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Carpets from the Islamic World, 1600–1800

Marika Nickson
Associate Curator for Southern Asian and Islamic Art, San Diego Museum of Art

Under the OttomanSafavid, and Mughal dynasties, carpet weaving was transformed from a minor craft based on patterns passed down from generation to generation into a state-wide industry with patterns created in court workshops. In this period, carpets were fabricated in greater quantity than ever before. They were traded to Europe and the Far East where, too precious to be placed on the ground, they were used to cover furniture or hung on walls. Within the Islamic world, especially fine specimens were collected in royal households.
In Iran, the carpet and textile industries formed part of Shah cAbbas’ (r. 1587–1629) program for restructuring the economy and attracting European merchants to the country. He transferred silk merchants and weavers to the new capital of Isfahan and signed trade treaties with Spain, England, and France. Of the scores of carpets exported abroad at this time, the "Polonaise" type was the most popular; over 300 of them are in foreign collections, and many bear the coat of arms of the family that commissioned them. Vase and garden carpets were among the other common types. In each of these, vegetal motifs replace the figural ones of the previous century.
In Ottoman Turkey, weaving patterns and techniques changed in the early sixteenth century after conquests in Persia and Egypt. Anatolia had been known for carpets with stylized animal and geometric designs, but with these new cultural contacts, carpets designed around a central medallion and with flowing saz-style vegetation came into vogue. Similar motifs also appeared on book covers, textiles, and in manuscript borders. The style of these Ottoman court rugs, first produced in Istanbul, then spread to other weaving centers in Cairo and Ushak, but never fully overtook the various regional carpet traditions. Caucasian and Armenian carpets retained their customary geometric patterns, and kilims (or flat-weaves) remained popular.
Before the time of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), it seems that few carpets were produced in India—perhaps because of the climate—but his court historians record royal workshops in the capitals of Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, and Agra. Early Mughal rugs closely resemble those from contemporary Persia, and in particular those produced in Herat. Later in the seventeenth century, patterns changed as European engravings and illustrated books circulated at the court, and a Mughal idiom, distinct from the Persian manner of depicting flora, developed. With the work of European traders, Indian carpets traveled to the West and as far east as China and Japan, and were avidly collected in England and Portugal.
Many carpets now have no record of date or place of origin. Early scholars devised one dating system based on carpets that appeared in Italian and Flemish paintings, and some rugs are now known by the name of the artist in whose paintings they appear, such as Lotto and Holbein. More recent studies focus on the technical aspects of carpet production, such as material, dyes, and weaving structure, finding these to be important clues in determining where a particular carpet was made. While patterns were popular over wide geographical areas or were sent from court workshops to provincial production centers, each region had a characteristic style of weaving that remained the same over time. In Persia, for instance, an asymmetrical knot was most often used, and in Turkey a symmetrical one. Egyptian carpets are always fully wool, and Indian ones are recognized by their distinctive red hue.
1. Anhalt carpet, mid–16th century
Cotton warp, silk weft, wool pile, asymmetrically knotted; L. 317 1/2 in., W. 167 in.
Gift of Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1946
Anhalt carpet, mid–16th century
The great medallion carpet on a golden yellow ground, known after the name of its former owner as the Anhalt carpet, was woven in Persia around the middle of the sixteenth century. The multicolored peacocks that punctuate its design of spiraling vines and stylized blossoms link its imagery to Islamic concepts of Paradise. The carpet's remarkable state of preservation and its color, unusual among surviving carpets of this period, add to its stunning visual impact.
2. "Polonaise" carpet, Safavid period (1501–1722), 17th century
Iran, Isfahan or Kashan
Cotton (warp and weft), silk (weft and pile), metal–wrapped thread; asymmetrically knotted pile, brocaded; H. 160 in. (406.4 cm), W. 69 5/8 in. (176.8 cm)
Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 1950
Polonaise carpet
When, in 1878, a carpet similar to this one was exhibited in Paris, it was assumed that the coats of arms woven into the rug were Polish and that the rug was made in Poland. It was later recognized that this group, distinguished by a silk pile and metallic brocading, was Persian, made during and after the reign of Shah cAbbas I, beginning around the end of the sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The name, however, persisted, and more than 200 examples still bear the name. Many pairs of the type, as here, also survive.
