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The Shahsavan Nomads

Recognized for their exquisite textiles, the Shahsavan have for centuries lived the life of hardship and economic penury. Over the recent years, ‘the price of their product, especially sheep wool and dairy produce, have risen very slowly while the price of purchased commodities has increased sharply.’  

Shahsavan Mafrash | MasterArt
Shahsavan mafrash

Some Shahsavan took up farming and sedentary lives; others however continue to foster their pastoral traditions.

The short documentary by Arlene Dallalfar and Fereydoun Safizadeh offers a rare glimpse into their life of struggle against modernity and economic changes.


Additional recommended reading: Shahsavan Nomads

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Tableau Rugs

Pictorial or the so-called tableau rugs have been produced in Iran for ages.  Images of noblemen, shahs, hunting scenes, etc. are still replicated from the most ancient Safavid designs.

There is a special genre within these rugs, rugs that illustrate poetry, and often times poetry by the 12th century Sufi mystic, mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam.

Persia Reference: Omar Khayyam - The Poet of Uncertainty (BBC)

Omar Khayaam (1048-1131)

Khayyam’s poetry is profoundly philosophical, but also sensual, time and again glorifying wine drinking, song and female company.

His seminal compilation of poems named collectively The Rubáiyát is viewed as the greatest literary achievement in Persian language.

‘Oscar Wilde described the Rubáiyát as a “masterpiece of art”, placing it alongside Shakespeare’s sonnets as one of his greatest literary loves (Credit: Alamy)’

The Rubaiyat: History's most luxurious book of poetry? - BBC Culture

It is suggested that Khayyam’s attitude toward life, his pessimism and religious scepticism, are contrasted in his verse by the exaltation of ‘earthly’ pleasures, and serve as an antidote to his existential sorrow.

Omar Khayyam | Imaginary friend, Sufi poetry, Rubaiyat of omar khayyam

Small-format carpets depicting scenes of wine drinking orgies involving music, dance and even nudity can be found sporadically in various collection around the world.

The tradition of producing such rugs survived many dynasties – the Safavids, the Kajards, but found itself at a crossroads in 1979 with the foundation of the Islamic Republic.

It is prohibited (haram) in Islam to depict animate objects (humans and animals). This rule is strongly observed within the Sunni communities in the Middle East and around the world.

It is not the same under the Iranian Shia regime of the ayatollahs.
In fact, portraits  of revered Shia martyr, Ali can be frequently seen in Iranian households.

One thing however is to show an image of the prophet’s son-in-law; it is another thing altogether to show wine drinking parties and female nudity.
Alcohol consumption is strictly prohibited in Iran, and women are required to wear headscarves; some choose to wear chadors – black robes concealing them in full.

And yet …

Here is a small Tabriz in our collection illustrating a poem by Omar Khayyam:

‘It’s us and the musician and this ruined corner.
My soul, heart, place, and painful clothes of wine.
No hope and mercy and fear of punishment
Free from soil and wind and fire and water’

You may contact us if interested in purchasing this unique work of art

See the original 1960s Persian print:

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Rugs from Morocco

Far from the markets of the Middle East and Central Asia; in the world unknown to the merchants of silk and opulent Oriental carpets, thrives a world of textile culture of a different kind.

The various Berber tribes of the Moroccan Atlas have for millennia produced rugs of extraordinary aesthetic quality and spiritual depth.

Beni Ourain Rugs | Beni Ourain | Vintage Moroccan Beni Ourain Rug
Beni Ourain 20th century

Undisturbed by modernity, the Berbers create masterpieces in wool that show both sublime colour sensitivity and nearly ascetic restraint in their minimalistic patterns sketched against typically plain backgrounds.

Their indisputable artistry was already noticed in the late 19th century when, lured by the irresistible charm of Orientalism, many westerners travelled to north Africa. They were astounded by the richness of colour and the complexity of design: the fabric of Morocco.

It was however the Swiss-French architect and interior designer Charles-Édouard Jeanneret who introduced the Berber tribal rugs to the world.

Better known as Le Corbusier, Jeanneret incorporated these rugs into his ultra-modern designs where the warmth of the material and the whimsicality of the primitive patterns contrasted the austerity of his interiors.

The importance of his novel approach which broaches two seemingly irreconcilable aesthetics had an undeniable impact on the visual arts of the period. It is no coincidence that the works of the early 20th century western art appear so strongly to reflect ideas rooted in ancient cosmology of the African tribes.   

Bujaad Berber Rugs


Berber Rugs (various tribes)

to be continued …

Recommended readings:

Symbols in Moroccan Berber Rugs

Prestigious Vintage Berber Moroccan Rugs


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Pin en Annemarie Schwarzenbach
“The Tower of Kavus”

Lesser known but as iconic as the Minaret of of Jam, remote and inaccessible, “the tower of Kavus” sketches against the infinite
sky at the border of Iran and Turkmenistan.

The town of Gonbad-e Qabus, formerly, Gorgan/Hyrcania was once a significant marketplace for the goods brough here by the many Turkoman tribes from the steppes north of the border.

In time, however, the inhabitant of Gonbad-e Qabus, created their own staple design often referred to by rug merchants as ‘the Persian Bohara.’

‘The design of this north-Persian rug derives from Turkoman ornament. Rows of stylized ‘Salor’ güls alternate with large cross-shaped ornaments distantly related to Turkoman chuval güls.’ (-) Erich Aschenbrenner ‘Oriental Rugs – Persian Volume 2 p. 253-54

Disregarded by the Turkoman rugs collectors as not genuine, Gonbad-e Qabus rugs have never enjoyed any commercial popularity.

