The Road that binds

The Silk Road brings visions of mysterious and exotic merchants and travellers from distant lands carrying extraordinary goods on the backs of camels. It was called the Silk Road because the silks of China became the most important commodity for all the trading partners and became the form of payment, however, at a later stage the Sasanid coins became the accepted form of payment. This long winding road has been the source of many fantastical stories and adventures of people from all over the world. To write its’ colourful history would probably take as long as it did to develop this road, but I will do my best to summarize all the influences that melted together to give us such a great memory. Three main players started this incredible road that would eventually connect cultures for centuries to come before the Internet was even a thought.

We start our journey in the region of the Hungarian plains stretching all the way to the Chinese Kansu corridor (8BC to around 600AD) where the highly skilled Scythian warrior tribes lived. One look at the arts and crafts they left behind and it is clear that not only were they extraordinary warriors but they had excellent taste in décor and design! Before melting into various different tribes including the Sogdians, they carved out a road that connected many villages and in so doing they encouraged trade along it. Chinese silks were found in a Scythian burial in Germany dated to 6th BC indicating that the Scythians traded with the Chinese from very early on.

Down South the mighty Achaemenid Empire ruled by Cyrus the Great carved out their own path. The Royal Road stretched 2,857km from Susa to the Port of Smyrna (modern day Izmir) that allowed royal couriers to carry messages the entire distance in only 9 days. This was achieved by having postal stations (the first in the world) and relays at regular intervals where there awaited fresh horses and couriers to continue the journey. The road was maintained and protected by the king. When Alexander the Great took over the Persian Empire he travelled further east and establish his city, Alexandria Eschate, in today’s Xinjiang province of China. His successors went further into Sogdiana and even as far as Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan which led to the first contact between the Chinese and their neighbour. The Royal Road was extended to include these new areas.

At the same time the Chinese Emperor Wu also got his own road after he took it from his enemies, the Hsiung-nu, and hearing about the riches of neighbours outside the borders of China (Ferghana, Bactria and Parthia), his desire to connect his road to their lands became of utmost importance. At this point China already had a “Maritime Silk Road” that connected it to India.Trade between these three commenced and thrived until another very wealthy customer entered the fray. When the Romans annexed Egypt and saw the incredible objects of beauty on offer, a love affair started and I am not just referring to Julius and Cleopatra. The Romans realized just how much more trade along the Silk Road could enrich Rome and once the Roman ladies held silk in their hands, the days of cotton and wool garments were gone! As much as the Roman Senate tried to prohibit them from wearing these see-through silk garments and stop them from sending all their money east, it simply didn’t work! Unfortunately the wealthy Rome fell on hard times around the 5th Century and with it the high demand for Asian products.

With all the inflow of Western money the Sasanid, Sogdian and Chinese Empires flourished and there was no end to the exquisite products they produced. With the acquisition of silks from China the Sasanids and Sogdians were able to make textiles that are still renowned today and the finest, most unbelievable Persian carpet creations known to man.

The Byzantine’s didn’t enjoy very friendly relations with the Sasanids but as the successor of the Eastern Roman Empire its citizens came to rely on the products from the East. The Sasanids controlled its entrance to the Silk Road and didn’t play nice with the threatening Byzantine forces. The Sogdians, being cunning and very diplomatic, cut a deal with the Byzantines to bypass the Sasanids and trade directly with them instead. Even though some Byzantine monks secretly stole some silkworm eggs at one point that gave the Byzantine Empire the monopoly on silk production in Europe, the Chinese silks were still seen as far superior quality and the Byzantines thus continued their trade with the Sogdians.

Rising forces of Islam saw many changes in the mighty world empires at the time and Persia would finally fall into its hands. This saw a massive creative transformation in the arts and Islamic art became the new craze all over, but it also placed a large part of the Silk Road in their hands. At the same time the Tang Dynasty in China managed to finally defeat the ever protruding Tibetan forces, a move that ensured the permanent reopening of the Silk Road in China. This was the start of the Golden Era of the Silk Road as the most important trade route from East to West. The mix of foreign cultures, religions, arts, crafts, wisdom, knowledge, information all made humankind so much richer. The Tang Dynasty also increased their Maritime Silk Road travelling not just to India, but also the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, into Persia, Mesopotamia (sailing up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq), Arabia, Egypt, Aksum (Ethiopia), and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.

As much as the Silk Road contributed to the wealth and well-being of all involved, it also contributed to the opposite. Disease unknown to some parts were brought there from other parts and the Black Death also made its way up the Silk Road resulting in millions of deaths. The well managed and travelled Silk Road also aided many new forces to invade lands, such as the Mongols who established their bases all along the major cities on the road. Yet no matter who the rulers are, the traders kept trading and just adjusted their lives accordingly, after all it didn’t really matter who you had to pay tributes to as long as you get to sell and buy what you need and want.

At some point the Silk Road became more dangerous and treacherous, with bandits robbing traders and travellers and selling them into slavery, and the different empires chose trade at sea for a while resulting in a quieter time along the Silk Road, until the losses at sea became more expensive due to storms and pirating of ships and cargo. Believe it or not it was the camel that saved the Silk Road. Here amongst us is this beast that can walk for days and survive in severe conditions and carry huge amounts of weight. It was the solution to many problems on land and the camel became one of the most important commodities on the Silk Road and its unlikely savior. From the time of using camels until the production of motor cars, the camel remained the preferred mode of transport for merchants in the Middle East along the Silk Road.

When the Ottomans took control of the area the Grand Bazaar in Turkey became the hot spot for Silk Road trade, because here East and West met and wealthy customers and merchants came from all over to meet in this most interesting melting pot of cultures.

“One vivid account comes from a French traveler in 1877, during the last years that the Grand Bazaar could still be seen in its original form. The writer, M. de Gasparin, is an incurable romantic. But there is clearly enough color in the bazaar to spark any imagination:

“An Arab, with his spear in hand, sitting surrounded by the Persian shawls which he brought by his caravans, used to walk after a long row of camels in the desert. Another merchant is from the depths of Central Asia. Another one, with a thin face and pale complexion, has passed the sand and the seaside beaches of Syria on horseback and brought golden colored silk from Lebanon and soft clothes and pleasant scarves from Tyre and Sidon ... Egypt has sent that nearly black-skinned merchant who has brought the heavy cloth of that country, a mixture of silk and wool. This thin-faced bronze, tanned man comes from Morocco, leaning against milk-white threads and lapis blue dresses. Wherever these men may have been, whatever adventures they may have lived and whichever foreign country has injected the traces of other skies into their faces, their brows have lost nothing of their majestic nobility and their meaningful eyes have lost nothing of the depth that comes from authority, self-respect, and self-assurance. These merchants do not call the passers-by to their shops. They do not even have an inviting attitude; one could sense no greed in them, nor any worry in their posture … If a buyer came, ‘Masallah,’ if no one entered their shops, ‘So what?’”

There were rugs from Central Asia, from the Caucasus, from Anatolia. There were rugs smuggled by the tons across the border from Persia, the Ottoman Empire’s great eastern rival. The border was often officially closed but the carpet trade was so lucrative that both sides turned to a third party – their Armenian populations – to act as the go-between for the business and let them freely cross the frontier."

From here goods also flowed to Venice from where it would enter the insatiable European market. It is after all the constant demand for exotic Eastern items that kept the Silk Road and all its merchants, craftsmen, artists and partners going until the Europeans, tired of having to pay constant taxes, found their own way to the East. Then a new way and wave of doing business commenced that completely side-lined the Silk Road and all her partners. It tipped the scales of power into the hands of the West and one can argue that that is still the case. Yet the romantic, the mystical, the magical, the exotic Silk Road culture lives on in the many cultures that still live on it uninfluenced by modern life. We see it in their carpet designs, in their clothing and their art, and it takes us back to that time of wonder.


The Prayer Rug

Prayer rugs have always been highly revered because of the purpose it serves in religious rituals. It is not only providing a clean spot for prayers to be performed, but in its design it also represents the promise of paradise and eternity. The design and colouring always depend on the weavers, their history and symbols that they find important enough to display in their prayer rugs, but all prayer rugs display a niche that represents the niche in a mosque, called the mihrab. The mihrab in a mosque is made in a wall that faces the Kaaba in Mecca and therefore represents the direction in which prayers are to be performed.

Some prayer rugs showcase the actual architecture of the mihrab in specific mosques whereas others are more abstract representations of the idea. The niche on a prayer rug is generally the place where the head is placed and the two spaces next to it, the place where you place your hands when kneeling down in prayer. This allows the participant to visualize the mihrab and in so doing also the Kaaba in Mecca and heaven. Prayer rugs are exclusively woven and used by Sunni Muslims. Muslims practising Shi’ite Islam, like majority Iranians, use prayer stones and their closest representation to a prayer rug would be those with the tree of life design.

What a shock then when some Shi’ite prayer rugs were discovered in the Topkapi Palace treasury. The carpet world came to a standstill. This was an impossibility! The speculation is that at the time that the balance of power fell to the Ottomans during Iran’s Safavid Dynasty, "the Safavid Shah Tahmasp, who reigned for 52 years during this regional warfare, turned to a policy of appeasement instead." He offered gifts to the Ottomans in many forms including carpets. Now it could be that he ordered prayer rugs to be woven in acknowledgement of the practices of the Ottomans, but including Shi’ite prayer inscriptions were either a diplomatic slap to the Ottoman faces or a way to introduce Shi’ite Islam to the predominantly Sunni Ottomans. Whatever the reason, these were the first and last Shi’ite prayer rugs woven as far as is known.

Another shock went through the carpet world when over 400 well preserved Ottoman prayer rugs were discovered in the Gothic Christian churches of Transylvania. How did this happen? What were prayer rugs, exclusively associated with Islam, doing in Christian churches? During the reign of the Ottomans the empire stretched as far as Austria, but not all countries were incorporated into the empire. Some previous Roman satraps remained independent but had to pay tribute to the Ottoman Empire. One such area was Transylvania that remained Christian.

