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Art Underfoot

A Carefully Chosen Oriental Rug Can Give a Lifetime of Pleasure

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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.

The largest and most prolific segment of the rug-weaving world is the cottage industry, found in thousands of villages throughout the Oriental rug-weaving region, where local women make rugs for sale. Although each region, and sometimes each village, has its own traditional styles and motifs, the designs the women often weave are dictated not by their own or their families' desires but by the impersonal demands of the market. As a result, the ethnographic purity of the tribal rug has become blurred and, in some cases, lost. In spite of this, the aesthetic quality and the historical interest of many village rugs can be superb.

Like the tribal variety, village rugs are usually no more than eight feet wide. Geometric designs in bright colors are customary, and the best ones have the liveliness that is found in all folk art and each is generally thought to be the expression of a single illiterate but highly skilled artist. Most rugs tend to be in smaller formats, with four feet by seven feet a common size. Runners of various lengths are also made in villages, as are a few prayer rugs and assorted flat-woven pieces of varying sizes. Village-based cottage industries have probably existed since people began living settled lives. The Turkish rugs that regularly appear in European Renaissance paintings were probably woven by women from such villages.

Urban rugs, which are created in large-scale production facilities, are typically large carpets or very fine wool and silk rugs. They look to the old court rugs for aesthetic inspiration. These rugs are designed by professionals, woven by teams of weavers who follow written or verbal instructions and create intricate, curvilinear patterns that are impossible to reproduce on simple village looms. At their best, these factories produce technically superb, tightlyknotted rugs with sophisticated color palettes.

The fine antique rugs of the court ateliers were made only during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for when the Middle Eastern empires declined, so did demand for these luxury goods. It was not until the emergence of Western demand in the late nineteenth century that the urban--and cottage--rug industry resurrected itself. The urban rug industry boomed from about 1875 until 1917, supplying a strong Western demand, and today the industry continues to thrive, though at a more sedate pace. Most of the fine antique carpets and rugs on the market today date from this period.

A new wave of high-quality rug making again is altering the face of the Oriental rug world. Starting with the DOBAG project in Turkey in 1981 (the name is an acronym for a government-sponsored project called Dogal Boya Arastirma ve Gelistirme Projesi), various entrepreneurs have begun creating replicas of traditional rugs using natural vegetable dyes (a material that decreased in use in the late nineteenth century). They incorporate antique and "authentic" patterns using top-quality materials and weaving skills. These rugs, inspired by original tribal, cottage or urban rugs, are now being produced by urban and village workshops in Turkey, Iran and India.

Another way of classifying Oriental rugs is to divide them aesthetically into collectible and decorative items. A decorative rug is one that we're more likely to walk or sit on and which will fit with the decor. It is generally large (room size) and was probably made within the past 100 years or so. This type of rug often has a subdued--some would argue bland--color scheme to ensure that it doesn't clash with the furniture. It is also more likely to be an urban carpet made for the Western market, which prefers square carpets to the thin rectangles favored in Persia. Modern tribal and village rugs are considered to be decorative because they have not yet withstood the test of time. Like automobiles, rugs become valuable once they've reached a certain age, but the resale price of a modern rug, regardless of its quality, devalues as quickly as that of a secondhand car.

Collectible rugs can be virtually any type of rug one chooses to collect, but most rug aficionados agree that they are invariably old, as they are either medieval fragments or court or tribal rugs. These specimens are rarely found on the floor and more likely to be displayed or stored in specially made containers.

What follows is an overview of each region's rug-making styles.

Just about every community in Turkey has a carpet-weaving tradition. Many of Turkey's people are descended from eleventh century nomadic central Asian tribes, but there are many other minority ethnic groups, such as the Kurds in the east, the Georgians near the Black Sea and the few remaining nomadic (Yuruk) groups, that have now largely settled in villages.

Turkish rugs are woven by village women who are affiliated with cottage industries. They usually have detailed geometric designs that are often typical of the women's village or region. Most of these rugs--with the exception of the Persian-style products of Hereke and a few other towns--are tied with the symmetrical, or "Turkish," knot. Colors are bright, with red predominating, and black, blue, yellow and white used for highlights.

Although fine Persian-style carpets were made for the Ottoman court, most of the Persian-style weaving produced today was introduced into Turkish towns during the revival that took place in the nineteenth century. At that time, Turkish prayer rugs were the thing to possess, and it is only in the past 50 years that collectors have begun to appreciate the other types of rugs that are made in this country.

Among the major rug and carpet weaving areas, the west Turkey town of Ushak is one of the most famous. Its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century "star medallion" carpets are highly coveted by collectors. Since the late nineteenth century, Ushak's urban workshops have produced large numbers of decorative, often pale, Persian- and Turkish-style rugs for European and American markets.

Extremely fine Persian-style rugs are made--usually in silk rather than wool--in Hereke. These rugs, often made to order, are small, finely detailed and generally have pale colors. Village rugs, with their typically highly detailed geometric designs, are produced in the Bergama area and in such surrounding towns as Melas, Kula and Megri. Central Turkey contains the district of Ladik, where many of the prayer rugs for which this country is famous originated.

