The history of Persian Carpet -a culmination of artistic magnificence- dates back to 2,500 years ago. The Iranians were among the pioneer carpet weavers of the ancient civilizations, having achieved a superlative degree of perfection through centuries of creativity and ingenuity. The skill of carpet weaving has been handed down by fathers to their sons, who built upon those skills and in turn handed them down to their offspring as a closely guarded family secret. To trace the history of Persian carpet is to follow a path of cultural growth of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen.
From being simple articles of need, floor and entrance coverings to protect the nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp, the increasing beauty of the carpets found them new owners – kings and noblemen, who looked upon them as signs of wealth, prestige and distinction.
Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov in 1949 discovered the oldest known “knotted” carpet in the Pazyryk valley, about 5000 feet up on the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Dating back to the fifth century BCE The Pazyryk carpet is of rare beauty and woven with great technical skill. It was found preserved in the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, which were 2400 to 2500 years old, it is now kept in the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad. Another rug found in the same area, dates back to the first century BCE.
When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC, he was struck by its splendour, and it was probably he who introduced the art of carpet making into Persia. However, historical records show that magnificent carpets adorned the court of Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago. It is also said that the tomb of Cyrus, who was buried at Pasargadae near Persepolis, was covered with precious carpets. Even before his time, it is very likely that Persian nomads knew about the use of Knotted carpets. Their herds of sheep and goats provided them with high quality and durable wool for this purpose.
The first documented evidence on the existence of carpets came from Chinese texts dating back to the Sassanid Dynasty (224 – 641 CE). In 628 CE, the Emperor Heraclius brought back a variety of carpets from the conquest of Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital. The Arabs also conquered Ctesiphon in 637 CE, and among the spoils brought back were said to be many carpets, one of which was the famous garden carpet, the “Spring time of Khosro”. This carpet has passed into history as the most precious of all time. Made during the reign of Khosro I (531 – 579 CE) the carpet was 90 Feet square. The Arab historians’ description is as follows: “The border was a magnificent flower bed of blue, red, white, yellow and green stones; in the background the colour of the earth was imitated with gold; clear stones like crystals gave the illusion of water; the plants were in silk and the fruits were formed by colour stones” However, the Arabs cut this magnificent carpet into many pieces, which were then sold separately.
After the period of domination by the Arab Caliphates, a Turkish tribe, named after their founder, Seljok conquered Persia. Their domination (1038 – 1194 CE) was of great importance in the history of Persian carpets. The Seljuk women were skilful carpet makers using Turkish knots. In the provinces of Azerbaijan and Hamadan where Seljuk influence was strongest and longest lasting, the Turkish knot is used to this day.
In the Turkish (or Ghiordes) knot the yarn is taken twice around two adjacent warp threads and the ends are drawn out between these two threads.
In the Persian (or Sinneh) Knot, the wool thread forms a single turn about the warp thread. One end comes out over this thread and the other over the next warp thread.
The Mongol conquest and control of Persia (1220 – 1449) was initially brutal. However, they soon came under the influence of the Persians. The palace of Tabriz, belonging to the Ilkhan leader, Ghazan Khan (1295 – 1304) had paved floors covered with precious carpets. The Monghol ruler Shah Rokh (1409 – 1446) contributed to the reconstruction of much that was destroyed by the Mongols and encouraged all the artistic activities of the region. However, the carpets in this period were decorated with simple motifs, which were mainly geometric in style.
The Persian carpet reached its zenith during the reign of the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century. Indeed the first concrete proofs of this craft date back to this period. Approximately 1500 examples are preserved in various museums and in private collections worldwide. During the reign of Shah Abbas (1587 – 1629), commerce and crafts prospered in Persia. Shah Abbas encouraged contacts and trade with Europe and transformed his new capital Esfahan, into one of the most glorious cities of Persia. He also created a court workshop for carpets where skilled designers and craftsmen set to work to create splendid specimens. Most of these carpets were made of silk, with gold and silver threads adding even more embellishment. Two of the best know carpets of the Safavid period; dated 1539 come from the mosque of Ardebil. Many experts believe that these carpets represent the culmination of achievement in carpet design. The larger of the two carpets in now kept in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum while the other is displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum.
The court period of the Persian carpet ended with the Afghan invasion in 1722. The Afghans destroyed Esfahan, yet their domination lasted for only a short period and in 1736, a young Chieftain from Khorasan, Nader Khan became the Shah of Persia. Through the whole course of his reign, all the country’s forces were utilized in campaigns against the Afghans, the Turks, and the Russians. During this period, and for several turbulent years after his death in 1747, no carpets of any great value were made, and solely nomads, and craftsmen in small villages continued the tradition of this craft.
In the last quarter of the 19th Century and during the reign of the Qajar rulers trade and craftsmanship regained their importance. Carpet making flourished once more with Tabriz merchants exporting carpets to Europe through Istanbul. At the end of the 19th Century some European and American companies even set up businesses in Persia and organized craft production destined for western markets.