It is difficult to be certain about the early history of carpet weaving in Iran. Given the fragile nature of the materials from which a carpet is made, not many carpets have survived. Indeed, most old carpets found in museums today date from the sixteenth century onwards However, the carpet tradition is no doubt much older than that. In 1949, Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko found a pile carpet in a tomb in the Altai Mountains of Siberia; the carpet was dated to the fourth or third century b.c . Known as the Pazyrk carpet, and now in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, it has two wide borders, one with images of yellow-spotted deer, and the other depicting men either riding or standing by horses. Some of the designs are thought to be similar to shapes found on carvings at Persepolis, but this has been disputed; there is no clear evidence of either Iranian origin or influence in the case of this carpet. The earliest remains of carpets from Iran itself date to the Sasanid period; the art historian Arthur Pope thought that the production of carpets as we know them today was established at that time. Most of what can be said about the earliest Iranian carpets comes not from artifacts but from historical writings describing courts, battles, and economic exchanges. The classical Greek historian Xenophon, for example, mentioned luxurious carpets made by the Medes. Reports about Alexander’s campaigns indicate that he had found a carpet in Cyrus’s tomb. Some believe that a phrase in the Avesta , the Zoroastrian scripture, indicates that ancient Iranian carpets may have been woven with golden threads. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius apparently took a sumptuous carpet from a Sasanid palace after he sacked the city of Dastjerd in a.d 628. Also, among the spoils taken from the Sasanid capital Ctesiphon by the Arab army in a.d. 637 was a magnifi cent carpet made during the reign of Khosrow I. Called “the Carpet of the Spring Garden” ( farsh-e bahârestân ), this 90-foot square carpet, had a fl ower design and precious gems in its warps and wefts and covered the great hall at the Ctesiphon palace. Huan Tsang, the Chinese world traveler of the seventh century also wrote about the artistry of Iranians in weaving carpets and silken cloth. In the spirit of Islamic egalitarianism, the early Arab caliphs viewed carpets as a luxury and thus did not show much interest in them (the caliph ‘Omar, on the advice of ‘Ali, supposedly had the priceless Baharestân carpet cut into small pieces to distribute to people as charity). However, with the rise of Umayyads and Abbasids, carpets became objects of desire for decorating the court. Palaces of both dynasties were fi lled with magnifi cent Persian carpets. During the Saljuq period, the art of carpet weaving expanded and was further enriched by the skillfulness of women who made extensive use of the Turkish knots, especially for carpets made in Azerbaijan and Hamadân. A number of carpets currently preserved in the Alaeddin Mosque and Mevlevi Museum in Konya, Turkey, closely resemble carpets produced in this period. After the initial devastation of the Mongol’s invasion of Iran, the production of carpets grew and new rulers began to fi ll their palaces with Persian carpets. Ghâzân Khân’s palace in Tabriz was reportedly fi lled with precious Persian carpets. Tamerlane’s son, Shâh Rokh was also a patron of the arts and encouraged the elevation of the Persian carpet industry by establishing court-subsidized looms. Although reports indicate that carpets of this period had simple motifs in geometric designs, there has apparently been a great deal of exchange between carpet and architectural designs. Medallion forms and certain arabesque borders are reported to have been very popular. Most Persian carpets of the fi fteenth century are described as being decorated in miniatures with geometric patterns. With the Herât school of miniature illustration in the late fi fteenth century, curved lines also began to be used in carpet designs. During the Safavid period, the court became a major sponsor of Iranian arts and commerce—two necessary ingredients of the carpet industry. Workshops were even set up for producing carpets exclusively for the court. Safavid gardens, architecture, and monuments all became sources of inspiration for designing the carpets during this period. Both Shah ‘Abbâs and Shah Tahmâsb are reported to have encouraged the industry and used Persian carpets as gifts to foreign leaders and dignitaries. The best known carpet of this period, which is currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is the Ardabil carpet (alternatively called Shaykh Safi or the Mosque of Ardabil carpet) made in 1539 by the master weaver Maqsud-e Kâshâni.