Turkey's tribal rugs are found in eastern Anatolia. The remote villages and tribal communities of the region are culturally conservative, and their weavers are more likely to stick with traditional designs and colors. The rugs produced here often share the characteristics of those found in the Caucasus, with bright or earthy colors, bold geometric patterns and often a design that has a naive quality.

Some types of Kurdish rugs are known as Yuruk. Most Yuruk rugs are woven with medium fineness and a symmetrical knot and the pile is usually left long and shaggy, which provides extra protection from the region's bitterly cold winters. Other Kurdish rugs are similar, but the colors are often less vibrant and the patterns are more irregular. Many of the rugs traditionally have goat hair, which lacks the stability of wool and results in an irregular shape after use.

In the time of Persia's Safavid emperors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Persian towns developed the fine court rugs that are distinguished by their intricate curvilinear designs. But this large country is also home to many nomadic tribes with different histories. There are the northwestern tribes in the region adjoining Azerbaijan, the Kurdish communities spread over a wide area, and the Lurs and Bakhtiyaris to the south. Further to the south, near Shiraz, are the Qashqa'i tribes, Asshars, and the remains of the Khamseh Confederacy. In the east, the Belouchis border Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Turkmen tribes inhabit the northeast.

Although the design and technical heritage of Iran's urban manufacturers are the fine court rugs of Safavid days, many local tribal and village designs have been incorporated into their creations. Rugs from Tabriz, Kãshãn, Bidjãr and Kermãn--to name a few of the major rug-weaving centers--have recognizable differences, but since most manufacturers also make rugs to order, and are adept at copying other styles, so the local aesthetic "rules" are often broken.

One of the most famous rug-weaving towns is Tabriz in the northwest, near Azerbaijan. Most older Tabriz carpets are recognized by their symmetrical knots and a color palette that consists of soft rust red, cream and indigo. Wide, meander borders are typical and the pile is usually cut low. Tabriz produced large room-sized carpets, as well as prayer rugs with monochrome fields and images of the kind of central hanging lamps that hung in mosque entryways. Today, its weavers produce a wide variety of carpets in virtually every major style.

North of Tabriz, the town of Heriz makes some of Persia's most easily recognized carpets. Because the knot count of these carpets is relatively low, the designs are characteristically angular versions of curvilinear patterns, with cruciform medallions and long, stick-like vines. Their characteristic color scheme includes clear orange-reds, ice blue, black and ivory. Similar to Serapi carpets, which are of a higher grade, Heriz rugs have been a perennial favorite among Western rug buyers for well over a century.

Farther south is the Kurdish town of Bidjãr, which produced quantities of large, sturdy Persian carpets for the nineteenth century European (especially British) and American markets. These heavy carpets are so densely woven and have such a high thread count that they are the most durable carpets ever made. Popular colors include strong madder red, deep indigo and bottle green set against brighter highlights.

Kãshãn, the Safavid center for silk rugs and carpets in central Persia, revitalized its industry in the nineteenth century to produce fine wool rugs with cotton foundations and asymmetrical knots, as well as fine silk prayer rugs. Famous for its high-quality, intricately detailed curvilinear patterns and classical Persian carpets, this town also produced rugs featuring the tree of life and gardens with cavorting birds and animals. Even today, its rugs are among the finest that are produced.

The eastern province of Kermãn is another renowned area of classic Persian carpet weaving, with the carpets of Ravar being the most illustrious. Although its weaving quality can vary, Kermãn is famous for its often innovative designs within the classical Persian style. Many patterns are similar to those found in Indian carpets, and it is their darker, less variegated color schemes that set them apart. Kermãn's garden and tree-of-life rugs are also well known.

Persia contains dozens of different tribal groups, some of which still have traditional nomadic lifestyles. Although fewer than 100,000 of the once politically important Bakhtiyari tribe of southern Iran still follow a seminomadic lifestyle, most Persian tribes have settled in towns and villages, and rug weaving is now largely part of a local cottage industry. Sizes and patterns vary, with their "garden carpets," which consist of repeating rectangles that contain stylized floral forms, among the most popular.

Eastern Persia, stretching from Turkmenistan in the north through western Afghanistan to southeast Pakistan, is home to a group of distinct nomadic tribes collectively known as the Belouch. They consist of such peoples as the Aimaq and Timuri of Afghanistan, the Kurds of northeastern Iran and the "true" Belouchis of southern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The rugs produced by these groups often have similar color schemes and designs, but the weave structures vary considerably. They are finely woven with lustrous wool and have dark somber colors, such as deep indigo blue and red, with white highlights, although some weavers use undyed camel hair, which produces the tan color that is so typical of these rugs. Goat hair is often used in the selvages--the edges of the rugs--and the ends of the rugs usually have several inches of intricately patterned kilims (flat weaves) to protect the pile from unraveling.

The dark colors of these rugs caused most early Western collectors to denigrate them, with the result that most of them remained very inexpensive until a decade or so ago. But as collectors began to understand the complex ethnographic mix of tribes under the Belouch label and increasingly recognized the different tribal styles, a market for these rugs sprang up.

The Caucasus is a range of rugged mountains stretching 650 miles from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Its numerous valleys contain a variety of ethnic groups and several different nations and political entities, namely Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, as well as such distinctive districts as Dagestan in southern Russia. Rug-producing areas include the Kuba, Dagestan, Shirvan, Karabagh and Talish.

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