Structurally and in overall appearance, they are related to Beluch rugs, but then again they are not genuine enough to attract the Beluch studies scholars.

Here is a rare and interesting Gonbad-e Qabus rug in our collection.

Gonbad-e Qabus runner/The so-called Persian Bohara 210x110cm

You may request more photos if interested in purchasing this unique mid- to second-half of the 20th century north-Persian artifact, the so-called Persian Bohara.


Recommended reading : The Gunbad-i Qabus: the superlative beauty of a tomb tower

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Afghan War Rugs

The Modern Art of Central Asia

August 21 – October 16,

Organized and curated by Enrico Mascelloni and Annemarie Sawkins, Ph.D.

Bant Mag:Guns and Roses: The war rugs of Afghanistan

Afghan war rugs are fascinating on many levels, and although not much is known about their origins, the circumstances of their production, or even the identity of the artists, they offer an opportunity to learn about a largely unfamiliar world ... read the entire article

AFGHAN WAR RUGS in our collection

1980s Soviet invasion
21st Century US invasion
1980s Soviet invasion
21st Century US invasion
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Shahsavan Alachigh by Gordon Clarke

Their artistry continues to fascinate collectors around the world.  Their sense of colour, their intricate and dynamic designs in addition to unparalleled skills make the Shahsavans of the northern plateaus of Iran a league on their own.  Here is a rare view into their life and home     


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Poetry in 16th Century Safavid Carpets

THE HALI SYMPOSIUM AT COURTAULD INSTITUTE LONDON: Carpets in Iran, 1400-1700: New Perspectives. Dissertation of Armen Tokatlian, Art Historian, on Tuesday 25 June 2019. A visual metaphor: Inscribed poetry in 16th century Safavid carpets

Safavid epitomizes the inherited Persian’s reverence for poetry through intricate layered epigraphy and patterns shown often in book bindings, rugs 1 and metal works.

Prominent examples in carpets were favored during Shah Tahmasp rule after he settled his court in 1554 at Qazvin, the new capital of the realm since 1544.

First half sixteenth century forerunners of inscribed floor covers are found in several illustrations, some from Nezami’s Khamsa manuscripts, signed or attributed to Mir Sayyed Ali and Mirza Ali.

They show characters seated on his heels on a felt made rug with the same trunked poem of Hafez in nasta’liq script within cusped cartouches in the main border ill.1.

While in two albums pages the illustrated mats bears the same poem of Ahli-ye Torshizi, referring to a carpet itself ill.2.

Instead in an imaginary portrait of Timurid ruler Soltan Hoseyn Bayqara ill. 3, the sitter felt-rug bears a stanza from the preface of Saadi’s Gulistan.

Those illustrations of floor coverings indeed envisioned by the painters are related to subsistent twenty seven identified complete carpets and at least tree fragments, with poetry produced in specialized workshops mostly in Central Iran and perhaps the Khorasan during the second half of 16th century, under the tacit approval of the crown (listed on page 12).

Contemporary textual and primary sources are scanty about such carpets provenance. The assumption that the royal household workshops, boyūtāt al-saltanatī, produced some of them must be treated with caution.

Paradoxically there is no extant carpet known to have been commissioned specifically for the Safavid court, except the multiple niche carpet offered by Shah Abbas to the Najaf sanctuary, during his pilgrimage there in 1623, bearing the motto: “Endowed by the dog of the threshold, Abbas”.

Those carpets outpoured versified Persian inscriptions with an explicit rendering of nasta’liq script, is placed within cusped cartouches in the main border or running all along the inner border or on both arrays combined.

The previously drawn calligraphy required transposition on the loom by the weaver, who also has to adapt patterns and space to obtain an overall balance of visual display.

These complex transformations carry not surprising omissions and permutations. The quality of the woven calligraphy varies, corresponding to personal capacities which are not always satisfactory in terms of clarity.

Oddly some hemistiches are woven in reverse on carpets housed at David Samling2 ill.4,

Paçao des Duques de Bragança 3 and Walters Art Museum4 , lessening the aesthetic worth of the rug. Whereas on the carpet of Lyon5 ill.5 to a trunked Hafez’s ghazal was added a final couplet also from Hafez, with two switched words, making aloof to grasp the original meaning.

The significance of these poems is essential to cast viewer reflection upon outward adhesion to beauty as harnessed to the carriage of human soul. Amongst extant inscribed carpets the poems of Hafez (d.1394) and Faryabi (d.1202) can be authenticated in a few, whilst most of the carpet’s poetry seems to be composed ad hoc and styled on sāqī-nāma or qeta’ poetic genres written by anonymous poets solicited by weavers. The usual length of those inscribed poems varies between five and seven distiches, except in four occurrences it bears a long complete ode.

Adequate records concealed with specific poetry for carpets remain unknown, by contrast, poetry written explicitly for saddles, chess boards and bindings were composed by Timurid historian and poet Sharaf al-Din Ali Yazdi in his work Munsha’at-i. The customary field design of those carpets consists of a central lobed medallion with plentiful flora, fauna and wild animals fighting or hunting, and sometimes with winged creatures depicting angels or fairies.

