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Tales from Persia – The rich history of Persian carpets and rugs


Tales from Persia – The rich history of Persian carpets and rugs

Carpets have been woven for thousands of years, with the world’s oldest known carpet, the Pazyryk carpet, discovered in 1948. It was found preserved within the frozen tomb of a Scythian chief in Siberia’s Altai Mountains, with radiocarbon testing revealing that it was woven around the 5th century BC. But considering its sophisticated design and advanced weaving techniques, it’s believed that carpets have been woven for at least 4,000 years.

The origin of Persian carpets

When the Persian Empire conquered modern-day Iran in 539 BC, they encountered ancient cultures that were already skilled in carpet weaving. As nomads, they herded sheep and goats who provided them with an endless source of high-quality and durable wool. Their techniques and designs were passed down from fathers to sons and gradually attracted great attention, resulting in Persian carpets becoming one of the region’s cultural riches. 

 The Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great (600 to 530 BC), adorned his palace with locally-made carpets, elevating their status as sought-after pieces. Carpets were transformed from a necessity for covering dirt floors and insulating nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp to become decorative works of art that were signs of wealth and prestige. 

 Chinese texts dating from the Sassanid Dynasty (224 to 641 CE) indicate that Emperor Heraclius brought carpets with him following the conquest of the Sassanian capital, Ctesiphon. After the Arabs took the city in 637 CE, they also brought with them carpets, including the famous “Spring of Khosro”, which once graced the Ctesiphon palace of the Sassanian king, Khosro I. 

 It was described as follows: 

 “The border was a magnificent flower bed of blue, red, white, yellow and green stones; in the background the colour of the earth was imitated with gold; clear stones like crystals gave the illusion of water; the plants were in silk and the fruits were formed by colour stones.” 

While reports of its original dimensions vary, the carpet was cut into many pieces and divided among the Arabs as spoils of war. 

Beige Persian carpet with intricate floral designs by Carpet Cellar

Persian carpets under Seljuk and Mongol rule

In the 11th century, a Turkish tribe named after its founder, Seljuk, conquered the region and the tribe’s women were already skilled carpet makers. In fact, the Turkish (or Ghiordes) knot introduced by Seljuk women is still in use in Iranian Azerbaijan and Hamadan today. It differs from the Persian (or Sinneh) knot in that the yarn is taken twice around two adjacent warp threads, rather than the wool taking a single turn around a warp thread. 

 Between 1220 and 1449, Persia was taken and controlled by the Mongols and it’s reported that the palace of Tabriz, home to Ghazan Khan (1295 to 1304), was covered with beautiful carpets. In the early 15th century, the Timurid Empire ruler, Shah Rukh (1377 to 1447), played a role in promoting many of the cultural activities that were initially suppressed by the Mongols, including carpet weaving. When looking at Persian carpets from this period, it’s interesting to note the simpler motifs and geometric patterns that were used in the designs. 

Red and black Persian carpet with intricate designs by Carpet Cellar

The glory years of Persian carpet weaving

During the Safavid Dynasty reign of Shah Abbas (1587 to 1629), Persian carpet weaving flourished, with artisans encouraged to work at carpet weaving schools throughout the country. He transformed the new capital, Esfahan, into a cultural hub and established trade with European markets, realising the economic potential of Persian rugs. Shah Abbas is also credited with creating a court workshop where skilled craftsmen could work and carpets made from silk with highly prized gold and silver threads were woven.

 Many of the most treasured antique Persian rugs held in museums and private collections around the globe date from the 16th century. These include the magnificent Ardabil Carpet, which was woven in the town of Ardabil and is now housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. 

 In 1722, the Afghans invaded and destroyed Esfahan, marking the start of a tumultuous time in Persia’s history. While Nader Khan (1688 to 1747) from the Khorasan region came to rule, all of Persia’s resources were put into fighting against the Afghans, the Turks and the Russians, with little time for carpet weaving outside of the villages and nomadic camps. 

 It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Persian craftsmanship regained importance and carpets were woven for export to Europe and America. Some foreign companies even established businesses in Persia to facilitate carpet production and exportation. 

 By this time, Persian carpets had established a reputation for their rich colours, gorgeous patterning and the quality of their design, and having a Persian carpet became a treasured possession for many in the West.

Today, Persian rugs and carpets are distinguished by their origin of production, with major carpet weaving centres in cities such as Hamadan, Shiraz and Mashhad. The city of Tabriz played a significant role in developing the rich decorative traditions of Persian rugs and are renowned for their diverse designs. Kerman carpets often depict a damask rose while Kashan rugs have long been recognised for their intricate floral motifs and central medallions.

One of the most revered weavers of Kashan was Hajji Mollah Hassan Mohtasham, who produced Persian carpets in the late 19th century. This master weaver is credited with creating what are now known as Mohtasham rugs, finely woven rugs with magnificent colouring, short cut pile and silk edge rapping. 

Beige Persian carpet with intricate floral designs by Carpet Cellar

Persian carpets today

Historically, Persian rugs weren’t necessarily designed as carpets for living room floors but rather as wall hangings. As a result, you can find antique Persian rugs and carpets that are in exceptional condition - a reflection of their use and the quality of their design. When you buy a 100-year-old carpet, you want something that can last another 50 to 100 years. Many have already done most of the fading they are going to do, giving you peace of mind that the colouration will be as rich as it is now in several years to come.

If you’re looking to buy Persian carpets, we have an extensive collection that includes both modern and antique rugs from all of Iran’s major carpet-weaving centres. 

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