The type of design on this carpet has its roots in earlier Iranian carpets, but the rich silk pile, highlighted with gold and silver brocading, and muted but lively colors, signaled a change from the past. The tightly controlled overall pattern of compartments formed by overlapping cartouches in orange, yellow, red, green, and brown on a silver-and-gold brocaded ground is adorned by floral and leaf-vine systems with palmette motifs. Reports of European travelers mentioned the capital city of Isfahan as the center of Safavid court production. Probably many of the finest examples of Polonaise carpets were produced there for local patrons or on orders from the shah as special gifts or as commissions for export. The richness and elegance of the Polonaise carpets reflect the current taste of the wealthy Iranian court, and also the Baroque taste of Europe, where they were particularly admired.
3. The Emperor's Carpet (detail), mid–16th century
Iran (probably Herat)
Silk (warp and weft), wool (pile), asymmetrically knotted pile; 24 ft. 8 in. x 10 ft. 10 in. (7.51 x 3.3 m)
Rogers Fund, 1943
The Emperor's Carpet
The Emperor's Carpet belongs to a group of carpets thought to have been produced in the eastern Iranian city of Herat, in the province of Khorasan. This group is identified by a purple-red ground, a blue or green border with touches of yellow, an elaborate floral pattern, scrolls, arabesques, and in early pieces, animals. The Emperor's Carpet is decorated with all of these identifying features. The natural and fabulous animals include pheasant like birds, spotted stags, chi-lins, lions, dragons, and other beasts, some alone and some in combat. The exterior border contains a scrolled vine pattern with various animal heads appearing within arabesques, cloud bands, and flowers.
These features are a testament to the exchange between Persian and Chinese models, which is most evident in illuminated manuscripts of the Tabriz courtly style. The inner border contains poetic verses in Persian, comparing the royal Safavid realms to a meadow, the sky, flowers, and gems, ending with praise for the shah. Symbolically, the design on the carpet recalls a garden in springtime, with its allusions to the divine Garden of Paradise.
The complex design of intertwining and intricately layered vine scrolls has connections to similar designs produced in other media during the Safavid period. Textual evidence of this period suggests that a centralized artists' workshop produced a distinctive style of imagery which then was applied to works such as carpets, textiles, paintings, manuscripts, and book bindings. The carpet consists of four mirrored and repeating quadrants, suggesting that the weavers made use of a large and elaborate cartoon, which may have been produced in such a workshop setting.
The Emperor's Carpet takes its name from its former owners, the Habsburg emperors. According to tradition, a pair of Safavid-period carpets was presented to Emperor Leopold I of Austria by Czar Peter the Great of Russia in 1698. Both carpets later entered the collection of the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. Eventually, one was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum and today is known as the Emperor's Carpet.
4. The Seley Carpet, Safavid period (1501–1722), late 16th century
Silk (warp), cotton (weft), wool (weft and pile); asymmetrically knotted pile; L. 280 in. (711.2 cm), W. 121 in. (307.3 cm)
Presented in memory of Richard Ettinghausen, Gift of Louis E., Theresa S., Hervey, and Elliot Jay Seley, and Purchase, Harris Brisbane Dick and Fletcher Funds, 1978 
The Seley Carpet
This is one of the finest Persian carpets known, produced when the art of carpet weaving had achieved its greatest perfection under the patronage of the Safavid shahs in the sixteenth century. Exceptional in its harmony of pattern and color, it combines the medallion scheme adapted from bookbindings with a field composed of a well-planned system of floral forms on scrolling vines and floating cloud bands of Chinese derivation. The medallions in the border are filled with felines and deer. The classic design is notable for the balance achieved between the formal symmetrical composition and the lively drawing style enriched by the many colors that further enhance the carpet's brilliance.
