Posted on: April 25, 2016
A Brief History of Persian Carpets: Part 1
Our owner Bahram Shabahang gives us a short and insightful history of carpet making in Persian culture and what makes these carpets so important and special.
For at least twenty-five centuries, the art of Persian rug weaving has been an important part of the artistic legacy of Iranian culture and its history. Writings from as early as during the Achaemenian dynasty (500-330 BC) attest to this fact, when the Greek historian, Xenophon, recognized carpet weaving as a true source of pride for the Persian people. References to Persian carpets are also abundant in both Iranian and non-Iranian literature and folklore – and Iranian-born poets, old and new, have frequently referred to these aesthetic masterpieces to capture the essence of beauty in their poetry. This rich and abundant history has served to make Persian carpets, from antiquity to the present day, a symbol of nobility and class for people around the world.
The artistry of making Persian carpets has changed little across the ages. This is remarkable, considering the fact that the oldest known carpet, called the Pasyryk, can be traced back to between 400 and 300 BC. In 1949, archaeologists discovered the Pasyryk carpet buried deep beneath the ice of the Altai Mountains in Siberia. This ancient artifact was traced to its Persian origins, as it was found to have a symmetrical design that is similar to images carved into the stonework of the Palace of Persepolis, one of the oldest palaces in Iran.
The Pasyryk carpet now is on display in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. The techniques and materials used to weave this incredible carpet are similar to what is found in today’s carpets. Also, the sophisticated craftsmanship of the Pasyryk suggests that this art existed long before that time.
The Pasyryk carpet is particularly significant to the historical record of Persian carpets. Although a lot of carpet fragments dating back to different centuries have been found while excavating historical sites in Central Asia, no other whole rug samples have been located to represent the subsequent 1500 years of carpet weaving. Despite the fact that we have few pieces of woven art from these ancient times, their importance to the Persian culture is vastly documented in Persian literature and artistic renderings found at various historic sites. Some of this is evidenced in ancient tile works, miniatures, and stone carvings.
For example, in the Taghe Bostan, a historic palace in Iran, a stone carving on one of the palace walls depicts a carpet draped from a boat. This carving dates back to the 4th Century.
Historical documents also trace Persian carpet weaving to the Sasanian dynasty, which reigned from the 3rd to 7th centuries. And in Arab records, the area of Mazandaran is cited as one of the centers for particularly famous carpets in the 9th century, while in the 10th century, carpets from the city of Bokhara, as well as the provinces of Khuzestan and Pars achieved great acclaim.
The next historical evidence of fine Persian carpet making was the result of a fortuitous discovery at a mosque in Central Anatolia, Turkey, where three rug fragments dating back to the 13th century were located. These rug fragments, as well as other historical documents for this period, chronicle the important cultural renaissance of the Seljuk dynasty to Persian history and to the evolution of carpet artistry.
In the area of Tabriz, famous Mongolian miniature paintings from the 14th century have been found which feature rugs woven into geometric patterns of animals and hunting scenes.
The 15th century marks a time when an ancestor of Genghis Khan, Timur the conqueror reigned over Persian lands. While known as a ruthless ruler, Timur is recognized for his contributions to the development of culture and the arts in his time. Historical records show that the city of Samarkand became the talk of explorers and world travelers of that period who marveled over the fine carpet artistry. Miniature paintings of Timur’s courts also featured rugs designed with the image of a hexagon and star.
Yet without a doubt, the finest examples of this important art form are found from the Safavid dynasty (16th-18th century). During this timeframe the art of carpet weaving flourished. It is on record that King Tahmasp of Safavid had a personal love for finely woven rugs and took pleasure in designing some of his own carpets. He extended his love for beautiful carpets into the creation of workshops throughout Iran to teach the art of rug weaving. Later, his successor, King Abbas the Great of Safavid, who also enjoyed weaving carpets, moved his capital from Kazvin to Isfahan. Isfahan then became the site of the most noted learning center for rug weaving – a reflection of the extreme appreciation his Royal Highness had for this art.
This center of learning provided artists with a venue for further developing this ancient, symbolic art. Here designers and craftsmen were inspired to develop new innovations in chemistry for supplying materials and colors, and new insights from mathematics and physics for extending dimensions in warp, weft and yarn. From a practical standpoint, this assisted with the creation of carpets that are far more durable than carpets produced using earlier technologies. As a result, from the Safavid dynasty to the present day, fine Persian artistic carpets hold the distinction of becoming even more beautiful as they age. Carpets from this period have also been described as “the most glorious and outstanding rugs in the history of Persian carpet weaving.” As a testament to this fact, 1,500 magnificent carpets from this time period have been preserved in museums and private collections around the world.