Design

Oriental-rugs-history.com home page

    Oriental rugs are written pages. In their maze of design is a symbol language, the key of which, in its ceaseless transmission through the centuries, has unhappily been all but lost. The variation of its forms, in the different classes of fabrics, may be looked upon as dialectic; and it must be believed, so far as the very ancient figures are concerned, that none of the dialects is understood by the weaver who employs it at the present day.

    "Whatever their type of ornamentation may be," says Sir George Birdwood, "a deep and complicate symbolism, originating in Babylonia and possibly India, pervades every denomination of Oriental rugs. Thus the rug itself prefigures space and eternity, and the general pattern or filling, as it is technically termed, the fleeting, finite universe of animated beauty. Every color used has its significance, and the design, whether mythological or natural, human, bestial or floral, has its hidden meaning. Even the representations of men hunting wild beasts have their special indications. So have the natural flowers of Persia their symbolism, wherever they are introduced, generally following that of their colors. The very irregularities, either in drawing or coloring, to be observed in almost every Oriental rug, and invariably in Turkoman rugs, are seldom accidental, the usual deliberate intention being to avert the evil eye and insure good luck."

    This utterance, which, coming from so profound a source, may be looked upon as revelation rather than poetic license, enables the lover of Eastern fabrics to weave for himself, from the curious and seductive shapes and the soothing harmonies, which they embody, a bright and altogether exalted picture of the mental and spiritual life of the Orient. Abhorring a vacuum, the Eastern, at his highest mark of artistic capability, filled the blank space which was his bit of eternity with a fullness of warmth and beauty which spoke for him then, and as an enduring fabric speaks for him now, as a man whose intimations of a glad immortality never ceased until his fingers grew weary at life's loom, and the earth claimed him.

    But study of the Oriental of earlier times, by the rugs which he made, must needs be mainly a study of the upper class, of the nobles in whose palaces and by whose designers and weavers the finer pieces were produced. Exhibition, publication, expert analysis and comparison of the oldest and most perfect of these rugs, which in any country and any era must have taken rank as art productions, have shed invaluable light on the course of artistic impulses in the East, three or four centuries ago. They have revealed in its most impressive phase the high seriousness of Eastern races. They have opened a field of study, which becomes wider and richer with every moment of consideration.

    In view of the teachings of these famous fabrics it must for the more popular purpose be accounted a misfortune that time has left few if any authentic examples of the commoner rugs of extremely old date. Actual comparison, therefore, of the fabrics exported from the East and sold in American markets today, with those made for everyday use hundreds of years ago, is practically out of the question; but so closely do the very fine modern rugs, particularly some of the Persians, preserve features of the wonderful old rugs in the European collections, that it is fair to presume that the rougher and more common varieties cannot differ greatly, in color and design, from those of the olden time.

    There was, authorities declare, a period of climax in the highest order of Eastern rugs; and with equal candor they concede that even prior to the decline noticeable in our own time, there had been a marked degeneration, extending possibly over centuries. It was first manifest, they say, in the decadence of the pure curve, in a tendency to leave broad surfaces of ground color, in an abandonment of the perfect coordination which had given poetic unity and a delightful atmosphere of completeness. Then, from many of the rugs disappeared the central design so essential to artistic composition. Rectilinear drawing of the vines and creepers banished the softness, which had been the chief charm of the Persian fabrics. The floral patterns gained in geometry as they lost in grace. Over all was evident a relapse from exalted artistic conditions, a barrenness of life, a decline of ambition. The exact period of climax has not yet been fixed. For most of the superfine antiques, which remain in existence, the critics hesitate to assign a date, or even to point out definitely the locality of manufacture.

    It seems safe to conclude that decay in art, if it was decay, was contemporary with national decline: that when the Eastern nations passed out of apogee the record of the transition was written on their fabrics. But there are those who deny the decadence, who maintain that the perfection reached in these weavings was foreign, not Eastern; that it was the sacrifice of native truth and originality to strange artistic tenets. They hold that the standard was meretricious, and that what is termed decadence was only a natural and wholesome reversion to older and more authentic Oriental types; a return from Italian schooling to the ancient spirit and designs.

