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History Of Chinese Rugs

Although historians have not been able to pinpoint exactly when knotted rugs were first made, it seems probable that they have been around since human civilization began. Man first began using animal furs as clothing and flooring, but as animals became domesticated and farming increased, the use of sheared wool and silk became mediums for weaving.

There are theories about the weaving of rugs originating with the Egyptians, Chinese and even Mayans. What is clear, however, is that as with most things in nomadic life, the origins were based on clothing and shelter not ornamentation. The nomadic people would have used wool from their own flocks of sheep to weave makeshift floor coverings, blankets and even tent coverings. The style of these coverings has changed little over thousands of years, but the designs have changed dramatically.

Oriental carpet weaving as an art form, however, has now been accurately traced back to the 5th century BC. In 1947, Russian archaeologists excavating in the Pazyryk Valley of Siberia, near the outer Mongolian border in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia unearthed a carpet from a burial chamber belonging to a Scythian Chieftain. It had been frozen in ice and was in remarkably good condition. Modern carbon dating has placed it as 2,500 years old. This carpet which measures about 6'7" x 6' is now in the Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg, Russia. It is hand knotted with a symmetrical knot motif, which is still used in rugs today. The design on the carpet indicates that it was made by the Scythian people and not brought from Persia. Facts like the groups of 7 horses on the border, which link to Scythian traditions of burying 7 horses with a chieftain certainly prove this, along with elk, not normally found in Persia.

The Old Testament (Exodus, Chapter 36, verses 35, 37) regarded carpets as precious artifacts in the building of King Solomon's Temple (1014-965 BC). It talks about a fine curtain of red, purple and blue with cherubim woven into it by a skilled craftsman.

History of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC) is also colored with images of carpet weaving. He ruled Babylon and much of the Middle East. Each of his conquests resulted in a generous bounty of carpets and rugs. Unfortunately, wool textiles oxidize and crumble with the passage of time. There are carpet fragments dating from the 5th century that have been found throughout the Middle East. This seems to indicate that that the weaving art was highly perfected by that time. So we can see that the Scythians were not the only weavers.

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Before the discovery of the Pazyryk carpet, a rug from the Sassnid Dynasty, entitled "Spring of Khosrows" was the oldest known rug. This legendary carpet was used in the winter by the King of Persia, Khosrow I (AD 531-579), to remind him of a springtime garden. He would stroll down the paths admiring the scenes. The body of the rug was made of silk. It measured 400' x 100' and weighed several tons. Blossoms, fruit and birds were worked with jewels and pearls. The wide outer border, representing a green meadow, was said to have been made of solid emeralds. When the Arabs invaded Persia they divided the rug into sections. What a great loss!

In China, carpet making dates back to the period of the Sung Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD). The Chinese produced rugs in factory workshops controlled by the emperors. The designs were characteristic of Buddhism and Taoism. Marco Polo discovered some of the earliest examples of carpets while travelling through China and Turkey in the 13th century. He was an ardent admirer of Chinese rugs.

Weaving as an art peaked in the royal court workshops in and Delhi, India during the Indian Moghul Empire in the sixteenth century.

The Romans adorned their palaces with rugs, both on the floor and on the walls. They were highly valued and were even used as payment for taxes. They were clearly perceived as better than money. It is well recorded in history that Queen Cleopatra was presented to Caesar rolled up in a carpet. Caesar ended up with two beautiful treasures.

Later still, Pakistan developed the art of carpet weaving from the Persians and even developed styles to suit the Mongolian Emperors.

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Largest Chinese Rug ever

One of the finest examples of carpet weaving can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is a carpet, some 37 feet x 17 feet made of a blend of wool and silk which was found in the mosque at Ardebil in Persia, also in 1947. It has a cartouche in one corner, which bears the date AH947 in the Islamic calendar, which translates to 1540 AD in ours. The caratouche tells us that it was made by the order of the Shah Tamasp by a weaver named Maksud al Kashani and was used in the Shayka Safi Shrine in Ardebil.

An excellent book, The Christian Oriental Carpet by Volkmar Gantzhorn, deals with the history of patterns in rugs. After the explorers, the next clues we get about rugs and their patterns come from artists. The Crusades introduced Europeans to Middle Eastern rugs. They became status symbols for the very rich. Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) made Turkish carpets popular by including them in his paintings. Also, A Family Group, which was painted in 1547 by Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556) shows a rug border called the "kufic".

Paris, France has many examples of rug history. The Louvre Museum shows a stone carving of a threshold rug with a pattern that is still being made today. The Apus statue, also in the Louvre, depicts God in full decoration with a carpet on his back.

The history of rugs in France began with Louis IX (1226-1270). He was the leader of the Holy War of the Crusades. He conquered the Moors, who had migrated to France from Spain. Part of the bounty was fine rugs and carpets. By the end of the fifteenth century, Louis XII (1498-1515) had brought many Italian craftsmen to help train his French workers. Francis I (1515-1547) continued this tradition by brining such artists as Leonardo DaVinci and Andrea de Sarto to work for the royal family. From 1547-1589, the crafts dried up. In 1589, things took a dramatic upward spiral. Henry IV (1589-1610), started a rug factory in his palace to create rugs for the French market. He liked the rugs so well; he never shared them with the population. Louis XIII (1610-1643), his successor, started an outside workshop for the people called "Savonneries". These French designs, however, were not as popular as the Middle Eastern designs.

