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Posted on: May 2, 2016

A Brief History of Persian Carpets: Part 2

In the second half of this history of Persian Carpets, 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.

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The evolution of carpet artistry took a turn in the early 18th century. Afghans invaded Iran in 1719 and, by 1722, forced the collapse of the Safavid dynasty. The occupation of Afghans and other foreign invaders at the time marked a period of chaos and instability in the country. As a result, Persian carpet weaving as well as many other artistic and cultural developments that were prevalent during the Safavid epoch were halted for a time.

Then, in 1736, Nader Shah recovered Iranian lands from foreign rule. His reign marked the time of the Afsharid dynasty, from 1736-1747 A.O. Although Nader Shah was a gifted military leader, he completely lacked interest in culture and the arts. Again, the art of carpet weaving suffered. By the end of the Afsharid dynasty, however, the art of rug weaving was revived, and the province of Khorasan became known for its magnificent artistry. While Nader Shah did not contribute directly to the development of carpet artistry in his time, his military campaigns in India were rewarded with a cache of treasures including Indian jewelry, belts, handmade shawls, and other fine fabrics that inspired new innovations in carpet designs. After the time of the Afshar empire, the Zandian dynasty came into power. Karim Khan Zand (1750-1779 A.O.) chose the city of Shiraz as his capital. History credits Karim Khan with having tremendous influence over Shiraz’s beautiful architecture and incredible mosques. During his reign, southern Persia became a center of peace and tranquility, which afforded artists of all genres the time and inspiration to realize even further developments in Iranian art and culture. The arts in general flourished under the rule of Karim Khan.

The art of carpet weaving also emerged with renewed vigor during the Qajarian era (1785-1925). The Qajars restored and expanded upon the prosperity and national unity lost for a time after Safavid sovereignty. Iranian merchants revived commercial trade with European markets. Demand for Persian rugs soared as Europeans increasingly regarded these pieces of woven art as the pinnacle of luxury and elitism. This burgeoning demand for fine Persian carpets in turn influenced European paintings of the day. Relevant to the history of Persian carpets, two important facts are specific to this historical period. First, the design of Persian rugs started to become more intricate. Artists began to embellish upon Safavid craftsmanship by proportionally changing the size of designs into even smaller motifs. Second, the European demand for Persian carpets intensified pressure on merchants, who sought shortcuts that inevitably diminished the long-held artistic standards of Persian carpet weaving. A trend toward commercial quality rugs was particularly evident at the end of the Qajarian dynasty when European merchants, who were motivated to lower the cost of carpets, shipped imported wool and chemical dyes from other European countries to rug designers in Iran. These efforts reflected an attempt to develop faster methods of weaving, but this emphasis on efficiency resulted in increased repetition of designs that were unprecedented in Persian rug history. True lovers of this fine art within the Iranian community became outraged. They began to put pressure on their government to outlaw the sale of these lesser quality rugs. Ultimately lawmakers acquiesced and violators were fined and prosecuted.

While the quality of carpet weaving suffered for a time during the Qajarian era, a number of renowned artists sustained the integrity of the art. Artists such as Mohtashan Kashani, Mohajeran Farahani, Haj Jalili Tabrizi, Ahmad Esfahani, Amo-Oghli Khorasani (originally from Azerbaijan) are to date regarded by connoisseurs as some of the most brilliant craftsmen in the history of Persian carpet weaving. These artists produced masterpieces that compare with the most famous paintings and the most treasured musical compositions in the world.

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The Pahlavi dynasty was in power from 1925-1979. During this period, Iran was transformed into an industrial, urbanized country that in turn influenced the increased commercialization of carpet weaving. In the time of Reza Shah, (1925-1941) the Sherekat Farsh of Iran was created by the Shah’s order. This government organization mechanized the production of carpets, which diminished their overall quality, so that these carpets literally had no artistic value. Then, in recent years, Jahad Sazandegi was established to continue the work of Sherekat Farsh. This government organization exclusively produces commercial rugs. (As the focus here is on the artistic legacy of fine Persian carpets, a further discussion of this commercial grade of carpets is for another place and time.)

Today there are only a few craftsmen in different parts of Iran which preserve the artistic legacy of fine Persian carpets. These consummately beautiful pieces of art reflect the often-divine inspiration and imagination of their individual creators. They also capture the essence of the long and colorful history of Iran and its people. Once again, only few artists are creating wonderful new Persian carpets, which are technically and artistically as durable and exhilarating as the greatest carpet treasure trove from centuries long past. Collectors around the world continue to desire these exquisite carpets not just as sensible investments, but also as fine pieces of art to be enjoyed for their own aesthetic value for years to come.

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