    Commenting upon a piece displayed at the Vienna Exposition in 1889, which showed in a marked degree the tendency to rude rectilinear treatment, while preserving much of the Persian richness, a celebrated European authority said: "Have we in the peculiar floral design before us, which is so different from the Persian style of the fifteenth century, an example of ancient or modern industry? Is it the coarseness of an early style, or is it the weakness of decaying art, which meets us here in a garb of so little attractiveness?" This halting of one so thoroughly informed illustrates the tantalizing doubt which pervades the whole study of textile design, and which constitutes perhaps its greatest charm. But if it be true that "symbolism goes out as art reproduction increases," that the Persian masterpieces, beautiful though they be, are false to Oriental theory, are merely imitations of the ornate Italian method, supplemented by all of grace and richness that the Persians could bring to it, then the return, evident in later fabrics, to rude masses of color, and bolder and older designs, must be looked upon merely as a final triumph of the inherent over the acquired. And it must give to all the ruder Oriental fabrics a value, which has been overlooked in them, if not denied to them, by the apostles of the "high school." If the general declaration that there is a symbolic meaning in all rug designs be well founded, the fabrics of the commoner class must share in it. And if it be also true that what the critics who measure all values by Western [standards call decadence is really a reversion to genuine, though perhaps "semi-barbaric", Oriental forms, then the rugs made by the native for his own use, necessarily free from the influences which invaded the art of the palace, must be considered a pure type, and expressive of Eastern meanings. It is this class of rugs that we get today, or rather did get, before the West began its mercantile invasion of Asia.

    Freest of all from outside modifying influences are, we must believe, the rugs made by the nomads. Far below the high-class Persians as exponents of artistic status, the products of the mountain districts and steppes outrank many of those in point of consistency, and are to be prized as truthful reflections of the native life and character. Perhaps less of credit is to be accorded to the nomad weavers for having adhered stubbornly to their distinctive colors and patterns, since, inhabiting the deserts and waste places, courting and knowing no contact with society other than their own, they have met with no temptation to vary the character of their handicraft, or to stray into the fields of strange design in quest of some device better calculated to attract the notice of buyers. They are races, which do not change from decade to decade. Their life is the same grim routine century after century, varied only by periods of strife and perfectly welcome bloodshed. Therefore their product, being, at least until very recently, made for their own uses, and not to fit the tastes or purses of Western decorators and housekeepers, has remained unaltered. The designs are, or were, tribal property, almost as unmistakeable as an accent.

    Despite the roughness of these peoples, despite their ignorance of artistic precept, there is manifest in their work an aesthetic realization of the consistencies, an accurate, intuitive sense of color value, which makes them, where bold, intense color effects are required in decoration, useful as the dainty and intricate Persian can never be. There is admirable harmony in their arrangement, in spite of what strikes us instantly as garish and eccentric. Gaudy they may be called, even astounding, but the genuine examples, in which the old dyes have been used, are never inconsistent, never shocking; and they have the merit, rare nowadays, of being simon pure.In these rugs of the nomad races may be distinguished one characteristic sign-the filling up of vacant spaces in the ground with small, disjunct figures. This is, according to the best authorities, a mark whereby the nomad influence may be traced in rugs, which in general pattern and coloring conform to more urbane models. The accomplished Persian weaver of the high school, with a blank space to fill, would traverse it with continuous trailing vines and creepers, of Greek, Chinese, or Arabic derivation, adorned at intervals with delicate flowers, perhaps until his deep red or Persian blue "eternity" was a veritable garden plot of posies. Not so the nomad. When he employs flowers for such a purpose, he first robs them of stem, and hurls them upon his ground as if next moment they were to be trampled under foot. He is no artist, but his vigor is tremendous, and record of it is left in wool-yarns upon the rugs of his making, as well as in stout strokes upon the skull-piece of his adversary.

    Consistency is as decisive a virtue in an Oriental rug as in human conduct, and the lesson to be read so plainly in some of these nomad rugs is one that may well be borne in mind in judging the merits of the finer varieties. Any really good fabric should stand the test of consistency. Those, which do not, are those, which fail to interest as soon as they have ceased to be new. Only long and careful study of the forms of design can supply the knowledge requisite for making this test thorough, but the briefest acquaintance with a few good specimens of the various groups should enable any person to detect the utter incongruity of the unrelated patterns which so often make war upon each other from the ground and from the border of one and the same rug. Rug designs need not be complex to be good, but they should preserve their types to take rank as worthy or desirable examples.

    The derivation of many of the ornament forms is a matter still so much mooted that this warning against incongruities should not be too strictly construed. It is impossible at this day to select any number of rug patterns from the multitude in use, and classify them as belonging exclusively to any single group of fabrics, or to any locality. The decorative art of the East is of too old a growth. Its beginnings are too deeply hidden in the shadows of an earlier age, its journeyings too manifold. In some learned quarters there is a tendency to derive from a common source all figures known to pure ornament. Professor Goodyear maintains that every decorative device had its birth in the lotus, that the figures in modern rugs, as well as all the forms of architecture, are descended from the lily of the Nile, emblem now, as in the old Egyptian days, of regeneration and immortality. Such a proposition is too thoroughly archaeological to come at all within the province of this book. It is certain that unquestionable lotus forms played a large part in the Assyrian system of ornamentation, and that they appear with the selfsame treatment, almost without modification, in many Persian rugs. That transmission is entirely within the view of history. And with sometimes more and sometimes less of alteration the same arrangement is found in numberless rugs made in districts remote from the present boundaries of Persia. It is not to be wondered at. The whole Eastern country has been a highway for race movements, and well nigh every decorative design has in the mighty interchange become universal throughout the East; but the intense conservatism which has until now repelled the advances of Western art has served a useful purpose in this matter. The peoples of different parts of Asia and Asia Minor have developed characteristics-treatments, modes of drawing, arrangements-which for the time at least pass as essentially their own; and wherever the old figures have wandered, they have been modified, adjusted to local theories, and made to conform to the local color scheme in such manner that they are practically part of the system into which they have been adopted. Where this has not been done the rugs are mere bald composites, and have lost much of their artistic charm thereby.

