An Introduction to the World of Antique Carpets and Rugs:
The Origin and Evolution Of Antique Carpets Throughout History
The history of antique carpets and rug weaving is complex and fraught with lingering scholarly questions. While the recent history of artisanal rug weaving is well documented and while certain areas have kept reliable historical records, there is in fact little consensus regarding the genesis of the craft.
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Most people would not be comfortable making an educated guess as to the origins of rug production. That said, it is certainly true that most people in the Western world associate the earliest antique carpets with the part of the world that we describe as the Near East. Indeed, rug weaving has been an important cultural practice in many Near Eastern countries for centuries. However, the academic general consensus, while far from unanimous, suggests that this region was not the birthplace rugs, despite its long history of rug production.
In fact, the incomplete historical record of antique rugs does show us that rug weaving was a practice that was independently developed by a myriad of peoples across the world. The record becomes especially shoddy when it comes to the history of knotted or pile rugs; while it is an established historical fact that the urban centers of the great Near Eastern empires were the commercial centers of rug production throughout the Medieval Era, it is practically just as well established that these places were not the first to weave knotted or pile rugs. To find out more about the genesis of the knotted carpet, one must venture into prehistory, when most of mankind lived a nomadic existence.
In their most basic form, rugs function today much as animal hides and skins functioned for our nomadic ancestors. While nomadic people utilized animal skins for a variety of functions for centuries, it is relatively unclear precisely when people began to sheer the fur and wool from certain animals to use in weaving.
Naturally, the advantages of sheering over killing an animal are enormous. A dead animal yields a very finite amount of hide while a living animal that was sheared, offers a practically limitless supply of material. This simple but immeasurably important development in the history of human evolution would have naturally resulted in our nomadic ancestors finding themselves with more resources than they were accustom to having. As such, these nomadic peoples were now able to experiment with wool and other similar materials in ways that were previously unimaginable.
The relatively bright wool given by sheep was well suited for dyeing. That is precisely what the earliest rug makers did. Plant materials, insects and a variety of other natural materials were all used to extract color. These colors were then applied to the wool to create the first rugs with patterns and culturally significant symbols.
While this general idea is understood to be the most likely explanation for the earliest antique rugs, it remains unclear where precisely this development would have first taken place. It is exceedingly unlikely that this would have happened in the Near East before it happened elsewhere; after all, early, nomadic humans were subject to their environment in a way that it is difficult for modern people to fully imagine. Therefore, it is unlikely that those living in the relatively warm region of the Near East would have seen the need to develop this technology. Meanwhile, there is some evidence in the archaeological record to suggest that the earliest pile rugs may have been woven further to the east… considerably further.
It is the High Altai Mountains of Siberia, in modern day east-central Russia, that seems to be the most likely birthplace of the pile carpet. The earliest human inhabitants of this area were in fact nomadic. Unlike their cousins in the Near East, these people had a vested interest in developing new methods for keeping warm. Over time, the peoples of the High Altai Mountains began to become very invested in rug production and were soon adorning their rugs with distinct and symbolic patterns.
The earliest reliable records suggest the High Altai peoples were weaving pile rugs as early as 600 years before the common-era. The best evidence for this hypothesis is attributed to a series of excavations carries out by Russian archaeologists at a pair of locations in the High Altai. Those sites were the tombs of Bash-Adar and Pazyryk in southern Siberia.
At Bash-Adar, a partial fragment of a pile rug was discovered. This simple, undecorated rug fragment was carbon-dated to the surprisingly early date of 600 B.C.
Meanwhile, a considerably more headline-grabbing discovery was made at the tomb of Pazyryk. There, a largely intact pile rug was discovered incased in ice. This antique rug, which is widely referred to as the Pazyryk rug, dated to the fifth century B.C.
While initially in a very distressed state, the frozen rug was eventually carefully and painstakingly restored – a process that revealed a truly remarkable antique rug. Complex detail work appears throughout the remarkable antique rug. A pattern of squares graces the center, with each square decorated with floral detail work.
Woven into the borders are a series of further floral details, as well as meticulously woven griffins and a procession of horsemen. The colors are as impressive and feature shades of red, blue, green gold throughout this remarkable composition.
