Persian carpet: a crossroads of intricate designs, lavish colors, and peerless artistry

October 25, 2020 - 17:49

For millennia, Iran’s eminent carpets, which are adored for their intricate designs, lavish colors, and matchless craftsmanship, have been produced by hand along the nomad trail across the foothills and high plains of the ancient land.

Weavers, almost all of them women, spend several months in front of a loom, stringing and knotting thousands of threads. Some practice established patterns, some make their own.

It is a scene that seems as ageless, a procedure that can take as long as a year, these efforts have long put Iran’s carpets among the most complex and labor-intensive handicrafts in the world. When the weaving is finally done, the carpet is cut, washed, and put out in the sun to dry.

Over the long course of history, invaders, politicians, and even Iran’s enemies have left their impact on Iran’s carpets. According to Britannica Encyclopedia, little is known about Persian carpet making before the 15th century, when the art was already approaching a peak.

The Mongol invasion of the 13th century had depressed Persia’s artistic life, only partially restored by the renaissance under the Mongol Il-Khan dynasty (1256–1353). Although the conquests of Timur (died 1405) were in most respects disastrous to Persia, he favored artisans and spared them to work on his great palaces in Samarkand.

Under Timur’s successor, Shah Rokh (died 1447), art flourished, including, almost certainly, carpets. Their production exclusively by palace workshops and court-subsidized looms gave them unity of style; and a sensitive clientele and lavish royal support guaranteed perfect materials and the highest skill.

In the 15th century the art of the book, which had long been considered the supreme artistic accomplishment and already had behind it centuries of superb achievement, reached a degree of elegance and sophistication unknown either before or since. The bindings, frontispieces, chapter headings, and, in the miniatures themselves, the canopies, panels, brocades, and carpets that furnished the spaces all received the richest and most elegant patterning. These beautiful designs were appropriated in various degrees by the other arts and account in no small measure for the special character of the court carpets of the period, the variety of color, the ingenuity and imaginative range of pattern schemes, and the superlative draftsmanship that is both lucid and expressive.

Among the products inspired by book illumination were the medallion carpets of northwest Persia, which consist of a large center medallion connected with pendants or cartouches on the long axis and with quarter-section designs of the medallion in the corner areas. First used on ornamental pages and bindings of Persian books, on carpets this arrangement provided an effective center and allowed several layers of designs to overlap because the medallions could cover multiple vine and flower patterns. The depiction of the latter motifs is more relaxed than their medieval rendering, and new motifs (inspired by painting) such as animals, humans, and landscapes began to be worked in.

A special court atelier, possibly located in Tabriz or Soltaniyeh, translated the most gorgeous illuminations into carpets. Among the 12 or so surviving examples are the world’s most famous carpets, each a masterpiece of superb design, majestic size, purity and depth of color, and perfection of detail. The best-known of these are two carpets from the mosque at Ardebil in East Azarbaijan, Iran, dated 1539–40. The better, skillfully restored, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the other, reduced in size, is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

These carpets, in the opinion of many, represent the supreme achievement in the whole field of carpet design. Nonetheless, other royal workshops were also producing many beautiful rugs. Particularly costly silk carpets with figure motifs (such as the silk hunting carpet in Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Art) were probably woven in Kashan, Persia’s silk center. Smaller silk medallion carpets were also made there during the later 16th century, their designs mostly variations of the original medallion system. The court manufacture of Kashan also produced silk carpets with a decidedly royal style.

The distinctive rugs called vase carpets (because of the flower vases in their designs) are generally thought to be from Kerman. The pattern usually consists of several lattice systems with profuse blossoms and foliage.

Later in the 17th century, increasing luxury and wealth demanded the production of so many gold- and silver-threaded carpets that soon they were available in bazaars and exported to Europe, where more than 200 have been found. Some were made in Kashan, but many of the finest came from Isfahan. With their high-keyed fresh colors and opulence, they have affinities with European Renaissance and Baroque idioms.

At the end of the 17th century, nomads and town dwellers were still making carpets using dyes developed over centuries, each group maintaining an authentic tradition. Not made for an impatient Western market, these humbler rugs of the “low school” are frequently beautifully designed and are of good material and technique.

Sheep wool is one of the essential ingredients of the traditional carpets in Iran. Sheep are grazing high up on the mountain pastures and shorn only once a year produce a thick, long wool ideal for the tough thread used in carpet making.

Persian carpets are sought after internationally with the medallion pattern being arguably the most characteristic feature of them all. However, there is tremendous variation in the shapes and sizes of the medallions as well as the way they are used in various rugs. It’s not wrong to say that no two rugs will have the same medallion layout.

Over 5,397,000 tons of Iranian carpets, worth $424.451 million, were exported to over 70 countries with the U.S. standing on top of the importers' list, during the Iranian calendar year 1397 (ended March 20, 2019). Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway as well as Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Ireland were major importers of Iranian carpet.



  • 2020-10-25 20:40
    There are insufficent words in Farci and English to thank Iran for the magnificent carpets that grace so many homes worldwide.. their joy is ever lasting and will be a perpetual gift to nations in the world. Thank you from an American

Leave a Comment

3 + 4 =