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Art Underfoot

A Carefully Chosen Oriental Rug Can Give a Lifetime of Pleasure
Linda Lynton
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

When former pro basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam, he became interested in Islamic culture and art. Such was the visual strength--the color and design--of Islamic art that "the pictures stuck," he says. Then, one day in Milwaukee, he passed a Persian rug store downtown "that had some good rugs in the window. I went in. Looked around." It was downhill from there. From that moment on, Abdul-Jabbar became an avid rug collector.

Collectors of Oriental rugs often cite a single incident as having jump-started their collecting habit. In the late 1970s, author Joyce Ware bought an Oriental rug for her bedroom. It turned out to be a "good" Turkoman rug, and from that small beginning she went on to write what is considered one of the best introductory books about rugs on the market, The Official Price Guide to Oriental Rugs.

We could certainly use a few guidelines when it comes to Oriental rugs, whether the object is to buy something to match the living-room furniture, to acquire an ethnographic work of art for the study wall or just to get acquainted with the field. Oriental rugs, in all of their glorious, colorful proliferation, are confusing in the sheer volume of their variety.

We know surprisingly little about the origins of these rugs. They are certainly indigenous to central Asia, but no one knows exactly where or when they first developed, because so few rugs have survived from even 500 years ago. The only truly ancient rug in existence, a six-foot-square, nearly-2,350-year-old finely woven pile carpet from a frozen Siberian tomb at Pazyryk, near Mongolia, has designs that are typical of ancient Persia and Nineveh, bearing little resemblance to the patterns we see on Oriental rugs today, except for the use of multiple borders and a repeating field pattern. The rug is a real bone of contention among scholars.

Nevertheless, we do know that rugs evolved among nomadic tribal peoples who roamed the central Asian steppes and, over the millennia, spread from central Asia to settle in Persia (as rug collectors still call what is now Iran), Turkey, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the numerous small nations in the Caucasus Mountains. These horse- and camel-packing nomads carried their tents, belongings, families and animals from one pasture to another in search of food, water and an amenable climate. Heavy-duty textiles--pile rugs--were the best and most efficient way to store and carry their possessions, and to protect and decorate their tents and yurts against the region's viciously cold winters.

The rug became one of the nomads' major artistic as well as functional objects. So when some of these peoples became empire builders, they took an appreciation of the rug with them. Some of the great Middle Eastern imperial dynasties of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries--the Ottomans of Turkey, the Safavids of Persia, the Mughals of India and the Mamelukes of Egypt--were all descendants of Chenghiz Khan and other nomads. Their royal patronage elevated the rug from the purely functional tribal tents made by the women of the family to the technically dizzying heights of the court rugs produced by the empires' top designers; these rugs were woven by teams of the best weavers, using the best products that money could buy.

Today, some 300 years later, the Oriental rugs that we see in stores, dealerships and bazaars are the descendants of a tradition that spans thousands of miles, thousands of years and all levels of society. Every handwoven Oriental rug, regardless of how crude or mass-produced it may seem, has a history. Unraveling that history is part of the pleasure of discovering Oriental rugs and carpets.

Oriental rugs can be divided into four main types: those that were woven by nomadic tribes for personal use, called tribal rugs; village rugs that were created in cottage industries; urban rugs--we should say carpets, as they are large--created in factories; and the antique carpets woven in the court ateliers.

Tribal rugs were--and still are--woven by the women of nomadic tribes for personal family use. The weaving was done on small portable looms, which resulted in small and often narrow textiles. The women rarely made large carpets. The rugs were woven for specific uses, such as covering the tent, doorways or floors; as saddle rugs; or as various types of storage bags. A woman's weaving virtuosity often influenced her status in marriage, and the quality of many of these rugs was extremely high. Invariably, specific tribal motifs and symbols were woven into the rug, and the weaving reflected the artistic ability of its creator. However, since many nomadic tribes have been forcibly resettled over the past century, the symbolism and many of the traditional motifs have been lost. This is why nineteenth century tribal rugs are valued collector's items--they are often the last to have been woven purely for personal use within the tribe, although some tribes continued to make weavings for weddings and home use well into the twentieth century.

Tribal rugs usually have fewer knots to the inch and are characterized by bold geometric designs, bright colors and the primal, often naive, aesthetic often seen in primitive and folk art. Birds, animals and even people may be depicted, along with abstracted animal forms such as rams' horns and birds' heads. Like most generalizations, however, there are some riveting exceptions to this rule, especially in terms of the fineness and technical virtuosity of the weave, as well as the complexity and detail of the design.

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