The Romantic Origins of Oriental Rugs

The Romantic Origins of Oriental Rugs

By definition, an Oriental rug is hand-knotted with wool or silk, made in an area that includes China, Turkey, India, and everything in between. Although different cultures and religious faiths developed their own techniques and signature styles, all are considered “Oriental rugs.”

The oldest known sample was discovered in 1948 in a frozen burial mound in Outer Mongolia near Pazryk. Believed to be from the 5th century BCE, “The Pazryk Carpet” has geometric, floral, and symbolic designs.

The fact that the person was buried with his carpet indicates the personal identification and meaning attributed to the item. The quality of this carpet demonstrates that the art of rug making had become, even by then, a sophisticated practice.

 

cyrus-the-greatOriental Rugs in History

King Cyrus the Great (circa 500 BCE) is said to have decorated his palace with carpets so intricate and so colorful that they dazzled visitors. Historians believe that artisans in the Persian and Egyptian Empires had developed weaving independently by the second millennium BCE. Evidence suggests that hand-knotted rugs existed in parts of Asia and the Middle East more than 4000 years ago. By the 8th century BCE, well-to-do families were using rugs to decorate and personalize their homes — not only on the floors, but also on the walls and even on the tables.

The Romance of Oriental Rugs

Ancient Oriental rugs weren’t necessarily made for practical reasons. As shown by The Pazryk Carpet, rugs had sentimental value. As a modern mother knits booties for her baby, the artisans of old crafted their cleopatracarpets with love to bring beauty and comfort to their families.

The vibrant colors of a rug mirrored the world around them. The symbols had personal and cultural overtones. It acted as jewelry in a time before jewels, a gift that took precious time to make, designed with a specific person in mind. The recipient of a hand-made rug likely kept it close at all times: using it during meals, prayer, and sleep.

In one believably romantic story, the beauteous and seductive Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to visit Rome. In order to gain audience with Mark Antony, she had herself wrapped in an Egyptian rug of the finest texture to be presented to him as a gift. That introduction, as you may know, led to one of the most dramatic romances of all time!

Oriental Rugs Today

Because Oriental rugs developed over time from a very wide geographic area, they are named after the place where local artisans weaved them. The designs, palettes, and techniques link individual rugs to the jaipurindigenous culture that produced it, and experts can often tell at a glance where a particular rug originated. Floral or formal patterns, for example, reflect a more urban artisan, while geometric patterns indicate a rural or tribal rug maker.

Today, most Oriental rugs come from China, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tibet, and Turkey. Persian rugs, a subset of Oriental rugs, are only made in Iran (formerly Persia). These rugs are known for a thick pile, brilliant color patterns, inventive designs, and a unique weave.

The beauty of any Oriental rug is in part tied to its link to the past — in its color, design, and originality. Although Oriental rugs have their origins thousands of years ago, little has changed. True Oriental rugs are still made by human hands practicing an ancient skill. Their romance as gifts also continue.

 

 

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Art and Practicality Converge in Gabbeh Rugs

Gabbeh (pronounced “gah-BAY”) is the Farsi word for natural or raw. In this case, it describes the coarse materials used to create early tribal rugs in Persia. The Gabbeh weaving tradition dates back as far as 3500 BC. Those first Gabbeh rugs were made by nomadic women to protect tender feet and to decorate bare homes. While they were practical, they also inspired. The artisans who wove those ancient rugs infused their designs with symbols that displayed their spirit, artistic talents, and love for family. In time, certain symbols evolved to impart love, prosperity, and good fortune to their families.

Modern families can grace their homes with those same sentiments with a beautifully hand-knotted Gabbeh rug from either India or Iran. Since both hand-weavers and modern manufacturers incorporate the emblematic characters found in early Gabbeh rugs, you can find the symbols on all-wool hand-tufted rugs and even in the synthetics used in machine-made rugs.

Each character woven in a Gabbeh rug has its own unique meaning. Some of the most common symbols found on today’s Gabbeh rugs include:

  • The Cypress Tree stands for life after death.
  • The Lion boasts of honor and victory.
  • A Camel is a common symbol for wealth and happiness.
  • Peacocks are holy birds that symbolize the spiritual nature of man.
  • The Dog serves as man’s protector, saving him from his own misdeeds and harm from others.
  • The Cock represents the devil; it’s woven into rugs to protect the owner from outside evil.
  • A Comb suggests cleanliness and brings wishes of health to the family.
  • The Hourglass reminds the family that time passes for everyone.
  • A strip of Clouds sends happiness to the family.
  • A Pomegranate is the ancient symbol of abundant wealth.
  • The Tree of Life, one of the most common symbols, expresses the belief in eternal life.

The characters are woven as small geometric shapes, caricatures of the symbols they portray. On some rugs, they are lined up in no particular sequence, bringing a wealth of wishes to the bearer. Other rugs focus on a primary wish, such as the popular Lion Gabbeh rug that contains one or two bigger lions surrounded by smaller lions in a horizontal pattern, ideal for a family of warriors. Gabbeh symbols may be also woven into a larger pattern made of a floral motif. In these rugs, you may have to look closely to see the artistic symbols imbedded in the overall pattern.

No matter which kind of Gabbeh rug you purchase, the original thoughts and heart-felt symbols can bring an aura of love and good intentions to your home. You may recognize the symbols and be able to interpret their meanings, but even if you can’t, a Gabbeh rug has an uncanny way of snuggling up to your heart and making you feel good somehow. Perhaps it’s the ghosts of the tribal Persian women who loved and cared for their families, or perhaps it’s the actual resonance of the symbols themselves.