Posted on: August 13, 2018

A Brief History of Persian Carpets During The Safavid Era

Under the Safavid dynasty, Persian carpets flourished from a functional craft that was made for personal use to a lucrative industry that was relished throughout Eurasia. This week, take a dive into the golden era of Persian carpet-making.

Considered the impetus that brought Iran into the modern era, the Safavid dynasty made significant advancements in technology, literature, art, and design between the 16th and 18th centuries. Within the realm of art and design, the leaders of this empire elevated architecture, tile work, calligraphy, painting, and textiles. As it relates to carpets, they added elements of luxury with impressive color blends and a fervor for silk. Additionally, they were able to maintain the integrity of a handmade village rug, while enhancing the level of design intricacy with curvilinear floral and fauna imagery.

Textiles and weaving in Iran have had a long and rich history that pre-dates the arrival of the Safavids, but this dynasty was able to use the skills and knowledge that its people had cultivated in their own homes to commercialize the craft and make Persian carpets world-renowned. Originally establishing their power throughout the northwestern region of the country, the Safavids took advantage of the quality silk farms that were located near the Caspian Sea. Not only were these raw materials lucrative exports, but they also served as the weaving material for most artisan textiles during this reign.

The first Safavid kings laid the groundwork for the commercialization of carpet-making through the founding of royal workshops in their capital cities of Tabriz and Qazvin, in addition to supporting provincial carpet centers such as Kashan and Yazd. The pinnacle of their achievements, however, was reached under Shah Abbas, whose reign from 1587 to 1629 is considered the Golden Era of Iran. With the arrival of Shah Abbas, carpet design and production peaked in his newly established capital city of Isfahan. After relocating the capital to the center of the country, he made use of his geographically strategic move by cementing his place as the center of trade between Europe to the west and China to the east. This boosted Iran’s trade and strengthened its grip on the global silk trade specifically. To further stabilize the economy and encourage trade, Shah Abbas made trade agreements with foreign merchants who had fallen in love with the Persian carpets they saw during their travels. As such, carpet workshops became more prevalent under his rule, streamlining production and revenue.

Safavid carpet, circa mid-16th century

In addition to their financial benefits during this time, Persian carpets flourished in terms of technique and design as well. Even though there are no carpets that have survived from the dynasty’s earlier rulers, scholars today can study what has lasted to decode the history of this impressive handicraft. Following in the footsteps of nomadic weavers, the finest carpets of this era were created with handspun fibers, vegetable dyes, and artisan weavers. Safavid master weavers made advancements in weaving techniques, however, by using mathematic principles based in their Sufi ideology. They realized the secret to making a durable carpet was to lessen the impact of friction during its use. This meant that the relationship between the diameters of the warp, weft, and pile threads had to be such that the fibers would not wear harshly against each other when the carpet was walked on.

Arguably the biggest shift between Safavid carpets and their village-made predecessors was the advancement and elaboration of the colors and motifs used. Before carpet-making became an industry, the weaver was responsible for all aspects of creating the carpet. This includes collecting nearby plants to crush and use as vegetable dyes. Once the workshops were established, however, master dyers were solely responsible for creating color blends. As such, they were able to come up with recipes using plants from all over the country to achieve never before seen hues. Popular colors like deep reds, varying shades of blue, earthy yellows, soft greens, and bright pinks were further enriched with gold and silver wrapped silk threads.

Silk carpet, circa late 16th – early 17th century

The designs and motifs that were cultivated during the Safavid era were also a far reach from what one would have seen in the village rugs of this time. Rather than using linear designs with ninety degree angles, artists were hired to conceive more sophisticated patterns. This resulted in a panoply of motifs that ranged from stylized medallions and floral tendrils to refined illustrations of humans and animals. Medallion designs, like the carpet shown above, are emulations of the Persian courtyard. The architectural elements are abstracted, like the center medallion itself which is a symbol for the pool that is a key feature of any Persian garden. The field and border is filled with blossoming and interlocking flowers, alluding to what one would see in his or her daily life. Again reflecting the Sufi influence of the time, many carpet designs including this one were mirrored across either one or both axes to visually represent a spiritual harmony that grows out of the central point of the carpet.

Safavid carpet, circa second half of 16th century

Furthermore, it was common for carpets, like the one pictured above, to incorporate animals among the floral patterns. Sometimes the animals were honest depictions of what one might find in their garden, while other times they were treated as allegory for current and historical events. Popular fauna included lions, deer, and birds, as well as mythical creatures like the simurgh. As weaving capabilities advanced, human figures also became part of carpet design. Taking inspiration from books like Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnameh, master weavers began translating the words off the page and into the illustrations that can be seen on woven tapestries.

Painting from Bijapur, circa 1680

After the death of Shah Abbas, the consecutive Safavid leaders struggled to grow the economy and expand borders in the same way as their predecessors. Eventually, society began to rely more heavily on regional powers as the central government lost its credibility. The Afghan invasion of Isfahan in 1722 marks the end of the Safavid dynasty, and with it, the end of manufacturing for these luxurious textiles. This is not to say, however, that the impact of Safavid carpets has not survived. When the nation regained stability and reinstated carpet workshops, much of what emerged finds its roots in the Safavid era. Even 500 years later in today’s globalized world, the use of and appreciation for the refined sense of scale, attention to detail, and curvilinear patterns of Safavid carpets has survived.