian or Turkish carpets are characteristically more geometric in pattern and brighter in color. Major centers of carpet production include Konya, Oushak, Kayseri and Bergama.
Marco Polo commented during his travels about the beautiful carpets of Anatolia. Several fragments of carpets that may be the earliest extant Turkish carpets were found in the Konya Alaeddin and Beysehir Esrefoglu mosques and are housed in the Turkish Museum of Islamic Arts. During the period from approximately A.D. 1000 until their defeat by the Mongols in 1243, the Seljuks controlled most of central Asia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They are known for their artistic skill in carpet design, as well as tolerance for other religions and cultures.
The crusades were the west's response to the might of Islamic dynasties. The fourth crusade in 1204 changed the balance of power of Eurasia. It also heightened interest in Oriental arts. Italian city-states became conduits for exotic goods and art from the east to Europe. The ultimate terminus of the Silk Road was Venice, a major trade center from the 12th century until the late Renaissance.
Wealthy Europeans became increasingly fond of Oriental goods; Henry the VIII is reported to have had 400 "Muslim" carpets. Influence on design is illustrated by the many commissions for heraldry and crests to be woven into carpets. The effect of trade on art is exhibited through the depiction of Anatolian carpets in art works by European painters during the Renaissance.
Oriental Rugs in Western Art
Western painters began including Oriental rugs as decorative features in their works as early as the 1300s. The earliest portrayals featured animal motifs, often exotic dragons or phoenix. Geometric designs supplanted the animal motifs by 1450.
Collectively known as Holbein Carpets from the paintings of Hans Holbein, they were used by Italian, Dutch and Flemish painters throughout the Renaissance. Persian carpets begin to appear in these paintings by the end of the 16th century.
The Ottomans pushed into Europe with the fall of Constantinople, creating a vast empire that endured from the fourteenth century until 1922. In the arts, carpet weaving was particularly accentuated, with several distinct traditions emerging. Official institutions exercised great control over design and production of textiles.
Traditions of Persian Carpet Weaving and Design
Persian carpets tend to feature natural motifs such as flowers, vines, palms, leaves, birds and sometimes other animals. They may have a singular pattern with the ground almost entirely covered. Colors tend to be soft. Many patterns start from a central motif or medallion; the lines are graceful. Several conventions of design are associated with specific cities or centers of weaving including Bidjar, Isfahan, Herat, Tabriz, Lorestan and Khorassan.
Few carpets exist today from the first millennium, although literary references and accounts of historians document their existence. Manuscripts describe the magnificent "Springtime of Chosroes," from the reign of the Sassanian king Chosroes, (531 to 578 A.D.), a large carpet which depicted a flowering garden in brilliant colors and inlaid jewels. The descriptions of this carpet illustrate that convention in motif and design were well-established. It was destroyed by conquering Muslims.
Influence of Islam on Oriental Rug Design
The introduction of Islam in 610 changed the cultural and political environment of not only the Arabian Peninsula, but the world. Calligraphy was elevated as a great art form because the holy words of the Qu'ran were represented with writing. Other arts, including textiles, incorporated calligraphy. Motifs, particularly vegetative and figural representations, became stylized and geometric. Natural forms were often represented as abstract motifs.
The Mongol empire, consolidated under Genghis Khan in 1206, supported production of handicrafts. Local artists were resettled along main trade routes within the empire. Trade between Europe and Asia was encouraged. The Mongols introduced new motifs and conventions, influencing the established traditions of Iranian and Islamic arts. By the mid 1400s, the Mongol empire had disintegrated, but left behind a legacy that was to be reflected in the arts of the Safavid dynasty and modern Iran.
The Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722) united Persia. Manuscript illumination and painting were brought to new artistic heights, and the refined motifs were incorporated into carpet designs. Carpet production was concentrated in the cities. The height of the arts during this period was under Shah Abbas (1587-1629), who established a new capital at Isfahan. He encouraged trade with Europe; carpets were major export items. Persian carpets from this period are considered to be among the most beautiful.
