Important as the part has been which this northernmost province has played in all the history of Persia, ancient and modern, and for that matter in the history of nations which preceded Persia, little has been heard of it as a rug-producing field until recently. From its geographical position Azerbaijan has been a battle-ground of the peoples on either side of it, and since fighting was suspended has served as chief point of contact between Persia and the Northern and Western civilization. Its population, while for the most part Turkish, is diversified by strong representation of other races. The province is a part of ancient Armenia, and relics of Armenian domination are many. In the eastern section, and particularly in Tabriz, the Mussulmans are Shiahs of the most fanatical type, and in one or two instances, when the matter has come to a test in temporal affairs, the influence of the mollahs has outweighed that of the Shah and his ministers. Around Urumieh, in the west, are Sunni Mohammedans, Chaldeans, Armenians and Kurds of a rough and lawless type. It is no uncommon thing, in the bazaars of Tabriz, during the month of Muharem, to come upon a religious gathering at noonday. Fifty or perhaps a hundred Persian merchants sit grouped about upon their outspread rugs, or perhaps upon the bales of goods, their silken robes wrapped around them and their huge lamb's-wool caps set decorously at a backward angle, listening to the voluble harangue of a mollah, who, perched on an improvised pedestal above them, lectures on the Prophet's life, and more especially on the martyrdom of the Holy Family, loyalty to whom is the vital matter of the Shiah faith.
The making of rugs in Azerbaijan is as old as the province, but it was not until the vast trade sprang up in Tabriz that the Azerbaijan fabrics were known as such. All the industry here has practically been developed since 1890. Prior to that Hamadan was the marketplace for the rugs of all that part of Persia, and thence it arose that the rugs of Azerbaijan were classified as Hamadan products. Even the Kurd weavings found their market in Hamadan. The bales were made up there, and the whole output of the region, in effect, shipped from there by long camel trains to Trebizond, and so to the West. Fifteen years ago one or two New York buyers made their way to Tabriz, despite all obstacles, in the hope of securing fabulous bargains in all sorts and quantities of rugs. They found nothing at all.
Some years later, more for convenience in the conduct of money transactions than anything else, the trade of the districts to the south and east began to go to Tabriz, and the rug industry took on new life there. Today the output of the province is very large, not alone the rugs made in the villages, but the thoroughgoing fabrics of Tabriz itself, which, it must be confessed, are largely the result of European stimulation. There is all possible diversity in the rugs of Azerbaijan. Among them are found the crudest of hill products, as well as the ornate fabrics made by boy weavers, under the supervision of the most skilful loom masters. And in both classes the work done in this hitherto unvaunted region is certainly equal, if not superior, to any rug making known in Persia at the present time.
Tabriz or Tebriz Rugs. The type of rug which has come to be known as representative of Tabriz bears the name of Kermanshah, generally, in Western markets. This has given rise to an erroneous belief that the rugss from which the Tabriz variety has been developed were the product of the old outpost town of Kermanshah in the mountains of Ardelan, the province which lies immediately to the south of Azerbaijan, and is included in the vaguely defined territory known as Kurdistan. The model on which the Tabriz rugs were really designed is the ornamental and richly colored fabric of Kirman in southern Persia, a region which has a larger proportion of pure Persian population than any other in the realm, and which by reason of its remoteness from the tracks of travel has kept its pristine character to a considerable degree. A certain part of the district bears the name Kirmanshahan or Kirmanshah, and thence the confusion arose.
The Tabriz rugs of this order have also taken on some medallion features of the northern weavings, a characteristic which marks the so-called Sarakhs, made by the Turkoman settlers around Bijar in the Gehrous district, and in certain parts of the country around Hamadan. Upon this as a foundation idea has been wrought all the floral richness in which the old Persian artists were so fertile. The result is a rug, which for ornamental quality, opulence of color and fineness of texture has fairly outdone the present product, at least, of Kirman itself. It is not easy to believe that any modern fabric constructed for practical use, of like material and in like method, has surpassed or is likely to surpass the rugs of Tabriz in craftsmanship. They are as nearly perfect as they can be made by scrupulous care in the selection of the yarn, loyal adherence to textile traditions which are accounted equivalent to gospel, mastery of color combination, elaborate taste and versatility in design, united to ability and thoroughness in the art of weaving. And yet, the true Persian loves better the mellow richness of the old Feraghan or Djushaghan, the fine-wrought harmonies of Sehna, or even the flowery profusions, which still bear the names of Teheran and Ispahan.