“Organized trade between the Romanian countries and the Ottoman Empire began with Sultan Mehmed II's decree of 1456, granting Moldavian merchants the right to travel to Constantinople for trade. The role of Turkish rugs as trade goods of high value and prestigious collectibles is documented in the merchant accreditations, vigesimal accounts, municipal and church annals as well as individual contracts and wills, archived in the Transylvanian towns. The municipalities and other institutions of the Saxon towns, persons of nobility and public influence, as well as citizens were owners of Ottoman rugs. The towns acquired Turkish rugs either as customs duty paid in like, or purchased rugs from the trade. Rugs were frequently offered to public persons as a gift of honour.

Rugs were used to mark the place of individual persons, or members of a guild, in church. There is also evidence of collections owned by private persons. Contracts specify that the rugs were hung on the walls of private homes for decoration. As such, rugs were used to confirm the social status of the owner, but the reports also confirm that the carpets were perceived as objects of beauty and art. The Transylvanian Saxons referred to them as "Kirchenteppiche" ("church carpets") even though a significant number of the rugs which still are on display in Transylvanian churches show Islamic prayer rug designs.” These prayer rugs are still on display in the Transylvanian churches to this day.

There are mainly four types of prayer rugs identified in the churches: prayer rugs, single niche, double niche and column rugs. The prayer rugs display a single niche but with an empty field in a single colour in the middle field. The single niche has some decorative patterns inside the middle field. The Column rugs are characterized by column motifs supporting an architectural structure, most often an arch. “The Double-niche layout came into being probably because of the edict sent to Kütahya in 1610, under the rule of Sultan Ahmed I, which stated:

We heard that, weavers are producing carpets and seccades in your kazas (townships) depicting mihrab, kabe (Kaaba) and hat (calligraphy) on carpets and seccades and selling them to non-Muslims. Shaykh al-Islam prescribes this is against Islam and forbidden by şeriat.
(Ahmet Refik, Istanbul Hayati (1000 – 1100), Istanbul, doc. 83, pp.43-44 Transl. by Levent Boz, Ankara)

So, producing rugs for export in this format was a way of ostensibly obeying the Edict. When the second niche was added the field pattern had to be adapted. The idea of the double-niche could have been borrowed from small-medallion Ushaks or from book-binding but all the design elements reflect the Single-niche rugs.”

There are some examples of Christian “prayer rugs” too. The central shield-like design in Kazak Sevan rugs is thought by some to relate to the floor plan of Armenian churches. Interestingly the design also represents the Armenian grave stones that are made from a special soil. Historically when the demand in the west for prayer rugs increased a lot of Armenian workshops started producing them since they were also involved in dyeing the wool for these rugs before. This rug establishes the fact that some classic Caucasian designs were woven by Armenians, and it confirms the impression that Armenian rugs were part of the mainstream rug production in the nineteenth century rather than the periphery. There are many rugs woven by Armenians inside and outside of Iran, that include many Christian symbols in the design of their rugs.



Mamluk Carpets

Egypt has produced many wonderful carpets over the years and the most collectible today are the Mamluk carpets. They were not just made in Egypt but also in Syria and Turkey – basically in all the areas that formed part of the Mamluk Sultanate from 1250 – 1517 AD. There are mainly two types of surviving Mamluk carpets: one has a centre medallion and the other a repeated medallion pattern in the inner field.

A brief history of the Mamluks: The Mamluks were a class of slave soldiers used by the Islamic rulers, something that was unique to their rule. This class of slaves were higher than other slave classes and were mostly made up of young boys sold by their families to be trained as soldiers. Due to their many years of training they became fierce and loyal to their owners and because of that were often awarded high positions in the armies and society. The Mamluk Dynasties originated due to political turmoil in Egypt and the Mamluks took over for a time to maintain the status quo. There were two Mamluk Dynasties, one being the Bahri Dynasty (comprising mostly people of Cuman-Kipchak Turkic origin) and the second being Burji Dynasty (comprising mostly people of Circassian origin), both initially originating from the Caucuses. The surviving Mamluk carpets are mostly from the second dynasty.

The first style of Mamluk carpets from Egypt featured significantly in Mediterranean commerce and appear in Venetian paintings as early as the sixteenth century. They are characterized by a central medallion surrounded by a variety of smaller geometric motifs, forming a kaleidoscopic appearance. The palette is limited to red, blue, green, and yellow tones. Documents first refer to Cairo as a center of carpet weaving in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and production continued until the mid-sixteenth century, shortly after the 1517 Ottoman conquest of Egypt. (Photo courtesy of The MAK)

The second style of Mamluk carpets is the Damascus rug, often attributed to Damascus, Syria, in the 16th or 17th century in continuation of the rug art of the Mamlūk rulers of that land. The usual Damascus field pattern is a grid of small squares or rectangles (hence the European term chessboard carpets), each of which includes a hexagon or octagon filled with tiny radial motifs that surround a star interlace. Among the other field patterns that occur is a large one with several medallions. The material is thought to be goat hair throughout. These rugs, like the Mamluk and Ottoman carpets of Egypt, were made with the asymmetrical knot.

Sources & extracts:

Pretty in Paisley

It is quite thrilling to see how the West embraced Eastern designs over the centuries with such verve! The East have had sophisticated designers, artists, musicians and craftsmen far longer than the West so when the two sides started trading the Europeans got to experience these items first hand. During the 15th to the 18th Century untold amounts of European money flowed to the East to acquire these beautiful, often rare and mystical, items. It wasn’t just food and flora, but also carpets, tapestries and textiles that flooded the homes of European royalty and elite.

During the 17th century European artists started mimicking the carpets, tapestries and even textiles, first by hand and later by machine. Even though the Eastern items were always regarded as far better quality, the newly European made items were a good second choice for most. They could mostly copy the designs, but not to the detailed extend of those made in the East, yet as time passed the Europeans improved their weaving to include better quality wool, cotton and silk as well as more colours. Over time the designs became "western" and the stories of their origins lost...

One such design that has been a Western favourite for centuries is Paisley. It was named after the town in Scotland that became most famous for producing exquisite paisley shawls. However, as with most designs, its origins lies east. One thing about the early cultures that populated the East and Middle East is that all their art had a meaning and a reference to their god/s. There is simply no design that does not correspond with a certain religion and the same with paisley.

In Iran it is called the Boteh (teardrop) and according to different accounts the Boteh has various origins. The first and most popular is that it represents the Cypress tree. In Mithraism – one of Iran’s first monotheistic religions – the Cypress tree held a great significance to Mithra. Even in the next religion, Zoroastriasm, the Cypress is regarded as holy and all tree of life motifs in Persian carpets are said to represent this tree. The second origin is that of the fig. When a fig is cut open its resemblance to paisley is uncanny and in Iran the fig is revered for its rejuvenating properties as a fruit as well as in many myths and legends. The third and probably most mystical is that it represents a pregnant womb of a mother. One can argue that the two first mentioned origins all stem from this one. It all comes down to the beautiful cycle of life creation on earth.

So next time you don your paisley shawl, shirt, skirt or jacket know you are wearing a very fashionable design with very mystical origins!

Beshir carpets -- Slave carpets?

As carpet dealers/-collectors/-connoisseurs we just love to connect a carpet to a place or a people. It gives us some insight into how and why rugs are made the way they are and it helps us place a value on it that might be highly influenced by its origins. These days there are more and more antique rugs on the market, than say 200 years ago, and as life goes there are sometimes pieces that we call a certain name, but the origin of it remains a mystery to us, especially when the certain carpets are no longer produced. Nothing thrills us more than to piece the puzzle together bit by bit and eventually reach that “aha” moment where we can say with certainty: THIS IS WHO MADE IT and now the whole pattern and design makes just so much more sense! Through the ages many tribes ceased to exist - either by extinction, integration or genocide; sometimes their place of origin changes and forces them to migrate; all of this has an irrevocable effect on their arts and crafts that changes with them and remain as definite proof of their existence.

One of these carpet groups that is still a bit puzzling in the carpet world is the Beshir carpets. They are called Beshir because it is believed that they were made in a small village next to the Amu Darya river bank that was called Beshir. They are, however, no longer produced and haven’t been for over 100 years, but it is known that they made their way through Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. They are highly collectible and thus they cause much speculation and discussions as to whom could have made them. Not all histories of peoples are written down but the carpets serve as the silent voice of a people that existed and produced them.

The Beshir tribe has been linked to the Ersari Turkmens, but the link doesn’t appear to be that clear. The designs in the Beshir carpets are entirely different from other Turkmen carpets, they used a reddish brown as opposed to the trademark deep red of the Turkmen, their designs were larger and less compact and they wove the carpets with an asymmetrical/Persian knot which opens to the right as opposed to the Turkmen Turkish knot or Persian knot that opens to the left. This is highly unusual. so to satisfy our curiosity we decided to dig deeper and here is what we found.

The Ersari tribes lived in the modern day Balkan province of Turkmenistan up to the around the 17th century when a large majority of them moved eastward, after the drying up of the Uzboy channel. If the Beshir tribe was indeed a member of the larger Ersari tribe, the Balkan province would be a good starting point. Who else lived there and when?

The Balkan province borders Iran so it would be fair to expect some influences flowing upwards and downwards. The earliest mention of a tribe in that region is that of the Turanians 2400 BCE in the Farvardin yashts. The Avesta mentions many old tribes including the Tuiryas (Turanians) as enemies of the Airyas (Aryans, associated with the Iranian people). Two more tribes mentioned as living in the Balkan province are the Sarmatians and the Dahae. Around the 6th century with arrival of Turks in the area the term Turanian and Turkic became interchangeable even though there is no relation between the two.

From around 1800 BC other people called the Andronovo culture started moving westward from Siberia towards the current day Balkan province of Turkmenistan. They were a flourishing society and covered a vast area. After them, from the late 2nd millennium BC, the Scythian tribes, along with Cimmerians, Sarmatians and Alans populated the steppes north of the Black Sea and also formed the Indo-Scythian Empire in the modern day Balkan province. These Scythians is the same tribe that produced the oldest surviving carpet – the Pazyryk carpet – now in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. The Scythians and the Sarmatians would eventually dissolve into the Germanic, Gothic and Proto-Slavic cultures.

