The Oriental Rug - A Brief History

Circa 8,000 BCE First domestication of the sheep in Luristan SW Persia

Off-loom textiles such as felt, knitting, and macrame.

7,000 year old jars of wine found in the Zagros Mountains. Early loom technology. 

By Circa 5000 BCE Wool was being dyed and woven.

Circa 3,000 to 500 BCE. Elam. The first great Persian Empire. The first writing, pre-dating the Mesopotamian. They refined the art of spinning, dyeing, and weaving to an extent unsurpassed to this day.

500BCE to present day. Central Asian nomadic tribes also developed the art of the rug to equal the cities.

7th – 10th Century AD - Advent of Islam facilitated urban expansion. Women as the newly exclusive housekeepers and home-weavers became the de facto custodians of tribal lore expressed via the designs they wove.

16th – 17thCentury - Rise of Europe

The Renaissance was matched by a concomitant flowering in Central and Near Asia with a new emphasis on powerful and wealthy sedentary city-states and kingdoms: The Ottomans in Turkey and the Safavids in Persia, the Central Asian dynasties in Herat and Samarkand, and their cousins in India, the Moghuls. This is the period of the advent of the realistic floral rug. Cartoons, or graph paper blueprints, began to be drawn first, moving creative intent from the weaver to the designer. Whole teams of artisans became involved. As with European Renaissance painting, the first fashionable decorative carpets were made in ateliers under the name of a great designer. Traditional home-based weaving continued. The first large-scale rug exports to a broader Europe are reflected in paintings of the period.


Circa 1720’s – Destruction of  Urban Weaves

Persian royalty and their cities were destroyed by Afghan, Belouch, Afshar and Turkoman nomadic tribes. Tribes and villages continue their home-based weaving unabated. The Ottoman workshops produced great numbers of rugs. Kurdish khans keep the fine workshop tradition alive and the culture flowers sans Persian hegemony.


Late 19th Century Revival

The rise of western economic power following the industrial revolution causes a massive upswing in demand for the oriental carpet. The first western run manufactories were set up to supply the increasing demand. This new demand primarily came from the nouveau rich and was exclusively for the floral, Imperial style of court weaving. The floral carpets of the Safavid workshops were copied ad infinitum. The modern floral style Persian rug was born and has since become known as ‘revival weaving’.


Meanwhile the traditional feminine home-based weaving art with the meaningful apotropaic and shamanistic symbols begins to decline with the advent of the cash rug economy, synthetic dyes, and machine spun worsted yarns.


20th Century - Decline in Quality - Increase in Quantity

Oriental Carpets reflect the momentous changes of the last 100 years. The discovery of synthetic dyes was a by-product of the research into radium and they spread just as virulently through eastern carpets. Increasingly, the traditional symbiotic relationship of weaver to wool producer and dyer became undermined by a new commercial imperative.

The importance of Mid-East oil brought western economic politics into the equation. By the end of the First World War the degeneration was in full swing. The weak Persian Government tried to halt the degeneration and took extreme counter-measures, such as,  proclaiming the death penalty for using inferior dyes.  Tribes living in or around sensitive oil producing areas were forcibly settled. The chivalrous age of cavalry became obsolescent as lines of oil-powered, lethal armoured tanks choked the migration routes. Motorised ground and air transport and international politics turned even the most far-flung reaches of desert and mountainside into the pawns of questionable international interests.

Virtually the whole of Central and Western Asia was carved up to suit European equations. The demand for rugs increased steadily and the only consideration of worth also became a European equation: construction. The noble traditional aesthetics reduced to simple technique, with the number of knots-per-square-inch the new benchmark. The beauty of the antique rug, with its glorious, naturally harmonious colours and spontaneously poetic designs, became a thing of the past. This new world order of anonymous mass production and multinational finance saw looms set up in poor countries outside traditional rug making lands. The reasoning was if the construction was the prime benchmark, then anyone could do it.


21st Century Revival

By the last years of the 20th century, the end of 5000 years of great domestic weaving was being confidently predicted. The denouement to this sad tale, is however, surprisingly wonderful and hinges on a newfound self- discovery and pride in tradition. Changes have taken place in the last 20 years which show that all is not lost.  The future looks brighter than ever, especially for the weavers, shepherds, and dyers returning to the traditional relationships. For instance, the weavers weave at home. They weave in their own time around the household tasks, having and feeding babies and being the glue that holds large families together. The weavers are related by extended family to the sheep growers, the spinners, the loom makers and the dyers. In this way carpet making takes on a soul and everyone has a meaningful part to play, in what is essentially a value added home industry. This is the traditional co-operative way those glowing antique carpets were made before the deleterious effects of 20th century modernisation.

For instance Afghan Turkomans’ were still weaving traditional designs and still owned grazing land that produced some of the most lustrous wool in the world but their dyeing had degenerated. So they were ready for a change. 

This return to hand-spinning and hand-dyeing wool shorn from sheep belonging to weavers’ relatives, and dyed with plants growing locally; that had died out during the 20th.century; is now the accepted benchmark. Antique and art connoisseurs reject all other contemporary carpets, which supports further re-generation of tradition. A by-product of this demand ensures the future in the west of specialist antique rug dealers because the very nature of the trade, the personal scale, denies access to chain store “sales” operators. Of course, the very word Asia is synonymous with cheap copies.


The future? Comparisons have been made with other tribal people like the Australian Central Desert painters: tribal people finding their voice after a century or more of colonisation and stunning the art world. As the Californian architect Chris Alexander said at an earlier stage of this revival, it is, “a foreshadowing of 21st century art”.