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Persia's Carpets, Fabrics, Gems and Spices -- Part I (Carpets)

If your Persian rug wasn't made in Iran, then it isn't a Persian carpet. There is mystery woven into each fabric composition that is hard to fathom even with a broad knowledge of the history of Persia and of Islam. It is not uncommon for the temporal to be blended with the abstract, forcing the mind to contemplate a unique kind of beauty (a beauty that is also peddled in the structures of Iran's mosques, buildings and public squares, by the way).

From the dawn of ancient trade and commerce, Persia was a major participant in the production of and/or transport of fine fabrics (silk) and cloths (carpets) as well as of spices, perfumes and gems. Wealth then, like today, was displayed by way of adornment on the person or of the household (palace).

Pliny the Elder gave the Persians the distinction of probably inventing a spice-based perfume to be used as a fragrance on the human person, in order to hide the natural dirtiness (read, Pliny on Persians and Perfume by Michel Blonski, Revue de Philologie, 2007). The carpet (rug) fulfilled a need to protect oneself and family from cold and damp floors of their homes and mosques, and for nomads their tents.

Today, carpet weaving is the most widespread handicraft in Iran (although the time-consuming task is quickly succumbing to mass production). Persian carpets are renowned for their rich colors, spectacular artistic patterns and quality of design. In palaces, famous buildings, mansions and museums throughout Iran and the world, a Persian carpet is amongst the most treasured possessions.

I had the privilege of visiting Tehran's highly recommended "carpet museum," noted for its rotating exhibits of historically significant carpet samples and educational programs geared to preserving the very concentrated art of weaving and knotting. There is no price assigned to the fine art on display there, but a buyer will sweat on his/her credit card when visiting the finest carpet market stores scattered within every town and city of Iran. A room-size carpet of reasonable multi-year, hand-crafted design begs at least a $15,000 handover at the low end (shipping complimentary). Smaller cuts of rug may be more affordable to the casual traveler, starting at roughly $4,000. Even cheaper manufactured rugs are of course available, if a shopper is not predisposed to mimic the nobility.

The art of carpet weaving (and knotting) in Iran originated more than 2,500 years ago. Some historians credit Cyrus the Great in the 500s BC for introducing the art of carpet making into Persia. (Is there anything that Cyrus was not great for?). Cyrus' tomb at Pasargadae (which I visit in a subsequent blog) near Persepolis purportedly was covered with precious carpets at one time. Even before his time, nomads' herds of sheep and goats provided them with high quality and durable wool for this purpose.

Much later during the visitation of the Mongols in the 13th century AD, the palace of Tabriz, belonging to the Ilkhan leader, Ghazan Khan (1295 - 1304) had paved floors covered with carpets. The Mongol ruler Shah Rokh (1409 - 1446) contributed to the reconstruction of much that was destroyed by the Mongols and encouraged all the artistic activities of the region. Carpets in this period were decorated with simple motifs that were mainly geometric in style.

The Persian carpet became a world keeper during the reign of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century AD. Approximately 1,500 examples are preserved in various museums and in private collections around the globe, according to some tallies. Shah Abbas (1587 - 1629) built workshops for carpets where skilled designers and craftsmen in Isfahan combined gold and silver threads in their silk masterpieces. In the last quarter of the 19th Century and during the reign of Qajar, Persian carpet trade and craftsmanship regained their importance, prompting some European and American companies to set up businesses in Persia. With Western tastes in mind, for example, the German company Ziegler & Co. developed new carpets for export, including the popular Ziegler rug.

Greek author Xenophon in his book "Anabasis" is among the first authors ever to mention the Persian carpet: "Next he went to Timasion the Dardanian, for he heard that he had some Persian drinking cups and carpets.... Timasion also drank his health and presented him with a silver bowl and a carpet worth ten mines."

In September 2017, carpet stores inhabit stalls and niches on every market strip in the cities of Iran. Like pharmacies and gas stations on every American street corner, the carpet dealer of Persia holds block by block real estate that offers a pleasing assortment of color and abstract art to sooth the soul and cushion the behind. Many bistros, restaurants and guest houses are caretakers of patios that serve as places for families, individuals and guests (and cats) to relax, picnic and even sleep on carpeted platforms made of wood.

A black cat interloper disrupts a siesta

Below are some of Iran's finest carpets of the recent historical era (16th century to the present)

The knots (Turkish or Persian knots)

The traditional emphasis is on natural subjects (birds and flora) as well as the common non-representational abstract images. Note the two bridges, however (manmade construction).

Historical and fanciful stories inspire some weavers

The abstract fine weave of this rug is a motif that has many variations in Persian design

Important persons and events in history are portrayed in Persian carpets, even including the great personages of the West. In this carpet hanging in Tehran's museum, many great historical characters (numbered in Islamic characters) are depicted. Even Jesus (top center) and Napoleon (bottom center) make the distinguished guest list here.

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