History of Rugs
An Introduction to Antique and Semi-Antique Oriental Rugs
The history of oriental rugs is almost as complex as the actual weaving of the rugs themselves. We know that as early as 500 BC, oriental rugs were already a highly desired royal treasure. The oriental rug industry has flourished, collapsed, and then flourished again with countless wars and invasions interrupting its turbulent history. It is my intention to give the reader an overview of the history of oriental rugs. Although opinions on dates may vary from one rug expert to another, this basic outline would be agreed on by most rug experts.
We should start with perhaps the most famous carpet in existence today, known as the Pazyryk carpet. This rug with over 225 knots per square inch was found in 1949 by a Soviet archeologist in the tomb of a Scythian Chieftain, or prince, in Pazyryk, near Outer Mongolia. This rug, which is reported to be the oldest in existence, is estimated to be from the 5th century BC. It is on display at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
With the exception of the Pazyryk carpet, the records of earlier rugs are few and far between. Aurel Stein, an early 20th-century explorer of eastern Turkestan, discovered some carpets that he dated to be 5th or 6th century. The rugs were attributed to being Turkish in origin and had only around 50 knots per square inch. In 1905, in the mosque of Ala-ad Din in Konia, Turkish carpets dated to the 13th century were discovered. These loosely woven carpets were probably made by the Seljuk tribes of Turkey. In a 13th century writing about Marco Polo, he was quoted as saying that the Seljuk tribes wove some of the finest carpets in the world. One last very important reference to the old world carpets is found in some late 16th century paintings of Henry VIII. These masterpieces, all attributed to the painter Holbein, usually included an oriental rug, probably from the Ottoman empire. This famous rug, known as the bird carpet was also often referred to as a "Holbein rug".
In 1514, the Persian Empire, including its capital which was then Tabriz, was overtaken by the Ottomans. They took some of the Persian weavers back with them to Turkey and interestingly a Persian knot then began to appear in some Turkish rugs. However, as chaotic as history was in the 1500s, with invasions upon invasions the 16th century ushered in the "Golden Age" of oriental rugs. The credit lies mostly in the hands of the Safavid dynasty and its very famous shahs. In 1501 Shah Ismail took his reign, in Tabriz. His rule was important to the history of Persia. The dynasty he started lasted for two centuries and was the revival for economy, arts, and infrastructure. In 1514 the capital was moved to Kazvin and later to Isphahan. After Shah Ismail came Shah Tahmasp, then later Shah Abbas. Shah Abbas was known for building the famous rug factory in Isphahan. He was also famous for creating a design in rugs that are still common in rug weaving today known as the "Shah Abbas Motif". In 1530, a rug was woven to adorn the great mosque in Ardebil. The so-called "Ardebil" carpet is 17 x 34 with 340 knots per square inch or a total of over 33 million knots. It actually took three years to weave the rug. Today the rug is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1722, Persia was invaded by Afghanistan nomads and was in continual upheaval and war until the late 19th century. During this period, the rug industry was basically wiped out. Most of the carpet weaving of this time was either of a nomadic tribe origin or a village rug which was a simple rug woven by a family in their own house. Not many fine or famous rugs are attributed to this period from Persia.
However, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a small area in the northern part of the Persian Empire and east of Turkey commonly known as the Caucasus produced some interesting rugs. From eastern Anatolia to the Caspian Sea, almost every village began producing rugs, each with its own characteristics. Kuba located in Azerbaijan produced the famous dragon carpets that averaged 23 feet long and were evidently woven with some sort of planned production or manufacturing system. Famous Caucasian rugs came from the Kazak, Shirvan, and Daghestan tribes to name a few areas that were famous in the Caucasus.
