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CARPETS. The weaving of carpets is one of the most distinctive and characteristic of Islamic art forms, whether manifested in the more familiar pile carpets or the various flat-woven types. Found in a “rug belt” characterized for the most part by a dry and temperate climate, an abundance of marginal grazing land, and nomadic or seminomadic pastoral traditions, the heavy textiles we know as rugs or carpets are woven from Morocco to northern India and western China. Carpets were traditionally woven by and for all levels of Islamic society: court carpets were unique creations made to special order for the palace; commercial carpets were woven for sale in urban workshops; village and nomadic carpets served various domestic needs of their makers and were also made and sold as a source of cash. Because of their social embeddedness, carpets are among the most traditional and unchanging of Islamic art forms; yet because of their popularity in urban and Western markets, carpets are also paradoxically one of the traditional Islamic art forms most subject to influence from outside Islamic society. By the early nineteenth century, the four most important traditions of Islamic carpet weaving were those of Anatolia, Iran, Transcaucasia, and Turkic Central Asia.

Iranian carpet shop pic.courtesy:Irane7000saale.com

Anatolia. The carpets woven in the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, constitute the tradition of Islamic carpet-weaving that can be most continually documented since the fourteenth century. Woven in large part for export, by the beginning of the nineteenth century Anatolian carpet production was in decline owing to a shrinking market in Europe. Many local village and nomadic traditions of weaving, largely immune to outside economic pressure, had continued in virtually unbroken form for centuries, but commercial manufactories in west Anatolia in centers such as Ushak were moribund or began to produce machine-made goods in the Western taste for foreign markets. Gradually, in response to growing European and American demand, Anatolian handwoven carpet production increased over the century, largely under a piecework system but also, in the case of larger carpets, in urban weaving factories. Demand for the more traditional village carpets also increased during this century, and the carpets associated with the areas of Milas, Bergama, and the northwestern Anatolian coast, as well as with Mujur, Karapinar, Kirshehir, and Ladik in the west-central Anatolian plain, were produced in ever-increasing numbers. New commercial centers of manufacture, notably in urban Kayseri in central Anatolia, Bandirma in the northwest, and the areas around Gordes and Kula in the west, used the piecework system for the weaving of small seccade (Ar., sajjddah) or prayer-sized carpets (around I by 1.5 meters) for foreign markets; the designs and colors of their products, while reliant on traditional motifs, reflected the demands of the marketplace more than did those of the traditional village carpets. In 1843, the Hereke factory on the Marmara near Istanbul was founded by imperial decree, and in 1891 began producing pile carpets in a variety of traditional and persianized designs. Sometime after 186o commercial aniline dyestuffs from central Europe flooded Anatolia and quickly replaced the more laborious traditional methods of dyeing wool with vegetal dyestuffs and imported natural indigo. The aniline dyes blighted several generations of Anatolian carpets whose faded purples, jarring oranges, and fugitive reds continued well into the twentieth century, when they were sometimes replaced by harsh but permanent commercial chromium dyes. Another innovation of the later nineteenth century was the introduction of the commercial “wash” process, by which the naturally brilliant hues of traditional carpets were chemically muted or altered. Even the products of village and nomadic weaving in Turkey were often affected by these technical innovations, since the dyeing of wool was often a specialized process done in larger towns, and the weaver had no control over the alteration of a carpet’s color once it had been purchased by a middleman.

The fortunes of Anatolian carpet-weaving waxed and waned with taste and economy in the twentieth century. The Turkish war of independence resulted in massive population dislocations around traditional rug-weaving centers in west and central Anatolia; new immigrants, refugees from political turmoil in Transcaucasia and the Balkans, resettled in Anatolia, often bringing their own carpet-weaving traditions with them. The growth of serious carpet-collecting in Europe in the late nineteenth century and the establishment of the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum in Istanbul in 1908 helped keep alive respect for the great traditions of early nineteenth-century weaving with their strong historical roots. But by the 1960s, most new carpets woven in Turkey were pale shadows of their historical forebears, and the fashion for broadloom carpets in the West had significantly reduced exports.

In the 1970s, an explosion in European collectors’ interest in Turkish carpets resulted in skyrocketing prices for old carpets and in attempts by contemporary Turkish carpet-weavers to cater to the growing sophistication in European taste. A remarkable revival of traditional dyeing methods and a concomitant return to traditional carpet designs reflecting examples found in museums were supported by the growth of government-sponsored cooperatives such as the DOBAG project (see figure 2), centered in two traditional west Anatolian weaving areas and soon joined by a host of free-market imitators.

Turkish and foreign scholarship produced a flood of books on traditional carpet-weaving; major American and European museums mounted exhibitions of Turkish carpets; and in Istanbul two new museums devoted to pile and flat-woven carpets were opened by the Directorate of Pious Foundations. By the early 1990s the Turkish carpet industry was producing carpets of markedly improved quality in record quantities.

