A Brief History of Oriental Rugs       by Tracy Davis

Rugs, as both functional and decorative art, have been around for millennia, but surviving examples of early rugs are few. The earliest knotted carpet, known as the Pazyryk or Altai rug, dates to the fifth century B.C. and was discovered by Soviet archaeologist S.I. Rudenko in 1949. Art and archaeology owe many thanks to a group of enterprising grave-robbers in the Altai mountains on the Siberian- Mongolian border. The Pazyryk rug was found in the burial chamber of a local chieftain that had flooded and subsequently frozen solid after thieves plundered the grave shortly after the burial (thankfully, they left the rug behind). The Pazyryk carpet measures roughly 6' x 5' and is of unknown origin, although nutty and esoteric theories abound.
Some rug fragments from the third, sixth, and eleventh centuries survive, but there is no real continuity apparent between them. The Crusaders of the eleventh century brought many rugs back from the middle east and were probably responsible for introducing oriental rugs to Europe. We can trace the historicity of Turkish rugs from about the fourteenth century, and Persian rugs from the sixteenth. Most of our knowledge about these rugs comes from their depiction in paintings of the early Renaissance, where they are often shown under the feet of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and in later portraits of prominent and wealthy Europeans. Oriental rugs have been traditional symbols of holiness and royalty, due both to their cost and their rarity. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, oriental rugs (products of the "heathen" Islamic world) were acceptable for adornment of Protestant churches, even though John Calvin eschewed icons, paintings, and stained glass.

Carpet weaving as an art peaked in royal court workshops in Timurid and Safavid, Istanbul, Dehli and Agra, under the patronage of the Persian Safavid dynasty, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and the Indian Moghul dynasty, respectively. These court designs benefited from a great degree of artistic cross-pollination, and some of the hottest debates in the rug world today are over attribution of rugs of the period, particularly between the designs of Persia and India. Developing in parallel with urban weaving centers, nomadic and village weavers continued their centuries-old craft of knotted rugs. Influenced by court carpets, but restrained by both tradition and function, these tribal and village weavers began a process of adaptation and stylization while retaining their distinctive flavor.
In the late seventeenth century, oriental rugs made their way to the American colonies with wealthy families who settled there. In the eighteenth century, Oriental rugs were first used on floors in addition to their use as table coverings and wall hangings. The rise of the middle classes in the mid-nineteenth century fostered a growing interest in knotted carpets, especially after the various World's Fairs showcased eastern cultures and decorative arts. It was in Europe in the nineteenth century that oriental rugs were first studied by scholars. The majority of oriental rugs available today are products of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
After the second half of the nineteenth century,  new materials and dye processes were initiated to speed up the production of rug making in order to meet the demands of western markets.  Although the methods of production have become more organized and standardized, many aspects of weaving have remained unchanged to this day.  Others have not.  See my Structure and Design page to find out more.


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Text ©1997-2013 Tracy Davis