    In any endeavor to classify the various fabrics, even tentatively, on a basis of similarity of ornament forms alone, sight must not be lost of the fact that much of the territory where these rugs are made has quite recently changed hands, and while therefore some rugs are sold under new classification, the character of the people and the fashion of their workmanship remain as if they had not passed from one rule to another. Perhaps the best that can be done in the way of broad characterization is to say that the Caucasian, Turkish, and Tartarian or Turkoman fabrics are geometrical, while those of the Persians, and the Indian whose impetus and education are Persian, are realistic and floral. This general distinction will serve as a premise to consideration of the rugs of commerce. It is by no means meant that the floral element is absent from the Caucasian, Turkish, and Turkoman fabrics. On the contrary, they abound in flowers, but the genius of these countries has made the blossoms largely rectilinear. Caucasia and Turkestan have converted the forms of nature into geometry. The Anatolian weavers have conventionalized the Persian flowering vines and the flower and tree forms. Save for the distinctively Persian "pear" or "crown jewel" device, in the filling of some Kabistan, Chi-chi and Mosul rugs in the Caucasian class, and the pure forms in the Herati, -which is, as a matter of fact, Persian, -the designs have lost their Persian character upon crossing into Anatolia or over the northern or eastern borders.

    Remarkable ingenuity has been displayed in the conversion of many of these features. To preserve the swaying vine effect found in the borders of the Persian, for example, the designers of the Ghiordes and Kulah rugs have utilized the stems of their leaf patterns. The direction of these is alternated so that a perfect, although somewhat angular undulation is produced. So delicately is this effected that quite protracted study of the rug may be made before the arrangement is noticed. Nor does distance seem to have stood in the way of this interchange of patterns. To all the Mediterranean coasts Asia Minor taught the form of textile art which it had learned, and took in return whatever notions they had of decoration. To this day little Turkish children sleep under coverings, which had their patterns long ago from Morocco.

    It is not strange, again, that Chinese fretted patterns should be found scattered over the central fields and ranging in the borders of the rugs of Samarkand, Kashgar and Yarkand, and in the borders of some other Central Asian rugs. These regions, situated in the direct line of travel across the continent, have always been affected by the Chinese influence; they are in large part populated by tribes speaking Mongol dialects. But it is more puzzling to find that the Chinese fret is intimately related to the Greek key, which is in the border of many old rugs made in Asia Minor, and which in carvings, frescoes, and every other form of ornament, is recognized the world over as a distinctly Hellenic property. The apostles of common origin in decoration make the way clear of such annoyances. For example, Professor Goodyear declares that the Chinese fret and the Greek meander alike, wherever found, are only rectangular exaggerations of the curling leaves of the lotus.

    Owen Jones says that Chinese art is in essence Mohammedan, that it is Chinese only in treatment; that the Moors of the present day decorate their pottery under the same instruction, and follow the same law as do the Chinese in their vases. Chinese pottery, he adds, suggests the Persian both in flowers and creepers. As indicating the extent to which archaeology must be consulted in the endeavor to trace the journeyings of the rug patterns from one part of the East to another, the following, from the same author, is eloquent:

    "Buddhist art, and contemporary Hindu art, ornamental and otherwise, date from a time when Greek influences dominant in the Punjab and Indus countries, spread to southern India, and these were preceded by Persian and Assyrian."

    And further: "At a later date Hindu art became saturated with Mohammedan lotus patterns. These were all originally borrowed in the countries conquered by the Mohammedan Arabs during the seventh century A.D.-Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Persia. The Arab art was, therefore, ornamentally based on the Sassanian Persian, and these systems, again, drew their lotus patterns from Greco-Egyptian and Egypto-Persian sources."