From the Achaemenid Era up to the Khwarazmian Dynasty the Balkan province remained part of the Persian Empire (or whatever name it was called at different times). It became the “Khanate of Khiva that existed in the historical region of Khwarezm from 1511 to 1920, except for a period of Afsharid occupation by Nadir Shah between 1740–1746. It covered present western Uzbekistan, southwestern Kazakhstan and much of Turkmenistan before Russian arrival at the second half of the 19th century. The discovery of gold on the banks of the Amu Darya during the reign of Russia's Peter the Great, together with the desire of the Russian Empire to open a trade route to India, prompted an armed trade expedition to the region in 1717-18, led by Prince Alexander Bekovich-Cherkassky and consisting of 750-4,000 men. Upon receiving the men, the Khivan khan, Shir Ghazi, set up camp under the pretence of goodwill, then ambushed and slaughtered the envoys, leaving ten alive to send back.”

It could have been at this time that the Ersari Turkic tribes started migrating eastward. The British and Russians tried many times thereafter to annex the area, but it would ultimately be the Russians who would succeed when they set up a permanent presence from 1848. This could also explain why the Beshir carpets ceased to be produced. The people either moved away or ceased to exist. In 1924 after its last Kungrad Kahn abdicated it was incorporated into the Soviet Union until 1991 when it became Turkmenistan officially. Apart from the empires that occupied the territory there were many influences from the Khalaj, Igdi, Sogdians and Kara Tatars.

Up to now we discussed the historical traces and possible influences in the region, but it still is not enough information to find out who wove the Beshir carpets. Shervin Ghorbany started to investigate this mystery without any predetermined conclusions and with a more forensic approach which led him to the following theory:

1 – Beshir carpets in the beginning, 17th century examples, were woven with a freer, less dense design than its successors. This already gives some clues to Shervin that we are probably dealing with a Persian tribe as opposed to a Turkic tribe of the region.

2 – The more recent Beshir carpets became denser in design and the patterns became smaller, which proves that the carpets became Turkemenized, however, the overall style of the carpet remains Persian and therefore lots of scholars call it Persianized Turkman carpets. There is a big difference in how we look at this category carpet. Shervin looks at it as originally Persian tribal carpets that became Turkemenized versus the general accepted idea that it was Turkman carpets that became Persianite over time.

3 – The colour of the Beshir carpets is vastly different than the rest of the Turkman carpets. In Shervin’s point of view there was someone amongst the weavers with the knowledge on dyeing wool according to Persian custom and/or it was a label for a specific group of people that made these carpets amongst the Turkic tribes. To understand this point you should understand that during history groups of people were often prohibited from using certain colours either in their clothing or art, or they were forced to wear or use certain colours as identification. This usually occurred when they were regarded as an inferior race or class, or oppressed.

4 – Besides the points in No. 3, the majority of the Beshir carpets are wide runners. It looks like the people that made these carpets did not have the freedom or the space to make any other size or shape carpets. It could also indicate that they did not live like the normal Turkman in a tent, because there isn’t even a band carpet (normally used to drape around the nomadic tents) available in the Beshir carpets.

5 – Considering all these points, Shervin is of the opinion that we might be dealing with a tribe that was held captive for many years in the Turkman territories – the current Balkan Province.

6 – According to the history the Tekke Turkman were well known raiders in the Balkan Province, then the Khanate of Khiva, who regularly attacked villages and caravans and would then sell the occupants as slaves in Khiva. Majority of these unlucky traveller/merchants/residents were Persians. There were also some Russian slaves but they were in the minority. The treatment of the Persian slaves are well documented as horrific and inhumane. They were definitely regarded as a lesser class than the general populace in the area.

Could these Persian slaves have been responsible for weaving the Beshir that so closely resembled some Persian designs and colouring, and using the Persian knot (opening to the right)? According to accounts they were kept outside so the Beshir could have been their weaving for their own personal use as carpets to live on, sleep on and eat on; which could explain the fact that the Beshir carpets are mostly wide runners. The Russians and British became very involved in the area with freeing slaves towards the late 19th century which could explain why the Beshir is no longer woven since then. The Persian slaves were freed and they took their secrets with them.
By Shervin & Vanessa Ghorbany


The Attarha House, Kashan

Kashan is a city situated in the Isfahan province of Iran estimated to be between 7,000 and 9,000 years old. It has been known through the ages for its many inhabitants and arts, of which the Iranian tile (called “kashi”), malile (silk fabric) and carpets are the most famous still.

Kashan is also these days favoured as a top tourist destination with many incredible buildings and estate houses built by very influential families during the Qajar Dynasty, most notable is the Tabātabāei House, the Boroujerdi House and the Attarha house. The first two mentioned houses were designed by Ali Maryam, a very famous architect at the time, with some traces of the advice of Saniol Molk and later his nephew, Kamalol Molk, both top painters of the Qajar period. Prior to the Qajar Dynasty and earthquake levelled nearly the entire city and for a good few decades the city was in derelict state until the Qajars decided to rebuild and renew the once bustling economic hub. The mosques, bazaar and many other public buildings in Kashan thus showcase the exquisite architecture of the Qajar Era.

One of the affluent families in Kashan in the late 1800’s to mid-1900’s were the Attarhas. The two Attarha brothers were top merchants of Kashan at the time and were so successful in their endeavours that one of them were given the title of “Malakol Tojar”, translated to King of the Merchants. This brother built an estate home for his family which came to be known as the Attarha House. The family exerted their influence in the business world of the city and was also responsible for commissioning and financing many Persian carpets. One of his sons, Javad, later became the mayor of Kashan and inhabited the family home, together with his wife and four sons, until the Pahlavi Dynasty. At that time the family moved out of the stately home, but it was later occupied again by one of Javad’s sons, possibly Mahsoud, who renovated the home. Later the home was donated to the city of Kashan, like most of the other estate houses, and it became part of the Architecture University of Kashan. Today it is occupied as a study centre of Persian carpets by the Kashan University.

The carpet in our collection of Ahmad Shah, the last king of the Qajar Dynasty, is one of the carpets commissioned by the Attarha brother at the time that he held the title of Malakol Tojar – King of the Merchants. There is a woven inscription stating that the carpet was commissioned by the Attarha Brothers.

Rashti Embroideries

Nestled next to the Caspian Sea, in the Gilan Province of Iran, is the city of Rasht. The city itself is very old and has hosted many tribes from before the Achaemenid Era all of whom are now obsolete due to integration into the greater Persian Empire over the ages.

These days you will find the Gilaki people there and even their origins are quite mysterious because there isn’t a lot of ancient information available on them, apart from the fact that they lived in the mountains and then moved down to the valley over time.

It is thanks to Shah Abbas and a Chinese merchant that Rasht became a flourishing economic hub. The route through Rasht was the “Gateway to the West” and many goods flowed through there. Thus, when the Chinese merchant brought along a silk worm a whole new industry was born, that of silk textiles. Shah Abbas, a very important patron of weaving in the Safavid Era, made Rasht the capital of the Gilan province and promoted the production of silk textiles at a time when Europe and the East were infatuated with each other's goods. Even after becoming economically important in the Eastern-Western trade relations Rasht maintained its’ village feel and look. Some visitors in the 18th century mentioned that, compared to the other big cities in Iran, Rasht appears more as a big village than a city. It had no boundary wall enveloping the city and the bazaar was in the open air, as opposed the undercover bazaars in Iran. The city was surrounded with wetlands, forests, rice paddies, mulberry plantations and silkworm nurseries.

Today the silk textile industry in Rasht is still a large part of life, together with producing rice and caviar – the best in the world according to many connoisseurs. Our Rugdealer’s own maternal great grandfather owned silk factories in Rasht for many years before returning to Tehran. The embroidery in this photo (circa 1900) is an antique Rashti embroidery showcasing the Tree of Life, Vase design and Lion and Sun design and is exclusively available at Ghorbany Carpets and a definite must for any collectors or embroidery lovers.

The Afghan War Rugs

The weavers in Iran, in particular Tabriz, are very well known for their exquisite weaving of picturesque carpets. They can literally weave any picture to perfection! These pieces are beautiful, so fine, so skilfully woven that you just want to hang on your wall and allow it to take your breath away every time you look at it.

A neighbour to Iran that has been part of the Persian Empire for centuries, Afghanistan, also started making picturesque carpets, but theirs are very different in subject. The Afghan weavers are also known for their fine weaving skills, but during the decade of Soviet invasion in the country, their topic of choice became their daily lives and what they observed. Call it a silent witness, call it defiance, call it social media of the day, call it realism art. Whatever you call it, it was their tale to tell through their weaving. Changing from their traditional pattern to the realities of war was their way of coping with what was happening around them and being able to still make a living.

For centuries weavers have known how to weave symbolism into their carpets in disguise during periods of regime or religious changes. Take for instance the all too popular 8 leafed flowers that are found in almost every carpet, this used to be the 8 point star of Mithraism revered as a holy symbol but banned once the Mithraic followers were persecuted. The sickle leaf was once a fish, also a holy Mithraic symbol. So too did the Afghan weavers disguise the objects of war in their carpets.

At first they included gentle representations of bombs, hand grenades, etc. in between their traditional designs. Those who noticed it was not in favour of this display of war in art, because the face of war is never comfortable to look at. But once the historical value of these pieces became apparent, its appeal grew, especially in the West. Soon the subtle designs changed into blunt, truthful “pictures”/mirrors of what the general Afghani populace were experiencing. To put the picture into perspective here: An estimated 2 million Afghan civilian deaths occurred, 5–10 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, 2 million more were displaced within the country.

Firearms, tanks, helicopters, explosions, they were all put on display in the new Afghan rugs. Once the Western market demanded more, maps of Afghanistan and English wording, such as the names of the weaponry and region, were also included. Because many of the weavers are not skilled English speakers the spelling is often wrong and that adds to the specialness of these creations.

After the Russians left there were much internal turmoil in Afghanistan and later when the USA started spreading propaganda for change, after 2001, a new wave of Afghan War Carpets saw the light. This time with pictures of the Twin Towers burning. Again it was not something people wanted to see, but the Afghans used the flyers dropped by the USA as their framework for these carpets. It is difficult to see ourselves reflected back to us, but sometimes we need to look at us as the human collective and what we do to each other. The Afghans have captured their war into their art and so cemented it in time as a reminder to us all.

Pictured here is an Afghan War Rug in the Ghorbany Private Collection

A common thread

In the world of Persian carpets history and geography play a very big role and carpet dealers have knowledge of unwritten history and geography simply based on the carpet designs that survives. It is this knowledge that can make a carpet highly collectible and valuable. The world of carpets is so vast and so old that many stories have gotten lost and many weavers have been forgotten, but the carpet designs survived and still serves as the unwritten record of what happened.