This astonishing level of detail and color, as well as an impeccably fine weaving technique, has led many scholars to conclude the Pazyryk carpet must be Persian in origin, rather than the work of a band of Siberian nomads. This disagreement is the source of most of the academic disagreement regarding the genesis of hand knotted or pile rugs.
Also excavated at Pazyryk, were a smattering of ancient Persian textiles that were discovered in addition to the Pazyrykcarpet itself. Does this evidence mean that the Pazyryk carpet is of Persian origin itself? Or does it mean that it is the result of the Altai nomads attempt to reproduce something that they found beautiful? There is as of yet no fully agreed upon answer. However, there is evidence to suggest that Pazyryk carpet was in fact a local creation, woven by the Altai nomads. More specifically, it is the fallow deer that are woven into the antique rug that leads some expert to believe that is was in fact a locally produced piece.
These animals are neither indigenous to Persia, nor were they a common motif in Persian textiles from this time. Rather, these deer are common in other artistic media from the High Altai region. Further, the wool and dyes that make up the Pazyryk carpet seem to be local to the High Altai region as well. Thus it is likely, but far from certain, that this particular rug was in fact woven by the nomadic peoples of the High Altai Mountains and not by the Persians with whom they evidently enjoyed trading. Indeed, there are numerous examples that support the hypothesis that the weavers in this part of the world (the Russian Far East) were influenced by the weavers of the Near East. Ample archaeological evidence suggests that it was perfectly common for those weavers outside of Persia to weave rugs in imitation of the style.
There is an enormous gap of just about one thousand years between the weaving of the Pazyryk carpet in the fifth century B.C. and the reemergence of knotted antique rugs in the historical record which date back to the fifth century A.D. in Roman occupied Egypt.
Meanwhile, a scattering of evidence suggests that antique rugs were woven during this long span of time in places such as the Caucasus and Central Asia. Further, the archaeological record suggests that nomadic tradition of weaving looped carpets proliferated from the High Altai Mountains into China and Tibet, where the craft was modified.
Though the precise genesis of the art of weaving antique rugs is unclear and the historical record spotty, there is in fact a good body of knowledge concerning the early days of this craft.
What is known, is that rugs have been an important part of human history for millennia. Part of the nature of the academic struggle to understand the origin of antique rugs lies in the fact that people have most likely been weaving rugs since before they were writing.
Antique rugs represent a unique development in human culture, and offer some of its greatest mysteries and delights.
Antique Carpets 101 – The world of antique rugs has been one often overlooked by the public. A rug is meant to be a furnishing, something placed on the floor, adding a decorative layer while maintaining its purpose.
However, antique Oriental rugs and vintage rugs are more than just an object of utility, they are decorative pieces that are ingrained with history. Entering into the world of antique rugs one is taken back in time, where art and culture interact.
Antique rugs are generally classified as those that are older than one hundred years. Handmade productions using natural dyes, antique rugs are highly sought for their distinctive look and originality. Unlike new rugs, antique rugs of many styles reflect a bygone era.
They feature designs primarily to their culture. Unique designs, from nomad to village to city, their production reflects the cultural and social structure of the period. These elements add to the lure of antique rugs as these pieces compose a historical narrative.
Cherished by the Eastern world as pieces of art antique rugs offer a variety of uses. Although they are generally used as wall coverings,flat woven pieces such as tapestry rugs serve as decorative wall hangings.
The production in of itself depicts the imaginative nature of the weavers and the cultural trends at the time. Antique Anatolian rugs exemplify the artistic and imaginative qualities produced in rugs.
A form of earning extra money, women would weave these rugs with designs including marital prospects and symbols particular to the region. The finesse of these rugs is representative of the cultural significance and beauty that exists within the antique rug world.
The cultural milieu of antique rugs makes the industry a sector where history meets stylistic function. A carpet’s age is not indicative that it will be the highest quality and price. The nineteenth century produced some of the most highly sought after pieces in the market.
The marker depends on the quality and the current aesthetic values. However, unlike new rugs, antique rugs do not depreciate in value and have the potential of investment. Often in the Middle East people purchase these rugs for investment purposes meanwhile decorating their homes and businesses with these exquisite pieces. Cherished as pieces of art, antique rugs are now becoming more popular in the West as people see their multiple purposes and are introduced to various art forms.