A new feature of carpets in this period was the use of gold and silver thread, culminating in the great coronation carpet—a piece with perfect velvetlike pile and a gleaming gold background now held in the Rosenborg Palace in Copenhagen. Also, most luxury carpets of this period were woven with silk. Luxury carpets and fi nely woven quality textiles were marketed in Europe and soon became items of attraction for European courts and aristocracy. Many Europeans visited Iranian carpet factories and wrote about the high quality of materials and designs found in Persian carpets at the time. E. Kaempfer visited Isfahan workshops; D. Garcia de Silvia y Figueroa wrote of his visit to Kâshân factories; and Pedro Teixeira spoke of rugs from Yazd, Kermân, and Khorâsân. John Baptiste Tavernier, a famous French jeweler, and Jean Chardin, a French traveler, both visited Isfahan factories and described Persian carpets as the best-quality carpets, as did Adam Olearius about carpets from Herat. The quality of Persian carpets attracted the attention of European kings, who even sent their own merchants and craftsmen to either acquire Persian carpets or to learn the art of making them. Louis XIV, king of France, sent several craftsmen to Iran to learn how to weave carpets like Persians. Sigismund III Vasa, king of Poland, sent a merchant to the city of Kâshân for purchasing Persian carpets in 1601—some currently preserved in the Presidentz Museum of Warsaw. Two such early purchases, with the royal arms of the king woven into them, still survive—one in the Textile Museum in Washington, DC, and the other in the Bavarian Museum in Munich, Germany. Since April 1700, when Frederick IV and Queen Louise of Denmark were crowned, a Persian carpet has been used in the anointing during the coronation ceremony of every Danish king—a carpet “woven with gold,” which was given as a gift to a Danish king’s wife by the Dutch in 1666 and preserved at the Rosenborg Palace. Carpets like this are among many more found in Europe. Over 1,000 carpets from this period have been located in various museums and private collections around the world. Those made in the early 1600s are often referred to as Polonaise carpets because they were made to the specifications of the Polish king—silk carpets often made in Isfahan and Kâshân, with gold and silver warps and wefts. The Afghan invasion of Iran in 1722 started a long period of political and economic instability, resulting in the fall of the ruling Safavids. Nâder Shah’s short rule could not reverse the economic decline, which was compounded by a general decline in world trade due to wars in Europe, rising insecurity in sea and land routes, and European abandonment of posts in the region. Carpet production in this period was limited to local markets supplied by nomads, rural women, and craftsmen in small towns. During the time of the Zand dynasty, Kermân became an important center of carpet weaving, and the highly valued goat wool from this city was exported. While the export of Iranian carpets declined, the industry imported new design elements from India, and new colors such as light pink, green, and blue were added to white backgrounds on Persian carpets. During the reign of the Qâjârs, the carpet industry fl ourished. Qâjâr rulers encouraged the production of some beautiful carpets in Khorâsân and Tehran with small patterns of scrolls, arabesques, and fl oral designs. Nâser- od-Din Shah was an active promoter of the industry in Europe, offering beautifully-made carpets as gifts to European leaders. He presented Queen Victoria with 14 new Persian carpets from Kurdistan and Khorâsân in 1876 and many more to the Vienna Exhibition in 1891. Khorâsân and Kurdish designs from this period gained tremendous popularity in Europe, the former for their glowing colors and higher quality, and the latter for their mixed-fi sh and triangular citron designs. During the Victorian Era, Farâhân carpets, which had a light green color with tiny knots, became very popular among British families. In this period, Tabriz also became a major exporter of Persian carpets to Europe through Turkey. By the late 1800s, when Europeans had become exposed to and interested in Persian carpets, and Western palaces, museums, and rich homes had begun collecting them, American, British, and German companies began investing in Persian carpets, thus ensuring a steady fl ow of these carpets to their countries. Foreign investors organized the commercial production of carpets in Mashhad, Tabriz, Kermân, and Soltânâbâd. Export of commercial-style carpets soon supplanted the export of luxury carpets and silk materials during the late eighteenth century. By 1914, Ziegler and Company, P. Hotz and Company, and Oriental Carpet Manufacturers of London had operations in Iran and were marketing Iranian carpets abroad. Foreign interest in Persian carpets provided a badly needed boost to the industry. These companies encouraged mechanization and standardization of many procedures that were often left to the whims and wishes of small producers and middlemen in the industry. However, such interest was not without its detrimental effects. Synthetic aniline dyes were introduced and used widely since they provided bright, even garish, colors that were more attractive to Europeans. This reduced the durability and overall quality of carpets in which this material was used. The rise of Rezâ Shah to power began to curtail