Magic carpets: the art of weaving

Some of the world’s finest carpets originated in the Middle East and today can fetch millions of dollars at auction. Here Vision explores how the intricate and ancient art of carpet weaving has developed and evolved over the centuries

In 1996, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said commissioned the Iran Carpet Company to produce a handmade carpet to cover the entire floor of the main prayer hall at the eponymous Grand Mosque in Oman’s capital, Muscat.

At over 4,300 sq m the carpet is one of the largest in the world and took the team four years to complete; a total of 12 million hours of careful labour. Six hundred female weavers from the Khurasan region in north-eastern Iran worked under strict supervision to follow the intricate designs which bring together the classical traditions of Isfahan, Kashan and Tabriz. Twenty-eight colours in varying shades, produced mainly from traditional natural dyes, were used for the 1.7 million knots that make up the 21-tonne masterpiece. Perhaps it is not surprising that it is known as the ‘Carpet of Wonder’.

Mastering the art

The art of weaving carpets runs back through the centuries and examples can be found in many countries around the world. However, the Iranians were in the vanguard of exponents; here the earliest remnant dating back 2,500 years. In 1949, Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov discovered a beautiful carpet preserved in the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, high in Siberia’s Altai Mountains. Radiocarbon testing revealed that it was woven in the fifth century BC but the delicate, skilled workmanship indicates an expertise that had evolved over several hundred years. The detail of design, which includes horsemen resembling the statues at Persepolis, indicates that the carpet originally came from what is today known as Iran.

The earliest Chinese example comes centuries later, dating back to the short Chen dynasty which flourished from 557-589 AD. In India, around 1500 AD, the Mogul Emperor Akbar is credited with the introduction of carpet weaving. As trade developed along the Silk Road and warring nations plundered those that were weaker, both carpets and weaving techniques spread. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius brought back carpets after the sack of the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon which in modern terms is located near Baghdad. Subsequently, Ctesiphon was attacked by Arab armies who removed King Khosrow’s garden carpet which depicted the spring-time in silk, gold and precious jewels.

By the eighth century, demand for stunning carpets had grown with central Asian countries providing the greatest supply. The [modern] countries of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey were among those producing carpets of high quality and extreme beauty. But Iranian weaving reached its zenith in the 16th century during the Safavid dynasty. Ruling a vast area that encompassed territories from Iran and Iraq, through the Caucasus and to Pakistan, the Safavids sat side by side with the empires of the Ottomans and the Mughals. There are thought to be over 1,500 carpets held in collections world-wide, many of which are private, and examples from this period still command the highest prices at auction.

Fine materials, fabulous imagery

Carpets were traditionally made from wool, cotton, silk and even animal hair but silk allows the finest and most delicate knots. The Turkish double knot and the Iranian single were both commonly used but the latter produced a far finer finish. The best and finest were handmade over long months and even years. Depending on the fineness of weave required, the knot count of a rug could be anywhere from a lowly 16 knots per square inch to an extraordinary 500; the higher the number the better.

In November last year the Metropolitan Museum in New York opened its New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands – Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and later South Asia. In pride of place, in Gallery 462, is the ‘Emperor’s Carpet’; presented to the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I by Peter the Great of Russia, the carpet was produced in the Iranian city of Herat in the 16th century.

Huge sums

Another famous carpet, from the same era, can be seen in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The Ardabil carpet came from the shrine of Sheikh Safi al-Din in northwest Iran.

In 1893, William Morris, the influential English textile designer, persuaded the museum to buy the carpet for the huge sum of £2,000 without realising that there was a second ‘Ardabil’ in Los Angeles. Morris described the carpet as “a remarkable piece of art”, adding that “the design is of singular perfection”.

However, it is on the auction block that such carpets realise serious money. In 2006, the Baroda Pearl Carpet travelled through Dubai as part of an exhibition whose range included everything from the portraits and landscapes of the English painter Thomas Gainsborough to the work of Andy Warhol. The wooden crate was broken open to reveal what appeared to be a somewhat tired and heavy carpet. And yet in 2009 Sotheby’s sold the Pearl Carpet in Qatar for US$5.5m to an unnamed buyer. Commissioned by the Maharaja of Baroda, the carpet was made in tribute to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and destined for his tomb on Medina. It is best known for the million-plus Gulf pearls which decorate its surface, complemented by diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies.

However, this auction figure was topped in April 2010 when Christie’s of London auctioned a colourful carpet, woven in the 17th century in the city of Kirman in southern Iran. Named after the design feature of the vase motif, the carpet belonged to art collector the Comtesse de Béhague. The ‘vase’ carpet’s maximum worth was estimated to be around £300,000 but after fierce bidding both in the auction room and over the phone, the figure rose to £6.2m. The final bid came from an anonymous telephonic buyer and remains the record for any carpet or any Islamic work of art sold at auction.