ORIENTAL RUG, as it has long been understood, is a narrow word. It has meant, at most, merely a floor covering. It is only in recent years that the Oriental fabric, lying loose upon the floor, has been designated by any other name than rug, no matter what its dimensions, nor how nearly it covered the entire floor space of the apartment. In our terminology nails have always been required to make a rug, even of a rug. Our multiplication of pieces of furniture has so subordinated the rug that it has had merely the value of background.
In Eastern life this is not so. The carpetings, in strictly Oriental furnishing, have always constituted well nigh the whole equipment and adornment of the apartment. They cover the floor, they cover the divans, which, save for small inlaid octagonal tables, are about the only furniture; they take the place of ceiling and wall paper, and their picturings have always been employed to do what paintings, placques and etchings do upon our Western walls.
The reason for the last-named utilization of the rug may be found, in part at least, in the embargo, which the Mohammedan canons lay upon the use of pigments, and further, in the even more stringent rules of the orthodox portion of Islam, which forbid, as well, all depiction in art of the human figures, or even of birds and beasts. Thus the art of the East has been mainly confined to textile fabrics, and except in Persia and parts of Central Asia, where the rigorous Sunnite doctrine does not maintain, its expression has not gone outside the realm of conventional and cabalistic designs. The Persians, belonging to the Shiite sect of Mohammedans the "loose constructionists" accepted with readiness the grotesque animal figures of the Chinese many of them, like the deer, leopard and dragon, having their own religious significance, and even carried to an advanced degree of perfection the representation of human figures and the sprites of their mythology. But for the most part the Mussulman populations have heeded the prohibition, and restricted themselves to such results in depiction as are vouchsafed by wool and silk. It is small wonder, then, that the fabrics are rich and varied. They embody, perforce, all that the Oriental knows of color, form, symmetry, the exaltation of faith and the delight of living.
The custom, prevalent in the Orient, of removing the shoes before entering the doorway of a mosque or the habitation of a fellow being, warrants the construction of fine rugs, in delicate tints and of dainty texture, for domestic use as well as for places of worship. But it is by no means certain that the first use of these was to be trod upon. It would seem, rather, that they were, in the beginning, employed as hangings.
How remote the time in which these strange textile devices were born is a matter for archaeology to determine. In a dozen different families of Oriental rugs are to be found the patterns of the stone carvings on the ancient Maya temples in Yucatan, which, if students of Mexican antiquities are to be believed, were built when Egypt was a wilderness, and abandoned centuries before Confucius. These Mayas were the people whose missionaries, it is averred, crossed the Pacific to settle in the Deccan, and journeying over Asia taught to infant Egypt the fundament of the Mysteries, and handed down to Judaism and Christianity, for future use, the story of Cain and Abel, and even the older one of the tempted Eve.
There is needed no effort of imagination to believe that in the gay rugs of the East there lies written, though now probably un translatable, the record of the universal mysticism. That they were made in prehistoric ages, and that their first value was religious or regal, rather than utilitarian, seems beyond doubt. Even in its rudest forms the art was sumptuary. It is coeval with the first uplifting of one man above his fellows, whether the exaltation was religious, pecuniary, or physical.
It is not the purpose here to transcribe the historical record of this branch of the textile art, save in so far as shall. Serve to suggest forcibly the deep significance of Oriental fabrics, as embodying the natural religions, which preceded all known or recorded formulae, the kinship of races now accounted alien to one another, and the trend and tenor of Eastern life, which through centuries of invasion, turmoil, and wandering to and fro, has retained the forms which were taught it in the morning of the world.
The skeptical necessarily a synonym for practical will begrudge to rugs this measure of dignity or import. It is not, however, claimed that these rugs relate in legible form the specific occurrences of history. They do not specify. They are not even cuneiforms. They array no names, no dates. They do, nevertheless, when studied collaterally, tell an edifying story of a widespread and almost universal faith whose forms are lost, and of peoples of which, in this age of atomics, there remains little save the names. It is the indubitable identification of modern rug designs with the solemn and mysterious emblems of the "unrecorded time," the proven fact that the archaic systems of weaving were the same as those in vogue in the East today, that compels the thoughtful modern, of whatever race, to view these fabrics, as Sir George Birdwood says, as "works of art, and not manufacturers' piece goods produced at competition prices."