Transcaucasia. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century carpets from the Caucasus find their design roots in the seventeenth century and later, in the large commercial carpets of the south and east Caucasus derived from earlier Persian examples. Local traditions of village weaving seem to have endured through the nineteenth century, resulting in a limited production of small carpets in traditional designs, but the middle to later nineteenth century saw an explosion in production, primarily of seccade-sized rugs and other small formats. These small carpets, produced in various locales in widely varying knot density and designs, pose special problems for the carpet historian because of the patchwork of nationalities inhabiting Transcaucasia. Documentary sources indicate that the majority of the weavers were Muslims, while the functions of dyeing and marketing and a good deal of local patronage came from the prosperous Armenian communities in the south Caucasus. Around I9oo production seems to have reached its zenith; Caucasian rugs were inexpensive, they were much in vogue in New England, and they were marketed both in their original colors and in chemically washed versions. Some locales used aniline dyes extensively in their weaving, but others appear to have been virtually untouched by the aniline blight. Nineteenth-century Caucasian rugs became a serious interest of collectors in Britain and the United States around I9oo, reaching the latter in vast quantities and marketed by a burgeoning community of immigrant Armenian rug dealers around the country.

After the sovietization of Transcaucasia in the early I92os, a renewed production of Caucasian carpets in traditional designs was begun under the export-oriented New Economic Policy of the Soviets. These carpets, of high technical quality and woven in impeccably authentic nineteenth-century designs, are as popular among many contemporary collectors as their forebears, despite their use of somewhat harsh and metallic chromium dyes. By the late I92os, however, carpet production in the Caucasus was in deep decline, and export markets for Soviet goods in the West dried up. By the late twentieth century there was little new carpet production of consequence emerging from the Caucasus, although the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a flood of older goods reaching Middle Eastern and European markets. The national governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have recently promoted the study of older carpets, and museums of carpet history and institutes for carpet design and production exist in both states.

Iran. The mid-eighteenth-century Afghan invasion that brought an end to the Safavid dynasty in Iran also brought about a collapse in the Iranian economy that the emerging nineteenth-century provincial dynasties were unable completely to overcome. The glorious past traditions of urban weaving in Iran were by the middle of the nineteenth century largely in decline, although various village and nomadic weavers continued to produce carpets for their own use. In the later nineteenth century, however, simultaneous with the revival of weaving in Anatolia and Transcaucasia, Iran experienced a remarkable revival in carpet-making that once again brought the Iranian weaving tradition to international prominence. By 1880 merchants from Tabriz, later joined by foreign entrepreneurs, brought about a renaissance in urban rug-weaving in Iran. By adapting the Iranian traditions of weaving large, regularly woven, intricately designed carpets-whose many-plied cotton warps and carefully supervised production made them lie flat and square-to new sizes suitable for the proportions of European and American middleclass living and dining rooms, hallways, foyers, parlors, and bedrooms, the new entrepreneurs quickly created a huge market for Iranian carpets. Companies such as OCM (Oriental Carpet Manufacturers) and Ziegler, based in Britain, controlled urban weaving factories in many Iranian cities and sometimes operated their own design ateliers. Looms were constructed and placed through the piecework system in urban and village homes around the country, and local design workshops produced distinctive regional designs of varying quality. By the early twentieth century the urban looms of Kashan, Tabriz, Kerman, and Mashhad were producing finely woven carpets with intricate designs, while distinctive local products were woven all over the country, with major centers in the Kurdish areas of Bijar and Sanadaj (Sehna), in the Arak district (home of Feraghan and Sarouk carpets), and in Iranian Azerbaijan (site of Heriz and Serab weavings). Stringent government action to discourage the use of aniline dyes was effective in many parts of Iran, although the process of color alteration through “washing” was commonly used in European marketing centers; another phenomenon known as “washing and painting” resulted in the bleaching out of a rug’s original colors and the substitution of chromium dyes “painted” on the rug in an entirely different palette. Between the World Wars carpet-weaving in Iran slackened, but after World War II new centers for the production of extremely fine rugs woven in traditional sixteenthand seventeenth-century designs were established in Isfahan, Qom, and Nayyin (see figure 3). The Pahlavi regime promoted rug-weaving not so much for economic reasons as for its symbolic importance as a national cultural achievement; in the early 1970s a Carpet Museum was established in Tehran. In the meantime, a growing interest on the part of western collectors in traditional village nomadic weaving from Iran resulted in attempts to produce modern carpets in Yalameh and Ardebil that reflected these traditions of design.

The flight of many carpet merchants and their inventories prior to 1978, the large stockpiles of Iranian rugs in the warehouses of the great European companies, and a porous Iran-Turkey border kept Iranian rugs in Western markets during trade embargo following the Iranian revolution, without much benefit to Iranian weavers or merchants. By the early 1990s, the Iranian government decided to sponsor new efforts to expand carpet exports and invited foreign collectors and dealers to an international conference and trade fair in Tehran in 1992, but the Iranian carpet industry faced serious competition from Iranian-style carpets produced in India, Turkey, Pakistan, China, and Rumania; traditional village and nomadic weaving, meanwhile, had undergone a great decline after the revolution.