This pattern was named after A. Upham Pope “Paradise Park”, despite the word behesht, paradise in Persian appears only in the Musée des Gobelins6 carpet, though several poems allude to heavenly scenery. To which paradise those poems and patterns refers remains an open question. Assigning paradisiacal significance to lush garden representations with wild animals fighting or hunting in Safavid carpets requires questioning as to whether or not the Islamic paradise imagery ought to be associated with them, since Quranic descriptions of the Garden of Eden are devoid of fauna. Perhaps the paradisiacal figures of speech in some poems are understood as walled gardens in the carpets fields representations and in line with the primary meaning of the Old Persian term paridaiza. In the other hand, according to historians Tabari and Khwandamir accounts, replicating lavish garden layout in a floor cover with ponds, watercourses, colorful flora, pavilions and wild animals hunting are symptomatic of ancient Iranian traditions, such as the Bahārestān or Spring Garden7 , a huge recorded late Sasanian royal carpet The paradisiacal utterance becomes further evident when associated to the ornamental vegetation found in the funerary context of holy shrines and mausoleums in the Iranian world.

Sadi poetry remained highly popular employed to ornate crafted Iranian’s objects. However with Safavids the support of Hafez verses becomes an incipient source in woven art, given that lone metalwork vessels beneficiated with his poetry under previous Timurid rule. The tendency of dealing with Hafez mystical poems is to read into deeper meanings, when a plain sense is sometimes enough sufficient. For example all attempts at finding mystical interpretations for Hafez’s praise of wine are not supported by his Divan verses, noticeably in the strophe : “It is truly (haqīqat) wine and not metaphoric (majāz)

Hafez verses reflect the meaninglessness of life and the human love, using the bold language of his period, but at same time they are universally attuned. In other words his poetry is suited for the minds of those he addressed. Several carpets bears truncated or apocryphal Hafez’s ghazals while in two occurrences one of his matla’ or opening strophe alone are found in the famous paired Ardabil carpets. To a certain extent all this poetry mirrored what Safavid court and their close associates became infatuated with lyric celebration. Therefore we will focus on a few carpets with relevant contain. The first is a silk carpet housed at Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon ill.6 which contains an anonym ode inscribed in cursive script within a central oblong panel extending in brooches in the corners hold by four impressive angels with deployed wings. The large borders and the field intermingles clouds , anthropogenic and living creature’s heads attached to coiling stems, already seen in stenciled margins in a Divan8 of Sultan Bayqara dated 1501. This theme is evocative of two mythical talkingtrees, derakht-i gūyā. The first is sourced in the Shahnama episode of Eskandar when he reaches the tree that marks the world’s end, with branches bearing male and female heads foretelling his impending death. While the second tree named wāq-wāq is narrated in Qazvini’s Wonders of the Creation. This particular iconography combined with traces of a woven date arguably interpreted as 933 hegira (1527) by several scholars, put this rug in the early stage of carpets inscribed with poetry.

O You the chosen from all the peoples,
who guides those in quest of wisdom.

Those who bow before your feet with their heads covered with dust
admire your nobility.

Those arrogant and fearless men prostrated before your footsteps,
crumbles into ashes with their heads down.
Those lost in the valley of misguidance, through your good grace, enter
into the right guidance path and ready themselves to sacrifice.
The throne of magnificence remains forever your site.
In the month of Ramadan 933 (?).

The conveying spiritual dimension of leadership in this poem epitomizes a royal or a saintly figure, suitable to be displayed at a sanctuary or on a cenotaph. This ghazal in khafīf meter shows a powerful call for creed adherence and at same time those verses expounds an attainable deliverance through an uppermost being intercede such as a Shia Imam or an honored ruler. Tentatively the Khorasan attribution of this carpet conceivably of late Timurid rather than Safavid period seems to fit at best. A. Upham Pope, from whom Gulbenkian acquired this carpet in 1939, acknowledged that it comes from Mashhad’s shrine.

Another rug is the famous carpet of Salting bequeathed to the Victoria & Albert Museum. It has a lobed medallion inserted in a garden pattern.

This carpet along with those in the National Carpet Museum of Tehran9 7 and the Topkapi Saray Musem1 0 carpets, have the same truncated Hafez’s ghazal, with three omitted distiches, within ten cusped cartouches in the main border. The poem reflects the nature transformed into a metaphoric proposition for aesthetic pleasure, it starts at upper right corner:

Call for wine, spread the roses: what you seek from fate?
Hence at dawn spoke the rose: Bulbul what are your words?

Take the cushion into the rose-garden, so that the handsome women and
the cup-bearer, you may take the lip and kiss the cheek, drink wine and
smell the rose.

Shift the box-tree with graceful pace towards the garden.
May your slender cypress’ figure join the stream.

Today the bazaar is crowded with purchasers,
Understand that, and treasured a provision from nicety.

Every bird with a song comes to the King’s rose-bed.
The bulbul with a lyric, Hafez with a prayer.

The Philadelphia Art Museum carpet 11 formerly with Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz in 1876 8 and the rug loaned to the Louvre from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs 12 in Paris are both inscribed with the same ghazal within cusped cartouches in the main border. But the former is complete while the latter has one omitted distich. The whole poem reads:

“O cup-bearer the spring is blossoming now,
And the rose has become fresh and luxuriant.
The dew has dropped its pearls into the tulip’s cup and the tulip unfolds
its flag of youth. Narcissus keeps its eyes on the stars.
To the reveler the night is morning light.
Loneliness in the desert is no isolation with the company of wine, when
the cup-bearer passes a beautiful cup around.
Blissful is who like a tulip rises his cup and greets the rosy cheeks of the beauties, become violet for the rose and alike the purple robe of a

This poem persistent depiction of spring blossoming and romantic phraseology is suited for the ears and willfully advocate for the variegated garden scenery with fauna displayed in the field of the rug. The calligraphic rendering of those paired poems differs due to the inherent difficulties for a weaver to translate faithfully the provided written cardboard, naqsha, and the necessary scale of the knotting sequence. Consequently the original removed hemistiches respond to the limited space provided by the loom size, causing ineluctable sorting through verses rhymes resulting in a trunked poem.