5. Medallion rug with a field of flowers, 17th century; Safavid
Probably Kirman, Iran
Wool pile on cotton, wool, and silk foundation; 81 x 56 in. (205.7 x 142.4 cm)
Gift of Joseph V. McMullan, 1970 
Medallion rug with a field of flowers
Roses, hyacinths, narcissi, campanula, irises, carnations, and lilies are among the many types of flowers that blossom in the field and borders of this carpet, which is generally attributed to the seventeenth-century production of Kirman, Iran. The flora are arranged symmetrically in pattern and color around a central octagonal medallion and four quarter medallions in the corners. The art of illumination, especially that of book covers, might have provided the inspiration for the central and corner medallion design, which was woven into so many Persian carpets. The decorative theme of the medallion has Central Asian roots and was known in the Timurid period, but its popularity greatly increased during the rule of the Safavids and beyond.
6. Carpet, Mughal period (1526–1858), mid–17th century
Pakistan, Lahore
Cotton (warp and weft), wool (pile); asymmetrically knotted pile; H. 363 in. (922 cm), W. 134 in. (340.4 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 
Carpet, Mughal period
The small scrolling-vine-and-blossom pattern of this carpet is repeated once in mirror image to fill the field width and six times in mirror reverse to complete the length. Its design places its production in the early part of the seventeenth century, when Indian carpet makers were working with patterns brought from Persia by emigré weavers. This particular type, with no figural imagery, replicates a series of rugs made in Herat. The elaborate interlocking design of its border closely follows those prototypes. The activity of royal carpet workshops is not as well documented during the reigns of Jahangir or Shah Jahan as it is under Akbar; that commercial houses were very productive at this time is however very clear. Members of the Dutch East India Company report trade with Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, and the first shipment of the British East India Company was of carpets from Lahore. Other foreign sources record that the city of Jaunpur traded with the Portuguese and note Bengal as a source for fine weaving.
7. Ushak medallion carpet on white ground, Ottoman period (ca. 1299–1923), first half of 17th century
Wool (warp, weft, and pile); symmetrically knotted pile; L. 306 in. (777.2 cm), W. 153 1/4 in. (389.3 cm)
Gift of Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss, 1984 
Ushak medallion carpet on white ground
Medallion Ushak carpets usually have a red or blue field decorated with a floral trellis or leaf tendrils, central medallions and a border containing palmettes on a floral and leaf scroll, and pseudo-kufic characters. In this example (partially restored), a typical white-ground field pattern is combined with the Medallion Ushak to form a new category of Ottoman carpet. Its spots-and-stripes pattern appears frequently in Ottoman art from the sixteenth century on tiles, paintings, bookbindings, and particularly on textiles and garments. The design may be a blending of an ancient tradition in which tribal elements have been adjusted to courtly taste. Unlike other white-ground categories, this field pattern never appears in European paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
8. Carpet with scrolling vines and blossoms, Mughal period (1526–1858), ca. 1650
Northern India or Pakistan, Kashmir or Lahore
Silk (warp and weft), pashmina wool (pile); asymmetrically knotted pile; L. 163 3/4 in. (415.9 cm), W. 66 in. (167.6 cm)
Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 
Carpet with scrolling vines and blossoms
The floral pattern and design of the field of this rug are related to carpets from Herat, which were the early models for Indian carpet production. The naturalistic, stemmed plants on the border, however, are the mark of a specifically Indian development. Jahangir had long encouraged the careful study of flora and fauna, and the arrival of European books of herbals further changed the depiction of flowers from the Persian style of endless scrolling vines. In Shah Jahan's time, to which this carpet is dated, the further development of the arrangement in neat rows appeared in all Indian media—manuscripts, architectural carving, textiles, and carpets.
9. Prayer rug, 18th century; Mughal
Probably Kashmir, India
Wool pile on cotton and silk foundation; 74 1/4 x 47 1/4 in. (188.6 x 121.2 cm)
Gift of Joseph V. McMullan, 1970 
Prayer rug
Paradise in Islam is described as a walled garden filled with flowers and cypress trees. Depictions of paradise in Islamic art often include a colorful garden of flowers sheltered by an arched gateway symbolic of the entrance to heaven. This artistic metaphor appears on textiles, architectural tile panels, and other objects, but is an especially appropriate decorative motif for prayer rugs. It is a visual reminder of the pleasures of paradise awaiting the faithful who pray. Flowers burst forth from a single vase in the field of this carpet and fill a curved niche defined by flanking cypress trees and floral spandrels. The extremely fine weave of this pashmina wool prayer rug, with approximately 700 knots per square inch, gives it a luxurious, velvet like appearance. This mille-fleurs type of prayer rug was produced in Mughal India and later copied by weavers in southern Persia.
