The Rugs Of Persia

WHAT a message you bring, oh, my Persian rug. A message both human and divine. In-comparably beautiful, the essence of refinement, yet you say to me, “Allah is perfect. With him alone is perfection. Man must not attempt it.”

Had I the breadth of Tennyson, the profundity of Browning and the jeweled words of Keats I might convey to you all I feel of my present subject. Wrapped up in the rug are Oriental beauty and splendor, the solemn philosophy of the East and the poetry of the ages. But I am not referring to all rugs bearing Persian or other Asian names, nor all rugs made in the Orient. Not all sparkling things are diamonds. Precious stones have worthless imitations. So do precious rugs. The market is flooded with every conceivable kind of fraud on original works of art in wool, cotton or silk.

I have no fault to find with “Sarouk” rugs made in India or Roumania. Nor with “Kirmanshahs” emanating from Greece. ‘What hurts is that these things are not labeled for what they are. Rugs which do not bear even a fair resemblance to those after which they are named should not be sold as originals. We have laws requiring cold-storage eggs and fish to be properly labeled. Why not apply the same principle to Oriental rugs?

I stress this point to avoid being an aid in a wide-spread system of deception. What follows, then, does not apply to all things put forth under the classification of Oriental rugs. Not always to the most attractive among them, either. These are often the most vicious frauds. If you are fond of rhinestones by all means buy them. But do not let anyone sell you a rhinestone for a diamond.

It is not so long since a government in need of revenue lifted the ban against chemical dyes. Comparatively young weavers remember when the use of vegetable dyes exclusively was the law of the land. For ten years I have known an Armenian weaver who came here from Persia. No gray streaks his head. He appears in every way sound, save that he is minus his right arm. Never have I questioned him about this arm. In his time anyone caught using aniline dyes in Persia might have his right arm cut off at the elbow. The country had not yet be-come polluted with the filthy gold of English and American merchants. To be sure, one cannot put all the blame on these merchants. They had to appease a wide craving for Persia’s works of art. When originals grew scarce they encouraged imitations.

There were days—within the memory of a child at school it seems—when in some districts it was the custom for a bride to present the man to whom she had been promised with a rug of her own making. This, her work of art, was to cover the bridal bed. With its production she had been occupied through girlhood and young womanhood, ever since she was but a little tot. She had washed her own wool and spun her yarns. She had taken the skeins to the little square where the dyers had their smelly but picturesque shops and had ordered colors to her liking. And as she knotted her yarn on her small loom, she was working not in lamb’s wool but in thoughts, in dreams. All her love-visions, her ideals, the ideals of her race of women-folk were being woven into this dower gift.

And what of the rug made for the mosque? Or the work of art in yarn on which a man or an entire family might spend five, ten years and more? Picture this building of a thing of beauty on a loom. The patient inchby-inch tying of colored strands, knotting, knotting, weaving and knotting—caring naught for time nor pay, happily plodding toward a great goal. And the love that went into these textiles! And the stories. Weave and general character were common to the tribe. Symbols were the alphabet of the craft. In symbols handed down for ever so many generations, the weaver proceeded to express himself. So it is that a rug relates the life’s tale of its maker and of his people.

Designs, methods, weaves, these go back to remotest antiquity. China had rugs from time immemorial. Ancient Greece had them, and Jerusalem, Egypt and Babylon. In ancient Assyria rugs comprised almost all the furnishings of the home, as well as its art. For thou-sands of years productions of the loom were a principal factor in commerce between Eastern nations. For thou-sands of years, also, have they been vehicles for artistic expression. Many of the symbols woven into the Oriental rug today are the same as those of Assyria or Egypt fifty centuries ago. And they still convey the same meaning. These rugs are a continuation of the time-old story of ageless races. They are the cultural expression of people inherently cultured. For the East had enjoyed the fruits of culture thousands of years be-fore the first blond savage took up his broad-axe to demonstrate the theory of Nordic superiority.

In many makes of Oriental rugs are found the same patterns as those carved on stone in the Maya temples of Yucatan. Thus ancient Mexico is linked up with the rugs of the East. The Mayas, as you know, are said to have taught Egypt the mysteries. They passed on the story of Cain and Abel, much later incorporated into the Old Testament. Ancient Thebes, Tyre, Memphis and Sidon had looms for the making of rugs. Rug-making was an important industry in Chaldea.