Composed of a multifaceted clientele, the world of antique rugs has an appeal for every taste. Whether a person is a collector, historian, interior decorator or just a person searching for a decorative piece there is a rug for every taste and need.
The beauty behind these rugs lies to be unfurled. At Nazmiyal each and every one of our antique rugs contains a rich history – one that we seek to share with our clients.
The historical and aesthetic values of antique rugs add to their lure. Market prices reflect the rarity and demand. A rug is a historical and cultural journey. Materials, design and size reveal the distinctions and the quality of each rug. Antique rugs comprise a select field in the art world that is continually expanding. It is both form and function: an antique rug adds a decorative layer to an already complex puzzle.
View the most comprehensive collection of antique rugs
At the Nazmiyal Collection, we have always been passionate about fine antique carpets. That passion is the foundation of our business, and has led us to assemble a truly comprehensive collection of antique rugs and carpets. The Nazmiyal Collection is a uniquely comprehensive carpet collection, and features some of the very best pieces from every corner of the word. Nazmiyal has been providing world class customer service and offering fair prices on extraordinary antique rugs since for more than three decades.
We invite you to explore our collection, wherein you will discover fine antique Persian carpets of classical design, stunning Turkish rugs with traditional compositions, and gorgeous Chinese rugs from the turn of the twentieth century.
If traditional and classical carpets are not quite what you’re looking for then no need to worry! The Nazmiyal Collection also features more abstract, modern pieces, including Swedish rugs and Moroccan rugs from the mid-twentieth century.
No matter what your decorating needs may be, you will find what you are looking for from the Nazmiyal Collection.
In addition, if you could like, you can also click here to: Search Antique Rugs by Color, Design, Style and inventory number.
The History of Antique Carpets
The history of antique carpets is inextricably tied in with the history of the peoples who wove them. An ancient craft, the art of carpet weaving has been practiced by human societies from all over the world for millennia. Because of this ancient history, antique rugs have gone through countless shifts in style and technique over the centuries.
In certain parts of the world, the craft of artisanal rug weaving is especially important. To the nations of the Near East, weaving has long been a nationally celebrated art form, receiving support from great patrons and artistically inclined rulers. In countries such as these – in particular, Persia and Turkey – the subtle changes in the production of carpets can, in fact, communicate a great deal about more the wide-ranging historical and cultural developments.
Perhaps the single greatest case-study of this phenomenon can be found in the modern day nation of Turkey. An ancient country at the crossroads of the Eastern and Western worlds, Turkey has alternately been governed from points east and west. Turkey’s unique geography spans two continents, with both Southeastern European and Western Asian lands lying within its borders.
Due to this unique situation, the lands that comprise the modern day nation of Turkey have been fought over for centuries. Rival tribes of peoples have invaded Turkey, installed new dynasties and ruled over the country for centuries only to be swept away by a fresh invasion. Many such rulers controlled eastern portions of Turkey, and governed from capitals in Persia and points further east.
Naturally, such dramatic political and societal upheavals have a tremendous impact on the sort of art that a culture produces. With every new development in the region, dynastic changes and influences are quite apparent in the artistic record. While the tradition of antique carpet weaving in Turkey and Persia goes back centuries, it is pertinent to begin this case study in the thirteenth century, when Marco Polo travelled through the Turkish lands en route to China. During his travels, Polo famously commented on the beauty of the carpets he saw in Anatolia, which, at that time, was under rule from the Seljuk Turks. Indeed, these antique carpets witnessed and admired by Polo, represent the earliest surviving large-scale knotted rugs.
These carpets are referred to as ‘Seljuk’ for the dynastic rulers of Anatolia during that era. These distinct early carpets are generally characterized by allover designs that often featured stacked medallion patterns or floral lattice patterns.
Sufficient records as well as a reasonable number of living examples make the Seljuk carpets of thirteenth century Turkey the first real grouping of antique carpets. These carpets represent a cohesive and immediately recognizable style. The vast majority of these carpets were likely woven in the city of Konya, an important center of Turkish rug production that would continue producing exceptional carpets for centuries. What is most notable about Seljuk carpets is what they represent… a record of the stylistic and artistic aesthetic preferences of the society that brought them to life.