A fourth carpet was purchased in 1878 by Prince Alexis in Constantinople and currently housed at the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg ill.9, bearing rhyming couplets in elegant nasta’liq script, within six cusped cartouches in the main border, beginning at the top cartouche :

O whose abode is the seat of justice and for whom throne’s carpets are spread out.
Your zephyr’s eyelashes browse an entire palace.
May you be blessed and successful in assemble and feast.
Dara, Eskander and Faridun become modest attendants of your army.
Under the aegis of fairness you rule both worlds with kindness,
benevolence and nobility.
May your realm be undying and eternal as the sun and the moon

Here we are confronted to a quite different poetic insight as also come into view in the carpets kept at National Museum of Iran13, Paçao des Duques de Bragança, David Samling and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo14 both latter rugs bear the same poem. These verses are composed with convoluted panegyric tones with deferential verses toward the rug itself, designated either with the colloquial term qālīcha (small rug) or the more accurate farsh (carpet). Also are included in these poems encomiastic verses, underlying a singular intent toward kingship. In the present carpet the praiseful model of the poem evoking Shahnama’s royal figures, heavenly consent and human fairness, is almost imitating Persian classic anthology poetry.

A fifth and last carpet housed at National Carpet museum15 of Tehran ill.10 bears poetry in the main and inner border, which reads:

Here is this carpet alike a myriad of stars, caring you from man’s evil eye, This zilu seems a blossoming garden with colorful flowers hovering over.

It is colored like the eternal garden and adorned like the art of Chine.
If you cast a glance at this carpet all patterns becomes alive.
May thou be blessed and joyful, in a life devoid of pain and sorrow

Noticeable the mention of zīlū, a counter faced flat-woven floor cover is a poetic license, while khāne-ye chīn “the art of Chine”, also written in the Musée des Gobelins carpet, reflects the Iranian’s high consideration for it and remind us the apologue of the Byzantine and Chinese artists’ contest narrated in Rumi’s Mathnavī-ye Man’avi.

Playing with the words of a delicate poem and with the beat of refrain attracts the Iranian mindset. All this specific wording running in the couplets of all those inscribed carpets turn into charming allegorical images deserving circumstantial nuance for the initiated. The current trend of those carpets in the wider background of fine arts under the Safavids was sustained by resourceful iconic spectrum. In practice designers, naqshekhvān, to weaving a carpet are crucial and paramount, judging by the created critical mass of sophisticated patterns.

The artists at the royal ketābkhāna producing bindings, sahhāfī, were probably entwined with these carpets’ designer models ill.11, except behind each carpet we find a master weaver, ostād, acting on its own and on occasion weaving his name on it, as seen in a few Safavid carpets.

The fact that just a few carpets bear the same poem and only so called Emperors and Ardebil carpets had matching patterns, point toward the prevalence of a customized weaving practice able to deliver a praised visual metaphor, embodied through selected epigraphy combined with explicit motifs to please ultimate recipients which were above all the Safavid aristocracy

The confident outline conveyed by all those carpets inscribed with poems, from celebrated poets or created for the occasion, with legible or scrawled writings, combined with topographic heavenly or earthly garden settings, onward Shah Tahmasp rule, resonates with royal prodigality too.

Safavid ambassadorial gifts included certainly such carpets together with epigraphic prayer niche rugs as recorded during the reception, in 1567, by Sultan Selim II of the Safavid ambassador Shah Quli khan, depicted in the chronicles of Ahmed Feridun Pasha16 and Sayyed Loqman17 .

Ultimately the typology of all those carpets produced by master weavers at specialized workshops in a short period of time under the gaze of monarchs remains an unmatched achievement with no cultural mimesis outside of the Persian decorative panorama

List of Safavid epigraphic carpets with poetry.
Inscribed in the field Museu Gulbenkian, Lisbon (T113).
Inscribed in a panel and in the field Los Angeles County Museum (53.50.2) / Victoria & Albert, London (272-1893)♣
Inscribed within cusped cartouches in the main border Victoria & Albert Museum, London (T 402-1910) /
Topkapi Saray Müzesi, Istanbul (13/1890) /
National Carpet Museum, Tehran (n° 251) ♣♣ MAD, Paris (4406) / Philadelphia Museum of Art (1943-28-1) ♣♣
State Museum of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Lobanov-Rostovsky (VT-1000)
David Samling, Copenhagen (3/1964)
Musée des Gobelins, Paris (inv.n° 1534)
Walters Art Musem, Baltimore (81.3)
Musée des Tissus, Lyon (24619) National Museum of Iran, Tehran ( n°3306) Paçao des Duques de Bragança, Guimarāes ( PD76) Carmen Thyssen, Madrid (649A) Museo Bardini , Florence (inv. no. 1108/548),fragment.
Brooklyn Museum (36.213 f),fragment.
Inscribed within cusped cartouches in the main border and inner border National Carpet Museum, Tehran (253, 254, 259)
MIA, Cairo (15764) and (15732) Inscribed within cusped cartouches in the main border and the central medallion
Metropolitan Museum, New York (32.16)
Inscribed in the inner border Poldi- Pezzoli, Milano (inv. no. 424) Metropolitan Museum, New York (43.121.1) /
Museum of Applied Arts, Wien (T8334) ♣ Marquis de Lagoy, Aix en Provence [Sotheby’s London 12.X.1982, lot 27]
National Museum, Cracow (XIII-2047) Khalili collection, London (TXT. 220) Museo Nazionalle del Bargello, Florence (inv.2203),fragment.
Private collection Connecticut (Sotheby’s New York,1.10.2015, lot 66), fragment.
Intermingled small inscriptions in cartouches and inner border Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (81.7) / Ex-Nathaniel Rothschild 17th century ♣ ♣ Similar pattern respectively. ♣♣ Same poem respectively. Nasr al-Din Shah seated on an inscribed rug in Dr.Feuvrier, Trois ans à la cour de Perse, Paris, 1889,p.9

