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Reading The Pictures of Rug

Reading The Pictures of Rug

By: Bruce ShabahangComments: 0

Rugs Pattern and color are central to the life of the weavers. They work instinctively, unconsciously drawing on traditions passed by word of mouth, relying on their naturally good taste to produce rugs of tremendous beauty.

The colors they use and the patterns they weave are part of the heritage of their tribes and communities. But weaving is a living art, and each carpet reveals as much about the character of the person who made it as it does about the conventions of the craft.

The nomads live day to day, their movements controlled only by the search for fresh pasture. They do not plan their lives and, similarly, they do not plan their rugs. The size of a rug is decided arbitrarily, limited by the size of the loom which can be conveniently transported during migration Patterns are woven on impulse; there is no overall plan, the rug simply evolves. It is finished when it has reached the maximum length allowed by the loom, or when the wool runs out. As a result patterns are sometimes terminated quite abruptly. Often this idiosyncrasy adds to the charm (and value) of a tribal rug, though in extreme cases it can result in a strangely unbalanced piece.

City weavers, in contrast, are part of a society that includes great architects and philosophers. There is nothing haphazard about the way they work. Everything is planned in advance so that as the weaver ties her first row of knots, she knows exactly what the finished product will look like. Yet, as we have seen, both sets of weavers use the same technique, are aware of the same color symbolism, and even have some design elements in common.

The ancient skill of weaving carries with it a whole weight Of associated symbolism and imagery, but this is largely the province of the Western scholar. To the Persian weaver, these are simply the patterns they have always worked with. If asked the origin of a motif they will explain it in simple terms, with names such as the 'earring or the 'tree pattern'. These are merely a pictorial description and have little to do with the original significance of design.

Persian Rug

Attempts to unravel symbolic meaning are hampered by lack of documentation since the history of carpet weaving is an oral tradition.

Considering the many thousands of different types of rug produced in Persia, there are surprisingly few basic pattern elements, although each motif will be interpreted in a slightly different way by every weaving tribe.

The most common pattern is the Herati. The basic structure of this design is always recognizable in its many variations - a central rosette enclosed in a diamond, with two smaller rosettes at the four corners and an elongated leaf with serrated edges along each side.

The motif is also called the Mari (fish) design. This could mean that the leaves' in fact represent stylized fish. Indeed, there is an ancient legend which says that at the time of the full moon the fish of the lakes rise to the surface to admire their reflection - suggesting that Herati is in fact a neat pictorial motif. Whatever its origins, it appears frequently in rugs from all over Persia.

Other common patterns are the "Gol"  Persian for 'flower' which is a stylized octagonal flower, possibly a rose, and the Boteh.

Persian Rug

This is familiar to Westerners as the basic element of the Paisley pattern. It has been variously interpreted as a droplet of water, a stylized almond or a palmetto leaf. Boteh means 'leaf' motif and this adds weight to the latter interpretation. Historically, the palmette leaf was dried and used as a sort of paper for inscribing prayers on which would explain its frequent inclusion in prayer rugs, and many other carpet designs. The rose is a symbol of the Persian philosophy of life - like life, the rose is beautiful but full of the and once cut eventually withers and dies, mirroring the transience of life. This symbol is particularly popular in rugs from Kashan and Tabriz in Iran, the Karabagh rugs of Russia, and the Savonneries and Aubussons of France.


The palmette is another classical decorative design. Scholars believe it represents the opium poppy which was cultivated, used and abused in Persia from the earliest times. For obvious reasons, it was traditionally associated with transcendental meditation and mysticism.

In Islamic culture, there is not the same distinction between artistic and religious life as there is in the West today. Carpets were, and are, aids to contemplation, even if not specifically prayer rugs, and many designs do have a religious significance.

The prayer rug is one of the most famous Islamic designs and it has enduring popularity with all weavers, from the simple nomadic tribes to the largest city factories. It is, in fact, a very functional item. Every practicing Muslim must kneel to pray on the clean ground five times a day. In any Muslim country at the prescribed times the streets, shops, and houses are filled with a man laying down their prayer rugs in the direction of Mecca to do homage to the prophet Mohammed.