In the late 19th century the rug industry began to take on a new form and definition. By 1880, there was a new period of rest in Persian with the Turks and Kurds and Muslims all seemingly content not to go to war. Realizing the potential of exporting fine oriental rugs to Europe and America, European and American companies began to set up looms in Persia. In large factory-like buildings, looms were set up and villagers were put to work weaving rugs with motifs and colors that these companies designed based upon the demands of the markets they were selling to. Some of the more famous companies were the Ziegler company of Manchester, England who set up looms in Mahal in 1883 and produced what today is referred to the Sultanabad rugs or the Petag Company of Germany who set up looms in Tabriz in 1885. Companies also found bases in Kashan in 1890, Kerman in 1885 and Sarouk in 1880. This sort of production spread throughout Persia and continued to prosper until the beginning of World War I. Some of the most famous rugs from that period are Heriz, Bidjar, Bakshaish, Hamadan, Lavar Kerman, Shiraz, Quashquai, and Bahktiari. Also famous from the period were the Turkish Oushak and Kayseri and the Caucasian rugs such as Kazak, Shirvan, and Lesghi.
Understanding this history of oriental rugs and learning the effects it had on production is crucial to the knowledge of antique oriental rugs. First, the simple fact that short of the Safavid dynasty, there were not many rugs woven until around 1880. The vast supply of so-called antique rugs available today was, for the most part, woven during the period from 1880 up until World War I. Most rug dealers agree that pre-World War I rugs are referred to as antique rugs. Also important is an understanding of the changes that took
place in the styles of weaving during this time. For example, the Serapi rug. Some rug books say there is no such thing as a Serapi rug and yet these "Serapi" rugs are one of the most demanded antique rugs of our day. The explanation is basically simple.
In the village on Heriz, rugs of a simple geometric motif were being woven. Then in 1910, with the coming of European businessmen, there came a demand for the rugs to have more continuity, color, and design. The earlier un-busy motif was discarded for a much busier one. So we have a city where they are producing the same type of rug, same basic motif, and same weaving style and yet these newer rugs, tending to be more busy and bright, were almost an entirely different rug than the older ones woven in the same area.
Indeed a Serapi is simply a Heriz rug woven prior to about 1910. I am not sure exactly where the name itself came from but it was given to these older Heriz rugs to distinguish them from the newer ones. The same thing happened in the city of Sarouk. The late 19th-century Sarouks commonly used soft rust, ivory, and navy as the predominant colors. Then in 1918 they practically started an entirely new type of rug, forsaking the softer look and using a strong burgundy color with a much busier design. This was the desired design of the time. In fact, these changes happened not only in Heriz and Sarouk but many of the other rug weaving areas. Designs changed, colors changed, and in some cases, even the entire style of weaving changed.
Another major event in the history of rugs was the introduction of chemical dyes. Up until the early 1900s, all dyes were made from vegetables, insects, shells, roots, barks, and other various natural substances. The first chemical dye, known as aniline dye, was introduced around the turn of the century. Shortly thereafter, another type of dye made from potassium bichromate called chrome dye was introduced. It was soon discovered that the aniline dyes were very inferior and because of the quality control standards imposed by the reigning Shah, these aniline dyes were outlawed. Unfortunately, Turkey continued to use these for quite a long time and earned a bad reputation for colors that ran. However, chrome dyes proved to be excellent. They maintain their hues and are easier to produce and use. Natural dyes often soften or mellow differently, and if wool that appeared to be the same color but was from a different dying process was used in the same rug, frequently, over the years, streaks would begin to appear. These streaks, known as "abrash", are simply the different wools fading differently over time. Abrash's are frequently used to help determine the age of a rug.
During World War 1 not many rugs were woven. True to its history, every time there was war and upheaval in the land, the rug industry slowed up. The rugs that were woven between World War I and World War II are the rugs that most rug dealers refer to as semi-antique rugs. For the most part, the styles and designs of that period continue to be busier patterns and brighter colors just like they were weaving before World War I. The demand for rugs obviously fell. Between the wars and the great depression, the oriental rug business took a real beating. The mid 20th century, saw the demand for oriental rug grow again and by the end of the 20th-century emphasis turned to softer colors and a much more decorative look. This is still the trend in our current market today.
This is just a brief introduction to antique oriental rugs. Whole books have been written on the same subject, with special emphasis on specific villages and tribes outlining their particular styles and skills. It is the hope of this author that this article will increase the interest of the reader on the subject of antique oriental rugs and will compel him or her to further investigate both by reading and by visiting reputable rug dealers. Rug dealers will be willing to sit and chat and tell you more about rugs. As with any art, appreciation comes from knowledge of the subject. However, the reader is warned, collecting antique oriental rugs can be hazardous to your pocketbook