THE valley of the Tigris and Euphrates has from a very remote period of civilization been celebrated as the source of the world’s finest rug-weaving; and, although all the productions of Assyrian, Medean, and Sassanian carpet looms have long since perished, the earliest existing fragments of the heavier textiles of that region, dating perhaps from the fourteenth century, exhibit a design and technique which can only have been the outcome of a long extant and still vital artistic tradition. From the fourteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth the manufacture of rugs and carpets steadily progressed throughout all the region known as the Near East including Asia Minor, Syria, Persia, and India the last sixty years of the period marking the zenith of an art which has since become, first coarsened, and then commercialized, until in our own time the vast number of “Oriental rugs” exported from this portion of the world bear only a faint reflection of the splendid fabrics formerly created on the same looms.
From the more primitive periods until the decline of the art the Persian weaves took first rank in beauty of color and design, but during the last century before the decadence set in, the factories founded in India under the Mogul sovereigns produced rugs which have never been approached for their almost incredible fineness of texture. With an innate genius for design the Persians subordinated every motive in their rugs to the general pattern, while the Indian weavers sought for a greater fidelity to the natural objects they generally chose to represent. In consequence a Persian rug, although it may show, as in the famous Hunting Carpets, an imaginative assemblage of men and beasts mingled with conventional motives derived from nature or Chinese art, keeps these details flat and impersonal, where the Indian production displays an ordered collection of realistically drawn plant or animal studies worthy of an herbal or bestiary. The influence of the courts is strongly evident in the finest rugs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, both in India and Persia, were mostly woven in imperial factories for royal use, and from designs which repeated the decorative schemes found in the contemporary miniature paintings made for the manuscript books of the rulers’ libraries.
In the choice of rugs, as in every other variety of material, the founder of the Altman Collection showed his preference for work of culminative epochs rather than of primitive, and his fastidious insistence on perfection of technique. With one earlier exception, therefore, the sixteen rugs hung in GALLERIES 3 and 5, date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and include some examples of carpet weaving as perfect as exist in any museum. The individual rugs are noted in order and are grouped as far as possible according to period and place of manufacture.
In the center of GALLERY 5 is the earliest rug, No. 83, and the only example of the more primitive weaves in the collection. I t was made in North Persia at the beginning of the fifteenth century and displays the conventions in design and the restricted color of the more archaic carpets. No. 84, the first rug on the visitor’s right as he enters from GALLERY 4, is of the type known as Polonaise or Polish rugs because they were formerly thought to have been made in Poland. It is now established, how-ever, that such rugs were woven in the imperial Persian manufactories in the first half of the seventeenth century and were intended largely as gifts to European sovereigns from the reigning Shah. The color schemes of these carpets are pale but vivid; red is little used, and the gold and silver thread woven into the background increases the brilliancy of the fabric. About four hundred rugs are all that are thought to have been preserved of this rare and precious variety. This example was exhibited in the Exhibition of Early Oriental Rugs held at the Museum in 1910 and is fully described in the catalogue as No. 37.
The next three large rugs, Nos. 85, 86, and 88, are all Central Persian, probably from the region of Kashan, and may be dated about 1580. They are of silk very minutely woven and represent the acme of Persian rug-making. In one square inch of each of the three there are between five and seven hundred hand tied knots, and the result is a texture as fine and soft as velvet. No. 85 was formerly in the J. E. Taylor Collection in London; No. 86, which is noteworthy for the Chinese symbols occurring in the design, was No. 29 in the Museum Exhibition; and No. 88 is a fine example of the Hunting or Animal Carpets, so called from the beasts which figure in the pattern, a type much appreciated in both East and West since the time of its manufacture.
With the fragment of a carpet, No. 87, on the same wall, the series of Indian rugs begins, which includes Nos. 87, 89, 90, 91, 92, and 94 in this room and No. 96 in GALLERY 3. These Indian rugs are almost all finer in weave than the Persian and average from seven hundred to twelve hundred knots to the square inch, while the small fragment, No. 94, contains the almost incredible number of 2,552 knots in one inch of its surface. No other portion of the rug from which this fragment comes is known to exist and this single piece must rank as technically the most remarkable example of rug-weaving which has reached the Occident. The stronger colors of the Indian carpets are apparent at a glance, as is the debt they owe to their Persian prototypes. No. 87 shows traces of European influence and No. 92, like the famous carpet made at Lahore in 1634 for the Girdlers’ Company in London, is the Indian version of the Ispahan, or Herat, type of Persian rug mentioned below. No. 90 was also in the Museum Exhibition in 1910 and is described as No. 47 in the catalogue. Most of these Indian rugs were made at Lahore, the seat of the imperial looms during the reigns of Akbar Shah (1556-1605) and his second successor Shah Jehan (1628-1658), sovereigns who brought the art of rug-making in India to its highest development. Under their rule, besides Lahore, the cities of Agra and Fathpur supported other thriving manufactories of rugs to which the coarser weaves are usually attributed.
The last rug in this gallery, No. 93, is Persian and is an interesting and unusually early example of the prayer rugs patterned after the niches set in the East-ern wall of Mohammedan mosques. In the niche hangs the lamp familiar in such mosques, while the borders are composed of religious inscriptions of prayer and praise from the Koran. This rug, which is reproduced in F. R. Martin’s History of Oriental Carpets, figure 203, formed part of the Museum exhibition already referred to and the various decorative inscriptions are translated under No. 31 in the catalogue issued at the time.
In GALLERY 3 hang four rugs which, because of restricted space could not be placed with the others in Room 5. On the EAST WALL is No. 95, a large Persian carpet dating from the first half of the seventeenth century with a tree design drawn from archaic originals. No. 96 on the NORTH WALL is Indian, of a slightly later date, and exemplifies a less ornamental and more useful kind of carpet than the other Indian pieces in the collection. The two remaining rugs, Nos. 97 and 98, belong to the widely known variety called incorrectly Ispahan, from their port of shipment to the West and more properly Herat from their place of manufacture. They are Persian and date from the seventeenth century, No. 97 being perhaps fifty years earlier than No. 98, as is shown by its clearer color, firmer drawing, and more open pattern.