(Credit: Houston Museum of Fine Arts)

The timeless appeal of the Persian rug

From contemporary art to fashion and even music, the symbolism of the famous Persian rug pervades in many of aspects of modern life beyond interior decoration, says Joobin Bekhrad.

Poetry, wine, and song — such splendid things have, for millennia, constituted the very essence of the saffron-strewn Iranian soul and psyche.

While these, undoubtedly, are some of the things for which Iranian culture is known and celebrated, perhaps no element of it is as recognisable and striking — particularly abroad — as Persian rugs and textiles.

Adored for their intricate designs, sumptuous colours, and inimitable craftsmanship –not to mention their investment value – Persian rugs have not only found their way into households and interiors the world over, but also onto catwalks and concert stages, as well as in scores of artworks.

Far from being a recent phenomenon, the fascination with these textiles is a history nearly as illustrious as the woven wonders themselves.

Scythians, Satraps, and Safavids

While the earliest-known carpet wasn’t discovered in modern-day Iran, its story concerns the region and the Iranian people nonetheless. Dating back to the Fifth Century B.C., the ‘Pazyryk carpet’ was discovered in the 1920s in Siberia amongst other treasures of the Scythians — an ethnic Iranic people, like the Persians and Kurds, as well as the Alans of Georgia and Russia, for instance. It was well preserved in ice. Aside from the Scythians’ Iranic ethnicity, archaeologists have surmised that the carpet itself may have found its way to Siberia from Persepolis in Iran, as the motifs featured on it bear a striking resemblance to those that can still be seen around the ancient Persian capital. Even in ancient times, as Greek writers like Xenophon attest to, the Persians were known for their carpets.

“Pharnabazus appeared dressed in clothes that would have been worth a lot of gold,” Xenophon remarks in reference to a Persian satrap in his Hellenica. “And then his servants came forward to spread down for him the kind of soft rugs on which the Persians sit.”

While Alexander may have burned to oblivion many of those soft rugs when he torched down Persepolis, the Persian rug — like many other aspects of Iranian art and architecture – not only survived, but thrived, too. In the centuries that followed, rugs continued to be associated with luxury, as well as indigenous folk culture. But it wasn’t until the ‘golden age’ ushered in by Shah Abbas the Great of the Safavid dynasty in the 17th Century that the Persian rug truly became the Persian rug.

Prior to his reign, many of Europe’s carpets came from Ottoman Turkey due to its proximity, but, as a result of various reforms and treaties brought about by Shah Abbas (r. 1588 – 1629), as well as Western colonial interests, the textiles industry was given a much-needed jolt, and began operating on a scale as never before seen. “Shah Abbas really revived the carpet-production industry,” says Dr. Aimée Froom, curator of the forthcoming Bestowing Beauty exhibition of Iranian artefacts at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Among many other items from the Sixth Century to the 19th Century, two showstoppers will be on view at the exhibition; a rug that once belonged to Italy’s King Umberto, as well as an animal-themed one from the Safavid era.

Trade – as well as exchanges in general — with Europe increased, and the English, French, and Dutch, amongst others, were only too willing to lounge on their newfound luxuries from the land of Shakespeare’s ‘Sophy’ (Safavid).

From the reign of Shah Abbas onwards, Persian rugs can be seen in works of master artists of the Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque periods like Vermeer, Terborch, and Rubens. In Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher(c. 1662), for instance, the pitcher in question rests, according to the Met Museum, on a ‘soft and thickly textured Persian carpet.’ The aristocrat-and -jeweller Sir John Chardin, who visited Iran during the reign of Shah Abbas II, writes at length about rugs and other textiles in his classic travelogue, and Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending protagonist Orlando was known to own some Persian rugs of his own as an ageless androgyne in Elizabethan England.

As with the high-heeled shoes introduced to Europe by Iranian cavalrymen, and the later infatuation with Iranian philosophy, ancient religion, and literature during the Enlightenment, Europeans in all corners of the continent were going gaga over Persian rugs.

Pop Goes Persia

Having, as usual, withstood the vagaries of time and fortune, Persian carpets once again found themselves all the rage in the 20th Century. In 1911, the renowned French hautecouture designer Paul Poiret hosted his ‘Thousand and Second Night’ — alternatively known as the ‘Persian Fête’ — a lavish, over-the-top Persian-themed ball in the garden of his Paris residence. In addition to the extravagant Persian-inspired outfits and congeries of exotic animals, there were, of course, choice Persian rugs laid out to complete the Persian effect.