A prayer rug is instantly recognizable by the Mihrab, or prayer arch which is its dominant motif, echoing the architecture of the mosques. The shape of the arch is an indication of the weaver's skill. In tribal rugs, it is represented simply: two linear columns rise from the base of the rug and then either indent to form a small rectangle at the top or else slope diagonally inwards to a point. In city rugs the arch is often highly refined, curving in elegant arabesques to its apex. In some rugs a lantern hangs from its center, suspended by a long chain, and this too echoes the lamps which hang from the ceilings of the mosques. Prayer rugs are particularly popular among the town weavers of Tabriz, Kashan, Esfahan, and Qum.

Qum Rug

Sometimes a pair of hands is woven into the design on either de of the arch. Opinions as to the significance of this motif vary.

e say it is simply a guide for the worshipper to position himself n the rug. Others argue that the five fingers of the hand represent live members of the prophet's family - Mohammed himself, his and son-in-law Ali, his daughter Fatima, and their two sons iacan and Hosein. The motif is often described more simply as The Hand of Fatima' and is thought to have talismanic and protective powers. A rake-shaped comb may also be included in the lan. This often indicates that the rug was woven for a poor but pious man since cleanliness is one of the foremost Muslim virtues.

Though most Persian prayer rugs are decorated with a single mihrab, some have a number arranged across their width. These multiple prayer rugs are sometimes woven either for family prayers or for mosques and are much more common in Turkey than in Iran.

It is obvious from the smallness of the arches on many such rugs, however, that they were not intended for ritual use; in these instances, the design is often purely decorative and was intended to be displayed on a wall. Rugs with multiple arches are called safs.

The mihrab is also used on larger carpets to represent the gate of a house, and hence a welcome to visitors. Traditionally, Persian homes often had a window of this shape in the living room overlooking a garden, therefore on these carpets flowers often flourish under the arch. These rugs were often hung on the wall to create an extra 'window' and garden.

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There are two simple ways of telling whether a mihrab design rug was for prayer or secular enjoyment. The first clue is the size of the rug-prayer rugs are always small, so they can be easily carried around by the devout. The second clue lies in the pattern: if there are birds in the design it will be intended as decoration for the home; no pious man would kneel on a bird to prav!

Prayer rugs are popular among the town weavers of Mashhad, Afghan, and Balouch. Floral prayer-style rugs are often woven in Esfahan, Qum, and Tabriz.

Another popular religious design, sometimes incorporated with the prayer arch on one rug, is the Tree of Life.

ancient symbol common to many religions, including the Christian faith. For the Muslims, living in landed where water is in supply, the Tree of Life is a symbol of Paradise: the Koran pre The Faithful an eternal life passed in green and leafy gardens. It is also a symbolic representation of the man himself, standing upright, rooted in the earth but growing towards heaven.

Once again, the design is common to both tribal and city rugs.

In its simplest form, the tree comprises one straight vertical line representing the trunk, with a series of short horizontal lines for branches. In city rugs, it is often highly elaborate and realistically drawn, sometimes placed in a garden of flowing streams and flowering plants where small animals and birds shelter. The towns of Esfahan, Qum, and Tabriz are famous for their life-like tree patterns.

In some rugs, two trees stand side by side, with their branches entwined. These are woven to celebrate a wedding, and the

significant inclusion of birds' nests in the branches can be inter pretend without the need for scholarly research! The kind of tree is also symbolic: the weeping willow stands for sorrow and death, while the cypress indicates everlasting life.

The Vase of Immortality' design has similar symbolic signify cancer, and it too is sometimes placed beneath the mihrab on a prayer rug. The vase is traditionally shaped like a Greek urn, filled with flowers. This design is popular with city weavers and can be very realistically interpreted, spreading to fill the whole field of the rug. A variation on this pattern is the Vase' carpet, in which small, flower-filled vases cover the entire field of a rug in a continuous interconnecting pattern.


The Medallion's design is apparently abstract in origin. Yet it too has great religious significance. The center point of the medallion is said to represent the all-seeing eye of God. Some say its pattern is based on the lotus flower, which has always been regarded as a sacred symbol since it grows in the mud but turns its wonderful blossom to the heavens. However, it is most likely that this design derives from the ceilings of the mosques. In the reign of Shah Abbas I, the finest decorators were chosen to create mosques of unrivaled beauty as a homage to God. It was they who decided that everything should match, and rugs are woven to mirror the ceilings (French weavers later adopted this idea when they wove for the great palaces). In some rugs a quarter of the central medallion is repeated in each corner, creating a harmoniously balanced design and a sense of continuity.