There is thus far, it seems, no means of establishing, positively, an origin for these fabrics more ancient than the Egyptian. Certainty halts there, perforce, until some new light shall rise to reveal clearly an older civilization than that in the valley of the Nile. But there the weaver, laboriously, as he does today, wove his threads into the same mystical, universal shapes which come now in the rugs consigned from Smyrna and Istanbul. And yet, Heliopolis is a straggling ruin. Grass overgrows the foundations of the temples in which great tapestries once hung before the shrines of the Phoenix and the sacred Mneh. The glowing fabrics which made beautiful the altars of Isis and Osiris are dust, and in Cairo shrewd traders charge the Giaour travelers from Europe and the Americas ten prices for sedjadeh shipped over from Constantinople or Smyrna for the purpose, or for the scattering prayer rugs and grave-cloths which come out from the districts beyond the desert. The Levantine merchants, if you ask them about the rugs from Damascus or Baghdad, will shrug their shoulders and shake their heads in negation; but many skilful hands once labored at the looms in these cities, and the fabrics of Thebes, Tyre, Memphis, and Sidon were doubtless worth at one time almost their weight in gold.
Assyria and Chaldea stand next to Egypt as ancient homes of rug making, and though no specimens of the early Assyrian remain, the character of the designs is known from the wall reliefs found at Nineveh, which now have place in the British Museum. Professor J. H. Middleton, of Cambridge, says of these: "The stuffs worn by Asur-Banipal are most elaborate in design, being covered with delicate geometrical patterns and diapers, with borders of lotus and other flowers, treated with decorative skill. A large marble slab from the same palace is covered with an elaborate textile pattern in low relief, and is evidently a faithful copy of an Assyrian rug. Still more magnificent stuffs are represented as being worn by Assyrian captives, on the enamelled wall tiles from Rameses II.'s palace (fourteenth century at Tel el Yahudiyah. The woven patterns are most minutely reproduced in their different columns, and the design, special to Assyria, of the sacred tree between two guardian beasts, is clearly represented, though on the most minute scale."
This paragraph contains much in substantiation of the claim that modern Oriental rugs are identical with the earliest fabrics produced in Egypt, for the "delicate geometrical patterns and diapers, with borders of lotus and other flowers," will be found reproduced with scarcely any modification in many Eastern rugs today. And touching the marble slab here referred to as "a faithful copy of an Assyrian rug," it is agreed that many of the Babylonian designs are found in their completeness in the modern Persian pieces. "The preeminence of the ancient Babylonian weavers," says another writer, "does not appear ever to have been lost by their successors, and at the present time the rugs of Persia are as much prized and as eagerly sought after by European nations as they were when ancient Babylon was in its glory."
As for the "design, special to Assyria, of the sacred tree between two guardian beasts," referred to by Professor Middleton, it was found by the writer in New York City, no longer ago than December 1899, in a Persian silk rug of beautiful workmanship and high value. The Armenian dealer laughed at it as uncouth, and said he had no idea of its meaning. Yet it linked the immediate present with the life of oldest Assyria, across the abyss of more than thirty centuries. Truly, "Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams."
Pliny speaks in highest praise of the skill of these Assyrians in weaving, wonders at their artistic blending of colors, and records the fact that all this sort of work had come, long before his era, to bear the name of "Babylonica peristromata" the seal of its most perfect masters. To this day, among the peoples of the Levant, that old Greek name lingers, and the traders of the Mediterranean fully believe that the whole art of rug-weaving had its earliest beginning, as well as its greatest splendor, in Babylonia and Chaldea.
Of the Phoenician and archaic Grecian textile patterns the only knowledge to be had is in the designs of the pottery, which show in detail a multitude of patterns, both separate and consecutive, which appear in the rugs of Asia Minor and the Trans-Caucasus today, in perfect integrity. Professor Middleton refers to them in this wise: "Simple combinations of lines, arranged in designs obviously suggested by the matting or textile fabrics." He says further: "Some of the designs of this class seem common to all races of men in an elementary stage of progress, and occur on the earliest known pottery, that of the Neolithic Age."
As time went on, this primitive ornamentation grew more profuse. Greece and her neighbors borrowed the floral-geometrical patterns, chiefly the lotus and attendant shapes, from Egypt and Assyria, and made them part of their system of ornamentation, at the richest period of Greek predominance. This loan, it will be seen later, Greece and her pupil Italy repaid with interest to Persia, heir of the Assyrian art, centuries afterwards.
While, after the perfection of the floral forms, Greece was widening the field of her textile decoration, the Far East, too, developed a newer richness in its weavings, the renown of which is so abundantly preserved. How prominent a feature the rugs were of all the life of the Orient, plain and hodden in its poverty, bright and sumptuous in its splendor, the literature of all its eras shows. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is filled with allusions to them. Their colors brighten the pages of Homer. Herodotus and Strabo bear witness to the use of gold and silver rugs upon the floors in Persia. The chroniclers of conquest pause in their narratives to tell of the fabrics, which were like a sunrise of gold upon a world strewn with blossoms. Every author of antiquity whose writings the hand of Time has spared has left record of those splendid weavings.