What romance surrounds these rugs from the Orient? Let me give you this thought from John Kimberly Mumford’s Oriental Rugs: “It is hard not to put questions to an Oriental rug when you are alone with it. What of this little web, which in its gay Eastern coloring seems so much more like a silent smiling guest than a property? Was it born in a shepherd’s hut in the pillared mountains of Central Asia, with the snow whirling about the door, and the sheep and camels huddling without? Or did the birds sing among the roses of a Persian village to the weaver as he tied the stitches in? From what far defile in Afghanistan did it journey on camel-back to the sea, swept by the sandstorms of the desert, scorched by the Orient heat? Was it paid to a mollah for prayers at the shrine of Mecca or Meshed? Did it change hands in fair barter in the market-place, or did it pass over the dead body of its rightful owner to the keeping of the swarthy man who sold it to the dealer from Stamboul?”

In colorful language Mumford describes the dyemaster—a rich character. “His color is the badge of his ancient and honorable calling. . . . He is a walking sampler of his dyes; the proofs of his proficiency are upon him. . . . You are aware of the dyer from afar off. Red, or green, or purple from head to heels, he challenges sight when he is yet half a mile distant. There is the pride of a sultan in his carriage, and in his soul a chromatic joy which religion cannot give.” In baggy trousers and wide turban, fairly screaming with his own product, this unstudied circus clown feels himself to be the heart of the rug weaving industry. For all depends on his coloring of the yarns; and “to be a dyer of reds is to be one beloved of the Prophet.” Conceit? By no means. It is self-expression gratified.

Moreover it is something to be a dyer of red—or of any color. Skeins of wool are dipped in one solution after another, and hung on hooks to drip and drain over each jar in turn. The secret of obtaining the exact shade is in the number of dippings, the blending and laying of color on color in the wool. Also the exact time of drying in the sun. Behold the dyers in sky-line row—on the roofs of their little shops, motionless, watching; watching like hawks skeins of wool suspended where the sun’s rays are focused. For there is a precise instant when the sun will have done its best. A moment and it is gone. The dyer must be on the alert. He must grasp that moment—and the skeins. On that hangs his reputation.

The importance of color cannot be over-emphasized. “Color is the Orient’s secret and glory.” It is perhaps the most vital element making for the charm of its rugs. I venture to say that among the mysteries of the East are hidden the effects of color harmonies on the senses. The ancient East may hold the key to the psychology of color.

I shall not dwell on the mechanical details of rug weaving. Standard books on the subject, like those of Hawley or Mumford, go into that. Or, look in on the nearest Armenian rug repairer. For our present purpose it is enough to know that a rug is built on a warp with a weft woven back and forth to hold the pile or nap. Cross threads are tied into knots. The process of weaving is simple in the extreme; looms follow the most elementary of forms. And yet, though it has been attempted time and again in various parts of Europe and America, somehow only the Orientals are able to weave these rugs. This exceedingly simple art remains one of the mysteries of the East.

The lasting quality of the rug often depends on the number of knots to the square inch. Some makes, however, are durable in spite of their small number of knots. But these are usually as firmly woven as the thickness of the yarn will permit. We have rugs running as low as twenty knots to the inch, like Ganghas or Oushaks, and as many as four hundred knots to the inch, as in the better Sarouks. In the famous Ghiordes rugs of Asia Minor there are a great many more. Much depends on the firmness of weaving and the quality of wool, cotton or silk.

Designs go back to origins quite remote. Thus we see in old pieces representations of the sun and moon used in Babylonian days, symbolic of certain deities. The religion of Zoroaster, in vogue in Iran more than a thousand years before the birth of Christianity, expressed itself in designs portraying the elements. These were worshiped because of the divine forces they personified. Fire worship and sun worship still find symbolism in rugs. The Shiites and Sunnites, both Mohammedan, express themselves quite differently in their rugs. The first employ animal and sometimes human figures; the latter forbid them.