Two carpets, dated 1539 - 1540, were created for the shrine of the Sufi saint Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili in northwest Iran. Measuring 10.5 by 5 meters, the pattern displays a single, integrated design. One is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the other in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The conquest of the Safavids by the Afghans in 1722 ended this age of great artistic expression. The Afghan occupation was short; in 1736, Nader Khan became the Shah of Persia and again Persia became independent. The fluorescence of carpet production in city centers waned, reverting to a craft of pastoral nomads and villages. In the last quarter of the 19th century, under Qajar rule, carpet production again became important economically and artistically, with exports to Europe and America.
European Influence on Carpet Production
By 1600, European nations were venturing into new lands by sea. Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands establish trading posts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as well as the New World, vying for power and resources. Rival European powers cultivated favor from the rulers of Persia, Turkey and India to capitalize on rapidly expanding markets in the Middle East and Asia. The struggle for dominance in India and the Middle East reflects the struggle for power of these same nations in other continents during this time. Textiles became a major world industry. Demand for Oriental rugs escalated, and in the 1800s, European businessmen began mass-producing carpets in Persia and exporting them overseas. A silkworm disease in the 1860s crippled the thriving silk industry in Persia. Mechanization in Europe also affected the economic viability of Persian textiles. Designs were standardized to meet market demands, and the introduction of synthetic dyes further undermined quality.
An effort by governments and local producers of carpets to conserve the traditional methods and designs of these handwoven textiles has had its effect. Many carpets produced today are original works of art that can be enjoyed and passed down to subsequent generations.
And now, in the 21st century A.D., the history of carpets may again be significantly affected. Economic sanctions against Iran may affect the craftsman and the carpet industry that has produced beautiful works of textile art for three millennia.
Decorating With Antique Oriental Rugs
Decorating Your Home with Antique Oriental Rugs When you think about upscale interior design, antiques and fine art are naturally the first items that come to mind. Antiques have an undeniable ability to add personality and character to the décor of any home. Because of their uniqueness many people opt to incorporate antiques into their living spaces. Whether it is something handed down through generations or found in an antique shop many homeowners make “antiquing” a hobby in order to add personal flair to their homes. An antique is an item that is at least 80 - 100 years old and for the most part they are both decorative as well as collectible. An antique item is desired and collected because of its age, beauty, rarity, and use. One type of antique that many people collect for their homes are antique rugs. Funnily enough, many of the antique carpets are comparable and at times even cheaper in price than brand new rugs. Once you establish your budget, size requirements and overall look and feel your quest for the right piece begins!
Antique oriental rugs may be found in many different looks and colors. The more "traditional" style carpets such as Tabriz, Kashan and Khorasan will usually have intricate patterns and can be found in a wide array of colors from the jewel tones to the light and airy. These types of pieces give a regal and elegant look to most rooms. However, modern design tends to be simpler in taste and style. Many of the designs in recent years favor a more minimalistic approach to the interior design. Incorporating antique carpets with subtle colors and a more abstract look (like arts and crafts or art deco) will go a long way and will add a warmth and texture to the space. Although, it is more traditional to display your antique carpet on the floor, it can also be displayed on the wall as a work of art (which the antique carpets and vintage rugs actually are). In the right lighting you will be able to see the artistry behind these artisanal antique rugs. A rug tends to be the most expensive item in a room when decorating so it is imperative to get a piece that you will love for a long time. It is also important to purchase the rug from a dealer that you trust. A good dealer will provide you with information, images, and history of the rug as well as give you the option to trade in the rug for a different piece in the future. Be wary of dealers who tell you that the rug will be worth much more in "X" years because there is no way to estimate what any piece will fetch in the future as demands will always change to fit the ever-changing interior design trends. It is best to establish a good relationship with your dealer since down the line you might want to acquire a better piece or might simply want a different look.
So, why buy antique oriental rugs? They clearly allow a very versatile and stylish look for your home decor. With their patina (that can only come with age), texture and their variety of colors and designs, they can liven up any modern, traditional or casual room and make your interior look picturesque and magnificent. Over the years the trends, patters, and design of interiors have been reinventing themselves every few years but the demand and appreciation for antique oriental rugs has remained. Great antique rugs, just like great paintings will never go out of style and the demand has only increased over the years.