In Iran it is not uncommon to find two villages literally located 5km apart that speak two entirely different languages and weave carpets that are entirely different in design, method and colouring, despite these villages having co-existed for centuries. Yet there is a common thread in carpets woven in the vast “North West”. Even if a carpet dealer cannot pinpoint the exact city/village, the carpets woven in the North West can easily be detected. How can this be in this very distinct business where weavers religiously retain the designs and methods of their ancestors?

Centuries ago as far back as the Achaemenid period of Iran, a satrap existed in the North West that was a province of Media, later called Atropatkan. Its governor Atropates, was a successful noble man and trader. Atropatkan was home to a very diverse community that included Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Persians and Jews and the capital city Ganzak (meaning “treasury” in old Median language) was built by the Achaemenids. The region stretched as far up as Azerbaijan and Armenia today. When Alexander the Great started his campaign of invasion into Persia, King Darius III fled to Atropatkan and Atropates hosted him and gave him refuge until he fled further to Bactria where he was assassinated by his own cousin. Alexander initially appointed Oxydates as satrap of Atropatkan, but later reappointed Atropates when he lost faith in the loyalties of Oxydates. Atropates practiced a quiet neutrality which made the province even more successful and desirable as gateway between Eastern and Western trade.

After Alexander’s death the province of Media was divided into two parts and the smaller North West region was again given to Atropates to rule. At some point thereafter, Atropates refused to convey allegiance to the diadochi and made his part of Media an independent kingdom. The dynasty Atropates founded would rule the kingdom for several centuries, at first either as an independent kingdom or as vassals of the Seleucids, then as vassals of the Arsacids/Parthians, into whose house they are said to have married. The dynasty even survived the Arab invasion after which Atropatkan became a vassal of the Rashidun Caliphate.

The capital of Atropatkan, Ganzak, was first almost entirely destroyed by the Romans/Byzantines and eventually totally during the Medieval Era. The great city that is said to once have hosted 3,000 homes was no more and with it all its history disappeared. To this day it is not clear where exactly the city was, but it is believed to have existed somewhere in the Miandoab plane in the West Azerbaijan province of Iran, the same area that some archaeologists believe to have been the biblical garden of Eden. Even the name Azerbaijan is derived from Atropatkan. To this day the Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Jews and Persians still co-exist like they have for centuries and as such have greatly influenced each other's art that is produced in this area. Even after Azerbaijan and Armenia were no longer part of Iran, the same common thread still ran through the entire area and the carpets from the North West still quietly reflects its shared history in every village and every town.


Arraiolos - The Portuguese Needlepoint Rugs

In the beautiful village of Arraiolos in the South of Portugal it is not uncommon to find ladies sitting at their doorsteps busy making needlepoint carpets. It is a craft that has been passed down from generation to generation and is ingrained in the culture of Arraiolos. The world-famous Arraiolos Stitch is a long-armed cross-stitch, the basis of the technique used in making these carpets. It is type of counted thread embroidery using wool thread on canvas which can be jute or linen.

Recently a monument was built paying homage to Arraiolos' needlewomen. The author of the monument justifies it: "(the embroiderers) patiently dominated the motifs of birds, flowers, medallions, geometrical bars, developing a decorative art that settled in the daily life of population. Carpets are intimately related to the way of life and sociability of Arraiolos providing unique moments of familiarity: we see groups of women sitting in the shade of the houses and walls, in the long and bright days, patiently embroidering rugs then installed in the interior of homes. The needlewomen are, still today, the foundation of a cultural circuit that connects the house to the street and Arraiolos to the rest of the world."

This famous Portuguese craft, however, was imported from Spain. There are no documents explaining the exact history but legend has it that the craft of embroidering carpets came with the Jews and Moors that were expelled by Queen Isabella from Spain. In 1492 she issued a decree by which all Jews and Moors were given three months to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. They were allowed to take their possessions with, but all gold, silver and coins were to be left in Spain. It therefore stands to reason that the Jews, who have been involved in making carpets for thousands of years, would use this skill to create an income in their new abode. Many Jews and Moors were given refuge by the Ottoman Empire who even sent ships to help them move, but some went West and landed in the beautiful village of Arraiolos. It is here were they taught the local citizens the art of embroidery and making carpets until 1511 when Portugal too expelled all Jews and Moors.

Since then the Portuguese needlewomen have continued this art, at first using the azulejo designs (a form painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework) and later developing their own designs.

Recently the largest Arraiolos carpet was completed. This project began in 2010 and ended over hundreds of working days and half a million stitches later. It is now in the collection of the National Museum Machado de Castro.


When carpets were painted

In the late 19th century when archaeology became an organized science the paintings of Renaissance painters became much more important in the world of Oriental carpets. It was a period in which scientists and collectors alike took an interest into preserving Oriental carpets. All this started when Julius Lessing, a German art historian and the first director of the Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseum, wrote a book on Oriental carpet designs in 1871. He mainly used Renaissance paintings with Oriental carpets in it to compile this book, since collecting Oriental carpets did not yet exist.

In the late 19th century when archaeology became an organized science the paintings of Renaissance painters became much more important in the world of Oriental carpets. It was a period in which scientists and collectors alike took an interest into preserving Oriental carpets. All this started when Julius Lessing, a German art historian and the first director of the Berliner Kunstgewerbemuseum, wrote a book on Oriental carpet designs in 1871. He mainly used Renaissance paintings with Oriental carpets in it to compile this book, since collecting Oriental carpets did not yet exist.

The precise realism practiced by Renaissance artists during the 15th and 16th centuries resulted in them producing much more realistic paintings of the actual setting that they were painting. In those days it was only the Royals and Elite that could afford Oriental carpets and have their portraits painted in their finest dress surrounded by their valuables that naturally included their unique Oriental rugs. The painters’ precision showcased the carpets’ finest details that made it possible for Julius Lessing to date the carpets in his book. With the aid of these paintings and the knowledge of who painted it and when, he and his successors developed the “ante quem” method for dating Oriental carpets. It would be this work that would start the antique trade in Oriental carpets in earnest, since many people then realized that their family heirlooms was in fact much older and much more valuable than they knew.

Many famous painters used Oriental carpets in their paintings and due to the lack of classification of Oriental carpets in the Renaissance era, the specific type of carpets used by them was named after them. The more famous of these are: Holbein, Lotto, Memling, Bellini, Crivelli, Ghirlandaio, Van Eyck and Petrus Christus. As surviving pieces of these painters’ carpets were found, they were allocated the appropriate names based on where they were woven and by whom.

As is always the case it is the artists that preserve history for future generations and thanks to their art we can recollect how our ancestors lived and what was important to them.
By Vanessa Ghorbany


The Mysterious Cintamani

From the 14th to 16th centuries there were white carpets produced in Turkey that is now called the Selendi carpets, because in that town an inventory from 1640 mentioning “white carpets with leopard design” was discovered. One particular group of the Selendi carpets is called the Cintamani carpets. The pattern repeated throughout the whole carpet is three circles grouped in a triangle floating on top of two wavy lines.

It was given the name Cintamani because some scholars have tried to link the design with the three stones of Buddha, since the Ottoman Empire had strong trading links with the East and it would make some sense to assume that the rug weavers of old might have found the symbol appealing. So popular was this design that it was used in the garments of the elite and the Royal courts of the Ottoman Empire. Many Cintamani carpets were commissioned by the Sultans and the rule of thumb is that if the three circles were placed on top of the wavy lines, it was a Royal Ottoman carpet. If the three circles were placed under the wavy lines it was a normal Anatolian carpet. Naturally the Royal commissions had a higher value.

The three circles grouped in a triangle is indeed a very sacred symbol in Buddhism. According to legend the “mani stone” is one of four relics that came in a chest that fell from the sky during the reign of king Lha Thothori Nyantsen of Tibet. Though the king did not understand the purpose of the objects, he kept them in a position of reverence. Several years later, two mysterious strangers appeared at the court of the king, explaining the four relics, which included the Buddha's bowl (possibly a Singing Bowl) and a mani stone with the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra inscribed on it. These few objects were the bringers of the Dharma to Tibet. The Buddhist trinity consist of Buddha, Dharma and Shangha and these three states are represented by the three circles grouped in a triangle.

We find legends of three sacred treasures in many civilizations, believed to be given by the gods or representing the gods. The Three Sacred Treasures of Japan for instance, consist of the sword Kusanagi, the mirror Yata no Kagami and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama. The regalia represent the three primary virtues: valor (the sword), wisdom (the mirror), and benevolence (the jewel). It is believed that the Emperor was chosen by god and given these three treasures to safeguard him and ensure his success as ruler. What is interesting here is that the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for the star, Sirius, closely resembles these three objects, being an obelisk (sword), a half circle (mirror) and a star (jewel). Sirius is the brightest star in our night sky and it disappears every year for seventy days, but reappears just before the summer solstice and annual flooding of the Nile. Due to this occurrence, Sirius’s appearance was very important to the Ancient Egyptians who worshipped Sirius as the goddess Sopdet, the goddess of fertility.

The sacred or holy trinity is no stranger in the world. From the holy trinity in the Semitic religions to the three physical stages of life (represented by the spiral of life that looks quite similar to the cintamani), the body, mind and soul concepts, the mother, father, child trinity and even the electron, neutron and proton trinity. It is quite interesting that Memling, a German painter in the 15th century, painted Christ with a cintamani amulet around his neck. But the cintamani was also used in art in other civilizations in the world. The Etruscans, Romans, Greeks and even Mesoamericans used the cintamani design to decorate their textiles, arts, pottery, etc. centuries BC.