The philosophy of the East is woven into its rugs. According to Sir George Birdwood, “the carpet pre-figures space and eternity, and the general pattern the fleeting, finite universe of animated beauty. Every color has its significance, and the design, whether mythological or natural, human, bestial or floral, has its hidden meaning. . . . The very irregularities either in drawing or coloring almost in every Oriental carpet are seldom accidental, the usual deliberate intention being to avert the evil eye and insure good luck.” To this I might add that by many it is considered a sin against Allah, as competing with him, to attempt to create a perfect thing. Hence deliberate imperfection.

So varied are designs in Oriental rugs that merely to name them would require more space than an economical publisher would permit. A few general classifications, therefore, are all I shall attempt. To begin with, there is the prayer rug. I mean the real prayer rug, woven for the family’s use at prayers or for the mosque—not the kind turned out for the European or American market. Its border is in keeping with tribal productions; its central design tends to a point or arch at one end. Delightfully varied are these arches. Some are broad, some narrow. Some are shaped like the dome of a mosque, others have graceful columns or hanging lamps. The arch must always point to Mecca. On its two sides you may find auxiliary designs for the kneeling worshipper’s hands, as he brings his face down to the apex of the arch. In rugs woven by nomads these auxiliary designs often picture the weaver’s horse along with flowers or symbols. The prayer rug may have a large field of solid coloring, like deep blue or red. Or it may be an all-over pattern with an arch at one end. But it always represents a weaver’s best work.

The border of a rug is of great importance. Not only does it serve as a frame, it has beauty and charm all its own. In the border the weaver puts the most of his own personality. Borders generally have between four and seven stripes, all varied in pattern and coloring. Scalloped edging, garlands of flowers, running water, fish, crabs, rosettes, geometric patterns—all these are to be found in borders.

The rug may have a medallion center or be an all-over pattern. Medallions are usually, built up on floral ideas and show remarkable artistry and variety. All-over designs are made up of decorative units like the rosette, the lotus leaf, the palmette, the pear and the swastika. The latter, as you know, is associated with fortune. Among other designs the bud signifies birth; the full-blown flower ripe age. The Tree of Life, said to grow in paradise, is often found in rugs. The Herati or “fish” pattern has come down from ancient times and with the lotus, emblem of fecundity, combines in putting a spiritual message into Feraghans, Sehnas, Khorassans and Kurdistans. Unfortunately the real significance of a great many symbols and Oriental color harmonies is unknown to us. They might throw much light on the early civilizations of the East. For the breath of the East is in all these rugs, besides Oriental warmth of color and luxuriance of composition. But it may be best not to know too much: to gaze upon these wonderful products of the Orient, and while drinking in their beauty meditate upon their hidden meanings.

Between vegetable and aniline dyes is not only a great difference in lasting qualities but in color. Vegetable dyes are as fine as they are durable. They ripen, they grow mellow with age and use. Only vegetable dyes could merit the following: “It is indeed the wonderful harmonies of exquisite tints chosen by the touch of genius from a palette of many thousand pigments that awaken the appreciation of the luxurious splendour of the East. This love for colour is inherent in every rug-producing race of Asia and is older than history.” (Hawley, Oriental Rugs.)

There are the indigo blues, the reds of the madder plant, yellows from sumach or saffron, grays and browns from gall nuts and henna. Mordants were de-rived from pomegranate rind, valonia, limes, lemons, tamarind fruit and mango. Most wonderful shades, gradations extremely delicate and subtle were produced by the expert blending of primary colors. Most note-worthy is that matchless Persian blue. Rich, vibrant, deep, it stands at the head of color aristocracy. Unfortunately this blue has been a lost art these many years.

But you should know some of the characteristics of the more popular Persian rugs. My reason for confining myself to Persia, by the way, is because you are most apt to come across good rugs made in that country. And I cannot hope to do justice to all Oriental rugs. Some very fine specimens are not Persian. The Ghiordes, among the finest rugs made, is of Asia Minor origin. So are the Bergamos, Ladiks, Youruks and a number of other excellent makes. Among the Caucasian products are the beautiful Kabistans, Kazaks and Karabaghs. China produced some excellent rugs in days gone by. So did India.

But to return to Persia. Among its older rugs, mostly in large sizes, are the Khorassans. They are closely woven, averaging about two hundred knots to the inch, of rather long silky nap. The colors are generally bright red, with blue and green. They are quite varied in pattern, though tending as a rule to the pear design, with elongated pears enclosing floral figures in regular order on a dark field. The Khorassan is framed in by a wide, striking border. In this the Herati or fish design is sometimes prominent, but more often an undulating vine with incipient floral forms.