    Professor Jones does not sustain the claims of the lotus to the universal parenthood of all ornamentation, but, doubt though we may that interesting contention, the origin of the lotus as a rug pattern, and much of the traveling by dint of which it came to be impressed upon the art of every country in the Orient, are here made sufficiently clear. And in spite of the changes which centuries have brought, the lotus forms have been more faithfully preserved in Persia than in any other part of the East. It was in Assyria and Babylonia that, having been transmitted from Egypt, perhaps by the Phoenicians and Hittites, whose palaces were copied by the Aryan kings, they seem to have been first crystallized in ornament, and there they have lived, almost in their original purity. In a few typical forms the lotus is found in present day Persian rugs. There seems reason for classing the palmette, so called, and the rosette among these, though the palmette is held by some authorities to be a Greek form, and to have had its derivation from the human hand with all the digits extended; by others it is derived directly from a palm growth. The closed bud which in old wall-tiles, as well as in modern rugs, alternates with the rosette or the palmette, forming a variation of the "knop and flower" pattern, is merely the nascent form of the lotus. It is significant that the forms which show indubitable kinship with the lotus are chiefly used in border designs, thus binding and unifying the life story told in the body of the rug, with an unbroken succession of the emblems of eternity and renewed being-the bud, signifying birth, and the full-blown flower, the completeness of age; the creeper typifying the long repetition of the life process which separates and yet unites the two.

    The life idea finds expression, too, in the tree forms, which seem, viewed as Aryan creations, to have had their origin in the lotus; though the versions traceable to Turanian sources would appear to represent some other growth. "From the earliest antiquity," says Doctor Rock, "a tradition came down through Middle Asia, of some holy tree, perhaps the Tree of Life spoken of as growing in Paradise." According to Birdwood, "it is represented on the commonest Spanish and Portuguese earthenware, by a green tree that looks exactly like a Noah's Ark tree."

    "Sometimes, on Persian rugs," he adds, "the entire tree is represented, but generally it would be past all recognition but for smaller representations of it within the larger. In Yarkand rugs, however, it is seen filling the whole center of the rug, stark and stiff as if cut out of metal. In Persian art, and in Indian art derived from Persian, the tree becomes a beautiful flowering plant, or simple sprig of flowers, but in Hindu art it remains in its hard architectural form, as seen in temple lamps and in the models in brass and copper of the Sacred Fig as the Tree of Life. On an Indian bag it is represented in two forms, one like a notched Noah's Ark tree, and the other branched like the temple candelabra."

    As showing the tenacity of the old forms, consider what is known in rug design as the Herati pattern, or more commonly the "fish" pattern. It is found in perfect purity still, in the rugs of Herat, some of them so new that they still bear the odor of the woolpen; also in the Sehnas, Feraghans, Khorassans and Kurdistans. and in rectilinear form in pieces from Afghanistan. Its feature is a rosette between two long, curved leaves, in which some imagination has discovered the resemblance to fishes. This has given the device its name, though it has by some authorities been traced directly to very old Chinese heraldic emblems. The pattern is in any case an ancient one, and whether or not, in some older day, the fish, sacred to Isis and later to Venus, was intended in these lancet-leaf forms, is open to question; but the presence here of the lotus, emblem of fecundity, suggests such a possibility. The fish pattern is not found in the body of the rugs unless it be in comparative purity, as a diaper covering all or a considerable part of the central field. In this diaper it alternates with a square or diamond-shaped rhomboidal arabesque device in such manner that the "row" effect is perfectly maintained. There are two forms, rizekh and darisht, fine and coarse. In the Herat rugs the coarse form is used. In the Feraghans, Sehnas, and Khorassans the diaper is most compact.

    There are other elements equally enduring. Take, for example, the "pear" pattern. For this device, which has been so widely employed throughout the East as to be almost universal, Professor Goodyear also claims a lotus derivation, but the foundation of the claim is not so clear as in the cases of some other figures. The "pear" seems to have intimate and original association with Persia, since it is in the Persian fabrics that it is most freely used. There is, indeed, hardly any variety of Persian or Kurdistan fabrics, which does not display it. In the Sarabands and some Shiraz examples it covers the whole field. In the Khorassans it is used in most complex arrangement. Adopted into the rugs of other countries it follows a rectilinear form, which shows that it is anything but indigenous.

    There are many theories concerning the precise origin of the pattern; to some it is known as a "palm", to others as a "river loop", supposed to represent the bend of the river Jhelum in Kashmir, or, again, the Ganges. This meaning is chiefly accepted where knowledge of the device is obtained from Kashmir or India shawls. In these the figure is much elongated, which adds greatly to its grace; it is an exaggeration of the long forms found in the rugs of Khorassan, and is adorned after [the Khorassan manner, though with far greater elaboration. ; '

    The popularity of the shawls in America antedated that of Oriental rugs by something like a century; hence the pear shape, which in connection with shawls is still called the cone, has popularly been supposed to be purely Indian. There is little doubt, however, that the pattern, like the shawl itself, is Persian, and was carried into Kashmir by the Iranians when they went thither in the seventh or eighth century, taking with them their arts and their ancient Zoroastrian faith. This is further borne out by the fact that the manufacture and use of shawls, of a sort similar to those made by the people of India and Kashmir, are still common among their kinsmen in Kirman, in southern Persia.