A variation on the basic pattern is the Teardrop Medallion', in which the central, elongated sphere is finished at top and bottom with additional ellipses, thought to symbolize God's tears. This design first appeared during the Safavid dynasty of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when court artists were encouraged to apply their skills to a number of different artistic forms. As a result, this elegant design appears not only on carpets but also on embossed leather book-covers, in particular the Koran. Western editions of the Islamic holy book habitually repeat the pattern.

Occasionally the weaver would sign his work, particularly if he was an acknowledged master of the craft. These signatures are usually placed on the upper short side of the rug in the middle of the lower border. If the script is on the upper edge of a picture rug it is usually the name of the person portrayed. If it is on the lower end, whether the design is abstract or pictorial, it is usually the name of the person who commissioned the piece. These 'rules of thumb', however, apply only to twentieth-century rugs from the major weaving cities. On older examples and on tribal pieces, the inscriptions almost always appear at the top, as is the case with all Bakhtiari rugs and carpets. On some rugs, including examples made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, verses of poetry or, in the case of prayer rugs, inscriptions from the Koran, will appear in cartouches (decorative frames) all around the borders.

Historically, very few master weavers signed their work.

Firstly, they didn't want their name to be placed on the floor and walked on! Secondly, such was their pride in the originality of their work that they felt it should be instantly recognizable without the need of a signature. This century, however, has seen an increase in the number of signed rugs, a change entirely due to the influence of the Western market. As weavers realized the importance of overseas buyers, they became keen that their names be known abroad.

In addition, they were satisfying the Western buyers who were more attuned to painted works of art, where a signature was of paramount importance in deciding the value of a piece,

However, it is important to remember that, since any name can be woven into any rug, advice should be taken from an expert when buying a signed rug. Some carpet repairs will even weave a famous name into an existing rug, charging about £150 for the forgery. Therefore, a reputable dealer is of paramount importance if expensive mistakes are to be avoided. It should also be borne in mind the quality will show itself whether a piece is signed or not a fine rug does not need a signature to be valuable.

Inscriptions are usually in the Nastaliq script. This is an early form of Arabic writing, and its beautiful, flowing lines complement - and may even have influenced - the swirling arabesques which are so popular in city designs.

Verses from the Koran in cartouches are incorporated in many different designs according to the taste of the weaver. These appear either at the top of a one-way design or placed within the borders.

Occasionally weavers also included dates, poetry, or a dedication to the individual for whom they were making the rug. While signatures and dates can add to the interest of a rug, it is unwise to attach too much significance to them. It is not unheard of for illiterate weavers to copy these details along with the design from a classical rug. It is also, of course, possible that the date is a fake to increase the price of a carpet though any good dealer should spot the forgery, and would not risk his reputation by trying to fool his customers.

Religion has always been a very important part of life in Persia, and the teachings of the Koran have held sway. According to the Koran, no one but God can achieve perfection. In deference to this teaching, devout Muslims will sometimes include a deliberate mistake in their work, though it is not always easy to spot. It may only be that one tiny petal of a flower is colored differently from the rest but the mistake, if you look hard enough, will often be there.

Particularly in the early Islamic days of carpet weaving, the teachings of the Koran had a profound influence on the designs which could be woven. Since the Koran forbids any artistic representation sensation of living creatures, patterns were limited to stylized Flori and abstract designs. However, such religious strictures tended not to be observed by the wealthy and powerful unless they were particularly devout, and many Imperial carpets from the Gold Age of the Safavid and Mughal Emperors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have pictorial designs.

For example, the Shahs of the Safavid dynasty, in their pursuit of creative excellence, revoked this order, and the court carpets were suddenly alive with birds and animals. One of the most popular and enduring themes was the hunt. The importance of horses in a nomadic society is obvious, but for the Persians, they are far more than beasts of burden. It was possibly the Persians who devised the game of Polo, and horses have always been among their foremost possessions. This has manifested itself in carpets in the 'Hunting' design, in which horsemen ride after wild animals brandishing spears.