The cintamani seems to have been a universal symbol used by everyone and was again made popular in 1935 by Nicholas Roerich who proposed the symbol for the banner of peace that was accepted as an international pact for the protection of culture values. The Banner proposed had on the white background three united amaranth spheres as a symbol of Eternity and Unity that very closely resembles the cintamani. On further investigation, the Amaranth seeds was of utmost importance to the Mesoamericans as their staple food and source of energy. Another important use of amaranth throughout Mesoamerica was to prepare ritual drinks and foods. To this day, amaranth grains are toasted much like popcorn and mixed with honey, molasses, or chocolate to make a treat called alegría, meaning "joy" in Spanish. Because of its importance as a symbol of indigenous culture, its gluten-free palatability, ease of cooking, and a protein that is particularly well-suited to human nutritional needs, interest in grain amaranth revived in the 1970s. The seeds, leaves, stems and roots of the Amaranth is edible and even the flowers were used as a red dye by the Hopi Indians. From antiquity the amaranth plant was linked to immortality because it is an unwilting plant. In ancient Greece, the amaranth was sacred to Ephesian Artemis. It allegedly had special healing properties, and, as a symbol of immortality, was used to decorate images of the gods and tombs. The Chinese used amaranth widely for its healing chemicals, treating illnesses such as infections, rashes, and migraines. There is even some talk that it grew in the Garden of Eden next to the Tree of Life. And so the list of its fame and uses goes on.

Whether the cintamani is an ancient religious symbol or linked to the immortal amaranth we will never know for sure, since there is not a lot of information available on the creation of the symbol. It has somehow captured our imagination through the ages and has almost a calming effect, with three being a holy number. It certainly makes for very attractive carpets and textiles.


The Swedish Rollakan and Rya

The Nordic is notorious for its harsh weather conditions and excruciating, almost everlasting winters. The inhabitants needed to make clothes and built homes that could keep them warm and the Viking traders found the perfect insulation tool in the Persian carpets made in the East. Not only were they beautiful but they provided necessary heat in the form of wall hangings, floor covers and even bed spreads/blankets.

Up to the 12th century a magnitude of Persian carpets made its way to the Scandinavian countries, but from there on the Swedish developed their own techniques in weaving carpets for domestic use. At first they wove kilims, called Rollakans, that mimicked the Oriental designs, but with limited dyes available, it was mostly woven in white, black and grey, the natural tones of sheep wool. Later on, another technique was developed, called Rya, or as we know it today, the shaggy rug. Using knots taught to them by their Eastern trading partners, the Swedish developed their own style of piled carpets. They were warmer than their Oriental cousins and could also be used on the walls, floors and especially as bed covers. Some were even worn as coats. It became a versatile domestic item, a blanket at night and a floor covering during the day.

For the seafaring Vikings the Ryas were priceless items at sea, because even when it got wet, it still provided the necessary heat. Ryas formed part of the trousseau of eligible ladies to be wed and not only formed part of the marriage ceremony but also reflected the initials of the bride and groom, the date of the wedding, a set of double hearts, and symbols and signs that represented the groom’s and the bride’s families. Wedding Ryas were extremely important, and perhaps represent the most distinct development in Scandinavian rug-making. Oriental themes were incorporated into the finest Scandinavian rugs, with the Tree of Life motif featuring most prominently. A standby in Persian rugs, the Tree of Life symbol was adapted by the rug-makers of Scandinavia to represent family trees and ties.

Today the Rollakan and Rya rugs from Sweden is still very popular with many artists designing exquisite geometric and colourful designs.


The extraordinary Pazyrycks

Buried beneath the ice for 2,500 years lay a carpet meticulously and masterfully woven (200 x 180 with 360,000 knots per square metre), that would shed a spotlight on a culture almost forgotten.

 The Pazyryk carpet was discovered in 1946 underneath the snow of Siberia in the burial chamber of what is believed to be a Scythian prince, a member of the Pazyryk tribe. Since then more excavations were done and more burial chambers discovered, so artfully built and exquisitely decorated with treasure, it became crystal clear that the Pazyryks were an intricate culture and a force to be reckoned with in the region. The ‘Princess of Ukok’ is the mummy of a young woman found in 1993 in Altai. She’s believed to have been a shaman or spiritual leader of the nomadic Pazyryk people from 2500 years ago. Her body is covered in well-preserved tattoos. According to Novosibirsk scientist Natalia Polosmak “Compared to all tattoos found by archeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful. It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible.”

The treasures found in various burial tombs of the Pazyryks have revealed supreme workmanship in all their crafts, from their clothing to their horse-riding gear and weaponry, all on show at the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. Their advanced skills in weaving and embroidery and extreme attention to detail, surprised many and is testament that the weaving industry is by far older than previously estimated. A large embroidered wall hanging made of felt (that fits into a glass case of 8m x1m x 5.5m) reveals a majestic animated scene of a horse rider riding to a goddess holding flowers. The images look extremely modern even according to today’s digital design standards.

These were a proud people, nomadic superior horsemen and women who were also a warrior tribe. Some believe the legendary Amazons were from this tribe. They were constantly in battle for land and would eventually encounter the might Persians along the way. It was in one of their battles with Persia that King Cyrus would be fatally wounded. They did become part of the Persian Empire eventually and the Pazyryk carpet shows many similarities with the stone carvings in Persepolis. How wonderful it is that our arts and crafts outlive us all and give glimpses into the past by those lucky enough to find it at some point in the future.


  • The Russian Hermitage Museum
  • The Russian Times
  • Ancient Origins
  • Wikipedia, Graphic Design in Persian Carpets

The history of tiles

Since the discovery in the late 19th century that the city of Troy was not a myth, archaeological finds have revealed that our ancestors were in fact highly civilized, expertly skilled people with an obsession for decorating their buildings, their possessions and themselves. Thankfully so, because their artefacts serve as a substitute for written records and helps us learn who they were and what was important to them.

One such artefact that survived is the tile. Centuries ago it was the decoration above all decorations that showcased the advancement, skill and pride of an empire from miles away. It was the first impression visitors got of a place before a word was even spoken.

One of the earliest remaining examples of decorative tiles can still be seen in the Chogha Zanbil zuggarat in Iran. It was an Elamite temple and dates back to around 13th century BC. There are many other examples of this in the Ancient world, especially Egypt and Mesopotamia and a recreation of the exquisite Ishtar gate of Mesopotamia was made at the Pergamom Museum in Berlin, to give us an understanding of just how magnificent these empires and their creations were.

In the beginning each tile was glazed with one colour and a pattern or design built with it, but in later centuries the designs on each tile became more complex. It is especially during the Islamic Era in Iran that the decoration of special buildings, especially mosques, took on a whole other life. Mathematics, science and sacred geometry were used in all forms of art since these disciplines were the only accepted proof of the magnificence of the Creator and the result is works of art that still take our breaths away. It was also believed that these exact measurement and shapes lent magical properties to buildings. This was borrowed from older religions of Iran where priests were not just spiritual guides but also highly advanced mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, inventors, healers, teachers, philosophers and alchemists who understood the powers behind Creation. Persian carpets too were created using specific mathematical measurements, scientific methods and sacred geometrical shapes with the same understanding, and its designs became the blueprint for tile designs centuries later.

The girih tile method used (which actually translates to “knot” in Farsi and is a perfect example of Islamic tile art) is piece-wise straight lines which cross the boundaries of the tiles at the center of an edge at 54° (3π/10) to the edge. Two intersecting girih cross each edge of a tile. Most tiles have a unique pattern of girih inside the tile which are continuous and follow the symmetry of the tile. However, the decagon has two possible girih patterns one of which has only fivefold rather than tenfold rotational symmetry. The girih tilings possessed properties consistent with self-similar fractal quas icrystalline tilings. This is quite extraordinary since such properties were only discovered in recent times with the invention of the microscope. The Buddhist mandala holds similar properties.

Through the Islamic expansion into Spain the skill to create glazed tiles was passed on and the Spanish added their own flair and favourite colouring. This influenced tile designs in all of Europe, worth noting is the Portuguese and Dutch Delft tiles. When the Spanish conquered the Americas, they passed this skill on to the Mayans. Mexico is rich in natural resources and the most common was and still is clay. The town of Puebla established in 1531 was home to Mexico best quality clay material. It quickly became a center of pottery and earthenware tile production of colonial Mexico. The most prominent type of Mexican pottery and tile was called Talavera introduced by Spanish monks during the sixtieth century. At the time they were in great need of Spanish earthenware products. As a result they invited to Mexico craftsmen from Talavera de le Reina. The Spanish craftsmen introduced talavera ceramic production techniques to indigenous population of Puebla. It was a beginning of Mexican tiles used throughout the centuries for decorating public buildings, churches and monasteries.

The city of Kashan is still the capital of tile making in Iran. In fact, the word for tile in Farsi is “kashi” referring to its place of origin. Even though Kashan itself dates from the Elamite period around 7,000 years ago, its tile industry only really took shape during the Islamic Art Era and still thrives today. All the exquisite and magnificent buildings in Iran are mostly decorated with tiles produced in this city.


The Tree of Life

Persian carpets are loaded with symbolism and it all relates to the Cosmos and our Creation, none more so than the famous tree of life design. Almost every civilization have stories and art of a tree of life that could grant immortality or is the start of all Creation.

In Christian, Judaic and Islamic beliefs the tree of life stood in the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve was banished from the garden to prevent them from eating the fruits of this tree, after disobeying God’s command. In the “Life of Adam and Eve”, it tells how Adam falls ill many centuries after banishment and is in pain. Seth and Eve travel to the doors of the Garden to beg for some oil of the tree of mercy (i.e. the Tree of Life). Archangel Michael refuses to give them the oil at that time, but promises to give it at the end of time, when all flesh will be raised up, the delights of paradise will be given to the holy people and God will be in their midst.

In Persian and Zoroastrianian legends, the mighty Gaokerena was a mythic Haoma plant that had healing properties when eaten and gave immortality to the resurrected bodies of the dead. In Egyptian mythology, Isis and Osiris are said to have emerged from the acacia tree of Iusaaset, which the Egyptians considered the tree of life, referring to it as the "tree in which life and death are enclosed." A much later myth relates how Set and 72 conspirators killed Osiris, putting him in a coffin, and throwing it into the Nile, the coffin becoming embedded in the base of a tamarisk tree. The Egyptians' Holy Sycamore also stood on the threshold of life and death, connecting the two worlds. In India the Bodhi tree is believed to be the tree under which Buddha sat when he became enlightened and the tree has been revered and the place of pilgrimage ever since. The Assyrian Tree of Life was represented by a series of nodes and criss-crossing lines. It was an important religious symbol, often attended to in Assyrian palace reliefs by human or eagle-headed winged genies, or the King, and blessed or fertilized with bucket and cone. A Taoist story tells of a tree that produces a peach every three thousand years. The one who eats the fruit receives immortality.