    The "river loop" theory, therefore, seems to be without warrant, and wholly local. An explanation more plausible and consistent, and from a source which invokes credence, is that given by Iskender Khan Coroyantz, Imperial Commissioner for Persia at the Chicago World's Fair, and interpreter to the late Shah, Nasr ed Din, during his travels in Europe. He declares that the device represents the chief ornament of the old Iranian crown, during one of the earliest dynasties; that the jewel was a composite one, of pear shape, and wrought of so many stones that, viewed from different sides, it displayed a great variety of colors. If this explanation be correct, it is easy to understand the ornamentation of the pattern, which in the shawls, and to a certain extent in the rugs of eastern Iran, reaches such perfection. But it is not to be supposed that the shape was chosen for such perpetuity without symbolic or religious reason. Taking into consideration the deep devotion of the ancient Persians, there is no room to believe otherwise than that the crown-jewel shape represents, in its first meaning, the flame which they worshipped and which is worshipped to this day by their posterity in India and southern Persia. This view is born out by Sir George Birdwood in his "Arts of India", where he calls the device the "cone or flame."

    I have selected, from the names applied to this figure, that of "pear" pattern, not because it has any historical or symbolical accuracy, for it has none; but because the image it conveys is more clearly apprehended by the Western mind; it is what the shape suggests, throwing meaning out of the question.

    Efforts to fix the derivation of the fretted ornaments have been many. Some of them have been disregardful of the universality of symbolic patterns, for insisting upon which there seems now such abundant reason. Ch. T. Newton calls attention to certain coins from Priene, as indicating that the Greek key pattern symbolized the river Maeander. Birdwood, again, says in his "Indian Arts": "I believe the swastika to be the origin of the key pattern ornament of the Greek and Chinese decorative art." Support is given to this theory by a Chinese diaper pattern exhibited on pottery in the British Museum, and reproduced in Hulme's "Principles of Ornamental Art". It is a mere multiplication of the swastika in its simplest form, no other element appearing. Agassiz, in his monograph, says: "The original motive of the Moeandrina Phrygia is given us by leptodea, and many species of madrepores. The leptodea of the Persian Gulf show the patterns which ornamentalists call Greek - the wave patterns which surround Chinese, Persian and Arabic manuscripts." A remote derivation, and one, it seems, hitherto unsuggested, is the device used so freely in the carvings of the Maya temples in Yucatan and other parts of southern Mexico. It is there construed, by men who have spent years in the study of these extraordinary ruins, to be of serpent derivation, but its kinship to the Chinese and Greek forms is too plain to require argument. The claim made for Yucatan, that it, and not any part of Asia, was the cradle of the race, has startling substantiation in many of the ornament and architectural forms, and traces of religious belief, which have endured there to this day.

    Colonel Thomas Wilson, of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, has published a scholarly and interesting monograph on the "swastika", in the introductory pages of which he says: "No conclusion is attempted as to the time or place of origin, or the primitive meaning of the swastika, because these are considered to be lost in antiquity. The straight line, the circle, the cross, the triangle, are simple forms, easily made, and might have been invented and reinvented in every age of primitive man and in every quarter of the globe, each time being an independent invention, meaning much or little, meaning different things among different peoples or at different times among the same people; or they may of had no definite or settled meaning. But the swastika was probably the first to be made with a definite intention and a continuous or consecutive meaning, the knowledge of which passed from person to person, from tribe to tribe, from people to people, and from nation to nation, until, with possibly changed meanings, it has finally circled the globe."

    A multitude of authorities are quoted in Colonel Wilson's book, each attributing what he conceives to be the swastika's significance, and a multitude of illustrations show the forms this mysterious, prehistoric sign has taken, and the variety of objects it has adorned, in different parts of the world. It has been found in nearly all prehistoric ruins, in the temples of Central America, and the Indian mounds of the United States, as well as on the stone ware of Europe and the buried ruins of all the East. It has passed out of use in modern times among nearly all Christian nations.

    Colonel Wilson says further: "The swastika mark appears both in its normal and ogee forms in the Persian rugs. While writing this memoir, I have found in the Persian rug in my own bedchamber, sixteen figures of the swastika. In the large rug in the chief clerk's office of the National Museum, there are no less than twenty-seven figures of the swastika. On a piece of imitation Persian rug, with a heavy pile, made probably in London, I found also figures of the swastika. All the foregoing figures have been of the normal swastika, the arms crossing each other, and the ends turning at right angles, the lines being of equal thickness throughout. Some of them were bent to the right, and some to the left. At the entrance of the Grand Opera House in Washington, I saw a large India rug containing a number of ogee swastikas; while the arms crossed each other at right angles, they curved, some to the right, some to the left, but all the lines increased in size, swelling in the middle of the curve, but finishing in a point. The modern Japanese wistaria work-baskets for ladies have one or more swastikas woven in their sides or covering.

