Persia. I like the word. Maybe it is because of the cat, but it sounds warm and exotic. It quite literally purrs. No longer the name of a geographical place, it is free from any political happenings leaving it to enjoy a mystique and romanticism that Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan are unlikely ever to have for most of us in the West.
“whoever sits on this piece of carpet may be transported in an instant wherever he desires to go without being stopped by any obstacle”The Three Princes and the Princess Nouronnihar
Just as the magic carpet in the Persian tale The Three Princes and the Princess Nouronnihar (from One Thousand and One Nights) could transport its owner across distant lands, the real-world Persian carpet holds the power to do the same through its design and motifs.
Elaborate and elegant, the visual appeal of Persian carpets lies in their harmonious blend of colours and motifs, creating a detailed pattern that can hold the focus of a modern living space or sink back alongside other patterns, as they often did in Arts & Crafts homes.
With the exception of very universal motifs (such as birds), it is easy to let a Persian carpet blur into an abstract movement of shapes, enjoying how the different elements fit together instead of giving much thought to the separate components. This is no bad thing of course, they do exist as a whole, but delving in a little closer gives us an opportunity to go beyond each knot of wool to the person and culture who crafted it.
Someone who knows this subject well is Indo-Persian designer and illustrator Roschfa Khosravi who pursued an extensive research project into the motifs and their meanings, which included consulting with curators at both the British Museum and the V&A. Asked where she looked to for her understandings, Khosravi says she “especially concentrated on Persian folklore and mythology by referring to the Shahnameh (The Persian Book of Kings) written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, which is a literary masterpiece.”
Khosravi speaks of how carpet weaving in present day Iran is not only a 2500-year-old tradition but a national art. Weaving is an evolution from using hides or sheepskins as protection from the cold and damp. The animal could be sheared instead of killed. Not only that, but while hides do not lend themselves to design, dyed wool can be woven into all sorts of designs. The skill was passed through generations of nomadic tribes and as you might expect for a DIY crafter, the weaver was also the designer – allowing personal taste and beliefs to be reflected in the finished carpet.
I noticed that some of the motifs seem quite literal in their meanings and rooted in everyday life (camel=wealth, hands on hips=fertility), which Khosravi says can tell us “where they were made and what was going on in a particular society/tribe at a certain period in time.” She says motifs such as lions, horses and songbirds reflected local tastes and “can be categorised into geographical locations within Iran and other neighbouring countries”, all once part of the Persian empire.
“The motifs have an ethnical identity – they speak volumes of the values that the Persian people adhered to in day-to-day life.”Khosravi
Other motifs are more symbolic in their meanings. For example, the crab meaning wisdom and the star meaning happiness. The boteh is a particularly interesting motif (discussed in more depth here). They start to hint at something more than just everyday life and Khosravi says that the mystique of the carpets lies within the fables and tales that have been built-up around the motifs, with strong links to Zoroastrian values, iconography and mythical stories.
As time went on, like everything in life, the Persian carpet became a valuable commercial commodity. Major cities, such as Tabriz and Kashan, became centres for manufacturing carpets and the Silk Road trade routes of the Safavid period (1501-1732) saw carpets traded to the West. Standardised designs were being created for sale abroad and the weavers were no longer the designers.
“In today’s Persian rug market, the complexity of the pattern is more an indication of an individual’s tastes rather than values.”Khosravi
With the thought that many carpet owners are enjoying the ‘blur’ of pattern without giving much thought to the individual motifs, I suspect part of the worldwide appeal of the carpets is that the meanings are so heavily encoded, allowing the carpets to be viewed as purely decorative objects. I asked Khosravi whether she felt the cultural importance has been lost over time and she agreed that it had, that in recent times “there has been a new trend and focus on providing rugs more suited to the West.” She says that in Eastern households rugs are traditionally full of colours and patterns which the home owners identify with, but “the demand for rugs to be cohesive with the other furniture in Western households has led carpet weavers to break from tradition and incorporate new designs, resulting in the loss of a rich woven language.”
I have to admit that if purchasing a Persian carpet I would be part of that Western sensibility. Choosing colours and a size that worked my room and a pattern I liked would be the driving force for me, without much thought to the meanings behind the motifs. That said,
I am a keen puzzler and to be able to identify a set of motifs and imagine the distant tale behind it injects some magic and helps make that distinction between homeware and work of art.
Next time you see a Persian carpet, see what you can spot within it and let it take you on a journey across the Mediterranean Sea to an ancient and faraway land.
Roschfa Khosravi’s recommending reading/viewing:
Persian Mythology – John R. Hinnells (Hamlyn: 1974)
Persian Carpet (2007) – Dir: Reza Mirkarimi
Gabbeh (1996) – Producer: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Here are some of the motifs present in the rugs at Click Antiques & Vintage and Home and Colonial.
To find out more about the boteh motif (commonly known as paisley) click here to read a bit about the boteh.