Some decades later, in the swinging ‘60s, the fascination reached new heights. Iranian patterns such as paisley or ‘Persian pickles’ — an indigenous Persian-rug staple — were all the rage amongst the hitmakers of the day, who often sourced paisley shirts and other garments of Iranian origin (e.g. kaftans) from boutiques like Granny Takes a Trip on London’s King’s Road, and Kleptomania on Carnaby Street. According to veteran designer Anna Sui, who recently enjoyed a retrospective at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum: “in the ‘60s, paisley was kind of it. As a kid, I saw all the rock stars wearing paisley, like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.” In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, leading fashion publications like GQand Vogue, as well as lesser-known ones such as Honey, visited Iran to stage exotic photo-shoots in environs like Esfahan and Persepolis. Needless to say, there were rugs aplenty.

Even on today’s runways, Persian rugs and Persian rug-related designs continue to impress fashionistas. Aside from some of Sui’s designs, Hermes’ Persian-inspired ‘Tabriz’ collection from 2013 (named after the Iranian city), and Givenchy’s Persian rug-obsessed authumn/winter2015 collection, Alexander McQueen autumn/winter 2017 is also worth noting for a lush head-to-toe Persian rug get-up, as is Dutch designer Marlou Breuls, who bagged the people’s choice award at the 2016 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Amsterdam for an outfit largely composed of an actual Persian rug. Other labels including Etro and Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green have also long been making extensive use of paisley in their designs.

Persian rugs earned the spotlight elsewhere, too. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and the Grateful Dead performed on Persian-rug-strewn floors, while in more recent years, luminaries such as Eric Clapton, and the late Tom Petty and Leonard Cohen were spotted crooning away on them onstage. Still today, stages are often strewn with them while artists strum and sing away.

Trouble in Paradise

This isn’t to say that only Westerners have been infatuated for centuries with Persian rugs, or that they’re seen as commonplace among Iranians.

In Iran, as well as in the Iranian diaspora, contemporary artists have been inspired by Persian rugs, and have employed related themes in their works. Babak Kazemi’s Exit of Shirin and Farhadseries, for instance, makes beautiful use of Persian rug imagery in his mixed-media photography, while diaspora-based artists like Germany’s Anahita Razmi and America’s Sara Rahbar have used actual Persian rugs in installation pieces dealing with their identities. 

All, however, is not well in Paradise (or, pairi-daeza, as it was originally known in Old Persian). Even after the lifting of many crippling sanctions, the Persian-rug industry is under threat from cheaper factory-made alternatives from China and India, as well as a relative loss in interest from some middle-class Iranians, who are opting for other home décor. Chinese rugs may be emblematic of having ‘made it’ to Iggy Pop “Here comes my Chinese rug!” he and David Bowie howl in the song Success on 1977’s Lust for Life — but to weavers of Persian rugs, who knot them entirely by hand in an entirely organic process using natural dyes and sheep’s wool, they are inferior substitutes threatening not only their livelihood and way of life (many local producers are, as the Scythians were, nomads), but also a priceless aspect of their heritage.

According to specialist and dealer Anahita Sadighi, owner of Berlin’s Anahita — Arts of Asia, Chinese and Indian varieties have been a problem since the 1979 Revolution. “Important makers left the country and moved to India, Pakistan, and China, resulting in the spread of cheaply produced, low-quality carpets,” she says. “Persian carpets had always been regarded as highly prestigious luxury goods that only the elite could afford. This changed dramatically after the shift.”

Rug life

In spite of its domestic woes, the Persian rug still, as it has for aeons, holds a timeless, luxurious, opulent and extravagant allure and appeal.

“There’s something so magical about it,” says Froom. “It pervades so many different aspects of life.”

As for Persian-rug patterns like paisley, which have become ubiquitous in fashion and design, Sui’s words echo Froom’s: “[Paisley] is so beautiful … it’s not that you either like it or don’t: everyone likes it… I think there’s a reason it’s been so successful in carpeting — it’s a pattern you can really live with.”

And, while Sadighi’s comments are certainly disheartening, judging from its enduring popularity and the many luxurious and stylish associations it enjoys, the Persian rug — or, at least, the idea of the Persian rug — isn’t going to bite the dust anytime soon.

Foreign invaders, rock and rollers, and other menacing creatures have tramped, tread, and indulged to excess on the floral sprays and undulating patterns of this little Iranian masterpiece, which — if history be any guide — will come to see many more tales woven upon it in time.

Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until February 11, 2018

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