    "Thus it appears that the use of the swastika in modern times is confined principally to Oriental and Scandinavian countries, countries which hold close relations with antiquity; that, in western Europe, where in ancient times the swastika was most frequent, it has, during the last one or two thousand years, become extinct. And this in the countries which have led the world in culture."

    Discussing its prehistoric existence over such wide area of the earth's surface, Colonel Wilson builds wholly upon the theory of migration. He says: "The argument has been made, and it has proved satisfactory, at least to the author, that throughout Asia and Europe, with the exception of the Buddhists and early Christians, the swastika was used habitually as a sign or mark or charm implying good luck, good fortune, long life, much pleasure, great success, or something similar. The makers and users of the swastika in South and Central America, and among the mound-builders of the savages of North America, having all passed away before the advent of history, it is not now, and never has been, possible for us to obtain from them a description of the meaning, use, or purpose for which the swastika was employed by them. But, by the same line of reasoning that the proposition has been treated in the prehistoric countries of Europe and Asia, and which brought us to the conclusion that the swastika was there used as a charm or token of good luck or good fortune, or against the evil eye, we may surmise that the swastika sign was used in America for much the same purpose. It was placed upon the same style of object in America as in Europe or Asia. It is not found upon any of the ancient gods of America, nor on any of the statues, monuments or altars, nor upon any sacred place or object, but upon such objects as indicate the common or every-day use, and on which the swastika, as a charm for good luck, would be most appropriate, while for a sacred character it would be most inappropriate."

    Thus the emblems of the older faiths are popularized in the ornament systems of the whole world today. Their very endurance speaks their fitness to endure, and to become universal, even in imperfect forms. The harmony of which they are an expression has in some mystical way seized upon the imagination of the West, and taken the place of later conceit, which finds in ingenuity alone its claim upon the fitful fancy of mankind. All that is not ephemeral in design, all that does not lose vogue in a season, seems to be directly traceable to these old, symbolic devices of the East, which have outlived the passing of nations and of creeds.

    Allusion has been made elsewhere to the manner in which rug designs travel from one part of the Orient to another. Until one has been among the weavers and rug dealers of Persia, it is impossible to realize how thoroughly established and universally recognized the great majority of designs have become, how much more of a trade than an art is most modern weaving. The native designer copies and modifies. His originality stops with the petty changes in drawing or color made in some old design. In the first place the parts of the design have names, which are known to weavers everywhere. The main ground, for instance, is metnih; the band of solid color on the outside of the rug, tevehr; the narrow stripe just inside that, zinjir, or chain; the small border stripe, bala-kachi; the middle or main stripe is ara-khachi; the corners, lechai; the lines dividing the stripe, su, or water; the outlines of all designs, kherdeh. These are only terms used to indicate parts of the rug. Then with each complete design known by a name, the Oriental might, if he only would, order the most elaborate rug without the expenditure of more than fifty words. It is necessary to dictate colors only for the principal parts of the design. The color of the smaller elements is usually left to the weaver's judgment, except in big factories. There the European or Levantine manager controls the distribution of colors even down to the smallest vine and leaf forms.

    The Perso-Turkish word for design is tereh. An echo of the days when the weaving was done under viceroyal auspices is found in the names by which many of the standard terehs are known. There is, for example, the tereh Shah Abbas, one of the most beautiful and at the same time simplest of the ancient designs. While floral in character, it is a complete departure from the complex flower and vine masses common in fine Persian fabrics prior to the reign of the Great Shah. Its flowers, laid broadly in yellow, red and blue, and with only the smallest display of connecting vines, were of good size and in a way conventional, and stood out clear and fine upon a plain ground of the richest blue. They are really modifications of the alternating palmettes and rosettes found in the old borders. There still remain in the possession of some fortunate collectors, in this country as well as in Europe, old Shah Abbas pieces, worn to the woof but with the abiding vestiges of color still luminous. I have known a Persian who paid thirty dollars-and gladly-for a fragment of one of these old Shah Abbas rugs, not more than fourteen or fifteen inches wide, and perhaps two feet long. He drew it tenderly and with indescribable pride from his strong-box, and turned its velvety surface back and forth in the dim light of the bazaar, saying: "Now I have a real model. I shall see if the weavers of today are failures or not." The Shah Abbas pattern is still made in rug factories, but in most cases it bears the name only by courtesy. It is merely a jumble of disjunct floral figures in coarse weaving and usually execrable colors, crowded into the field of some huge rug in a fashion that seems little short of mockery after one has looked on the chaste beauty of the old fabric.