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Safavid Woven Dreams: Carpet Workshops Achievements

(Article’s author’s original translation)

Digital article submitted to the VIII International Conference of the Spanish Society for Iranian Studies. University of Tehran, 4-5 November 2018

Safavid Woven Dreams: carpet workshops achievements

ARMEN TOKATLIAN Art Historian, Paris

During the Safavid period the royal houses, boyūtāt-e saltanatī, supply the court with all kinds of required items including fabrics and weavings, under the supervision of an appointed superintendent, nāzer-e boyūtat. During Shah Abbas I reign those workshops were further structured.

Artisans employed in those royal workshops were organized more like a working force rather than a structured guild, asnāf, they had higher skills and qualification than the self-employed and therefore enjoyed a better social status. In so doing the crown escape from dependence on individual craftsmen and also makes profits.

Amongst those craftsmen the brocade weavers, zarbāfān, earned better incomes than others, but all of them were designated as darbasta, meaning “solely tied “, because they worked for the court and seldom privately for their own profit, as the 17th century French Huguenot jeweler and traveler Chardin accounted 1 . Sometimes the external to the court workshops tawhīl-e asnāf and the state ones, dīvān-i mamālik, were solicited to manufacture carpets and textiles.

According again to Chardin those latter were weaved with raw materials provided by the crown, and wages were not paid, instead were given free rent lands to weavers, occasionally the state supervisor of guilds, malek al-tojjār played this role on behalf of the crown. From which royal workshop Safavid carpets originate is an open question.

Several Persian as well as European sources designate the districts of Tabriz, Isfahan, Kashan, Kerman, Jowshaqan, Qazvin and Yazd as principals for carpet and textiles manufacture.

In the few instances in which a carpet bears the weaver attributive name, nesbāh, such as Kāshānī , Yazdī, Kermānī or Jōshaqānī, except this in itself doesn’t indicate the place where it was made.

In the absence of reliable period registers of craftsmen including weavers in Iran, glances at historiography works and dynastic chronicles will provide some hints.

At least three textile weavers in the Ottoman court’s ehl-hiref defter 2 are mentioned amongst the craftsmen brought back forcibly to Istanbul by Sultan Selim I after his brief seizure of Tabriz in September 1514.

The Venetian traveler Michele Membré who sojourns between 1539 and 1542 at Shah Tahmasp’s court in Tabriz mentions that brocades, silk hangings and carpets are displayed at the royal palaces and military campaign tents 3 .

While in a letter from Mahin Banu, one of Shah Tahmasp sisters, in 1561, to Hurrem Sultana, wife of Sultan Soleyman, she asks to provide the suitable sizes for the carpets Shah Tahmasp planned to include as presents to Ottoman court 4 .

Anthony Jenkinson, the English Muscovy Company’s commercial agent, reported to London in 1569 that while in Qazvin he could not get any luxury commodities made there , because Shah Tahmasp would buy all such commodities; except cloths and fabrics which were neglected to purchase by this king 5 .

The Portuguese traveler Pedro Teixeira mentions at the end of 16th century that the finest carpets were from Yazd 6 ; a city where the inhabitants were engaged principally in producing silk and all kind of its derivates.

In 1604 a plea letter by Mirza Mohammad Hassan, the vizier of Yazd, was addressed to Shah Abbas for benevolence towards town’s silk weavers.

Sefer Muratowicz, an Armenian merchant and supplier of the polish king Sigismund III arrives in 1601 at the court of Shah Abbas , who presented him with a friendship declaration addressed to the Polish monarch.

Muratowicz who speaks Persian fluently acquired amongst other items carpets and silk tapestries, kelim, ordered in Kashan, which he brings back in 1602 to Poland 7 .

The Spaniard priest Florencio del Niño mentioned that in Qazvin there was numerous silk carpets in the early 17th century 8 .

In 1602 the royal workshops as well as the atelier-library, ketābkhāna, were removed from Qazvin to Isfahan, the new capital of the kingdom, maqarr-e dawlat, since 1597, counting between 30 and 50 departments, including gold lace makers, gulābatundūzān, weavers, nassājān,9 brocade weaver zarbāfān, and less considered the dyers sabbāghān.

Curiously we don’t found 17th century records with specific mention of carpets weavers, qālī-bāf, names in registers, except in a few Armenian’s tombstones in Isfahan, this profession is engraved as being the deceased 10 .

Paul Simon who visited in 1608 Kashan, describes it as a city where carpets made on looms owned by the crown were numerous 11. It is also attested by other authors that the inhabitants of the villages surrounding Kashan and small towns along the caravan route between Yazd and Mashhad were similarly engaged in the making of carpets and textiles, especially of expensive fabrics such as brocade and cut velvets.

Carpet making as well as raw silk production are recorded by East India Company agents in 1616 as the main activity in Yazd region. Jowshaqan produced a bulk of carpets for the court of Shah Abbas and was among the towns mentioned by Abu-l Fazl Allami in the Ākbarnāma 12.