Another related issue in ancient mythology of Iran is the myth of Mashyа and Mashyane, two trees who were the ancestors of all living beings. The ancient Sumerian God Dammuzi was personified as a tree, as is the Hindu Brahman. According to Mesoamerican cultures the World Tree is said to dwell in three worlds: Its roots reach down to the underworld, its trunk sits on the Earth, and its branches extend up to the heavens. Many cultures share a belief that this tree is the Axis Mundi or World Axis which supports or holds up the cosmos. Yggdrasil is an immense ash tree that, according to Nordic beliefs, is center to the cosmos and considered very holy.The branches of Yggdrasil extend far into the heavens, and the tree is supported by three roots that extend far away into other locations; one to the well Urðarbrunnr in the heavens, one to the spring Hvergelmir, and another to the well Mímisbrunnr. It is said that Yggdrasil connects all nine worlds.

The ancients knew and understood the symbolism and secrets of the tree of life and how it also relates to our human bodies. Pictures of the neural pathways in the brain shows how similar they are to the roots of a tree. Our spinal cord represents the stem of a tree and our reproductive system, ofcourse, represent our human fruit. The spiritualists have compared the tree of life also to our spiritual bodies and how we can attain balance via our kundalini (our vital essence) through our spinal cord and all the chakras and pineal gland (the gate of the Garden of Eden). The Kabbala tree of life visually or conceptually, represents as a series of divine emanations God's creation itself ex nihilo, the nature of revealed divinity, the human soul, and the spiritual path of ascent by man. In this way, Kabbalists developed the symbol into a full model of reality, using the tree to depict a map of Creation.


The Sasanids, the pearl roundel design and its influence on the West

The lands of Persia was ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty from 224 to 651 AD. It was a dynasty that not only promoted art, music and creativity; but also a dynasty that was renowned for its military skill and strategies, excellent foreign relations strategies and ceremonies at the royal court. The dynasty enjoyed favourable relations with China and India because all of them benefited and relied on the Silk Road for their economic growth and maintenance and naturally these cultures influenced each other’s arts.

The Sasanian dynasty was well known for its silk textiles produced with very fine images and one of the images that would stand out above any other is the pear roundel design. It was a repetition of medallions encircled with a border of 20 pearl shapes. It generally had two figures (mainly griffins or winged lions) inside mirroring each other with a tree of life dividing the two halves. In the Sasanian Empire, where Zoroastriasm was the main religion, this symbol were of high significance because the medallion represented the sun image as a statement to One God (the ring of pearls symbolizes light radiated by the sun). The griffins or winged lions was a symbols of protection and regal power, or to be chosen by God. The tree of life is one of the major symbols in both Eastern and Western art. It defines the formal and substantial organization of the Universe. In different cultures the tree was understood as a model of the world, it’s centre, a vertical axis of power, and a basis of all vital processes, symbolizing growth, health, happiness, fertility, etc. These textiles with the pearl roundel design became a great and very popular export item for the Sasanids.

In between the Sasanid dynasty and China lived an Iranian tribe called the Sogdians who became very experienced merchants because they were based on the Silk Road and many goods passed through. They were also expert craftsman and weavers and realizing the popularity of the Sasanid pearl roundel textiles, they too started producing it. Due to their relations with Europeans, they realized that the pearl roundel appeals to all religious dominations, not for religious values but for secular class values. So, they adjusted the design a little to make it more secular and commercial assuring a wider customer base. The lion (without winges) was introduced in the medallion because a lion, the king of beasts, is often used both in the East, and in the West, personifying power and prosperity. It is one of the most used symbols of force throughout thousands years. Wearing clothes with the figure of a lion was understood everywhere as a personification of supreme power and glory. We can assume that the popularity of the lion in European flags and coats of arms, came from this initiative of the Sogdians.

Next, the ram was introduced in designs. In Zoroastriasm it is a divine sign, and means benefit, good luck, imperial glory, power, charisma, magnificence, etc. Thus, the ram became the divine entity bringing wealth and might, an embodiment of majestic force. The Zoroastrian concept of the ram was alien to Christians, therefore the image of a ram corresponded with the concept of the Holy or sacrificial Lamb (that is the pure victim), the allegorical image of Christ. Carrying clothing with figures of a ram testified that their owner was chosen by God and became popular in the ruling elite

So, the Sogdians literally exploited a subject of elitism, stability and power in their fabrics’ decor, playing on the hidden and obvious desires of their powerful trading partners. The Christian Byzantine Empire, which had not left yet its "eastern" heritage, willingly adapted Sogdian symbols, transferring them further to the west. The images of predators and signs of power were not simply decor, they were the symbols meant to increase the power of clergy, military and feudal nobility, supporting their political ambitions. Sogdians produced symbols of the epoch that were in great demand and thus were widely distributed in any cultural and confessional environment. The universality of the Sogdian fabric design made these textiles key factors in symbolizing the political climate of this epoch.


  • Sogdian Textile Design: Political Symbols of an Epoch - by Elmira Gyul

Healing carpets of Navajo

It is long known that the symbols woven into Persian carpets each carry with it a certain energy. These energies vary from protection to good health to good fortune to fertility. Used together in one carpet they become a united well-wishing token and the weavers are acutely aware of effect it has and the power it carries.

The Navajo in America uses symbols for balancing/healing in their tribe, but instead of weaving it into a carpet they draw the symbols with sand on top of a skin or cloth. The medicine man draws a carpet with symbols of the sand, by letting the sand flow through his fingers in a controlled manner whilst chanting. The sand carpet contains symbols of healing and also of the Holy People. Based on the nature of balancing/healing required the medicine man will determine which symbols to draw and this requires years of training because the Navajo have between 600 to 1,000 different designs to use. The colours for the painting are usually accomplished with naturally coloured sand, crushed gypsum (white), yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal and a mixture of charcoal and gypsum (blue). Brown can be made by mixing red and black; red and white make pink. Other colouring agents include corn meal, flower pollen, or powdered roots and bark.

The accuracy of the medicine man’s sand carpet design will determine the effectiveness of the balancing/healing that the person wishes to achieve. The person who requires the balancing/healing sits in the middle of the carpet whilst the healing ceremony commences. The sand carpets are not viewed as lifeless drawings, but as living spiritual beings that must be respected greatly. During the balancing/healing ceremony the medicine man and tribe chants to invite the sand carpet (via the symbols in it) to interact with the person and assist with correcting the imbalances present in them. Depending on the severity of the imbalance up to 30 different sand paintings can be done for one balancing/healing and the chanting ceremonies can last for days, in which at least one new sand painting carpet must be drawn daily.

The paintings are destroyed after each ceremony. There are hardly any pictures available of these creations since the Navajo believe that the energies might be disturbed if strangers are allowed and the whole balancing/healing of a person solely depends on achieving the right energy balance. An esteemed Navajo master weaver and medicine man, Hosteen Klah, painted one of his sand carpets, but Navajo traditionalists view it as sacrilege, something to not be seen unless in a balancing/healing ceremony of the Navajo by the Navajo. A carpet was later woven of his painting by Mrs Sam Maurelito.


The history of Axminster carpets

Thomas Whittey, a carpet weaver from Devon, created carpets from 1755 that could match the look and quality of a large Turkish carpet he fell in love with at a London market. Looking more like floor tapestries, the carpets quickly became a “must have” in elite households. But in 1828 a disastrous fire destroyed the weaving looms and seven years later the heir, Samuel Rampson Whitty, was declared bankrupt.

A hundred years later a chance meeting on a train between a vicar and another carpet manufacturer, Harry Dutfield, would result in the revival of the once famous Axminster carpets. Learning that no carpets have been made in Axminster since the terrible fire and having had difficulties with his own carpet business in Kidderminster due to the Depression and Unions, Dutfield secured land leases in Axminster to build a new factor, but after World War II raw materials were scares, so Dutfield bought a woollen mill at Buckfast that enabled him to establish the company on its original basis, being the complete "from fleece to floor" carpet maker.

The company has had a few famous purchases over the years: The company produced Axminster carpets for: the music room of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton; Chatsworth House; Powderham Castle; Saltram House; and Warwick Castle. King George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz purchased Axminster carpets and also visited the factory. In 1800, the company made a 74-by-52-foot (23 m × 16 m) carpet for Mahmud II, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, known today as the most famous Axminster Carpet of all, it was initially placed in the Topkapi Palace but then moved to the Defterdar Palace, where it became the property of Esma Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Mustapha III. To celebrate 250 years of carpet weaving in Axminster, in 2005 a commemorative rug was produced. Paraded by the company's weavers through the town, it was then blessed by the Bishop of Exeter and presented to the Earl of Devon. The carpet is now in Clarence House, the home of Prince Charles.
In July 2012,

Axminster Heritage Ltd bought the now Grade II listed former original carpet factory in which Thomas Whitty founded the company and wove the first carpets. Also in 2012, Axminster was awarded a Royal Warrant for the supply of goods and services to the Royal Household.

Even though new Axminster carpets are produced, it is the antique pieces that are quite collectible and highly sought after items.

References, Sources & Extracts:

Weavers, the first recordkeepers

As far back as humankind goes, weaving has been a tool for many things. It was used to create clothing and warm shelter and later on, through the development of the art of weaving, its’ creations became a commodity. Weaving was such an important and integral part of society that the weavers were seen as very important citizens in a community.

It is the weavers that became the first record keepers of tribes throughout the ages at a time when writing was not yet available all over the world and art was the only means of expression. The textiles, carpets and other woven items first included geometric shapes that represented the cosmos and the “way of creation”. Later other symbols were added, such as the symbols of specific deities or specific tribes or specific classes, as well as colour. Each colour carried with it a specific meaning and energy and in such a way a lot of unwritten history was recorded .

The deciphering of this language requires a translator and unfortunately through many wars and invasions most old textiles found cannot be decoded simply because the civilizations do not exist anymore and there are no other written documents that could help us understand what our ancestors intended with their symbols and colours thousands of years ago.

One such fascinating item is the quipu from the Incas. The quipu (meaning 'knot') is a recording device used in Andean civilizations at least as far back as Wari in the 7th century, but it is associated in particular with the administration of the Inca Empire. It consists of a length of rope from which numerous other threads are suspended, some of them with their own subsidiary offshoots. The length of each thread, its colour and the position of any knots in it can acquire specific meanings. Due to the lack of descendants who can understand the quipu we can only speculate what it was used for and how, the most favourable explanation being that it was some kind of accounting and calendar system, but there could be so much more information contained in it that might remain a mystery forever.

