The history of oriental rugs is as old and debated as the religions that we base our beliefs upon.  Rug weaving is one of the world’s oldest and most untouched art forms.  While many of the designs and production techniques have changed, the underlying basics of oriental rugs and the amazing art form behind them remains virtually unchanged for nearly the last 3000 years.  The history behind oriental rugs is intriguing and long and also confusing.  Many references to oriental rugs are made in famous historical documents such as the Bible, and Homer’s Illiad, but most of the information that is gathered on oriental rugs must be taken from existing rugs and antique rug fragments.  This lack of information is due to changing languages in the middle-east and the lack of existing written texts documenting oriental rug production and advances.

Why do rugs exist

Let’s begin with why rugs exist at all.  There are two prevailing theories as to why rugs were created and have developed into the art form we know, and each of these theories is debated heavily.  These debates represent the never-ending struggle between form and function.

The first theory gives credit to the nomadic and village peoples of the ancient middle-east.  This theory contends that such ancient peoples created piled carpets using crude and available materials in order to provide protection against the harsh elements.  This means that rugs were originally made for completely utilitarian use and had no artistic value whatsoever.  These piled textiles could be used for anything from floor coverings, to saddle blankets or tent coverings, etc. This theory would also contend that the origins of oriental rug making began on horizontal, portable looms that would have been better suited for a nomadic lifestyle.

The second theory for the beginnings of oriental rugs contends that rugs were created for use as decoration.  This theory credits a more civilized and centralized group of people with the creation of one of the world’s greatest art forms. This theory also depicts such people weaving the world’s first oriental rugs on vertical, permanent looms, using fine grade materials and intricate processes to create aesthetic art.

The author would contend that neither theory is correct, but that the reality behind the creation of oriental rugs is a combination of the two.  Taking into account the lifestyles of some of the people that still exist in harsh conditions in rug weaving areas today, it is safe to say that rugs were partially created for utilitarian use.  But the fact also remains that when making this art, it takes just as long to make an artful rug as it does to create a basic rug.  If a person is to place so much effort into creating such an object, it might as well serve two functions.  Even today, evidence exists in some semi-nomadic cultures where intricate art is used for utilitarian purpose. The Bakhtiari tribe uses very intricate, beautiful pile textile as saddle blankets and salt bags, but much effort is placed in having these objects reflect the culture and art that these people live with.  Inevitably, some rug creations would be finer than others, and some weavers would have more skill in designing and creating these beautiful works, prompting some weavers to use finer materials and processes.

Using ancient rugs to tell us a story

Because of the different and contrasting references to oriental rugs in ancient literature, it is nearly impossible to determine the geographical region or time period in which the first oriental rugs appeared.  Because the primary materials that are used in the creation of oriental rugs are natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and silk, rugs are constantly subject to eventual deterioration.  When well maintained, rugs can last many decades if not centuries.  But inevitably, all natural fibers succumb to time, and in the case of wool fibers, eventually crystallize and turn into dust.

Consequently, examples of extremely old and rare oriental rugs are hard to find, and are therefore also extremely valuable. Because of this, historians and rug enthusiasts are required to rely upon just a few examples of ancient textile to determine what little we know about this timeless art form.  With major discoveries taking place as little as just 50 years ago, scientist and historians have recreated histories for the processes and cultures behind oriental rugs based upon existing antique carpets and carpet fragments.