10. Carpet, Ottoman period (ca. 1299–1923), dated A.H. 1188 / A.D. 1774
Cotton (warp and weft), wool (weft), silk (weft), metal–wrapped silk thread; tapestry–woven; H. 63 in. (160 cm), W. 43 in. (109.2 cm)
Anonymous Gift, 1962 
Carpet, Ottoman period
This type of prayer rug, with a stepped mihrab niche supported by columns and a lamp or flowers suspended from the center, was created in the town of Gördes. In the late seventeenth century, other weaving centers took up production of this design as well; in Ladik, where the tradition continued through the eighteenth century, they were most often completed in red, blue, yellow, and green, the borders had stemmed tulips, and columns became even more tapered. An inscription on this carpet dates it to 1774.
11. Carpet, late 18th century
Caucasus, Turkey
Woolen warp, weft, and pile; 21 ft. 2 in x 9 ft. 5 in. (6.4 x 2.8 m)
Gift of Joseph V. McMullan, 1970 
Carpet, late 18th century
The design of this rug would have been striking in its boldness even in small scale, but is exceptionally powerful in a carpet of this size. The pattern, largely composed of medallions, octagons, and palmettes having a variety of floral and geometric forms, is repeated in near mirror image on both axes with a small palmette marking the center. The narrow border, a characteristic of early Caucasian rugs, consists mainly of a stylized cypress tree on a stand.
12. Kilim, ca. 1800
Central Anatolia
Wool, cotton, and silver thread; 13 ft. 7 3/8 in. x 5 ft. 4 1/4 in. (4.2 x 1.6 m)
Purchase, Rebecca and Richard Lindsey Gift, 2006 
Kilim, ca. 1800
Flat woven floor coverings representing a vibrant village and nomadic tradition were produced in a wide swathe of the Islamic world from Iran, the Caucasus, and Anatolia to Central Asia. This striking kilim reflects the continuation of a mythological and symbolic decorative repertoire that has long associations with Central Anatolia, here creatively reinterpreted in an early nineteenth-century tribal sensibility.
The kilim is woven in a palette of indigo blue and red with accents of brown, green, mauve, and white. The ends are finished with a series of horizontal bands, two of which consist of the "hook," or çengal, pattern. A wide border of hexagonal rosettes in green, brown, and mauve, each enclosing a gul, or abstract flower, frames the central field, a compartmentalized vertical composition incorporating a birth goddess motif that has survived in this region from the Neolithic period (2500 B.C.). Like many of the abstract motifs found on Anatolian kilims, this one is believed to have protective properties.
13. "Star Ushak" carpet, Ottoman period (ca. 1299–1923), late 15th century
Wool (warp, weft, and pile); symmetrically knotted pile; L. 166 in. (421.6 cm), W. 91 1/2 in. (232.4 cm)
Gift of Joseph V. McMullan, 1958 
Star Ushak carpet, Ottoman period
This carpet is known as a Star Ushak, from the star shape of its medallions and the weaving center from which it originates. In the use of a primary star-shaped medallion on a field containing a secondary floral scroll, the Anatolians no doubt were influenced by northwest Persian book design, as seen in buildings or illumination, or by Persian medallion carpets. Unlike the Ottoman medallion carpets of Cairo and Bursa, the ground scroll here is secondary to the medallion scheme. The blue medallions on the red ground are the traditional colors of these carpets. Star Ushaks, extremely popular in the West and copied there, are portrayed in European paintings as early as the second quarter of the sixteenth century.
Originally published at Metropolitan Museum of Art's website: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/crpt/hd_crpt.htm