Other textiles produced by the Inca depicted designs that was specific to family groups and one of the reasons for repeated designs, was that textiles were often produced for the state as a tax and so textiles could be representative of specific communities and their cultural heritage. Just as today’s coins and stamps reflect a nation's history, so too Andean textiles offered recognisable motifs which either represented the specific communities making them or the imposed designs of the ruling Inca class ordering them.

In Qaxaca, Mexico, the fabrics produced are repeating the ancient Mayan notions of the circle of life, of rebirth, of time and space and of the forces of nature with their designs. The symbols that their ancestors would use are traditionally used in the weaver’s creations, often retaining their original meanings. The diamond that signified the universe now symbolizes the unison of the earth and the skies, snakes symbolize the rich, fertile land, and the toads, also known as musicians in the rain, signify the patron saints. Sometimes there is a butterfly added to the centre of the diamond motif, which symbolizes the sun, the centre of the Mayan universe.
By Vanessa Ghorbany



The English Needlepoint

Needlework has been around almost as long as humans have clothed themselves. It goes back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians, who used small slanted stitches to sew their tents. Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, found some needlepoint in the cave of a Pharaoh who had lived 1500 years before Christ. Samples of the art have been found on ancient Maori costumes in New Zealand, and the Bible features numerous references to needlework.

In 13th century Europe, a form of embroidery was done on coarsely woven linen fabric similar to canvas mesh. Tapestries, also popular in the middle-ages, were woven with vertical threads on a loom. By the 16th century, people began to imitate these art forms using a canvas background and the recently invented steel needles that allowed for more intricate work than the fishbone or thorn needles previously available. Needlepoint as it is known today originated in the 17th century, when the fashion for furniture upholstered with embroidered fabrics prompted the development of a more durable material to serve as the embroidery's foundation.

The list of historic needlepoint fans includes such famous names as Mary, Queen of Scots (who stitched extensively during her long imprisonment), Marie Antoinette and Queen Elizabeth I. During the reign of these royals, needlepoint was strictly a pastime of the leisure class. As time went on, its appeal gradually broadened to other parts of society.

The antique needlepoint in this picture is courtesy of the C John Rare Rugs Collection.


Savonnerie and Aubusson carpets

The Savonnerie and Aubuson carpets are an entirely French production that replaced Persian carpets in Europe for nearly a century, but how and why? In the 1500’s a group of weavers from Flanders settled in Aubusson and established tapestry weaving known for their exquisite nature and hunting scenes. It was called Aubusson tapestries named after the village it came from. Fast forward to the 1600’s and Europe is gripped with fear. The mighty Ottoman Empire is on their doorstep threatening to invade, the Catholic Church is threatened by the growing Protestant movement and France is practically broke from funding Holy wars and importing goods from the Middle East.

All of a sudden the Ottoman Empire starts to crumble bit by bit after another failed attempt to invade Venice and for a moment Europe breathes a sigh of relief knowing that the dreaded invasion seems more unlikely by the day. The Silk Trade Route is still occupied by the Ottomans, so with their new found strength and freedom the European kingdoms set out to find other routes to East, because Europe’s taste for Oriental goods is insatiable. As often happens in times of extreme duress, the arts provide an escape for many and results in the production of some of the best artworks. This is exactly what happened. The Catholic Church realized the “threat” posed by the Protestants and in a bid to retain public support they decided to make Biblical stories and scenes available to the “mostly uneducated” general public in ways they could understand, in a time that art was only in the hands of the church, royalty and the wealthy. They commissioned painters and sculptors to produce new and more dramatic paintings and sculptures with more power, movement and drama than what was ever seen before. This was to be the start of the Baroque art era and from the Church’s lead, the elite and wealthy would follow. The Baroque art flowed into architecture and design and just like that Europe entered a new style era.

During that time Pierre DuPont, who obtained the knowledge of weaving a Turkish knot in the Levant, started producing his own carpets in Paris at a fraction of the cost of imported Persian carpets. Kind Henry IV, monarch of France, all too aware of France’s weak financial situation took advantage of this and allowed DuPont to set up his workshop in the Louvre. In so doing he ensured that the wealthy bought “local” and thus French money stayed in France. By the time King Louis XIII became the ruler the popularity of Monsieur DuPont’s carpets had grown, so the king procured a defunct soap factory for DuPont and his apprentice, Simon Lourdet, to set up a larger workshop to produce more carpets. The French word for soap is savon, so the carpets manufactured in the “soap factory” became known as Savonnerie carpets. The business belonged to the King and DuPont had the sole patent rights to produce these French carpets. King Louis XIII, entirely in love with the Baroque art, requested DuPont to change the design of the carpets to Baroque and so the carpet designs included more florals, swirls and curls, darker colours and more elaborate lines. Savonnerie carpets now had an original, proudly French design and so, French carpets became the new craze in Europe. The king offered it as gifts to other kings and the wealthy purchased the rest.

After the death of the king, the elite requested the French carpet weavers to use lighter colours and softer, more natural patterns, which led to the Rococo art era. Soon Royal commissions were sent to Aubusson as well for very large tapestries to be woven in the new Rococo style and instead of using it on the walls, it was now also used on the floor as flat weave carpets. Having survived much French upheaval and turmoil, the Savonnerie and Aubusson carpets adapted to the tastes and times, but its gentle demise by the late 19th century, would eventually be caused by the rekindled love affair between Europe and Persian carpets. It is a love affair that has survived to this day, but so too did nostalgia of the once great French carpets and they are now sought after antiques the world over. A wave of retro Savonnerie and Aubusson carpets also started again during the 20th century and these reproductions are once more in the market.

Mohtasham Kashan - The revival of an industry

The city of Kashan, Iran, was a large and important weaving centre for centuries until the end of the Safavid dynasty in the early 1700’s when it came to a stand still.

In the late 1800’s Mohammad Hassan Mohtasham, a textile producer, was asked by some merchants in Tabriz to revive the carpet weaving industry in Kashan. Married to an accomplished weaver from Sultanabad he decided to relocate to Kashan to set up weaving centres. The Mohtasham textiles were produced from Merino wool imported from Manchester, and Mr Mohtasham decided to use the same wool to make carpets with. This decision would prove very successful and important because the high quality of Merino wool allowed a higher knot count for creating detailed motifs with a high pile. Furthermore, Merino wool ages well and appears almost silk like over time. This gave birth to the Mohtasham Kashan carpets that are now sought after collector's items all over the world. He left such an incredible legacy that many carpets from Kashan are now called Mohtasham Kashan, even if they were not woven by his weaving centres. Because of Mr Mohtasham's efforts there were 1,500 active looms in Kashan by 1900 and 4,000 by 1949. The height of the Mohtasham Kashan carpets woven with Merino wool continued until the Great Depression when the imported wool market crashed.
Photograph courtesy of Christie's

Ancient history of Egyptian weavers

It is only in recent years that the true age of our civilization is really being re-investigated and re-dated. Our 6,000 year old civilization theory is no longer the accepted age and through more and more scientific and archaeological discoveries, we are realizing that our ancestors were not the uneducated, low-skilled people we once thought. Their skill sets are something to be admired and there are many structures they built that we cannot explain or redo in our modern age. One of the skill sets that have survived to this day, however, is weaving.

The oldest surviving carpet is the Pazyryck carpet on show in Russia and dates back 2,500 years. But the workmanship and skill that was needed to make this piece indicates that the weaving industry is far older than we can prove at this point. Unfortunately carpets are made from wool which disintegrates over the centuries and thus there are not any other surviving pieces to testify to this statement. We can only go by legends and tales (most of which we now accept as myths) to give us some glimpse of the magnificence and importance of the weaving industry.

One early carpet, dating from the eighth century BCE, may still be seen in the British Museum - albeit carved in stone on an Assyrian relief - as a precious offering to a king. The stone floors of the seventh century BCE Assyrian palaces - especially at Nineveh and today also in the British Museum - are generally accepted as carpet patterns. Another legendary and magical flying carpet is that of King Solomon. Said to be given to him by God, it could carry 40,000 men at once and fly at the speed of light. The next great carpet we know of was found in the burial chamber of Cyrus the Great of Persia (559-529 BCE), when 200 years after his death, Alexander the Great crushed the remnants of Cyrus’ empire and, breaking into his tomb, described Cyrus’ golden funeral couch as resting on an exquisite golden carpet.

We know from a tablet of perhaps 3000 BCE that the Sumerians had looms. Ur was one of their great cities and the code of Hammarubi of around 1800 BCE records its major export being wool to Babylon. The tombs of Beni Hassan in Egypt (2800 BCE - 2600 BCE) have wall paintings of weavers at work, and there are numerous other Egyptian wall paintings from 2000 BCE that depict looms, showing already highly skilled weavers.

Biblical accounts tell the tale of Joseph and his multi-coloured coat as well as detailed instructions as to the materials and the manufacture of every part of the Tabernacle, including how the textiles were to be woven and how they were to be used to build the huge mobile tent to hold the Tablets of the Law during the Israelites wandering in the desert. This indicates that the skill of weaving and dying wool in different colours was already an established art form. Of course, the precursor to this would have been the development of material by means of weaving. It was a matter of time before the weaving of materials, tents, curtains, bedding and carpets would become a trade and commodity for the earlier weavers, especially through all the conquering and wars that was going on at the time.

So next time you look at your Persian carpet, even though it may be new, remember the weavers of thousands of years ago who perfected their craft and passed it on to the next generations in such a way that we can still enjoy the results of their craft and honing their skills. We always say: you can never really own a Persian carpet, you can only become the new treasurer of it until the next generation takes over.