The documented history of rugs increases greatly for rugs from the 17th century onward. It is easy to see the changes since the 16th century are relatively minor, although patterns for general areas changed. In a series of books Oriental Rugs-Persian by Eric Aschenbrenner, the issue of geographic barriers to transportation and ethnographic barriers and how they affected the weaving of rugs. These barriers of transportation are the major reason that Persian rugs are such an art forms whereas rugs from India and Pakistan have never achieved this status.

Oriental rugs made their way to America in the late seventeenth century. They were used as floor coverings and wall coverings. The nineteenth century Victorian era saw a dramatic increase in demand for the rugs. The bold colors and designs complemented the dark and heavy Victorian furniture. An Oriental Indian rug owned by Cornelieus Vanderbilt sold for $950,000. The American market has always been strong for these beautiful works of art.

Geographic and ethnographic barriers created marked differentiation of rugs between weaving districts. The urban areas supported factories where weaving techniques could be refined. But a weaving district was not limited to just the city. In fact, families living in primitive conditions in areas surrounding the town of note did much of the production: Heriz is a small town in the northwest portion of Iran- yet the production of Heriz carpets is huge. This is because a lot of families made them according to set standards in the area. To be kind, these standards were not always strictly enforced. If there was no cotton for a foundation, they might use wool. If madder was in short supply, some other red dye might be used. Therefore, even within an area there is product differentiation. For instance, in the town of Bidjar, many rugs were woven with specific foundation pattern, and these rugs were called Bidjars. But more rugs were woven in the surrounding areas in the homes of "subcontractors" and they were called Bidjars also. The control over the countryside contractors was much weaker than the control held over the factory weavers. As a result, a Bidjar can vary according to location.

To the southeast of Bidjar is a mountainous area, inhabited by a tribe called the Quash-Qai. The rugs from this area are called "Shiraz" and are woven by a number of nomadic tribes roaming the desert. The Quash-Qai are one of these tribes. Although by miles the geographic distance between Qash-Qai and Bidjar is not much, the ethnographic difference is huge-and the difference in the rugs is huge also. If you keep this thought and proceed to the northwest of the Qash-Qai, you encounter the Zagros Mountains. North of this range is Isfahan. There is a huge difference Isfahan rugs and Shiraz rugs, this is probably due to the environment in which the people live.

Look at the map and find Northwest Persia. The weaving area of Heriz is most representative of northwest Persia. A Bakshaish rug, just south of Heriz, looks geometric like a Heriz but has pastel colors. Meshkin, close to Heriz but to the east, uses angular octagons instead of the Heriz arrowhead, but is made of wool sheared from dead sheep, and this wool holds dye differently than wool sheared from live sheep. Ardabil, to the north of Meshkin, stylizes the angularity of the Heriz rugs. Karaja, to the northeast of Heriz, uses a modified Heriz pattern. Ahar, to the north of Heriz, softens the angularity of the Heriz patterns and makes them slightly more curvi-linear, like the patterns in the urban areas.

The town of Tabriz does not reflect similar weaving patterns to the other towns in the area. History explains this. Tabriz was settled at the foot of volcano Sahand. The town was never devastated by natural disasters. It was ruled at various times by Genghis Khan, Timur, and Shah Ishmail I who began the legendary Safavid weaving dynasty. This ruling period from 1501-1736 was highlighted by the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (1586-1628) who cultivated the arts to their highest pinnacle. It was known as the Golden Age of rug making.

As the Safavid Empire ended in the 1700's, the art of weaving decayed. The rekindling of the weaving greatness began in the early 1900's and has continued even until today. The weavers of Tabriz are known for their speed, and for their development of a special tool that permits them to weave and cut the knots at the rate of approximately 40 per minute. This is far above the average of 20 knots per minute for a skilled weaver.

Today, the same traditions of weaving still endure, with wool still being spun by local people from local sheep and some dyes still being made from plants. What is clear, is that tradition is unlikely to die out in the unforeseeable future, as there are groups of wandering nomads (like the Quashgai in Iran) who continue in their old ways as long as there is land for them to live on. The semi-nomadic folk of the villages are still weaving the same patterns and styles as they have always done and the famous centers of fine carpet production, like Hereke in Turkey and Kashan, Isphahan, Qum, Tabriz and many other places in Iran. Even in war torn Afghanistan, carpet production is still going on, while fine carpets are also found in Russia, Pakistan, India and China. There has been a movement recently,however, of weavers taking factory jobs in the larger cities as the Middle East area becomes more Westernized. This could leave a void in some weaving districts.

As we enter the new Millenium, these unique treasures of the Orient and Middle East are still praised for their magnificent and incredible beauty. It is our mission to clean these rugs with the most practicable and diligent methods. In this way, we are helping to preserve a piece of history.

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