Persian Rugs

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    CANCELLING from consideration perhaps as many as half a dozen varieties of Caucasian and Asia Minor rugs, well nigh all of great refinement that remains in the Oriental rugs of the present day belongs to Persia. It is there that the Eastern rug as an art product had its first home, and there, unless some sudden and potent saving force intervenes, will be its last. Syria, Arabia, and, in an original artistic sense, India, as producing countries, have passed from the reckoning. Turkey and Turkestan are going. It must be laid to the credit of Persia that, despite her decadence as a state and the painful decline of nearly all her industries, a strenuous effort is being made to uphold the quality of the rugs, in the face of demoralizing influences which have proved the undoing of the craft in other sections of the East. The custom of making truly fine rugs took root in Turkey, but only at somewhat isolated points. The Greek culture, warring so vigorously against Orientalism, repelled the rug. It was only where the Persian influence gained indisputable foothold that the art survived in aught resembling elegance, and its practitioners harked back always to Persia as an exemplar.

    The native artistic spirit of Persia is longer-lived, as it is more spontaneous, but it is next to impossible to escape the conclusion that these are its latter days. The mystery of Persia, the romance of it, are being dissipated at last. The hand of the West, or to be more literal, the North, is upon it. It and its arts are going the way of all the rest of the Orient, and though some souls may cling to tradition, and strain their eyes to catch "the light's last glimmer", the inevitable has happened. Persia has become a business field. Its artisans are no longer fancy free, and even when left to their own devices are disappointing. Its idealism, its invention, its imagination, and even its manual deftness have in great measure departed. Commerce skurries along, like a man with a sack, in the path where splendor has gone by, picking up fragments. He mounts a box, now and then, to auction to the rest of the world the treasures and the gewgaws he has found.

    Even so, the finest rugs come today, as they always have, out of Persia, but the fabrics, which were once artistic marvels, as well as models, are now made, and too often poorly made, for market. It is not too much to say, however, that the standard in rugs is being upheld more sturdily than anything else that the country produces. This is due in part to the fact that until recently the rug-producing districts of Persia have been a terra incognita to the Western buyers, and the difficulties of inland travel are apt to remain an obstacle for some time to come. Even the Constantinople dealers have found it more to their comfort and about as much to their profit, to carry on their dealings with the Persian weavers from the easy distance of Istanbul, through agents resident in Persia. They have foregone thus all accurate knowledge of the localities where the various Persian fabrics are produced, and have contented themselves with nomenclature, which is erroneous chiefly because it is long out of date. America, which has taken its knowledge at second, third or fourth hand from them, has had slender notion of the Persian classifications.

    But if knowledge has gone out in scant measure, the industrial evils of the West have come into Persia in full volume, and the weavers have been only too prone to welcome them. Now — rather late in the day to be sure, but still in time to prove of infinite service — the authoritative forces of the Empire have bestirred themselves to check the spread of bad color and sham workmanship. And whatever criticism may be passed on the Persian polity in other respects, it must be credited with good intent in this. In the chapter on Dyers and Dyes I have cited the law lately issued by the Shah, prohibiting the importation of aniline colors. That it was the outcome of European suggestion need not detract from the wisdom of His Majesty in perceiving its ultimate worth to his Empire, and that he is sincere in his intention to enforce it has had ample proof. During my brief stay in the city of Tabriz there were destroyed, at public burning in the caravanserai of the custom house, over four thousand pounds of aniline dye, sufficient, had it not been intercepted by the officials, to have spoiled many a batman of honest wool. The time was more than ripe for a positive reiteration of the royal disapproval of anilines, for a cursory journey through the bazaars of any Persian town shows the chemical dyes largely in preponderance, and it is difficult, and in many places impossible, to find embroideries or fabrics of any sort which contain only the old fashioned colors.

    The rug interests at Tabriz have been persistent in their contention for good dyes, since the only ground for criticism adverse to the Tabriz products was that the colors were not fast. The effort to maintain a high standard of excellence in the output of the Tabriz looms has been continuous, and the results good in the main, but it seems, contemplating all the conditions, to have been rightly observed, in an earlier chapter of this volume, that heretofore the real conservative force has been among the less polished tribes. Probably the most trustworthy Persian rugs, " by and large", to be had in the

    American market today are those made in remote parts of Eastern, Western and Southern Persia. It is in these, chiefly, that one finds the admirable characteristics both of color and weaving, which once distinguished the products of the middle district as well. This is assuming that we are speaking of the modern fabrics, and not of the half-worn but still beautiful creations of other days. It is true that European designers are maintained by the rug manufacturers at Sultanabad, and that designs made up of Oriental elements but with novel color combinations are sent from America to Tabriz to be wrought, as they are to India and Turkey, but Persian designers are still at work in the bazaars of Tabriz, and the dwellers in the mountains are weaving still the old designs, to some of which reference has been made in the chapter on Design.