Central Asia. The Turkmen peoples of Central Asia have probably woven carpets for well over a millennium, but these carpets appear to have been produced almost entirely for their own consumption; thus examples of Turkmen weaving from before 1800 are both rare and difficult to date precisely. In the early nineteenth century the six major Turkmen rug-weaving tribes-the Salor, Saryk, Yomut, Chaudor, Tekke, and Ersari-saw chaotic change with the expansion of the Russian empire, turmoil in Afghanistan and Iran, and intertribal warfare in Central Asia. The Salor and Saryk tribes were eventually overcome by the more warlike Tekke before the latter were defeated by the Russians in the battle of Gok Tepe in 1881. Traditional Turkmen tribal carpets woven before the middle of the nineteenth century are distinguished by designs and techniques peculiar to each tribe and subtribe and by a variety of genres, including pentagonal camel-trappings, tentbands, and utilitarian bags peculiar to the nomadic weaving traditions; the predominant dyestuff used in these carpets was madder, giving a variety of reds and red-browns from scarlet to mahogany.

Because of their relative isolation from the forces of modernity and their geographical remoteness from Western markets, Turkmen weavers managed to preserve their traditional weaving practices through most of the nineteenth century, although aniline dyes had made their way into Central Asia by the last two decades of the century. The ascendance of the Tekke resulted in the subordination of the older traditions of the Salor and Saryk; the northern Ersari, who were settled in villages along the Oxus by the nineteenth century, were influenced by the weaving of Iran to the south. At the end of the nineteenth century the opening of a Russian railway into Bukhara led to the first significant appearance of Turkmen rugs in European markets, not surprisingly

under the misnomer “Bukhara carpets.” Production of carpets continued after sovietization of the Turkmen and Uzbek republics, but with the forced settlement of the formerly nomadic tribes, the many genres of weaving associated with the nomadic tent and tribal festivities quickly disappeared to be replaced by rectangular floor carpets for export made with brilliant and sometimes jarring chromium dyes. Weaving continued on a reduced level of quantity and quality under the Soviets; the reproduction of traditional Turkmen designs in cheap cotton-warped factory rugs made in Pakistan, coupled with the preference of collectors for the older carpets, contributed to the decline of Turkmen weaving by the late twentieth century.

Carpets and Culture. As Islamic nation-states attempt to find living expressions of their cultural identity, as Western museums and collectors expand their notions of what art is and what constitutes the legitimate subject of a collector’s interest, and as an eclectic and historically aware aesthetic of interior decoration flourishes in the late twentieth century, many parts of the Islamic world are witnessing an increase in rug production, against all predictions made in the early 1970s by historians of carpets. The economic needs of oil-poor third-world Islamic nations, the rising appreciation of Islamic art in the West, and most of all a rising appreciation of national cultural traditions in the Islamic world itself have fueled this phenomenon. How long it will last in the face of economic and social change is still a matter for speculation.


Bruggemann, Werner, and Harold Bohmer. Rugs of the Peasants and Nomads of Anatolia. Munich, 1983. Exhibition catalog with an extensive discussion of more recent Anatolian rug weaving, and a chapter on the reintroduction of traditional dyestuffs.

Denny, Walter B. Oriental Rugs. New York, 1979. General introduction to the history and major groups of Islamic carpets.

Eiland, Murray. Oriental Rugs: A Comprehensive Guide. Rev. and exp. ed. Boston, 1976. General rug manual with extensive information on nineteenth- and twentieth-century production in the major Islamic weaving areas.

Eiland, Murray. Chinese and Exotic Rugs. Boston, 1979. Companion volume to the same author’s Oriental Rugs; covers peripheral weaving areas from Morocco to China.

Hillmann, Michael C. Persian Carpets. Austin, 1984. Discussion of later and contemporary Iranian carpets.

Landreau, Anthony, ed. Yoruk: The Nomadic Weaving Tradition of the Middle East. Pittsburgh, 1978. Exhibition catalog dealing with nineteenth- and twentieth-century nomadic carpets.

Landreau, Anthony, and W. R. Pickering. From the Bosporus to Samarkand: Flat-Woven Rugs. Washington, D.C., 1969. Exhibition catalog focusing on carpets in the various flat-woven techniques. Mackie, Louise W., and Jon Thompson, eds. Turkmen: Tribal Carpets and Traditions. Washington, D.C., 198o. Exhibition catalog, with important contributions by leading scholars on the history, context, and weaving of Turkmen carpets.

Thompson, Jon. Oriental Carpets from the Tents, Cottages, and Workshops of Asia. New York, 1988. Fine general introduction to the medium of carpets and their place in traditional and modern IsIamic culture.

Wright, Richard. Rugs and Flatweaves of the Transcaucasus. Pittsburgh, 198o. Exhibition catalog with commentary on nineteenth and twentieth-century Caucasian carpets by the leading authority in the field.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/carpets/

  • writerPosted On: November 4, 2012
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