The reason for his preference is plain. It is atmospheric. There is little of spontaneity in the Tabriz rugs. They are brilliant, showy, pictorial, beautiful; but they are suggestive of fresco. To the Iranian they sniff of lacquer. They are framed panels, splendid, to be sure, but formal. To say that they are not Oriental is a great contradiction, truly, and one that some persons will deny, but it is nevertheless true that although representing something nearly akin to perfection in every process by which the East produces its textiles, the majority of Tabriz fabrics are less Eastern than many of the rude nomad rugs.
The type of Tabriz is this: A central field, the color of ivory yellowed by age; clear and fine against it a superbly drawn, waving band of ruby red, prisoning in the corner spaces, rich, perfectly tinted blooms of the lotus, in pink upon a fawn ground, and other flowers of many colors, and shapely leaves, spreading into the shoulders of the corner areas, carried on exquisite stalks and vines of vernal green. In the middle of the broad field of ivory a medallion, traced in undulating curves of deep heliotrope. Growing out of this at either end, ornate pendants, heart-shaped, representations of the great lamps, which hang in the mosques. All this shapely ornament filled with flowers and green leaves, upon an old rose ground, and wrought together with arabesques of bronze. The main border stripes grounded in deep Persian red or bright blue, with splendid floral devices, and all the intervening spaces overlaid with faint, shadow tracery of graceful leaf forms, relieved at brief intervals with other flowers. Tiny floral patterns in the borders, in deep dull red and green, upon bands of misty blue.
It sounds very like a catalogue, but it is Tabriz. And this brilliant panel, so finely toned and shaded in difficult colors, takes on an added finish and lustre from the masterly weaving. The fineness of the knots which, tied one by one, have grown into such a creation, is incredible when it is remembered that the Turkish system is used. Into a square inch of this space, oftentimes, as many as three-or four hundred knots are tied. Hardness, perfect compactness, these are the final desiderata of the Tabriz rug. In this they follow the Kirman. When rug manufacture first began to take on importance in Tabriz, Kirman weavers were brought to oversee it, and their products, made on the Kirman designs, set the pattern for others, who speedily took hold of the work. The designs gained popularity at once, but the Azerbaijan weavers, whose training had been wholly in the Turkish school, persisted in the use of what has been termed the Ghiordes knot. At first the weaving was done in houses, after the primitive custom, and the rugs delivered to the merchants upon completion. The immediate favor which they found, from the fact that they took the place of the then scarce fabrics of Kirman, led to the establishment of factories, with greater or smaller numbers of looms, and the general installment of the Kirman manner of manufacture. In Kirman, as will be shown elsewhere, the best weaving had been done, time out of mind, by boys, under the direction of a loom master. This became the system in Tabriz, and every year sees addition to the number and capacity of these establishments. The rug industry seems to grow in volume as the city's other arts and its general prosperity decline. Even now many rugs are made in the houses, on private speculation, but the tendency is altogether toward centralization, and some of the factories have as many as two hundred and fifty looms in operation.
Lads of seven or eight years sit, half a dozen or more in a row, before giant frames, tying in the knots with a swiftness and accuracy, which are nothing short of phenomenal. The eye of the uninitiated will strive in vain to follow the magical twistings of those small fingers. For the double purpose of drawing the yarns through from the back and cutting them when once the knot is made fast, the small weavers are equipped with a knife, the blade of which is beaten into a hook at the point, something after the fashion of a crochet-needle. It serves them in lieu of several extra fingers, and they manage it as expertly as they do their own small digits. In no land have I seen a more intelligent lot of boys than the solemn, black-eyed midgets who with big, black rimless wool caps on the backs of their close-shaven polls, sit like old men and weave the superb color panels of Tabriz.
In the factory of Mr. Hildebrand F. Stevens, whose guest I had the good fortune to be, there was being woven, at the time of my visit to the Azerbaijan capital, a copy of the renowned mosque rug of Ardebil (Plate XXII), now among the treasures of the South Kensington Museum. This famous original is perhaps without a peer in the world; a masterpiece of color, in the most intricate of old Persian designs. And the master of the loom on which the reproduction was being wrought was a lad of twelve years. Little, pale-faced, bowed with his burden of responsibility, he spent the long summer days walking up and down behind the eight or nine youngsters, some smaller than himself, who in that dim and dusty place were tying in the wondrous flower traceries over which the greatest Persian designer, some four hundred years ago, toiled in the palace at Kashan. I scarcely hope to see the American boy of twelve, without a day's schooling or an to his name, who can carry on his small shoulders a load like that, or keep that maze of colors in his head.
