The word rugs in its ideal context is almost synonymous with Persian. Rugs in Persian culture are an essential part of the home setting. It always precedes any other type of furniture. As a matter of fact, in ancient Persian tradition, people would sit directly on the floor which would be covered by rugs and lean on cushions called poshti in Persian which themselves are covered by rugs which are specifically made for cushion covers.
Hand knotted rugs in Persian culture are sign of wealth and prosperity therefore every household depending on their social class and what they can afford would have a few rugs on the floor. Even when children grow up and leave their parents’ house, one of the first things they would take with them is a hand knotted rug.
This is particularly very important when young women get married and move to their new family. As an essential part of their household items and on the top of their list would be a hand knotted rug. Hand knotted rugs in Persian culture has often been see as a demonstration of the artistic ability of the nation. Some hand knotted Persian rugs are among the most distinguished of human artistic heritage.
Even in our modern times in which the competition is at its highest levels and reproduction capability and its tools has enormously improved, the name of Iran is tightly associated with the word rug. And thus very often replicated rugs are being introduced with its original Persian name or design name or Persian region from which it was originated. Terms such as China Tabriz, Indo-Persian, Haj-Jalili from India are indications of such a connection.
There is a well-known saying in Persian that says a house without a rug is a body without a soul.
History of Persian Rugs
It is not clearly known when Persians started to weave rugs nor is it evident which region in Persia is the pioneer in rug weaving. One of the difficulties in studying the history of rug weaving in Persia is that there is not many recorded documents in this regard. Much of the earlier history about these world artifacts relies on extinct pieces of art.
Rugs, because they have been made of organic materials such as wool, cotton and silk, are among the most vulnerable which hardly can last more than a few centuries unless they have been kept in supervised and suitable conditions. Therefore we mostly rely on circumstantial evidence when studying the history of rugs.
What is an undisputed fact is that Persians are the first to have started weaving rugs. Therefore it is not an exaggeration to say that the unique expertise of the art of carpet weaving in Iran is rooted in a nearly 3000 years of civilization and rich culture. To trace back the history of carpet weaving in Iran to its original roots require a meticulous study of the nation’s intellectual and artistic growth towards this perfection.
The evidence suggests that earlier rugs were made to protect villagers from cold and humidity and provide a cover for the floor. Gradually, rugs made their way to the houses of the wealthy as a decorative item where elaborate and artistic details were incorporated into the designs. The earliest evidence of rugs being used as a decorative item could be traced back to 800 BC.
Blossoming of Persian Rug Weaving
Safavid dynasty era in Persia (15-16 centuries) was the climax of the blossoming of the Persian artifact, architecture and rug weaving. It was also a time of fashion and matching décor with the rug on the floor. The influence of architecture can noticeably be seen in the rugs of this era both in the use of colors and design patterns. Perhaps the most significant evidence of this influence are rugs that have detailed designs and patterns of the domes of mosques and palaces in the rugs which were normally done by matching the floor with the ceiling.
Today dome designs in rugs are one of the most popular and desired within the category of Traditional Persian Rugs. Under the Shah Abbas and Shah Tahmasb a great deal of attention was given to mosques and religious worship houses both in terms of architecture and covering them with fine rugs. Thus many fine and valuable rugs were made in this period of which a significant number found its way to Europe.
Many Persian rugs from this era still exist both within Iran and outside the country. Perhaps the most significant development in the hand knotted rug industry took place during the 14th century. In this period the Safavid dynasty in Iran was involved with a very serious and sometimes nasty competition with the Othman empire in Turkey. Both power centers were trying to impress the world as well as their competitors with its greatest performances in every aspect - among them building the greatest and most architecturally outstanding mosques and places as well as creating the finest rugs to furnish them. There is therefore no surprise that beginning in the 14th century, Ardebil, Safavid dynasties birth place, Tabriz the largest city of the province and were Safavids rose to power, and Isfahan the capital of the country emerge as the center of making the finest and most delicate Persian rugs.
Isfahan particularly became the symbol of Safavid’s greatness in its architecture, handmade artifacts and rug weaving impressing the eastern neighbor of the Ottoman Empire. Later the art of rug weaving moved towards the east into India (16th and 17th century) taking with it the techniques and designs of Persian rug weaving.
In the west though, the introduction and collection of Persian rugs as a form or art came much later in the late 18th century.
North America hosted the first ever rug exhibition in 1861 in Philadelphia. Apparently in this exhibition an American businessman bought all the rugs presented and started the first rug retail business in Philadelphia. In the second rug exhibition in London in 1892 one single Persian rug was sold for an impressive price tag of £2,500.
Most Impressive Persian Rugs
The oldest had knotted Persian rug to have survived, is a rug known as Pazyrk that was found in the Pazyrk valley in Siberia near the Altai Mountains. The carpet measuring 183cm x 200cm was found in a grave that is attributed to a prince. It amazingly survived for over 2500 years because it was buried deep under ice. Radiocarbon testing took the weave of the rug to the 5th century BC. The type of knots and advanced technique of rug weaving in this carpet indicates that by the weave type, the art of rug weaving had already had a long history and evolved to a very advanced level. The border of this rug had been decorated with pictures of deer and horseman. There are strong indications that the rug belongs to the Achaemenids period in Persia.
Another impressive rug and perhaps the most famous of all rugs is a pair of Persian hand knotted rugs known as Ardebil Carpet. Currently there are two rugs that are claimed to be a pair even though they are not of the same size. One being kept in the Victoria and Albert museum in London and the other in the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts. The famous Ardebil whether the two being original pair or one being a copy of the other are both very old and belong to the same period. The story behind the Ardebil rug is that it was created during the Safavid king Shah Tahmasb in mid 16th century.