About Beautiful Decorative Oriental Carpets and Rugs

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Oriental carpet has always been synonymous with exotic luxury, elegant design, and a comfortable, highly aestheticized environment. From the earliest times, humans have needed to embellish and ornament the circumstances in which they lived, and the medium of woven carpets soon emerged to meet such requirements. Carpet production is attested from ancient times. Flatwoven floor coverings are probably as old as textiles and architecture. The oldest knotted pile carpets can be attested by the sixth century B.C., but their production may well be considerably older. Some experts believe that pile carpets originated among tent-dwelling nomadic peoples to the east of Central Asia as a more decorative substitute for animal hides, providing comfort and insulation as well as decoration. Carpet making reached the Near East through contact with such nomadic peoples. Since relations between Central Asian nomads and the Near East were more or less constant, the production of pile carpets in the latter region was probably stimulated and influenced by nomadic traditions again and again.

This process first becomes clear in the medieval period, between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries, when various Central and East Asian peoples like the Turks and Mongols came to power across the eastern Islamic world, bringing with them traditions of carpet making that were by now many centuries old. The earliest Near Eastern carpets of this kind are those of Seljuk Turkey and those made in Iran under the Mongol and Timurid dynasties. Carpets of this kind now began to have highly complex designs influenced by contemporary textiles, especially silks.

From this period on, the knotted pile carpet became an increasingly standard feature of Islamic art and high culture, and soon it captured the attention of wealthy Europeans as well. Already by the thirteenth century merchant travelers like Marco Polo remarked on the beauty of the Oriental carpets they encountered on their journeys, and soon such carpets began to be imported into Venice and thence to the rest of Europe. While actual early carpets of this kind are rarely preserved, European painting by the great masters from Giotto and Ghirlandaio to Holbeim, van Eyck, Lotto, and Vermeer constantly depict carpets from Turkey and Iran. Such paintings document the importance that the Oriental carpet had attained by this time as a quintessential symbol of cosmopolitan taste and affluence. So valued were these carpets that there were various attempts to imitate or adapt them in Europe.

After the seventeenth century Europeans briefly lost interest in the Oriental carpet. This probably reflected developments in the Near and Middle East, where all the great ruling dynasties collapsed or went into regression, bringing about a corresponding roll-back in the quantity and quality of carpet production. During this hiatus European carpet production was stepped up, creating the Aubusson and Savonnerie types in a Neo-Classical western style. Carpet production in Spain, which had begun under Muslim rule in the Middle Ages, also moved in to meet the European demand for rugs.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, rug weaving in Iran went into a great period of revival under the highly retrospective Qajar dynasty, re-awakening the European interest for Oriental carpets and creating a new American market for them as well. This eventually led to a revival or expansion of carpet production in Turkey and also a revival of Indian carpet weaving under British rule. At this time Chinese carpets, whose production went back to ancient times, finally became known in quantity to European and American markets.

From that time on the western world became used to an endless variety of Oriental rugs and carpets whose production continues into the present time. The most notable recent developments are the revival of vegetable dyes and hand-spinning of wool, which had largely died away in the course of the twentieth century. Such new productions capture much of the quality and original flavor of antique Oriental rugs. But only a genuine antique can preserve the soul and spirit of Oriental rug weaving, an art form that reaches back virtually unbroken to the earliest times. Antique Oriental rugs are not only objects of great beauty and rarity; they are a much-needed bridge to a bygone world of consummate skill and expressiveness that is vastly different from the mass-culture of modern western experience.

Written by David Castriota

David is an expert in art and Oriental rugs.

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