    Another design, which has so much of the decorative quality of the Shah Abbas that some of its floral figures seem like a plagiarism, is the tereh Mina Khani-named for Mina Khan, long ago a ruler in West Persia. In this the flowers, alternate red, yellow and particolored red and blue, are joined by rhomboidal vines of rich olive green, so as to form a diamond arrangement. In the old versions of this design there is left an abundance of the blue ground. The main borders also carry large flowers in soft colors. The narrow stripes often show the reciprocal figures of the Karabaghs. In the moderns the figures are crowded as in the Shah Abbas, and the lustrous quality of the colors has given way to the loudness of the anilines, which when years have passed over the rug become dull and worse than unattractive.

    The Sardar Aziz Khan, once a governor in Azerbaijan, was also parent to a design, which still bears his name - tereh Sardar-but reflects no particular glory on his memory. It is common in the present day rugs, and is particularly adapted to the modern requirement in heavy design. Its principal element, by which it can be distinguished instantly, is the use of ridiculously long, narrow leaf forms, united by vines and relieved by bold floral shapes. The designer seems to have taken his first inspiration from the Shah Abbas, and added the great leaves, in place of slender vines, as a sort of sign manual.

    The favorite substitute for the fish pattern in the fine old Feraghan rugs was the kindred tereh Guli Hinnai-or Flower of the Henna design. Henna is the plant with the extract of which the Persians dye their beards, hair and finger-nails in such extraordinary shades of red. The Guli Hinnai design presents a small yellow plant shape, set in rows, and with profuse flower forms uniting them in diamond arrangement, something after the manner of the fish pattern. The treatment of this in the Feraghans makes it resemble the Herati diaper, though it is richer by reason of the predominance of red.

    Turunji means "like a sour orange." It is the name given to all pronounced medallion rug designs with curved outlines. Terek Sihbih-apple pattern-is a Kurdistan design, in which conventional elements bearing only the remotest resemblance to fruit are arranged in perpendicular rows in the ground. These are only a few of the names in vogue, but they will serve to show how thoroughly stereotyped the rug designs of the East have become.

    Before leaving this subject attention should be called to one salient feature of Oriental rugs, which may otherwise be misunderstood to the discredit of many a desirable fabric, and the loss of many a collector. In some admirable rugs faults of design will be noticed, departures from the evident scheme, which would ordinarily be unexplainable except upon the ground of carelessness of workmanship. These are the "irregularities" referred to by Sir George Birdwood, and though incomprehensible, as he elsewhere says, to the formal Western mind, their significance, so cogently pointed out by him, should in many instances lend value to the rug in which they occur, instead of going to condemn it.

    The most remarkable case of divagation in design that has ever found its way into this country, is a rug, which recently passed through the hands of an importing firm in New York. Where it has gone, or who has become its possessor, I do not know. This extraordinary rug, which is so erratic that it defies classification, has perhaps a history, which would be well worth the writing, if it could ever be learned from that distant East out of which it made its way hither. It is some four feet wide by seven in length, of extremely heavy, firm and admirable workmanship, and though it has the appearance of having been made by sewing together scraps of rugs of widely different varieties, was found upon examination to be one piece, and perfect in every way save one. It is begun after the pure Sarakhs design, in fine harmony of field and border. About eighteen inches from the beginning, the field pattern is abruptly changed to the most perfect Feraghan; the Sarakhs border is continued. Then, as suddenly, after ten inches more of progress, the inner stripe of the border is abandoned, cut off short, to make more room in the field, and for the Feraghan body is substituted a great and gaudy design upon a pale ground, which cannot be recognized as belonging to any type. In this last pattern the carpet is finished.

    Whether this eccentric composition is a work of more hands than one, each succeeding weaver having put into it the pattern which seemed to him or her noblest; or whether it is a witness to the ability of some versatile Oriental to work well in several designs; or whether, again, it tells of a task taken up by a second weaver, after the death of its beginner, and, the second having been removed, another undertaking the labor of its completion, who can tell? It may be a pattern piece for several designs; it may be a "hoodoo" rug, or it may, on the other hand, be an extreme example of the irregularity of which the learned Englishman speaks, a rug which some superstitious Persian has made to cover the grave of his progenitor, hoping that its exaggerated oddity would indeed "avert the evil eye" and vouchsafe an undisturbed repose.