In the particular sort of Tabriz rugs of which we have spoken, it is rarely that figures of birds, animals or human beings are used. In this the Tabriz designs have departed from the Kirman custom, but other designs are employed which follow the model of the Saruks, the fine fabrics made in Feraghan. In such pieces, which affect a more spontaneous floral treatment, the birds and other forms will be found. In fact, the manufacture in Tabriz, at the present time, is coming to include all the old and fine designs. Many rugs are being made on the designs of the kalin kiars, or printed panels, sold in such quantities in Ispahan, and used so widely over Persia for hangings both on walls and ceilings. Old Asia Minor rugs are also copied, and the weavers have lately gone so far as to take the designs of Valenciennes and other European laces, which were borrowed from Persia centuries ago by the makers of fabrics in Italy, France and Spain.
A favorite device for borders in Tabriz rugs is a succession of small medallions containing inscriptions in the Persian characters. It is common to say that these writings in the "cartouches" are passages from the Koran, but it is seldom the fact. They are more frequently verses from the Persian poets.
The greatest drawback, at present, to the success of the Tabriz fabrics is a suspicion of looseness in some of the dyes, notably the blue. I made this matter the subject of some inquiry and observation, and though the criticism on the durability of the colors seems overdone it is plain that Mr. Benjamin, former United States minister to Persia, spoke wittingly when in a passage elsewhere cited, he bewailed the lost art of making Persian blue. The dyers in the great Persian rug centers frankly admit their inability to make the old-time colors.
In Tabriz they lay the blame, and with some appearance of reason, to the water, which though brought from the outlying districts gathers a large amount of impurity in its flow, and in Tabriz is dirty as well as unhealthy. The floating particles in the water take the color and are deposited as dust upon the wool. This is, in part certainly, the cause of the obstinate blue shadows which are sometimes to be seen tingeing the white, ivory and yellow areas. It is found, however, that washing the rug in cold water, sometimes for three or four days, cleanses it of this dye-dust, and leaves it clear and bright. So far as I was able to learn, the dyes now used in Tabriz, for carpet purposes, are vegetable. One cogent reason for this has been given. That they will run under the application of water is vehemently denied, but that they will show the tenacity of the ancient colors, under exposure to the sun, is not, I think, to be looked for yet.
The warp of the Tabriz rugs is cotton, and in a few of the finer wool pieces silk is used. Formerly it was customary to dye the weft, usually with the dominant color in the rug, and to weave with it a narrow web at the ends. This has been abandoned and the ends are now finished in white after the manner of most Persian fabrics. In fineness the Tabriz work varies between ten by ten and twenty by twenty knots. The average rug has about thirteen by thirteen, or one hundred and sixty-nine knots to the square inch. The surface is trimmed close and industrious beating with steel combs makes the fabrics very compact. There is a peculiar arrangement of warp in these rugs, one set of threads lying clear forward of the other, so that when the knot is tied, albeit the Turkish method is used, every ridge visible on the back indicates a row of knots, unlike the more loosely-woven Turkish fabrics, in which two rows are visible on the back for every actual row of knots. For greater solidity, also, a heavy cotton cord, of the same weight as that used in the warp, is sometimes run straight across between the forward and rear warp-threads, and between the rows of knots. The weft itself, a lighter affair, takes in the alternate threads of warp front and back, in the regular way. This filling is a trick the Tabriz weavers have learned from their neighbors of Kurdistan.
There are other imitations of the Kirman rugs made in late years, notable among them those woven at Herek-keui, in Turkey, near Ismid, on the Sea of Marmora. The industry there is the fruit of Imperial care for the people of Turkey. Silk is plentiful in the neighborhood and wool easily obtained. So great, indeed, is the plentitude of silk that even in the wool rugs of Herek-keui the central panels are often woven of it. The Sultan, like the Tabrizlis, brought Kirman weavers to instruct his subjects, and they found apt pupils. The work done here is chiefly the copying of old Persian or Ghiordes pieces, and the reversed direction of the stitches in many of the products shows the skilled rug handler that the weavers, using the back of the original for their model, have worked the new rug upside down. The field of Herek-keui is one of general imitation, and the so-called Teheran and Ispahan designs appear, though not in such plenty as those of Kirman and Ghiordes. In several towns scattered throughout Anatolia similar enterprises have been begun, since the success of the Tabriz experiment has been made manifest.