Of course, in due time, the reign of the Seljuks gave way to that of a new dynasty – the Timurids. The Timurids were a powerful group who governed the eastern lands of Turkey as well as territory throughout Persia. By the late fourteenth century, Timur, a self-proclaimed descendant of Genghis Khan, had conquered eastern Anatolia and established his own Timurid Dynasty.
This period represents something of a golden period in the history of antique carpets. This is due to the fact that the Timurid Dynasty was renowned for its considerable patronage of the arts.
Throughout the fifteenth century, the arts flourished throughout the Timurid lands. The production of carpets was given special attention which, at this point in time, had become a long-established “national pastime”.
Today, for the most part, only fragments of Timurid carpets survive. However, a large body of illustrated manuscripts depicts the carpets of the era. This body of material, combined with the few surviving fragments, has allowed scholars to recreate the carpets that were woven during this period.
As one would expect, the Timurid carpets are aesthetically distinct from their Seljuk forbears. While they typically maintain the allover patterns of Seljuk rugs, Timurid carpets also feature floral rugs with arabesque vine scrolls – a motif that would become extremely important to a wide variety of antique carpet styles.
By the late fifteenth century, Timurid rugs had changed aesthetically, with an emphasis being placed upon compartmentalized designs. Further, this era saw the birth of one of the most iconic of all antique carpet patterns: the central medallion with quarter medallion corner-pieces. This extraordinarily important development in the history of antique carpets, the emergence of the central medallion format, would influence rug weaving for centuries.
Indeed, when people picture an antique carpet today, most will picture a carpet with this pattern that was born in late the fifteenth century, in the Timurid lands of eastern Turkey and Persia.
Of course, in due time, the Timurid Dynasty fell. In the western lands, Timurid territory was seized by invading Turkoman tribes while in the east, a new set of rulers took the reins – the legendary Safavids. One of the most important and culturally significant of all Eastern empires, the Safavids saw the effective modernization of Persia and remained in power until the middle of the eighteenth century.
During the Safavid reign in Persia, carpet production grew into a national passion. Rug weaving centers could be found in the most sophisticated urban areas, with the craft being given special attention by the Safavid rulers.
These antique rugs are characterized by extraordinarily elaborate vine scroll patterns and complex, flowing arabesque designs. The central medallion design format that had initially come into favor during the reign of the Timurids was widely employed, albeit modified with more precise and bold ornamentation.
Perhaps the most important development in antique carpet weaving that occurred during the Safavid dynasty was the attention to quality. It was during this time that the art of carpet weaving was considered so important that all carpets were produced with a certain level of quality. The cities of Tabriz, Isfahan, Kerman and Kashan all became important carpet weaving centers for Persian rugs during Safavid rule. This is why some of the most remarkable antique rugs to have ever been woven were created during their rule.
Kashan and Kerman are notable among these weaving centers. They were the artisans who produced the widely celebrated vase-carpets that represent the very finest of all seventeenth century antique carpets.
Certain Safavid rulers took a special interest in the arts. The celebrated Shas Tahmasp and Abbas the Great, both of whom had personal artistic inclinations as well as a vested interest in the manufacturing of superior carpets. Due to the special attention given to carpet weaving by the Shahs of the Safavid dynasty, dormant notions about design that had been stewing for centuries began to break onto the scene. More sophisticated weaving methods made more intricate detail work possible and a more discerning clientele resulted in the demand for carpets unlike any that had ever been woven before.
The history of antique carpets is extraordinarily complex. While this ancient craft has been practiced for millennia, our specific, academic knowledge of its development only goes back a handful of centuries. That said, if one focuses on the history of the Near East during those centuries, especially in eastern Turkey and Persia, one can learn a great deal about the forces at work. It is those forces that shaped the societies that were most instrumental in the refinement of the craft.
From the Seljuk Dynasty that gave us some of the earliest surviving antique rugs to the Safavids who, in many ways, perfected the craft, there is a rich historical record that reveals just how important antique carpet weaving has been in our shared cultural tradition.
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