foreign investment in the carpet industry. On February 3, 1936, the Pahlavi government ordered the closure of the Eastern Carpet Manufacturing Company (ECMC), which had operations in Kermân, Arâk, and Hamadân, and transferred its assets to the newly established Iran Carpet Company. The government banned the import of synthetic aniline dyes, established carpet factories, and encouraged the use of the fi nest materials and methods of manufacturing. Although graduated taxes were introduced in order to discourage the use of synthetic dyes, the practice did not subside since it provided the industry a wider and more fl exible range of colors. As the government centralized, the Iranian economy and industry were modernized, international trade was expanded, a middle class was formed within the Iranian society, and the demand for Persian carpets increased both at home and abroad. Taking advantage of foreign interest in Persian carpets, as well as the strong artistry associated with this product, Mohammad-Rezâ Shah Pahlavi continued to promote the carpet industry as both an art and an important source of foreign exchange for Iran. With the rise of the middle class around the world and the ease of communication and transportation, the Persian carpet became a globally known and desired object. The Iranian government responded to this demand by passing supportive legislation for the industry and the export of carpets abroad. Locally, more shops were established by government subsidies, and rural cooperatives were established as a way of helping the small producers. The establishment of the Tehran Carpet Museum provided a forum for organizing various exhibitions and educational seminars about the industry. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it was hoped that the Iranian carpet industry would expand and become stronger due to the revolutionary government’s espoused aim of improving Iran’s nonoil exports. In reality, however, the Iranian carpet industry began to decline. First, influenced by Marxist ideas, the revolutionary leaders shunned luxury carpets as bourgeois items. Second, the war with Iraq took a toll on the economy, resulting in further decline in industrial and economic production. Third, lack of experience and knowledge on the part of the newly established government created confusion in policies and procedures related to the carpet industry. Policies and affairs of the industry were assigned to four different ministries: Agriculture, Commerce, Jihad for Construction, and Industries and Mines. Unfortunately, each acted without coordination. Fourth, the economic nationalization policies implemented by the revolutionary government caused capital flight and deprived the industry of needed investment. Low productivity, imbalance in distribution, and alarming inflation in the postwar period led to further deterioration in the industry. Finally, in 1987, political conflict between Iran and the United States resulted in a ban on the import of Iranian carpets to the United States, further contributing to erosion of Iranian market share in the West. The 13-year-old U.S. import embargo on Iranian carpets opened the opportunity for Asian countries to take over Persian markets. India, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Egypt, and even Nepal increased their production of handmade carpets and filled the vacuum left by Iran’s absence. In 1980, Iran supplied 40 percent of the Western carpet market—which decreased to 16 percent by 1985. Many of these countries, especially China, produced carpets with Persian designs at prices cheaper than those produced in Iran— a practice that has continued even after the ban on Persian carpets was lifted in 2000. These imitation carpets usually cost less than those produced in Iran, mostly due to cheaper production costs. Some of these non- Persian imitations are of high quality and even more attractive because of the variety of new colors introduced to the market. To mass consumers today, the design and color are more important than the country of origin—the latter still being a factor in the antique market. Though Iran still has its own niche in the global carpet market, it has never been able to recover the market share it had prior to the revolution. The only area where Iran still has a market advantage is Europe, which gets 62 percent of its 1.2 billion dollars worth of imported carpets from Iran. Given the strong competition, especially from China, Iran is now faced with the challenge of innovation in design and productive technology. Another challenge to the Persian carpet industry comes from the widespread availability and acceptability of machine carpets with Persian designs. These mass-produced and nonartistic rugs have lower prices and are marketed more aggressively. As the size of educated middle classes around the world has increased, so has their desire for affordable handmade carpets. Making handmade carpets available to this ever-increasing market has forced producers to use synthetic rayon instead of silk or cotton, giving the consumers handwoven products of lesser quality.