Circa 5000 BC - First Wool Weaving
Off - loom textiles such as felt, knitting, and macrame preceded the loom. By the middle of the first millennium BC, Persian and Central Asian nomadic tribes had developed and refined the art of spinning, dyeing, and weaving to an extent unsurpassed to this day.
7th – 10th Century AD - Advent of Islam
The nomadic and peasant tribal cultures, which dominated life from the Mediterranean to China, had no written history and few permanent buildings. 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 Iran, 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 dawn 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 here and has since become known as ‘Revival Weaving’ and is referred to as the "Revival Period".
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/price. 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, and do it cheaper.
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 among some tribal clans. Changes have taken place in the last 20 years and especially the last 5 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.
DOBAG in Turkey, Zollanvari in Iran, but the first group strictly adhering to tradition (typically Afghan Turkoman) was called ‘Cultural Survival’ and antique carpet specialists who had sadly watched their stock of nice old Turkomans dwindle, supported it wholeheartedly. With the great Turkoman weaving tradition behind them, many others followed suit. 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. Carpet lovers everywhere rejoice in seeing more spontaneous, alive and vibrantly superior carpets made by clan and family groups. Or as some people say, “made under the original conditions”. Now the Persian Zollanvari family wins international awards, and places like India Nepal and China vie for cheapness because they had little or no tradition to build on. Pakistan has a two-tiered structure: old nasty habits in the south and 21st century veg dye weaving from reconnecting with the Afghan influence.
For many years we antique carpet specialists pontificated that unlike other sections of the antiques trade, “never will we stock new carpets” as if a new carpet was a reproduction. But the stunning quality and adherence to tradition has made us more circumspect. These new oriental carpets are not reproductions or re-creations (there are those also, like the lovely, decorative new Zieglers) but complete originals. 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”.
With eyes glazing over, the perplexed Persian rug buyer tries to place her purchase in a historical context. Already wounded by a xenophobic education system, she is daily exposed to media propaganda that jingoistically reduces the great breadth of Islam to unsatisfying sound-bites.
Just a century or two ago the Islamic world was seen as louche: Heavenly scents and elegant immodesty, a source of titillation with images of delicious bathing practices from which nice English girls should be shielded. The image of the slave girl auction in the desert inferred positive delights rather than menial servitude. The Sheik was romantic.
I was in Iran recently for Ramazan, the Islamic month of fasting, and the variety of personal responses it accommodated reminded me of Lent at my own St Paul’s School, Bald Hills: The quiet candles and bells of Evensong co-existing with the mayhem of a scratch game of rugby.
Below is, I hope, an easily digestible entre to the great feast of Islam.
570 Birth of Prophet Muhammad, Makkah
610 Muhammad's first revelation
622 Muhammad & Muslims emigrate to Madinah; Year one of the Muslim Calender
630 Muslims return to Makkah
632 Death of Muhammad. Beginnings of Shia, the supporters of Ali bin Abi Taleb, Muhammad's son-in-law, and one of the first Muslims. The Sunni supported Abu Bakr, Muhammad's close associate.
656 Ali becomes caliph
661 Ali murdered by the Syrian Muawiyah. Shia sect developed. Umayyad caliphate established at Damascus by Sunnis with Muawiyah caliph.
680 Ali's son Hossein killed at Battle of Karbala. Shia formation completed.
691 Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
711 Muslims enter Spain from Morocco
750 Abbasid caliphate established, Iraq
794 State owned paper mills established in Baghdad
800 Harun al-Rashid embassy to Charlemagne
825 Kwarizmi writes concept of zero in maths
850 Early treatises on the astrolabe
900 Tales of 1001 Nights
1010 Firdowsi presents The Shahnama at Afghan Ghaznavid court, Persia
1258 Mongols sack Baghdad
1325 Ibn Battuta leaves Tangier for China
1370 Tamerlane rebuilds Samarkand
1429 Ulugh Beg completes observatory at Samarkand
1453 Ottomans take Constantinople, becomes Istanbul
1498 Vasco da Gama and his Arab navigator set sail from Portugal
1502 Persian Safavid dynasty established with Shia the state religion
1526 Mughal dynasty established in India
1722 Afghans defeat Persians.
1732 End of Persian Safavid dynasty.
- 1747 Afghanistan founded by Ahmad Shah Durani
- 1869 Suez Canal
- 1922 Ottomans end. Modern Turkey begins.
- 1932 Saudi Arabia founded by Abdal Aziz Al Saud
- 1967 Aga Khan foundation established
- 1970 Hasan Fathy's "Architecture for the Poor"
- 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran, world's first theocracy
- 1979 Abdul Salam Nobel Prize for Physics
- 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
- 1983 Muhammad Yunus founds Grameen Bank, Bangaladesh
- 1988 Naquid Mafouz Nobel Prize for Literature
- 1998 Petronas Towers, world's tallest building, Kuala Lumpur
- 1999 Ahmed H. Zewail Nobel Prize for Chemistry
The Quran, Chapter 49 Verse 13.