The large numbers of prey depicted in these carpets are not merely due to artistic exaggeration. Historically, hunts were highly organized affairs, in preparation for which countless small animals were channeled down into narrow valleys which had been blocked at either end. In this way, the hunters were all guaranteed a good catch! Hunting was far more than a pastime, it was considered the only sport worthy of kings. It was in the hunt that man exalted in his virility and skill and displayed his power over animals.

Sometimes a rug shows animals fighting, usually, a lion attack ing its prey in an ancient symbol of good against evil. Some of the most striking animal carpets are tribal rugs depicting a single beast in a bold and abstract interpretation which rivals the most avant-garde of modern art. It is likely that all 'hunting' carpets, whether they show huntsmen as well as a game or just the animals in a more or less stylized floral setting, were intended as symbolic represents of Paradise, where, according to the Koran, such activities are promised to the Faithful.

The distinction between geometric tribal rugs and floral city rugs is clearly delineated. The same designs often co-exist in both communities, but vary in the way they are executed. As a more primitive people, the tribal weavers produce simple, abstract interpretations in which traditional symbolism can be recognized without too much difficulty since it is not hidden behind highly developed artistic conceits.

Since tribal rugs are woven without cartoons, they have less elaborately conceived designs when viewed as a whole, but make great use of individual elements to create wonderfully patterned rugs.

Their view of life is fatalistic, summed up by a line from Omar Khayam - "Tomorrow's tangle to the winds resigns." Anything bad which happened was blamed on the Evil Eye, a malevolent force which could be kept at bay with charming talismans. Blue beads, supposedly a powerful force against evil, were often sewn onto the edges of carpets. Some patterns were believed to have a similar effect.

The hardships of tribal life are often apparent in the motifs included in their carpets. A stylized dog may be worked into the pattern in the hope that this protector of the house will ward off thieves, illness and evil spirits. Similarly, an abstract representation of the tarantula is believed to keep the real thing at bay. Roosters, regarded by many tribes as the embodiment of evil, were believed to be powerful protectors.

Amongst the more positive symbols is the pomegranate, a many-seeded fruit which is a clear symbol of fertility. The inclusion of simple houses and gardens is a poignant reminder of the deep-rooted desire felt by many nomadic people to find a place to settle permanently.

There is a similar impulse towards the comforts of home behind the Persian Garden' design, of which the Spring Carpet of Chosroes is the earliest known example. Gardens have always been tremendously important to both village and town dwellers, living as they do in an arid and often inhospitable land. The writer E.C.

Browne, on a visit to Persia in 1893, commented, "The Persians take the greatest delight in their gardens, and show more pride in exhibiting them to a stranger than in pointing out him the finest building."

In such a dry country, irrigation was the gardeners' foremost concern, so they created rectangular gardens with grids of small streams between the flower beds. Garden carpets follow precisely the same plan. The walls of the garden become the borders, the streams are a grid across the field of the carpet - sometimes they even contain small fish. In the squares between lie plants, trees and animals, and occasionally a house. The Bakhtiari tribe, a nomadic people who could never own a real garden, are particularly fond of this design. They weave every square in a different background color, creating a wonderful patchwork effect. This design is also popular with the weavers of Qum.

Tribal weavers work primarily to furnish their homes. Rugs are only sold when the family needs to raise money for a special occasion, maybe a wedding celebration or the birth of a child, and are therefore woven in patterns that appeal to the people who make them. This usually means that they are very bold and brightly colored, and to the Western eye can appear brash.

Town and city weavers, who make rugs simply to sell in the bazaars, recognized this difference in artistic taste many years ago.

As a result, they modified the colors that they used to make their work more attractive to Western purchasers. Consequently, one town may produce two slightly different styles of carpet, one for sale in the East, the other for the Western market. One such example is the town of Kashan, which produces paler rugs, known as White Kashans, in which the background colors are creamy white, pale blue, or green, rather than the strong colors that are traditional to their work. The patterns, however, are based on those which have been woven for centuries and continue to delight the eye and enhance the home, whether in England or Iran.


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