Sending carpets to Mughal India was for a time more reliable and profitable for Persians than exports to Europe.

After the death in 1629 of Shah Abbas, several changes took place in the royal workshops, having repercussions in woven patterns and their quality. The sought-after single large motif fashion makes room to a variegated patterns schema.

During Shah Soleyman’s reign (1666-1694) the dyes and silk factories were closed and thereafter under new arrangements the Isfahan court was externally provided with wool and dyed silk yarns.

Another material concealed with accurate and specific description of crafts, artist and artisans including textile and carpet is the guild literature corpus named shahr āshāb, literally “town boys”, it was coined by poet Hafez (d. 1387) who in this way portrayed beautiful young or young singers whose presence mesmerized villagers.

A sample of verse in those poems reads: “My heart is captive to the brocade weaver, in whose hand every thread is a noose. Like a pièce of brocade, I made his shop my abode, and since that time my kilt of course being filled with roses”.13

This poetry and prose material refers specifically to gilds and craftsmanship practiced in Iran. Sayfi Bukhari (d. 1541) was one of the earliest to indulge on this particular literature. Also the renowned Safavid textile weaver Giyath al-Din Ali-ye Naqshbandi Shirazi (d.1595), who was the leader, muqqadam, of the royal looms in Yazd, wrote this kind of poetry too, with detailing circumstances of the life and technicalities of weavers.

All those developments treated with caution doesn’t prevent from the fact that there is no extant carpets known to have been commissioned specifically for the Safavid court, except the multiple niche carpet, sāf, offered by Shah Abbas to the Najaf sanctuary, during his pilgrimage, zīarāt there in 1623, bearing the motto: “Endowed by the dog of the threshold, Abbas” 14.

Various Safavid sovereigns employed this same allusive variable motto except in this unusual case is nominal. On a mausoleum veil housed at the treasury of Imam Reza at Mashhad is written it was endowed in 1699 by Shah Soleyman 15. While a multiple niche flat-woven zīlū 16 was donated in 1556 by Khanesh Begom, a half-sister of Shah Tahmasp, to Shāh Valī Neʿmatollah dervishes’ residence, khānaqā, in Taft mosque compound and now housed at the Carpet Museum of Iran (n° 976).

The Palace of the Dukes of Bragança stores a medallion carpet (n°PD76) with a woven poem mentioning Soleyman twice, an allusion to the biblical king Salomon and nor referring to a Safavid king

The word pādishā or sovereign written in a circa 1600 silk kelim from a pair, kept in Berlin Museum für Islamische Kunst (n°12577) is too all-embracing to be attached to a particular king.

The expanded praise of Safavid sovereigns to invoke allegiance to their faith by means of pilgrimage, zīarāt, and charitable endowments, āwaqf, to Shia holy shrines atabāt-e ‘alīyāt, including carpets and textiles entertained a power issue17, magnified by ambassadorial gifts to European and the Islamic world sovereigns.

Shah Tahmasp offered carpets to Prince Bayazid, the fugitive son of Sultan Soleyman 18, whilst Shah Abbas endowed āwqaf, carpets to Imam Reza shrine and to Ardebil threshold in the same year of 1608 while the Najaf sanctuary endowment took place in 162319 .

Whereas in ottoman sources Safavid ambassadorial gifts implying carpets are recorded during the reception, in 1567, by Sultan Selim II of the Safavid ambassador, Shah Quli khan, depicted in Nūzhet al-Akhbār des sefer-i Sigetvar by Ahmed Feridun Pasha20 and also in Shānname-i Selim Khān by Seyyid Lokman 21 .

The latter also described Toqmaq Khan embassy arrival in 1574 after the ascension of Sultan Murad III in his works Züb-detu’tevārīkh and Shāh-inshāh nāma22 as well as Ibrahim Khan embassy on the occasion of circumcision ceremony of prince Mehmet in another copy of Shāh-en Shāhnāma 23.

Not forgetting the Kitāb-i Ganjina-i Fath-i Ganja by Ibrahim Çavush coverage of Safavid peace delegation headed by Mehdi Quli Khan and Prince Haydar Mirza sent in 1590 as hostage for peace by Shah Abbas 24.

Depictions of those diplomatic receptions showing pageants carrying what seem to be carpets are illustrated in some of those above manuscripts.

It worth to be mentioned the early interest in carpets by Europeans, as witnessed by several Persian valuable carpets recorded in European inventories, for example in 1549 and 1553 with Cosimo I of Florence or in 1557 with Queen Catherina of Portugal, those carpets were either purchased or obtained as diplomatic presents.

The chronology of all those different carpets remains speculative due to the scarcity of carpets including dates; only five are recorded bearing the dates of 1523, 1529 1540 twice and 1671.

Another datable carpet is the so called “Coronation carpet” housed at Rosenborg Castle in Denmark (inv.31 rulle 1).

This Isfahan silk with brocaded silver threads carpet comes from a Dutch ship previously laden in Iran and after a failed British piracy attempt at the port of Bergen in 1665, where the ship was forced to seek shelter, during the Anglo-Dutch war, was later given as a token of gratitude to Queen Sophia Amalie in 1666 by the Dutch East India Company.

The current trend of those carpets in the wider background of fine arts under the Safavids was sustained by resourceful iconic spectrum. In practice designers, naqshekhvān, to weaving a carpet are crucial and paramount, judging by the created critical mass of sophisticated patterns.