The most famous existing ancient rug is known as the Pazyryk, or Altai carpet.  This is the world’s oldest known existing carpet that is nearly intact and is in good condition.  In the summer of 1949, a team of Russian archaeologists, led by Sergei I. Rudenko, uncovered an ancient burial tomb in the Highland Valleys of the Altai Mountains in Siberia.  This area is known as the Pazyryk, or the Valley of the Dead.  This area is aptly named due to the number of tombs that have been found there, a total of 21 since the first was found in 1929.  Each tomb is called a “kurgan”, and five of the 21 tombs found were those of a tsar.  The tomb in which the Pazyryk carpet was found was believed to have been created in the 4th or 5th centuries B.C.  The builders of these tombs were early nomadic people that have been termed as Scythians.  The Pazyryk Carpet was found in the kurgan of a Scythian warrior prince.  This tomb had been disturbed centuries before by grave robbers, with the intruder taking only metals and precious stones, leaving behind a rug and a few other imported objects.  The robbers left the tomb open and damaged.  By leaving the tomb open, the thieves inadvertently preserved the Pazyryk carpet nearly perfectly.  When the seasonal rains came, the tomb flooded and eventually froze the entire tomb in a block of ice, including the carpet.  When the Russian team found the tomb in 1949, the artifacts were still wonderfully preserved within the ice, providing the rug community with the oldest, nearly intact rug in the world.

Carbon dating provided in 1994 by the State Hermitage Museum and the Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg confirmed that the Pazyryk carpet is as old as 440-360 B.C.   That’s approximately 2500 years old!  Not to mention that beyond its age, the design and quality of the weave is absolutely amazing.  The carpet is composed of approximately 240 symmetrical knots per square inch, which was previously thought to be beyond the methods and technology of the time.  Construction of this nature changed what the world knew about textile construction of ancient times.  The size of the rug is 6x6.5 ft (1.83x1.98 m.)  The color palette is composed of a terra cotta colored central field, with the design composed of blues, yellows, and beiges.  The design itself is relatively simple.  The field design contains repeating cross-like symbols which resemble roof and floor tiles produced by ancient Armenians and Persians.  This would lead some people to attribute the workmanship of the rug to the Armenians, but the same tiled cross pattern is displayed in multiple areas among Europe, often symbolizing divine light, or even “God the Creator.”

Discoveries such as this show how the history of oriental rugs is constructed.  To truly pinpoint the who, where, when, and how of oriental rugs may very well be impossible, but the history of oriental carpets is an outstanding and constantly unfolding story.  It is also one that is too large and uncharted to be immediately researched and explained.

History tidbits

The earliest known pile fabrics were discovered in Egyptian tombs.  These relics included linens, looped pieces, clothing, and wall hangings.  While these pieces resembled the construction of oriental rugs that were to come, they were not a rug or floor covering in any form.  As they were valuable, the pieces that most resemble what we know as oriental rugs were used as wall hanging or decorations.

As oriental rugs developed, little is known due to the lack of written accounts.  With discoveries such as the Pazyryk carpet, scholars can make educated presumptions about how rugs developed.  Basically, there is a major informational gap in rug creation from the 5th century B.C. (approximated date for the creation of the Pazyryk carpet) until the 7th century A.D.  And with the discoveries that have been made, it is possible to assume that rug weaving dates back as far as the 2nd or possibly even the 3rd millennia B.C.

The next major rug event that happens on the world timeline in the emergence of Islam in the 7th century.  Based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, Islam spreads throughout the world, and particularly Asia and the middle-east at astonishing speeds.  For the rug industry, the influence of Islamic art and culture is responsible for much of the design and meaning behind the rugs even created today.  Just to view the architecture in cities such as Isfahan or Qum in Iran shows the effect that this religion had on the art and culture of the time. Into the 8th century, the Islamic movement has influenced the textile industry in such a way that textiles that would normally be reserved for use on walls begin making their way to the floor.

Persian and Chinese weaving is growing quickly, but the world market is yet to fully recognize the potential that these products have.  French Aubusson and Savonerrie design are also created, sparking market interest all over the globe.  This flat woven floor covering, normally reserved for the royal court, became popular so quickly that “bootlegging” of the product became common.

In the 11th century, the rug making trade is introduced to Anatolia by Seljuk Turks.  This action not only helped spread the rug industry, but also introduced the artistic culture of Islam.  This area still produces geometrically designed rugs that are distinctive in color and pattern, are highly sought after.

The 13th century saw travelers slowly beginning to migrate East out of Europe, searching for the treasures held by the rest of the world.  Many of these renowned travelers and conqueror, such as the famed Marco Polo, made written accounts of their amazement of the art of oriental rugs.  Many bring some carpets home to begin importation into the west with accounts such as, “here are the choicest carpets in the world made, and those with the loveliest colors.”