    There is one more trick of design in Eastern rugs, which to many will necessitate a word of explanation. Of Western apartmental arrangement the weaver of the Orient had in the beginning, little or no conception. The topography of his own home, to fit, which his rugs were created, was of an unvarying order. It is this, by the way, which explains the prevalence of long, narrow shapes in so many varieties of imported rugs-the shapes, which are called "runners" in our market, and are used chiefly for stair and hall coverings. The floor of the Eastern room is mapped into four sections, and for these four pieces of rug are constructed. In the middle a wide strip, two narrow strips along the sides of this, and a fourth across the end, upon which the master of the house sits at meat, with room at his right hand and left for the guests of honor, or perchance his favorites, while persons of lesser importance occupy places upon the divans at the sides. Knowing no floor scheme save this, the Oriental, when the dealers in Western markets called upon him for rugs of great size, wrought all four strips into a single piece; and In the large trade collections these vast and extraordinary objects are sometimes found. Historically, they are of value, for they are the triclinia, or (later) triclinaria, upon which the ancient East lay at it's feasting. But they have no place in our scheme of furnishing, and, though they are woven, oftentimes, in the most skilful fashion, and are bought at great cost by persons in quest of the eccentric, they look to the novice like so many bits, sewn together with a purpose not altogether rational.

    Confronted with these archaic creations the Western firms were forced to take the designing of the whole-carpet sizes into their own hands. There were needed indeed fabrics, which, while they covered the requisite space, should, at the same time, preserve the completeness of design and color scheme, which marks the smaller rugs. With this in view they provided sketches of what they wanted, and contracted with the Oriental agents for the making of the big, heavy pieces, the production of which has now grown to such vast proportions in different parts of the East. It was first tried in Asia Minor, and proved so successful that Western designers are now stationed at weaving centers in Persia and India, as well as in Anatolia. The conceits of these gentlemen, following in general the theory of the East, but combining the designs of the various types or supplying Occidental features, in such manner as to please the Western fancy or accord with other Western decorations, are registered as the property of the firms. It has been the custom of the native weavers to appropriate them, but the governments, after long insistence and the invocation of consular influence, have decided that the registration shall protect the design, and that to violate it shall be a punishable misdemeanor.

Oriental-rugs-history.com home page

References:


Following that of their colors:
"The colors white, yellow, green, blue, red, and black, in cases of the dominant color of deities and sacred animals, of the Sun and Moon, were not chosen haphazard, but according to the symbolic significance which the Egyptians were accustomed to attribute to each color-the idea of joy was connected with white and green." - Brugsch: "Mythology."
Back

Border of one and the same rug:
Among very old fabrics are found examples made without border and consisting of a diaper or some complete design, bounded only by the edge of the rug itself. These are oddities, and are most rare. A piece is occasionally found from which, for some inexplicable reason, the borders have been cut away. Examination of the edges will show whether it is an original "all-over carpet" or a haggled fragment.
Back

Tree of Life spoken of as growing in Paradise:
The diversity of tree forms found in rug designs is almost limitless, and animal figures are presented in connection with the trees, in all the manifold fashions born of varied mythological and religious beliefs. A recent writer, borrowing from the pages of Washington Irving, has thus described the "tuba", the tree of paradise, representation of which is frequent in the more pretentious of the Persian rugs:
"On the right hand of the throne on which Allah sat, his face covered by twenty thousand veils lest the brightness of his countenance should annihilate the beholders, was a tree whose branches extended over a space greater than that between the sun and the earth. About it, angels were more numerous than the sands of the seashore or the beds of the streams, and rivers rejoiced beneath its shade. The leaves resembled the ears of an elephant and immortal birds flying amidst the branches repeated the sublime verses of the Koran. The fruits were milder than milk and sweeter than honey, and all the creatures of God if assembled there, would find sufficient sustenance. Each seed inclosed a houri provided for the felicity of true believers, and from the tree itself issued four rivers, two flowing from the interior of Paradise, and two issuing beyond it and becoming, one the Nile, and the other the Euphrates."
There is often found, too, what is by some called the tree of punishment, with an animal's head at the end of each branch.
There is another tree, representing a feature of the first of Mohammed's heavens, in which angels, in the form of animals, intercede for the animals upon the earth.
Back

Divans at the sides:
Occasionally there are found, principally in modern coarse Hamadans, what are known in Constantinople as keosseh (corners). These are merely quarter sections of large designs, woven as complete fabrics, and for oddity, more than aught else, used in small rooms, where two sides are taken up by divans, canopies, and other adjuncts or that modern hodge-podge, the "cosy corner." They are well adapted for this purpose, since the quarter of the central medallion common to the Hamadans covers the floor under the canopies, and the rich borders are displayed outside. Of late, also, some round pieces have been produced, in silk, chiefly if not altogether from the looms of Tabriz. They are meant, of course, for table covers, and some of them are well designed and deftly wrought.
Back

Oriental rugs shop Copyright © oriental-rugs-history.com