History of Kashan Rugs from Persia

Guide to Antique Persian Kashan Rugs

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Kashan Rugs – Kashan, located in the province of Isfahan, Iran, is an oasis village on the western edge of the Great Salt Desert (Dasht-e Kavir). It lies approximately 3000 feet above sea level in the eastern Zagros Mountains north of Kerman.

Situated on the edge of the desert, Kashan experiences seasonally intense heat, winds and bright sunlight. It has served as an important political and artistic center throughout the major periods of Persian history and is regarded as a major weaving center for antique Persian rugs. Kashan is known for not only silk and textiles, but for decorative ceramic tiles.

Although carpets are known to have been made in Kashan since at least the Sassanian Empire, 224 to 642 CE, there are two major periods of carpet production. The first was during the Safavid period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in royal workshops and commercial weaving centers.

The second was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under Qajar rule, primarily for export but also for use by the Persian upper class. Antique Kashan rugs are a specific antique rug style feature an elongated central medallion with a fully-covered field and corner spandrels. Colors tend to be bright, with fields of blue, red and ivory.

Motifs are densely woven, perhaps the most dense of all the carpet styles.  Other styles include all-over patterns with boteh, repeats of floral motifs and vase designs. Borders are often stylized floral motifs of palmettes, tulips, rosettes, vines, scrolls and leaves with a central border flanked by two smaller contrasting bands.

Antique Kashan Rugs by Nazmiyal
Antique Persian Kashan Rugs

The Safavid period is renowned for artistic expression in architecture, manuscript illumination and calligraphy. Detailing on domes and walls of mosques, public buildings and private houses brought a pleasing aesthetic into the interiors, creating a world of gardens, light and sparkling fountains in sharp contrast to the sometimes harsh environment outside. A refreshing interior provided sanctuary from these elements.

Safavid ruler Shah Abbas (1571-1629) established the Bagh-e Fin Gardens in Kashan, a spring-fed retreat that brought visual delight and cool relief to the user. These gardens still exist today, nominated as a World Heritage Site.

The artistic and cultural conventions of that period were expressed in the weaving of carpets, so the feet walked across lush gardens and the eyes relished bubbling fountains indoors.

Kahsan weaving uses the asymmetrical or Persian knot. Safavid-period Kashan carpets were often silk, with gold and silver threads woven into the designs. Animal scenes and gardens were popular themes. In the later period, warp and weft were usually cotton. Double wefts create an effect of depressed knots.

Pile is usually wool, but silk is also seen. Kashan carpets generally have a high knot count. Prayer carpets were popular during the later period, as were pictorial carpets.

Very fine Manchester wool from Britain, also called Merino wool, was used in the late nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth century in Kashan carpets. When the wool market collapsed at the onset of the Great Depression, weavers switched to local wools. The quality of Manchester wool allowed a higher knot count and well-executed, crisp motifs in a lustrous carpet with a high pile.

A finely-woven type of carpet, called Mohtashem, was produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Experts debate whether Mohtashem carpets are the product of a particular workshop or a type produced locally by several weaving centers.

Cecil Edwards, representative of the Oriental Carpet Manufacturers in the early 1900s, attributed them to Haj Mullah Hassan, a merchant in the wool trade in the 1890s who married a woman from Arak.

When the clothing market collapsed, his wife is said to have used the Manchester wool to make carpets with characteristics of the Sarouk style and a knot count often between 200 and 400 knots per square inch.

The border of tulip and blossom found on many Mohatshem carpets resembles older Arak rugs, as does the use of lavender in the selvage. Some carpets are signed as Mohtashem, adding credence to the idea that they were from a single workshop.

History of Antique Kashan Rugs

Though Kashan is now removed from the commercial trade routed of Persia, it used to be the largest city in the northwest, and virtually all traffic between Esfahan and the east passed through it.

Because of this important location Kashan became the popular stop on a bustling trade route during the Safevid Era. In modern times, nearby mountain ranges prohibit trucks from traveling the route that caravans had so often ventured.

During this era in which carpet weaving flourished in Persia, Kashan developed a reputation as one of the finest weaving centers of the east.Most books on Kashan, its history, its art and its artists, its architecture, ceramics, glass, metals, and its textile art and industry, mention a large number of masters and artists, but with regards to carpets, master weavers and laboratories there are only a few references.

Signed carpets, for this reason, also become a key instrument of research. By analyzing the structure and decoration, it becomes possible to establish the characteristics of a specific production type. Once this has been identified, other non-signed pieces can be attributed with certainty. It is using this method that many carpets can be attributed to Mohtasham.

Antique Kashan Rugs and Carpets from Persia
Antique Kashan Rugs and Carpets from Persia

In modern times, the Mohtasham name is well known, but very little is known about his origins. It remained a mystery whether or not Mohtasham was simply a trade name, or whether he had actually existed.

There is a legend going around according to which Hadji Mollah Mohammad Hassan Mohtasham of Kashan was a well-to-do businessman, famous for his textiles. However, in the 1880’s business was bad owing to the importing of machine-worked textiles from Europe.

The story goes that Mohtasham had married a young woman from Sultanabad, who had brought with her from her city of origin the ancient tradition of the knotted carpet.

Antique Kashan Rugs and Carpets from Persia
Antique Kashan Rugs and Carpets from Persia

In view of the fact that business did not seem to be picking up, his wife wove a carpet using merino wool imported from Manchester. Upon completion of the carpet, local merchants were so enthusiastic that they commissioned more similar ones.

This drove Mohtasham not only to ask his wife to start weaving again, but also to train other weavers of Kashan to produce carpets using this model.

Thus, according to the legend of the bazaar, the art of the carpet began again; it had been lost in Kashan since the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1723. This sparked a revival of the art of the carpet in Kashan; in 1890 there were only three operating looms, and that these became one thousand five hundred in 1900 and four thousand in 1949.

Antique Kashan Rugs and Carpets from Persia
Antique Kashan Rugs and Carpets from Persia

This specific Mohtasham carpet exemplifies how art can influence the onlooker. To appreciate such a great work of art, no great knowledge is needed; all one needs to enjoy this carpet is mere observation and attention to detail. This Mohtasham, woven with high quality kourk wool and an extremely fine weave, is unusual with its all-over design of delicate scrolling floral vinery and palmettes in soft blues and ivory colors.

The combination of the colors used coupled with the exceptional condition and the fact that Mohtasham rugs are never found in runner sizes make this a truly rare and magnificent work of art.

What did you imagine as you read that just now? No doubt it was an elegant and refined weaving graced with curvilinear flora that winds its way through and around a commanding medallion. A rug that draws dropped jaws from anyone that beholds its magnificence.

A sea of swirling ruby tones, indigos, sapphires — a rug as bejeweled and becoming as a sultans own palace. The image may seem fantastic, but in truth antique Kashan rugs boast just these types of elements. Rugs from Kashan are some of the finest rugs to emerge from the major Persian weaving centers of old and are synonymous with the quality one would expect from an antique Persian rug.

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