Unraveling the History of Damascus Rugs
Weaving carpets by hand has been a renowned textile art form in what is now present-day Middle Eastern county of Syria since before written history. However, Damascus rugs, named after the Syrian capital and largest city and also sometimes called Damascene rugs, date back specifically to a period between the 15th and 17th centuries. At that time, Syria had been conquered by the Mamluks. For that reason, Damascus rugs are sometimes also called Mamluk rugs.
Influences on Damascus Rugs
From the eighth to the 13th centuries, Damascus was a major hub along the Silk Road, a complex system of trade routes that connected Europe, Asia, and areas of Africa. During that time period, China was a major trading partner, as were Greece and Rome. Ancient woven silks of Chinese origin have been found in Syria, so the carpet weavers of Damascus would certainly have been familiar with their characteristic patterns. They may well have been influenced by the Chinese silks they observed, as well as by Greek and Roman rugs in distinctive mosaic patterns.
Syria, along with most of Central Asia, was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century. To this day, the Arabian influence in terms of their geometrical knowledge and spirituality can be observed in rugs from this region. By the 13th century, however, Syria had been conquered by the Mongols, who are probably also somewhat responsible for Far Eastern influence in the design of Syrian rugs, both ancient and contemporary.
History of Damascus Rugs
The Mamluks were originally slave-soldiers who served Muslim / Islamic rulers during the Middle Ages. Their status was somewhat higher than other slaves. Eventually, they became a knightly caste, and some came to wield military and political power in their own right. In the 13th century, Syria was under Mongol rule, but the Mamluks, having conquered Egypt in 1250, gradually worked their way up the Mediterranean coast. Their defeat of the Mongol army made Syria part of the Mamluk Sultanate for another 250 years.
The Mamluks brought their own techniques for designing and weaving rugs with them from Egypt, which became hugely influential on Syrian rug-makers during this time period. In fact, the influence was so great that, to this day, even experts in antiquities sometimes have trouble distinguishing a Damascene from a Cairene rug. Unfortunately, most of the Damascus rugs that still survive only exist as shreds and fragments. They may be more fragile due to methods used in their construction. Nevertheless, there are at least a few that still exist in good condition. Some exist today as fragments of rugs that have been collected over time and then reassembled to recreate the original almost completely.
Characteristics of Damascus Rugs
Though similar in some respects to their cousins from Cairo, Damascus rugs have a few distinguishing characteristics. The colors on many existing Damascus rugs remain remarkably fresh to this day, even when the rug itself is only a fragment. The color palette for most Damascene rugs is similar to that for Cairene rugs in which blue, green, and red tend to feature prominently. However, Damascene rugs lack a certain sheen that Cairene rugs tend to have.
Damascus rugs are strongly associated with a distinctive compartment design. The field consists of a grid pattern in which each of the blocks demonstrates roughly the same repeating pattern of geometric features. For example, each compartment may contain a hexagonal shape surrounded on four sides by triangles. At the spot where four corners of the grid meet, four triangles form a diamond shape. Because of this distinctive compartment pattern, Europeans in the Middle Ages sometimes referred to Damascus rugs as “checkerboard carpets.” Some Damascus carpets do indeed demonstrate color variations in an alternating pattern resembling that found on a checkerboard, even if the pattern itself remains consistent in all compartments.
Damascus carpets tend to be woven out of wool. The typical hairiness of the pile suggests that goat’s wool may have been used for that purpose. With a few exceptions, asymmetric knots are used on Damascene rugs, a characteristic shared by Cairene rugs as well as those from China and India. However, there are also examples of Damascus rugs that have symmetric knots.
The thread used to weave Damascene rugs is typically two-ply. Damascene rugs differ from Cairene rugs in that the latter use S-spun yarn, i.e., wool that is twisted to the right, while the former generally use Z-spun wool, or yarn that has been twisted to the left.
Many of the ancient Damascus rugs no longer survive, but the art of carpet-making in Syria continues to this day. While some use machines, others still weave rugs by hand. Because of their vibrant colors and intricate designs, these are more often regarded as works of art rather than pieces of furniture. Modern carpet weavers have embraced this perception, creating rugs for the express purpose of hanging on the wall ,much like an antique tapestry, rather than to be used as a floor covering.