Extracts: Jews And Carpets Fact Paper 18© Anton Felton and Samuel Kurinsky and Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms BY H. LING ROTH (Keeper). WITH 38 LINE BLOCK AND ONE COLLOTYPE ILLUSTRATIONS. BANKFIELD MUSEUM, HALIFAX APRIL 1913

The Carpet Bag

A carpet bag is a traveling bag made of carpet, commonly from an oriental rug. They were a popular form of luggage in the United States and Europe in the 19th century. The carpet bag was invented as a type of baggage light enough for a passenger to carry, like a duffel bag, as opposed to a wooden or metal trunk, which required the assistance of porters. Its use implied self-sufficiency:

Carpet bags used to be made of Oriental rugs. Carpet was the chosen material because it was a popular domestic accent piece and the "remainder" pieces were easily bought. In a sense, the carpet bag was a sustainable invention because it used remnants of materials which otherwise would have gone unused.

The carpetbaggers of the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War—Northerners who moved to the South for economic or political opportunity—were given their name from this type of luggage which they carried

Carpet bags sometimes also served as a "railway rug", a common item in the 19th century for warmth in drafty, unheated rail-cars. The rug could either be opened as a blanket, or latched up on the sides as a traveling bag. From Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879): "... my railway-rug, which, being also in the form of a bag, made me a double castle for cold nights."

There are many companies still producing carpet bags today keeping this very quirky trend alive!

The magic of King Solomon

Solomon is represented as having authority over spirits, animals, wind, and water, all of which obeyed his orders by virtue of a magic ring set with the four jewels given him by the angels that had power over these four realms. A similar ring is mentioned in stories of the "Arabian Nights." The power inherent in the ring is shown by the following story:

It was Solomon's custom to take off the ring when he was about to wash, and to give it to one of his wives, Amina, to hold. On one occasion, when the ring was in Amina's keeping, the rebellious spirit Sakhr took on Solomon's form and obtained the ring. He then seated himself on the throne and ruled for forty days, during which time the real king wandered about the country, poor and forlorn. On the fortieth day Sakhr dropped the ring into the sea; there it was swallowed by a fish, which was caught by a poor fisherman and given to Solomon for his supper. Solomon cut open the fish, found the ring, and returned to power.
Solomon was also given a flying carpet when he was made king over every created thing, It is written that God gave him a large carpet sixty miles long and sixty miles wide, made of green silk interwoven with pure gold, and ornamented with figured decorations. Surrounded by his four princes, Asaph b. Berechiah, prince of men, Ramirat, prince of the spirits, a lion, prince of beasts, and an eagle, prince of birds, when Solomon sat upon the carpet he was caught up by the wind, and sailed through the air so quickly that he breakfasted at Damascus and supped in Media. One day Solomon was filled with pride at his own greatness and wisdom; and as a punishment therefor the wind shook the carpet, throwing down 40,000 men. Solomon chided the wind for the mischief it had done; but the latter rejoined that the king would do well to turn toward God and cease to be proud; whereupon Solomon felt greatly ashamed. - Source: Jewish Encyclopedia

For the love of purple

One day while, Heracles, the Phoenician guardian deity, was strolling along the beach with his dog and the beautiful nymph, Tyres, his dog bit into a mollusc that washed ashore. Immediately the dog’s mouth turned a brilliant purple. Tyres fell in love with this new colour and promised a “rendezvous” with Heracles if he would make her a garment dyed with the same colour. Heracles made sure Tyres got her purple garment and the purple dye was “born”

Ancient Phoenician weavers

Phoenicians and Tyrian purple are inseparable. It is after all the Phoenicians, at around 1,500BC, who became known world-wide for producing purple textiles. Royalty and the elite everywhere could not get enough of this fascinating vibrant colour and as always, demand pushed up the price of purple dye to equal that of its weight in silver. Unlike the other cultures at the time, it was the Phoenician men who were responsible for weaving the textiles and who dominated the trade. Producing this purple dye was no easy task, for at the time it could only be made from the humble sea mollusc who lives 150 meters below surface. More than this, you need 9,000 molluscs to make just 1 gram of purple dye. The dye was made from the colourless liquid in the hypo branchial gland of the mollusc that had to be removed, crushed, soaked with salt and exposed to sun and air for a few days, before being boiled and heated at specific temperatures for a specific time frame. Perhaps it was the near extinction of the molluscs in Tyre that forced the Phoenicians to leave in search of molluscs elsewhere.

Ancient Peruvian weavers

Finding fragments of rope and textiles dating back to between 12,100 and 11,080 years ago in the Guitarrero Cave in Peru, created great excitement in the world of archaeology and also weaving! It showed not only that the Peruvians were distinguished weavers a very long time ago, but also that weaving was very important to them. In Peruvian society males and females were weavers, but it was the females who drove development and change in their weaving industry. From the usual back-strap weaving method the females started weaving side by side, three at a time, that enabled them to weave wider pieces of textiles around 3,000 years ago. They also started using the wool of llamas and alpaca and introduced embroidered symbols and patterns on their garments. The jaguar-god, Chavin, was a favourite motif. The Peruvian weavers made their dyes from plants, minerals, insects and also molluscs, that as we now know, produce purple dye.

The ancient weavers of the Czech Republic

At the base of the Děvín Mountain in Czech Republic, close to the Dolní Věstonice village, an Upper Paleolithic site has been excavated since 1924 revealing not only burials of 27,000 to 20,000BC, but many artefacts that included many pieces of art. Amongst the artefacts were traces of textiles from imprints in clay and burned remnants of cloth. It appears, according to the find, that the weavers manufactured a variety of cordages, plaited basketry and sophisticated twined and plain woven cloth. An interesting find amongst all these items were empty mollusc shells that is thought to be from the Dyje river close to the site. Thus we can assume that these weavers discovered the secret of purple dye long before the Phoenicians.

Luckily towards the late 1800’s synthetic purple dyes were created and it was no longer necessary to use the molluscs and purple is still as mystical today as when Tyres fell in love with it.

Sources – Tyrian_purple, Weaving dolnivpottery.html, weaving-part-3-america, 791/, The Earth and Its People: A Gllobal History

Persian Carpets & Horses

In the Vienna Museum für angewandte Kunst is an exquisite hunting carpet dating from the 16th century. This fine silk carpet with golden background is a wonderful testament to the extraordinary craftsmanship during the Safavid Dynasty in Iran.

Another fine example from the same era is the hunting carpet in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan.  It is one of the rare carpets that is dated in an inscription that says: “It is by the efforts of Giyath-ud-Din ʿJami that this renowned carpet was brought to such perfection in the year (1542 AD)"; and is thus historically significant.

Archeaological finds date the domestication of horses to around 3,500BCE in the Eurasian Steppes and Kazakhstan, but a beautiful cave painting of horses found in Lascaux, France, dating to 17,000 BPE, might suggest a much earlier time that humans and horses lived closely together. Another great depiction of a horse dating from the late Bronze Age is the Uffington White Horse situated on the upper slopes of the White Horse Hill in the English civil parish of Uffington and is about 110 m long formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk.

Throughout our history horses have played a pivotal role in our societies from being the main form of transportation to being an animal that we can play with. It is no wonder that we immortalized them in our arts and crafts. The dressing of horses were as important as the dressing of their owners and great craftsmanship were employed to make/weave unbelievable horse blankets and saddlebags for the horses. No expense was spared to ensure that the horses were dressed up from head to tail in the most elaborate of ways.

Horses were often featured in the Persian carpets as is evident in the Pazyryk carpet (oldest remaining piled carpet), but during the Islamic invasion of Persia the portrayal of humans and animals in art was forbidden. It would only again be revived by the Safavid rulers who were keen patrons of the arts and requested the great master weavers to create carpets that depicted the royal horses, hunters and sportsmen on horseback. Polo was a game used to prepare soldiers for combat and was a great source of entertainment together with hunting. It is often depicted in carpets and miniature paintings of the time.

Today hunting carpets are still produced mainly in Isfahan, Iran, and because of the fine detail required they are mostly woven with silk. Horse blankets and saddlebags are also still produced albeit mostly for the owner’s own use. Pictured here is an antique Kurd Khorasan saddlebag in the Ghorbany Private Collection.

Written by Vanessa Ghorbany


Carpets & Wine

Persian carpets and Wine. Two cultures that have stimulated our senses through thousands of years. One stimulates our senses of sight and touch, the other our senses of taste and smell, but both also stimulate our sense of hearing because in both there is a symphony playing, audible to only those willing to hear.

We know that wine is very old. The first thing Noah did after he landed on Mount Ararat and the waters subsided was to plant a vine and make wine. Move on a few millennia and we have Joseph in jail with the baker and the wine pourer (sommelier) of the Pharaoh. There are many other Biblical accounts on the use and importance of wine and it is so suitable then that the earliest wine makers to meticulously document their art, were the monks toiling the lands of the monasteries and making really good wine that they eventually sold. We know the weaving industry is very old, from textiles to carpets. The nomads needed tents, bedding and clothing and weaving was developed to fulfil these needs.

What then make these two cultures survive through time?

Well, it is exactly TIME that gives it its longevity. Few items become better with time and these two cultures produce exactly such products that can only really be appreciated with the passing of time. There is some magical alchemy that happens when the grape leaves the vineyard and enters the barrel. The process of fermentation with the help of time transforms it into a liquid that captures the aromas and energies of the place in which it grows and ages. The same magical alchemy happens when the weaver takes each strain of meticulously dyed wool to create a whole masterpiece with each woven knot and it is only with the passing of time that the colours will settle into the intended colouring of the wool dyer.

If you could ever have a picture made of what a good old wine tastes like, there is no doubt that a Persian carpet would be it. The complexity of colour and design matches the complexity of flavours and aromas in a wine. Just as every bottle of wine holds its little secrets in the flavours, a Persian carpets holds its little secrets in the woven pattern that can be read like an old manuscript by those who know the language. The great difference between them is that when you open that bottle of wine and drank it, the taste and flavours can only live on in your memory; but a Persian carpet can be felt and touched and looked at for generations.

It seems as if an invisible power helps both these cultures survive and evolve through wars, invasions and changes of mankind, sometimes even pushed to the brink of extinction. That is possibly its’ greatest magic: that the people who make it come and go, but the art of transforming a grape into wine and wool into a Persian carpet survives from generation to generation, thanks to the farmers and weavers who pass on their skills. It links past with present, it transports us back to that exact moment when the wine maker dreamed of what this wine would become and the weaver envisioned cutting his completed carpet off the loom. Once the bug has bitten you, you will never get enough of either. The thirst for knowledge on it and the almost quasi-religious experience both gives you is what eventually turns a consumer into a collector, and a collector into a treasurer.