The Meshed is to the faithful pregnant with sacred and historic associations. Somewhat like the Khorassan, it has a silky appearance, but its nap is shorter. The Meshed also comes in large sizes, almost square. It is generally of light, brilliant tones contrasted with very dark small masses. Weaving is quite close and firm. Its colors are rose, blue and white with some yellow or green.

Ispahans were woven under the shadow of the royal court of the great Shah Abbas during the time of the European Renaissance. The shah sent some of his best textile artists to Italy to study design. They introduced that unusual grace and elegance which characterized several centuries of Ispahan rugs. In these we see fields almost covered with the Persian crown jewel. Or exquisite diamond-shaped medallions sprinkled with small flowers, leaves or animal figures. The ground is either red or blue, with designs of green, yellow and white.

Mountain ridges and sandy deserts separate Kirman from the fertile valleys of Persia, and from Western pollution. Kirman has been in a measure free from the many invasions against northern Persia. Here rug weaving was unspoiled by degrading influences for over a thousand years. A high standard was maintained in weaving. Dyes were kept pure. Occasionally a little silk is mixed into the pile, but for the most part it is all wool, of unusually fine texture, in the older pieces silky and lustrous. Kirman patterns have a profusion of roses among green leaves, in vases or formal bouquets, in the body or in the border. The sun-flower, suggestive of the Zoroastrian faith, is sometimes used, as well as birds, animals or pictures of human beings interspersed with foliage. Weaving ranges from two to four hundred knots to the inch. Colors are gray or ivory, with faun, yellow, rose and blue.

Exceedingly soft to the touch and beautiful to the eye is the Shiraz. The old Shiraz, mind you, which is far different from the modern article. Time was when these rugs were woven for royal use or for gifts to foreign rulers. In the Shiraz of fifty to a hundred years back you may find a field covered with angular pears, sometimes set into diagonal or perpendicular stripes; or else conventionalized floral forms or geometric de-signs similar to Caucasian. The border is usually made up of a number of narrow stripes contrasted in design and coloring. Shiraz colors are deep blue or red, with small areas of ivory and yellow. The weaving is rather loose and the nap quite short. As I write these lines I look up now and then at an antique Shiraz on the wall before me. It has been my privilege for a dozen years to live with this exquisite creation. Would that I had the words to make you feel its beauty.

Although it comes in a variety of patterns the Feraghan is best known by the Herati design. This consists of two fish in crescent curves on either side of a flower—or, if you prefer, two crumpled leaves four to five inches to a foot in length with a rosette between them. I cite both interpretations of the Herati design to show you how little we really know what the Orient has in mind. Leaf or fish and rosette are usually red. Auxiliary de-signs are cream, yellow, white and light blue. Rich, dark blue often makes up the ground, though some-times it is red or ivory. A varied border of five to seven stripes encloses the ground. The Feraghan is firm in texture and its back rather coarse.

Hamadan, on the site of the ancient capital of Media has a tomb guarded by Jews which is said to contain the remains of Esther and Mordecai. It also has gardens, bazaars and mosques—and squalor and misery. And looms from which excellent rugs have come. The typical Hamadan has a diamond-shaped medallion against a field of soft contrasting color, with triangular designs in the corners. The border is wide, with an undulating vine and unconventionalized flower in the main stripe and a simpler vine in guard stripes.

The little village of Sarouk nestles among shady poplars at an altitude of seventy-five hundred feet on the Feraghan plain. Dried mud, “cracked until it admits the wind,” makes up the walls, roofs and floors of its hundred and fifty houses. These have no windows nor chimneys, but an abundance of odors. Here were made rugs “with surface like velvet and with mellowed tones of perfect harmony.” Rugs made by a population of which practically every man, woman and child is an artist. This sounds like exaggeration. It is not.

