Fascinating Arabian Rugs and Carpets of the World
Arabian rugs have a special place in the world of home furnishings. The term “Arabian carpets” is not limited to carpets produced in the nation of Saudi Arabia, but it refers to carpets produced in the Arab world. This refers to the 22 Arab-speaking nations that make up the Arab League. They include countries in Northern Africa, East Africa and the Middle East. Let’s explore the diversity of colors and patterns that make carpets from this area of the world real treasures to behold.
Get to Know the Arab World
The Arab world that we know today has a formal definition, but when exploring the world of carpets, it is important to understand that this world has shifted and changed over the centuries. The area has been a place of conflict, shifting boundaries and changing cultural influences over the ages. This had an impact on the development of the arts in many areas of this vast landscape.
Today, Arabian carpets mean those from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Somalia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other nations in the Arab League. From a carpet perspective, this means that the term Arabian carpet can encompass a variety of designs, colors and techniques. Some resemble traditional African tribal designs. Others are the designs of nomadic people who traveled from area to area picking up techniques and designs as they traveled. Some carpets take their designs from the beautiful works produced in Turkey and Persia. Still others are influenced by designs from Europe and Oriental designs that came to them by way of the Silk Road.
The climate in the area means that some carpets have been excavated that date back to the 7th century BCE in Egypt. The history of Arabian rugs is the history of the region. Carpets are woven into the mythology and folklore of the region, such as the story of Aladdin’s Magic Carpet. These stories still entertain and fascinate today, and the carpets are just as admired and appreciated by those who own them.
Techniques and Traditions Of Arabian Rugs
Throughout the Arabian world, you can find an abundance of both kilims, or flat-weave carpets, and pile carpets. You can find different knots used as well. The artistic boundaries of carpet production techniques and design are not bound by the rigid lines that separate our modern nations.
Arabian carpets are primarily made from wool, but one finds a broader variety of materials in the area as compared to other regions of the world. Cotton and flax are easily grown in the northern portion of Egypt. You can find carpets that use both cotton and linen threads. You can also find rugs made from camel hair and goat hair in some areas. Sometimes, silk is used too. As in many other regions of the world, the carpets are woven with materials that are locally available. Of course, access to land and sea trade routes allows for a greater selection of materials than when one is located in a more remote area.
Traditionally, the designs and techniques are passed down through the generations. It is a traditional means of gaining income for some. Sometimes, children have been taught to weave carpets at an early age as a means of survival. Regardless of where they go, they can always make ends meet by weaving carpets. However, a single rug can take several months to several years to complete, so it takes considerable commitment to make one’s living this way.
As in other areas of the world, formal weaving schools and centers developed over time. The technique is much the same. A warp is tightly strung on a loom vertically. The individual knots are tied on the warp according to a design on a cartoon, or pattern. One or more rows of plain weaving are used to keep the knots in place. Arabian rugs are known for the vivid, almost electric, colors and intricate designs.
Arabic Calligraphy Patterns and Arab Designs of Arabian Rugs
In terms of design, many Arabian carpets consist of a field of interlocking geometric shapes. Another feature that is often seen is Arabic calligraphy in the design. Sometimes, one will also find a medallion carpet, similar to those that may be seen frequently in Persia. The Arab League encompasses many countries and a diverse landscape. Art from the region often displays the characteristics of multiple cultural influences. There are also many local designs and traditions too.
Arabian rugs were often featured in Renaissance paintings, particularly those in Italy. One of the reasons for this is the proximity. It was easier to obtain Arabian rugs than those from Persia and Asia, which had to travel across the Silk Road. During the Renaissance, carpets were similar to paintings as far as their art value was concerned. They were treasured as an item for the wealthy and to show one’s status.
Wealthy Italian noblemen and merchants displayed Arabian carpets in their homes alongside famous sculptures and paintings. They were used on floors, mounted and hung from walls and used to cover tables. Much of what we know about Arabian rugs of the Renaissance comes from the carpets that were depicted in paintings. Unfortunately, many of these masterpieces of the Arab world have long since disintegrated.