In the 14th century, hunting scenes are initiated by the Shah Safavid’s court.  These scenes were first hand-painted and then woven into rugs.  These scenes are representative of the struggle between good and evil.  Both real and imaginary animals and characters were presented, making these carpets especially popular and in demand throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

In the 15th century, the prayer rug was first created.  Prayer rugs originated in Ushak, Anatolia.  These rugs are still highly utilized by Muslims, who use these to kneel and stand on when praying.  There are many variations within this design, such as the pillars of wisdom, oil burning lamps and chandeliers, birds, and calligraphic writing.  The most common motif, and the most easily recognized is the prayer mihrab.  This design brings one end of the rug to a point, which orients the praying person in the direction of Mecca, and also creates a space on the rug for which to lay their head.  This area is not to be walked on, as it would then be desecrated or unclean.

The 16th century could be considered one of the best times for the development and marketing of oriental rugs.  This century saw the opening of trade routes from the middle-east into western Europe.  Carpets were bought in mass numbers, exported to all of Europe, and sold at very high prices for use as wall hangings, table covers, etc.  These rugs were still too valuable to be used as floor coverings.  This time also saw the peak of rug production under the influence of the highly successful Safavid Dynasty.  The Safavid courts were responsible for the training and development of weavers and master artists, as well as for the amazing organization in which these areas developed carpets for sale.  The capitol of Persia at this time was Isfahan, which even today exhibits the amazing architecture, art, and timeless treasures that were created at the height of the Persian Empire.  The Safavid court actively sought out the world’s greatest artists, bringing them to Isfahan to supervise the design and weaving processes for rugs.

This time also introduced the use of newer and finer materials for rugs such as blended wool, silks, and gold and silver threads.  Rugs from this area are considered to be the best in the world, and are highly sought after and extremely valuable today.  Because of this high point in rug history, rugs undergo a very important change.  Instead of being everyday items of normal use, these finer rugs became symbols of luxury and wealth.  Famous painters (such as Lotto and Holbein the Younger) begin painting rugs into self-portraits, and into portraits done for royalty and the wealthy.

Because of the major success that accompanied the creation of rug markets in Persia, other countries begin developing rug centers within their borders.  Under the influence of Emperor Akbar, India establishes workshops in Agra, Fathepur Sikri, and Lahore.  The Indian workshops initially imitate Safavid work ethics, but eventually begin developing their own processes, cultures, and designs.  While most of the designs created have been renditions of Persian motifs, India made efforts to create purely Indian deigns such as the Ganges, Agra, Jaipur, Mughal, etc.  In the 17th century, rug making in Persia continued, and flourished in other countries such as India and China.  China accepted rug making as one of the great courtly arts under the rule of the Quing Dynasty, and rug making centers are established in Spain, France, and England to satisfy the need for domestic-use rugs.  The 18th century brought the eventual decline of the Safavid court.  As the court rug production system began failing, new rug designs came as rendition of the classical Safavid court rugs.  These are now considered classical and base designs.

Throughout the 19th century, new designs and quality control begin to decline due to the increasing demand from the west.  Not only is Europe importing mass numbers of rugs, but the U.S. has also entered the market as a major buying force. Production increased as new factories were established as expanded.  Unfortunately, in haste to meet demands, many lower quality rugs are exported.  This American entry into the buyer’s market also places demands on the sizes, colors, and design that are produced.  In order to combat the exportation of inferior quality rugs, the Safavid system is again established, bringing in master artists to oversee design, and separating the design and weaving process to simplify and speed up the work.  New technology also came into the picture through the development of new looms, materials (including the introduction of synthetic dyes), and new systems of importing materials into production centers. New designs were developed as versions of classic designs.  Weaving centers begin developing identity for their type of weave and design, and rugs from these areas are eventually named after the town or the group of people who created them.  Reintroduction of motifs involving flowers, fruits, birds, clouds, and animals takes place, as they had not been seen since the decline of the Safavid court.