For centuries, down into the Christian era, the fame of the Persian carpets grew among the people of the West, and vessels plying the Mediterranean carried rich freights of textiles to golden Rome. Fortunes were lavished on them. Upon their conquest of Byzantium the Romans appropriated much of its civilization, but again receding, left its art almost unaltered by their presence. The East has remained the fountain head of harmony. Even war and carnage had no power to quell the spirit of its art. The Crusaders came home with their wonderful stories, and wore on their shields as heraldic devices the dragons and griffins and nameless birds which Egypt had centuries before wrought upon the tapestries of its temples. The Troubadors sang, and the spirit of the East had entered into their singing. Europe went Araby mad.
The Saracens, swarming into Spain, took with them the Eastern looms and patterns and hues, and wove in Cordova and other town's rugs like those of the Orient. Through all Europe, in this fashion, went the famous "rugs of Baldechine" and with them the legend and poesy and mysticism of the land where they were born.
While the influence was spreading along the shores of the Mediterranean, another track had been opened by which notions of this dyeing and weaving and other Oriental handicrafts had been making way overland as far as Scandinavia, leaving all the way a trail which is plain to the present time. There have been found in towns on the Norse islands coins, which show that commercial relations existed between those parts and the Orient early in the Christian centuries, and the southern races, exploring the Norseland long afterward, were amazed at the skill of these snow-girt nations in the dyeing of wool and the weaving of rugs and coverings.
But the Eastern textile industry as planted in turn in Spain, Sicily, and Venice, retained better its characteristic form, for the Mediterranean merchants took to their cities the most skilful weavers from the looms of Persia, and, first from Cordova, then from Palermo in the twelfth century, and from Venice in the fourteenth, Europe was supplied with rugs of the true Oriental pattern and method, to spread in its cathedrals, in the throne-rooms of its royalty and the boudoirs of its great ladies.
So far had Italy progressed in the sixteenth century that the Shah Abbas, whose reign marks the climax of development in Persia, sent from his court, in order to demonstrate his antagonism to the Central Asian influence, so strong after the conquests of Genghis, Tamur, and their successors, a company of young men to study art under Raphael. It was in the lessons brought back by these that the seed was sown of the ornate, Italianesque touch in decoration, which is traceable in the rich Kirman and Tabriz rugs of the present time, and others made in imitation of them.
The same era marked the establishment of the French factories, for the manufacture of "Turkish rugs" at Arras, Fontainebleau, Tours, the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Faubourg de St. Antoine, and the Savonnerie, culminating in the setting up of looms at the Gobelins', Beauvais, and Aubusson by Colbert for Louis XIV.
With these we have naught to do, save to note that at Beauvais the tradition and theory of the Persian oriental carpets were long lived up to. At Aubusson and the Gobelins' the Babylonian richness has given way to Gallic vanity, and the harmonious and meaning designs of the sixteenth century Persian have been replaced by the panoramic untruth of French classicism. The method in vogue at the Gobelins', known as the Gobelin technique, is not that generally employed in the rug-making districts of the Orient. The closely trimmed pile, prettily termed "a mosaic in wool," is exchanged for the production of complex color effects by the working of dyed weft threads across the warp in true tapestry fashion. The crude beginnings of this system are discovered in the hard, wiry coverings called kilims, made chiefly in Kurdistan, Merv, Sehna, Shirvan, and among the nomad population in Anatolia; a further development of it appears in the pileless Soumak rugs of the Caucasus.
Great Britain had its first real knowledge of the Oriental rug for domestic use, from Eleanor of Castile and her retinue, who brought with them on their journey into England in the thirteenth century the splendid pieces which Saracen weavers had turned out from the looms in Cordova and Granada. James I. established looms at Mortlake in Surrey, but the Civil War put an end to their operation, and only after the Edict of Nantes, when French dyers and weavers skilled in the Turkish colors and patterns took refuge in England, was the work there resumed with any measure of success.
It was three hundred and fifty years ago that the "Turkish rug" looms were set up in France, then leader in every art. Year after year, through the intervening centuries, spinners have spun and dyers have mixed their dyes, and weavers have labored patient at the loom in many lands. The iron age has contrived machinery to do the work of myriad fingers, and designers, the best the schools of two continents could furnish, have fed gorgeous patterns to the flying wheels, in hope to conquer the judgment and favor of the world. And still the dusky weavers of Daghestan, Kirman, Sehna, Kurdistan, and Tabriz are knotting before their rude frames the most splendid fabrics on the globe, and the Occident, coin in hand, waits upon their weaving.