Probably the artists at the royal ketābkhāna producing patterned bindings, sahhāfī, were entwined with carpet design models, naqshah, except behind each carpet we find a master weaver ostād, acting on its own.

Most of those Safavid carpets were woven, with an outstanding quality of materials and dyes, displaying complex compositions with combined sophisticate patterns and since the Safavid period onwards emerge a prominent presence of inscriptions on textiles and carpets with Persian poetry, quranic excerpt or Shia eulogy.

A noticeable carpets group of epigraphic significance is the niche prayer rugs with arch-shape compositions 25. The inscriptions on those carpets implement Shia eulogy and selected Quran verses sometimes identical to mosque’s mehrāb, as come into view at congregational mosque in Yazd, Goharshad mosque in Herat or the Masjid-i Jāme in Isfahan.

A fine example due to his archetypal Shia epigraphy is the prayer niche carpet with overall akin nasta ‘liq script (ill.1). Once beyond the embedded visual impact, the reading of those inscriptions conveys toward ruling dynasty creed devotion, witnessed by the inscriptions inside the spandrel with the nād-i Alī-ye saghīr or call upon Ali, in the outer border with the chahārdah ma’ sūm or fourteen immaculate, and in top left corner of the main border with “Face the judge who supplies all needs”.

This latter is usually seen in metallic strap work banner’s crests in Shiite rituals. The main border is filled with a ğazāl poem of Hafez alluring infatuation toward mehrāb and qibla that goes along with a quatrain sited vertically in the niche sides within cusped cartouches, calling for God’s grace grant and Prophet Mohammad intercede.

At the end of the outer border is written “the work of Qutb [al-D]in Kermani”, while the inscriptions within the roundel at the top of the niche and vertical cartouche reads “Glory to my most high Lord and to his praise”.

1.  Inscribed prayer rug, wool pile on a cotton foundation, Iranian-Azerbaijan, 17th century, 145 x 100 cm. Brooklyn Art Museum (N° 32-550)

Another niche prayer carpet 26 with predominant quranic verses (ill.2) displays a sophisticated garden setting pattern with the following inscriptions in fine vocalized thuluth and nasta liq scripts: in outer border Quran. II, 285-86, in inner border Quran, VII, 204-6, in the main border Quran, II, 255-56 with a pair of squares and pair of rosettes in banāi script reads respectively: “The Prophet, peace be upon him said: Revered the command of Allah and compassion upon the creatures of Allah, Glory and praise to Allah, there is no other God than Allah, and Allah is most Great”.

In the arch casing is written Quran XVII. 78, IV.103 and LXVIII. 51-52, while the cartouche in the niche is inscribed with the takbir call “Allah is most Great, the Greatest” , while the spandrel is made of patched pieces27 within Quran.LIX, 23-24 and theonyms or al-Asma al-Husna 28 .

A distinctive feature of this rug is the presence of an added hand written poem on both ends flat weaved strips, quite illegible.
Conspicuously the ultimately employ of those niche pattern rugs departs from the daily canonical prayers to become a praised and instrumental visual metaphor, embodied through selected epigraphy combined with explicit patterns.

2.   Inscribed prayer rug, wool and metal thread pile on a silk foundation, Kashan, ca. 1570, 180 x 112 cm.
Formerly in a Swiss collection. © 2018 photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Deeply entrenched in Persian carpets is the garden, bāğ, representation, which has ancient roots. By way of example when the Arabs conquerors entered in Tīsfūn or Ctesiphon,the Sasanian capital, they found a monumental flat weave in the royal palace, bearing a garden pattern with water channels and fauna, made of silk, silver- gold threads and bejeweled, which they cut up and shared among them.

This flat-weave is still referred as Bahār-e Kasrā or The Spring of Khosrow in hagiographical literature such as Khwandamir’s Habīb al-Syar.
Safavid carpets display a wide range of decorative significant elements of Persian art.

Amongst them the most successful one is the shining central lobed medallion, naqsh-e toranj, laid down in a field showing a paradisiacal garden, conceivably a reminiscence of pairidaēza, the Avestan walled garden, containing various flora and fauna, the whole symptomatic of the downhill of universe on earth.

One representative sample of this sumptuous iconography is the epitome carpet reportedly displayed in 1902 at Westminster Abbey during King Edward VII coronation29.
This luxurious large carpet made most likely during the early rule of Shah Tahmasp (ill.3), offer us an excellent standpoint of the high quality of design, color and execution of imperial carpets.

On a creamy field decorated with a fourfold symmetry landscape of cypresses, blossoming trees and shrubs enlivened with animals is sited a bold red ground central lobed medallion filled with ducks and cranes flying amid undulating clouds bands with parī, fairy or nymph, holding flasks in attendance at four corners. The cerulean ground border has a most stately pattern of floral scrolls bearing palmettes and lotus blossoms. The refined shapes with shining colors of lions, gazelles, goats, bulls, fabulous deer-like mythical creature, qilīn, and dragons provides an interface with the extant decorative panorama adorning other Persian work of art . A companion carpet from the same loom but actually damaged is housed at Berlin Museum of Islamic Art (n° I.1).

3.    Royal carpet, wool pile on a cotton and wool foundation, Northwest Iran,
ca. 1530, 816 x 570 cm.
Los Angeles County Museum, gift of J.P. Getty (48.9)

Finally we include an undersized silk piece, with a damaged woven date, read by some 933 H/1529, except we consider it as from Timurid period. The pattern composition mingles calligraphy and figurative elements, suggesting the mythical theme of the talking-tree, derakht-i gūyā. This latter is Referred in the Shāhnāma and also in the Wonders of Creation of Qazvini as wāq-wāq tree, with four impressive angels at corners and a ğazal inscribed in central oblong and corner spandrels with red cursive script.