We can tell quite a lot about trade relationships by examining Arabian carpets in European paintings. For instance, by examining Italian inventories of the 16th century, we know that Mamluk rugs produced in Cairo were popular at that time. Carpets produced in Damascus also appear in Italian paintings and inventories of the time. These antique rugs often feature a central composition that is broken down into an array of smaller, more intricate sections within the design. The design is based on breaking it down into progressively smaller sections within sections. This gives them complexity and depth that makes them easy to distinguish from other carpet designs. This design technique gives them a kaleidoscope appearance that is as captivating to the modern eye as it was to the Renaissance mindset.
Influence of Islam on Carpet Design
Perhaps, one of the most significant influences on carpet design and other art forms of the Arab world is the development of Islam in the seventh century. However, even scholars have difficulty defining what constitutes “Islamic Art.” Today, this term usually refers to art produced in the land where Islam is the dominant religion or at least the religion of the ruling class. It is not necessarily the art produced by Muslims / those who practice the Islamic faith, but refers to art produced in the lands that were occupied by those of that faith.
Keeping in mind that Islamic Art encompasses over 1,300 years of history and continually shifting Empires and Dynasties over an expansive geographic area, it is difficult to define it as a singular style. Historically, regional styles are often emphasized more than the effect of Islam on art. None the less, one sees the introduction of tiled geometric forms, calligraphy, and plant motifs in the designs of many regions. The designs that one sees begin to develop in carpets are also seen in architecture, gardens, and paintings of the time. Decorative carpets were an integral part of indoor spaces throughout the Islamic world and remain so today.
North African Arabian Rugs
North African Carpets generally refer to those produced in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. The Moroccan rugs include the Berber carpets that are made from un-dyed wool with only a few colors used to produce the designs. Tribal symbols are found throughout the carpets, and they are some of the most unique in the world. Other carpets from this area include Turkish influenced carpets with geometric patterns and rich, vibrant colors.
In Tunisia, the same two distinctions can be found. The area produces an abundance of tribal designs, as well as those that show Turkish or Persian design elements. Once again, bright colors are preferred.
Egyptian carpets can be divided into two categories, Mamluk carpets and those from Cairo. Mamluk carpets were produced during the Mamluk Dynasty between 1250 and 1517. They are often large carpets that feature geometric patterns. They are predominantly vivid reds, blues, and greens. The group of rugs referred to as Cairo carpets were produced from the 16th to 18th century, after the end of the Mamluk Dynasty. These carpets show a heavy influence from the Persian rugs that were produced by the Safavid Dynasty at the same time. They often featured medallions, palmettes, and floral patterns.
Carpets produced in Cairo can be difficult to distinguish from Persian carpets. However, Cairo carpets often have a longer pile, and the colors may not be as bright as Persian carpets. You can also find them made from finer wool qualities and silk.
Saudi Arabian Rugs and Carpets
Although the term Arabian carpets does not necessarily mean a carpet from Saudi Arabia, there are still some significant pieces produced on the Arabian Peninsula. Of course, tribal carpets come from this region. However, this area was not missed by the reach and influence of the Persian carpet makers of the Safavid Dynasty. Many of the formal weaving centers on the Arabian Peninsula produced carpets that show Persian influence as well as traditional Islamic carpet designs. This makes them unique in the world of carpets and gives them a distinctive character that is a fusion of Persian and Arabic influences.
Carpets from the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab world in general, are fascinating and offer a diversity of styles that are not found in other areas of the world. The diverse, changing boundaries and cultural influences have allowed them to develop into a unique group of carpets. It is difficult to make a general statement about them as a region. They are typically divided into tribal rugs and those from the regional production centers of various countries. The two most significant influences on the design of these carpets were Islam and the carpets produced in the Persian Empire during the 1500’s onward.
We encourage you to look around and explore our fascinating collection of carpets from the Arab world. You will be as delighted as we are about the range of colors and styles. Regardless of your style, you will be able to find the perfect match for your space.
Feel free to search our rugs online to discover just how comprehensive our collection is.
This rug blog about Arabian rugs was published by Nazmiyal Antique Rug Gallery in NYC.