Is There Really Such a Thing as a Serapi Carpet?
Serapi Carpets – The rug market has never been short of imagination in developing narratives to explain carpet formats, structures, or typological labels. One of the most amusing examples of this is the notion that rugs or kilims woven in separate halves sewn down the middle were made as wedding rugs with one half woven by the groom’s family.
The other woven by the bride’s, and the joining of the pieces as a symbol of the marital union itself. In reality, rugs were produced this way because no wider, large-scale looms were available, and the story evolved to explain away the annoying middle seam to potential customers.
Nowadays colorful stories like this are only repeated as amusing anecdotes, rather than as a strategy to make a sale. But one of the most groundless origin tales ever dreamed up has proven to be remarkably persistent – the idea that Northwest Persian weavers in the late nineteenth century made a type of carpet called “Serapi.”
This is all the more astounding given the fact that today Serapi rugs are among the most expensive and sought after room-size antique Persian rugs. A serape is a type of Mexican wrap-around garment or poncho, but this has nothing to do with the rugs.
In the Persian language Serapi is an adjectival form of Serap, but simply put, there is no such place. There is a village in North Persia called Serab, which is well-known for runners with highly geometric medallions on a natural camel ground, but these are quite different than the carpets commonly referred to as ‘Serapi.’
Serapis are to all intents and purposes a particular type or grade of what are called Heriz rugs – more specifically the highest grade in terms of weave, and very probably the oldest type in terms of age. Heriz carpets are generally coarsely woven with as few as 30 knots per square inch.
They also have a deeply depressed warp structure with a markedly ribbed back surface. Since the early twentieth century they have come to make use of light blue cotton wefting. Serapis, in contrast, have a higher knot count, sometimes attaining 80 knots per square inch.
Their backs are relatively flat, and they have ivory cotton wefting. Generally they have a softer floppier handle than Herizes, and they are thinner.
In terms of design, drawing, and coloration as well, Serapis are clearly part of one and the same tradition as Herizes, despite being a distinct antique rug style, which originated as a Northwest Persian adaptation of early Sarouk Farahan medallion room-size rugs, but with a more geometric, abstract, village sensibility.
Like Herizes, Serapis have a multiple concentric medallion format that emits jutting branches or vines ending in large stylized palmettes, leaves, or flowers, with framing cornerpieces at the periphery of the field. The main border is usually some variant of the ‘turtle’ vinescroll pattern. In terms of design, what distinguishes Serapis from Herizes is once again their more refined approach. The articulation of the medallions is crisper, more finely linear, and open.
The vines are more finely proportioned, and there is more open space in the field, allowing the large leafy palmette forms to stand out with greater clarity and elegance. The same distinctions are apparent in the treatment of the borders. On the whole, it appears that what we call Serapi carpets are simply the oldest, most well-designed, and finely woven Herizes. So then why do they have a different label?
The answer probably lies in the twentieth-century development of Heriz production and its perceived standing within the Oriental rug market. After about 1920, there was a noticeable overall decline in the quality of Oriental rug production stemming from the introduction of synthetic dyes, machine spun wool, and vastly increased production in response to Western demand.
Within this process Heriz rugs, with their coarser structure and bolder, more large-scale designs naturally lent themselves to more rapid and less careful manufacturing standards, and their production came to consist largely of middle and lower grade weaving. They rapidly emerged as the budget Oriental carpet.
One has only to look at the numerous old and semi-antique Herizes still around today, with their faded dyes, coarse, often loose technique, blocky drawing, and unimaginative designs, to see how far they had slipped from the examples of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
By mid century no average western rug buyer interested in acquiring a quality piece would have thought that a new or used Heriz rug would have served such requirements. In 1900 a new Gorevan Heriz was regarded as a high-grade product, but half a century later a Gorevan had come to be regarded as an inferior production.
So far as one can judge, the term Serapi first appeared in the early 1950’s, and it was clearly coined by rug dealers. Given what was outlined just above, we can easily see what motivated them.
These dealers knew that old and antique Herizes, i.e. those that were then around thirty to fifty years old, were fine rugs. But the newer production had tarnished the popular reputation of Herizes.
It would not have been easy then to persuade high-end customers who were not aficionados that Herizes had once been much better rugs. The easiest alternative was to coin a new Persian term for the finest oldest Herizes, that could rapidly acquire the reputation and prestige of a first-class Oriental rug.
The village of Serab would do nicely. Its products were less numerous and less familiar, and there may even have been some high quality early camel-ground Herizes that could appear to justify a connection with Serab. Change the final ‘b’ to a ‘p’, add an adjectival terminal ‘i,’ and voila, we have a new antique rug name with an authentic ring.
The rest is history, as they say. For the past half century, Serapis have maintained their status as high-end antique rugs. A Serapi is “better than a Heriz.” The price of a Serapi in good condition has climbed dramatically of late.
Consequently, dealers are still inclined to label their best looking older Heriz rugs as Serapi carpets, even if they have ribbed backs and light blue wefting. But in all honesty, there just ain’t no such animal.
So What Are Serapi Carpets?
Serapi Carpets are the same as Heriz rugs, plain and simple!
If we can recognize that some Mahals, or Kazaks, or Oushaks are better than others, we ought to be able to do so in the case of Herizes without applying a bogus label to facilitate the distinction. Of all the legends of the rug trade, the tale the Serapi seems the hardest to shake off.
Learning the Difference Between antique Heriz Rugs and Serapi Carpets
Heriz Rugs and Serapi Carpets – What is the difference between Heriz rugs and Serapi carpets? To answer that question in two words would be to say – “The Name”. Both Serapi rugs and Heriz rugs come from the city of Heriz and surrounding areas.
At some point in time, dealers began using the term “Serapi” to be able to distinguish between the older and more tribal/open designed Heriz carpets from the “newer” more structured examples. So in all actuality, every single Serapi is also a Heriz, but not visa versa.
To illustrate the differences between Heriz rugs and Serapi carpets, please take a look at the two rug images below:
Example of antique Persian Heriz rug:
Example of antique Persian Serapi carpet:
Upon first glance, both rugs seem to be pretty much the same. But after looking and comparing the two, the differences begin to be quite apparent.
The Heriz on the left features a much denser pattern, the colors are muddier and if you were to see both rugs in the flesh, you would see that the one on the left has a much coarser weave and the one on the right was woven using a much higher grade of wool.
In contrast, the Serapi on the right has a far more open design, brighter colors and an overall “happier” look and feel. At the end of the day, weather the rug is called a Heriz or a Serapi – you now have the basic knowledge needed to make the distinction yourself.
In general, since the Serapi rugs are older, rarer, more tribal and artistic (for the most part) they will tend to cost more that the “regular” Heriz carpets.
Naturally there are exceptions to the rules. You can learn more about and at the end of the day, a good antique carpet dealer will never steer you wrong. What rug you buy and how much you pay, is as important as the antique rug dealer you chose to work with.