Early Sarouks run to realistic drawing of the cypress, willow or the Tree of Life, also animals against a field of deepest blue. Later ones usually show a large medal-lion of elaborate design with pendants; or several medallions, with leaves, buds and flowers exquisitely drawn on long delicate stems, enclosed in borders of undulating vines and flowers. Rare balance and skill combine with fine taste in the Sarouk. The weave is close and firm, and the nap short-clipped. Soft, rich colors, mainly deep blue and red with bits of green, olive, buff and ivory, give the Sarouk the utmost of richness and harmony.

One of the most simple of the Persian rug family is the Sarabend. Rows of pear designs, usually very small, with the narrow ends pointing in opposite directions in alternate lines; with more pears, long and narrow, in the border—that is the Sarabend. Yet it has individuality and charm. You may find it with pinkish little pears against a ground of blue, or in blue design against a red field; or again with pears red and blue, against a field ivory white. Finely woven, rich deep blue, or red that is mellowed into soft rose or delicate pink, a Sara-bend antedating commercial corruption is a real work of art.

Worthy of more than passing mention is the Sehna, noted for its distinctive weave. It varies in pattern from a field covered with floral designs to the intricate medallion. Its colors run to dark blue, red and ivory, with some green, light blue and yellow. The nap is very short and the weaving often runs as fine as four hundred knots or more to the inch.

Typical of Oriental splendor is the Kermanshah. Both its intricate pattern of gracefully-curved lines and its luxurious soft coloring portray Eastern concepts of physical perfection. Sir George Birdwood in his Industrial Arts of India, published in 1880, writes: “The finest Oriental rugs of our time, which at the Vienna Exhibition astonished all beholders, are those made in the palace of the governor of Kermanshah, in Kurdistan, and are only disposed of as presents.”

The Kermanshah is noted for its “wealth of floral expression, for throughout the border and field are sprays of flowers on delicate vines and foliate stalks.” (Hawley, Oriental Rugs.) In its finely drawn oval or diamond-shaped medallion, as well as in its borders, are roses, tulips, sun flowers or daisies on delicate branching sprays and vines. Kermanshah colors are light and soft, running to delicate rose and ivory with blue, green, and buff. Sometimes you may find a Kermanshah with a ground of deep blue. This is as rare as it is beautiful. It is said that one of the governors residing at Kerman-shah had sent designers to Italy for new ideas. They came back and introduced blue for the body of the rug in place of the prevailing rose. A few rugs were produced in this color, when the weavers changed their minds. Such a Kermanshah, of blue ground, happily is in my collection. It is pictured in this volume.

The Kurdistan, firm of weave, solid, honest and sound comes in a great variety of patterns. Strong and serviceable, the product of the Kurdish wanderers is also quite artistic. Its principal colors are red and blue, with auxiliary tones in green, white and yellow. There is fine blending and softness of color in these rugs—rather remarkable considering the roughness of their makers.

The city of Mosul, near the ruins of ancient Nineveh, on the banks of the Tigris, was once noted for its textiles. Hence the term “muslin.” Misrule, wars and pestilence have caused its population and its industries to dwindle. Yet Mosul is still prominent as a rug market. It is the capital of a large and fertile area in whose rich pastures Abraham once fed his flocks. Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Jews and Christians all mingle with the natives of Mosul, and make up a conglomeration of peoples rarely found elsewhere.

The rugs of Mosul reflect its population. In them we find the Caucasian stars, and diagonal bands and barber-pole stripes. Likewise the medallions of the Bijar or the patterns of the Feraghans or Serabands. Weaving is generally coarse, the pile thick and the coloring light. Mosul rugs are able to stand much hard usage. And they possess that precious characteristic of the Oriental rug—they improve with age.

I might go on and on describing masterpieces of Persia’s looms. Yet this survey must suffice. It shows how Persia expressed herself. I use the past tense because the best features of the rugs I speak of are no more. In Persia as elsewhere, the art of rug weaving is at low ebb.

To meditate on the future of this art is fruitless. Will vegetable dyes come back into use? Will standards of weaving and design be restored to their former high state? With increased cost of necessities of life it is hard to conceive of men, or even women, spending years at a loom to produce one fine rug. Or of anyone giving the necessary time and labor to making good colors. On the other hand, it is almost inconceivable that good Oriental rugs will be allowed to go out of existence. But our chief concern in the story of taste is with the fact that such works of art have been given the world by the peoples of the East. And that into these rugs the Orientals have woven all that is best in themselves.