The first hemistich reads: “O thou the leader of all communities, who guides all those in quest of wisdom” and open the path for a spiritual dimension of leadership, while the fabulous creatures heads among coiling floral stems must be seen as echoing this ğazal. In all probability this rug was woven for a sanctuary, as suggested by one of his owners in Tehran, the scholar A.U. Pope, who acknowledged that it comes from Mashhad shrine before 1939.

4.    Carpet, silk pile on a silk foundation, Tabriz, dated in the month of Ramadan 933 (?), 236 x 93 cm Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, (inv.T 113).

Safavid carpets production, partially inherited from Turkmen-Timurid looms, produced either in royal, state or private workshops at different locations, with selected wool, cotton, silk and metallic threads, designed and woven by masters, sometimes under the crown patronage, khāssa-ye sharīfa, was transformed into a flourishing traditional art form and a source of income for next generations.

In the past several art historians concerned with oriental carpets provide us with multifarious contentions based mainly on design and customary aesthetic grounds. A modern approach about carpets knowledge consist to focus into structural analyze, close comparative examination and taking in account the historical framework.

Conceivably the result might be more reliable to associate a particular carpet with a production center and to determinate what facts are beyond hypothesis. Arguable this method to study carpets will perceptibly open the door for further discoveries. In the meantime, we are able admire the Safavid carpets housed in public collections around the world as prized visual metaphors.[1]

[1] 1 J. Chardin, Voyages du Chevalier Chardin en Perse, III vol., Amsterdam, 1711.

2 Topkapi Palace archives n° D 5738.

 3 M. Membré, Relazione di Persia (1542), Naples 1969. 4 M. Parsadust, Shāh Tahmāsb-i Awā, Tehran, 1981, pp 234-244.

5 Early voyages and travels to Russia and Persi (eds.) E. D. Morgan & C.H. Coote, London 1886.

6 P. Teixeira, The Travels, Kings of Hormuz and Persia, (tr.) W.F Sinclair, London 1902, p. 252.

7 S. Muratowicz, Relacya Sefera Muratowicz, in Kazimierz Niesiolowski, Otia Domestica, Warsaw, 1743.

8 F.del Niño Jesús, A Persia (1604-9, peripeciasde una embajada pontificia, Pamplona, 1929.

9 Derivates from nasij a Mongol patterned gold cloth, hence in Arabic language designates a weaver.

10 Recorded by Yerevan’s scholars A. Gurginian & A. Haniyan, from New Julfa ‘s cemetery, before 1960.

11 A.U. Pope, Survey of Persian art, London, 1930, p. 2432.

12 Abu-l Fazl, The Akbarnama,(tr.) H. Beveridge, Calcutta, III vol., 1897-1939.

13 Mirza Tahir Vahid, Dīvān-i Rizvān, Central Library of Tehran University, manuscript n°4344.

14 Reproduced in M. Aga-Oglu, Savafid Rugs & Textiles, the collection of the shrine of Imām ‘Alī at al-Najaf, New York, 1941, pl.III, V. The referred “āstān” or threshold is justly the Imam Ali sanctuary.

15 Op.cit, A.U. Pope London, 1930, vol.VI, pl. 1084.

16 N.H. Beattie, A Note on Zilu, in C. Cootner, The Jenkins Collection I: Flat-Woven Textiles, Washington, 1981, pp. 169-74; also a Timurid zīlū is housed at the State Hermitage Museum ( IR-2253) .

17 M. Mostowfi Yazdi, Moqtasar-e mofid,(ed.) Najmahandi, Tehran, (n.d.).

18 F.Ahmed, Münşeatül- i Selalatin, Istanbul, II Vol., 1858

19 Eskandar Beg Monshi’s Tārīkh ālām-ārā-ye ‘abassī, 1629.With description of those endowments in detail.

20 Topkapi Palace Library manuscript H 1339 f° 247 v. See also Hasan Rumlu Ahasan al-Tawarīkh , (ed.) Navai, Tehran, 1978, p. 567

21 Topkapi Palace Library manuscript A 3595 f° 53v-54r.

22 Respectively Turk and Islamic Arts Museum 1973 f°91V and Istanbul University Library F 1404 f°41v-42r See also a description of this embassy in Ahmed-i Qumi Khūlāsat al-tawarīkh , (ed.) Ishraq, Tehran, 1980, vol. II; p. 893.

23 Topkapi Palace Library B 200 f° 36v-37r.

24 Topkapi Palace Library manuscript R 1296 f° 46r-53r. See also a miniature from Mahmoud Baqi’s Dīvān showing the arrival of this embassy, kept at the Metropolitan Museum N.Y. (accession 45.174.5).

25 The Salting Carpets , (eds.) M. Eiland & R. Pinner, Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies Volume 5, Part 2 , Danville, 1999. An exhaustive study of most of those inscribed niche prayer carpets.

26 Idem supra. Catalogue n° 47. Sold lately at auction, catalogue Sotheby’s, London, October 6, 2010, lot 394

27 Recalling the mosaic-tiles decoration of Harun-e Velayat’s mehrāb .

28 Walid b. Muslim al-Dimashqi (d. 810) was one of the first to provide a compilation of God’s names and attributes, sifāt, commonly named Asma-Allah .

29 L. Komaroff, The Coronation carpet, in Hali magazine, issue 162, 2009, pp. 46-49.

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