Armenian carpets

Seeing carpets woven in Armenia makes you stop, stare and wonder. They are beautiful, they are precise, they are pumped with symbolism and you just pick up those centuries of melting pots of cultures all incorporated into making these carpets. They have always been a strong and colourful people so filled with creativity that news of their creations travelled far and wide. Their land is also very strategic in that it was part of the Silk Road and many mighty empires wanted to own this land and many did. The Armenians were not just known for their creativity but also their extraordinary business savvy and skills. They were great merchants and great politicians too so they generally held prominent positions in many eras for many different kings. They played the middle man and buffer for many warring empires and ensured that commerce continued despite “outside appearances”.

Looking into their history and origins you find that the Armenians have a very old history, in fact so old that it goes right back to Noah. Mount Ararat on which the ark landed with Noah and his family and all the animals, is inside the borders of Armenia and the Armenians claim to be descendants from Noah’s son Shem through Hayk the Great, legendary founder of the Armenian nation and killer of Nimrod, the builder of the biblical Tower of Babel. The earliest recording of them is in 13th century BC Akkadian writings in which they are called Urartians, deriving from Urartu – the Akkadian name for Ararat. They were a league of tribes living in close vicinity of each other in the land later called Nairi and at the time they worshipped Khaldi as their supreme deity whose wife Arubani was the goddess of fertility and creativity. No doubt their skills in weaving was attributed to her teachings. Khaldi is depicted standing on top of a lion, a theme that is reflected in many of the old religions of the time, and would even end up in the west and Britain with many knights depicted in the same way.

Modern day Armenia is situated in the highlands surrounding Mount Ararat and recent excavations resulted in the finding of the oldest known leather shoe, skirt and the world's oldest wine-producing facility, all dating to around 4,000 BC, which attest to their long and powerful creative and commercial past. Besides this some carpet fragments dating to around the 7th century BC have also been found making many experts believe that they were the first carpet weavers in the world. Although a more complete rug have not been found from those times, some experts now also believe that the world’s oldest surviving carpet dating to the 3rd century BC, the Pazyryk carpet, was woven by Armenians. Firstly because the knots used is the Armenian double knot, secondly because the red filaments colour was made from Armenian cochineal and thirdly because depiction of the Armenian delegation in murals at Persepolis show the same horse relief as is found on the Pazyryk carpet. Even the historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC that the inhabitants of the Caucasus wove beautiful rugs with brilliant colours which would never fade, a theme that was continued by Arab, Persian and Italian historians, travellers and writers throughout the ages. They were well known for their skills in producing dyed wool of which purple was one of their signatures.

For Armenians weaving carpets and textiles is a family affair, only during the time that Armenia formed part of the Soviet Union did the weaving industry become commercialized for a while. Their carpets have always, since the beginning of time, reflected the objects and symbols that were important and holy to them. The eagle -, serpent and dragon carpets all attest to the Armenian Neopaganism before they converted to Zoroastriasm, the Persian religion introduced during the Achaemenid Era when Armenia formed part of the Media satrapy. Christianity spread into the country as early as 40 AD and Tiridates III of Armenia made Christianity the state religion in 301 AD, partly in defiance of the Sasanian Empire some believe. Again, their carpets were changed to incorporate Christian symbolism and in fact certain carpets to this day are believed to reflect the blue print of the Armenian Church designs as well as other obvious Christian symbols.

The term carpet comes from the Armenian word “kapert” formed from the root “kap” which means knot in Armenian. Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, a Florentine merchant stationed in Cyprus, reported in his La pratica della mercatura that from 1274 to 1330, carpets (kaperts) were imported from the Armenian cities of Ayas and Sis to Florence, but the word was used even earlier in the 5th-century Armenian translation of the Bible (Matthew 9:16 and Mark 2:21). Innumerable Armenian carpets flowed everywhere from East to West through the Silk Road, but during the time of the Ottoman Empire they were all labelled “Turkish carpets” which has since been rectified by the tireless work of many carpet experts through the last century. Some scholars believe that the famous Ottoman prayer rugs can also mostly be attributed to the Armenian weavers. Even though they were woven for prayer practices of Sunni Muslims, the Armenian carpet weavers were already skilled in weaving church architecture into their carpets by the start of Islam and could therefore easily change their own designs to reflect the mihrab (the niche facing Mecca) in mosques. This also attests to the good relations Armenians had with the diverse cultures that formed their neighbours and the trust placed in them.

Persians and the Armenians have always shared a very special relationship because Armenia formed part of Persia for most of its history. During the wars between the Ottoman Empire and Persia, Armenia was divided into Western Armenia ruled by the Ottomans and Eastern Armenia ruled by the Persians. Shah Abbas during the Safavid Dynasty forcefully relocated Armenians from Eastern Armenia to New Julfa in Isfahan. Bourvari, a collection of villages in Khomein, is another area mainly populated by Armenians who suffered Shah Abbas’ scorched earth policy of Eastern Armenia. This is a strong indicator of just how important the Armenians were to the Persians that they didn’t want to risk losing these skilled people to the Ottomans. Their contribution to Iranian arts, crafts, commerce and politics have been invaluable and they are regarded as the most influential religious minority in Iran, being Christians, and the oldest Armenian churches are situated in the Iran. They are well known for their unique carpet weaving of which Khomein and Viss carpets are probably the most well-known. Besides the living areas mentioned, the Armenians in Iran also have a long history of living in Chaharmahal Bakhtiari where they have also developed a special style of carpet called Armani Baf. Another Armenian city in Iran famous for its carpets is Khoy and its’ neighbouring villages.

"The complex history of Armenian weaving and needlework was acted out in the Near East, a vast, ancient, and ethnically diverse region. Few are the people who, like the Armenians, can boast of a continuous and consistent record of fine textile production from the 1st millennium BC to the present. Armenians today are blessed by the diversity and richness of a textile heritage passed on by thirty centuries of diligent practice; yet they are burdened by the pressure to keep alive a tradition nearly destroyed in the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and subverted by a technology that condemns handmade fabrics to museums and lets machines produce perfect, but lifeless cloth".