    The change of boundaries which Persia has gradually undergone has stripped from her some large and important rug-making districts, but the rugs from such parts, with some few exceptions, are lacking in what is recognized as distinctive Persian character. All the fabrics illustrative of Persian style and method are still made in provinces which remain under dominion of the Shah, and now and then in them is found a gleam of the old glory.

    A stout profession of faith in the abiding capabilities of the Persian weaver is made by Mr. Sidney A. T. Churchill, for many years secretary of the British Legation at Teheran. He says, summing up his review of the rug industry of Persia:

    "When the difficulties of the weaver are considered; when one remembers the very little remuneration the weavers receive for their labor; when one reflects that they are utterly uneducated, living in squalor — more often in abject misery, fighting for bare existence — in a manner the most remote from inducing to art combination and high tone in color harmony, with scarcely any encouragement beyond what comes from earning a miserable means of existence; when to these troubles one adds the seizing of labor at one fell swoop by those in authority, visitation of epidemics, carrying off the weaver and breadwinner of a family or retarding her work, and the embarrassments of-maternity, the wonder is, not that the rug industry of the present day in Persia should have degenerated, but that under such misfortunes it should even exist.

    "Nevertheless, I am convinced that with sufficient inducement and encouragement the Persian weaver of to-day could be got to equal the best efforts of his predecessors, if not to excel them".

    Whether his sanguine view of the possibilities is warranted or not, there is abundant proof that in his description of the drawbacks which beset the weaver Mr. Churchill was well within the facts, and the conditions have, if anything, grown more severe in the five years that have passed since his departure from Persia. Journeying down from Julfa, the customs port on the Aras river, where the Russian and Persian borders meet, the story of poverty and depression is to be read all too plainly. Nothing is in plenty, save tea and vermin. These are the staples at every village khan and roadside caravanserai. In one or two towns I saw, through open gateways in the mud walls, a small loom or two, with rugs in process of making. The designs were pleasing, partaking in a measure of the characteristics of both Persia as now recognized and the Caucasian country, which long ago passed from Persian control. This commingling of patterns made them resemble to some extent the weavings of Shiraz, but the colors, it was clear at a glance, left much to be desired. As we passed along the road which is the main highway between Russia and the Shah's domain, the entire country was in a state of excitement over the expected advent of the ruler, who was then on his way out from Teheran to seek treatment at the health resorts of Europe. Plans had been made for his reception all along the route, and rugs, new and indisputably bright, had been hung up to cover some part of the gray walls, the dreary monotone of mud. But for all the gaiety of the fabrics, and the laudable purpose they served, it took only half an eye to see that the dyes were aniline, of a sort to make the author of the prohibitive law shudder, had he vouchsafed them any critical attention.

    In the mountain districts south, east and west of Tabriz, however, and throughout the uplands along the Turkish border, there are some fast dyes and capital workmanship, and it is noteworthy that save for some of the personally conducted rugs turned out from the looms of Tabriz, the weavings of the tribeswomen enjoy the greatest favor of any of the fabrics of Persia. The reason is plain. They are done at leisure, without any spur to haste, and altogether, much in the old fashion. The substitution of Turkoman elements, in many of the Persian loom products, for the old Persian designs, is easily understood, when it is remembered that the Persian of to-day is a transplanted Turk, that the language used over the greater part of the empire is a peculiar form of Turkish, and that the pure Persian, the Iranian, is a rara avis in the land whose name he wears.

    In northern Persia, at least, the best rugs of tribal manufacture are woven by the Kurds, who bring them to market at Tabriz, in considerable quantities. They ask rousing prices for the goods upon arrival, but are kept upon tenter-hooks by the dealers until, weary of the atmosphere of the crowded city, after a fortnight of bootless waiting they dispose of their load for what it will readily bring, and go back to their tents in the mountains and their endless feuds.

    But the low prices at which the rugs are got by the Persian or Armenian merchant do not maintain in his dealing with his customer, for with the advent of a prospective buyer from the West the figures are raised, and kept up until he either must purchase at about the price demanded in Constantinople, or go home empty-handed. It is a familiar saying in the East that it takes two Jews to beat one Armenian, and six Armenians to beat one Persian.

    It is worthy of remark that throughout Persia the medallion idea is taking the place of the old diaper patterns. Even in such terehs as the Herati, the Djushaghan and even the minute all-over designs of Sehna, the medallion has been introduced, in one form or another. There are medallion centers, with the ground about them filled with the old device, but gradually the space covered in that way is being diminished, and solid grounds substituted, for the sole purpose, apparently, of saving time and labor. Fortunately there are a few designs, such as the Shah Abbas and the Mina Khani, which do not lend themselves readily to that sort of treatment.

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