Saturday, 11 December 2010

Why Chinese Carpets, Born On The Steppes, Have Classical Chinese Designs

BEIJING, Dec. 18, 2010 – Like the other countries of the ancient Silk Roads, China has a rich carpet tradition.

But it is a younger heritage than those of Central and South Asia or the Middle East and very much unlike them.

Because the first pile carpets in China seem to have been woven only some 500 years ago – in the 15th century -- it seems clear pile carpet weaving arrived to China from elsewhere.

The best guess is that the technique traveled up the Silk Road into northwestern China from neighboring East Turkestan.

Northwestern China was, and is, a vast steppe land peopled mostly by Turkic-Mongol peoples. At that time, these steppe lands, which today include Inner Mongolia, were outside the Great Wall protecting China proper.

So, the early carpets were not ethnically "Chinese" -- in the sense of the Han Chinese who lived within the wall (outlined in red here).

But for reasons that still fascinate historians, they almost immediately became a medium for Chinese – not nomadic – art.

And it is that quality which makes Chinese carpets so unlike their more "oriental" relatives.

Carpet scholars Muray L. Eiland Jr. and Muray Eiland III write in their book Oriental Carpets (1998) that "although it is possible that the pile carpet is not indigenous to China and was introduced from Central Asia, its designs have become as classically Chinese as those of textiles of porcelain.

"The same floral forms, of lotus and chrysanthemum, appear repeatedly, while the same simple devices of frets and swastikas are common in the borders. There is a lavish style of mythical animals and scrolling vines and more styles of the repetition of simple geometric figures."

Here is a carpet showing a mix of floral and geometric figures. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

The picture at the top of this page is of a naturalistic carpet from around the northwestern town of Ningxia.

That the carpets should become so classically Chinese is surprising because the steppe lands -- which are a rich wool producing region -- had a millennia-old tradition of felt carpet making with its own rich vocabulary of motifs.

But it may be that by the 15th century, the people of northwest China already were heavily influenced by the overwhelming culture of China proper.

It is likely, too, that in many of the main commercial centers for the rugs, such as Ningxia right beside the Great Wall, urban populations were already ethnically mixed.

The rugs woven in northwest China had several markets.

One market was the nomadic lands to the north, Mongolia and beyond, where the rugs were used to decorate yurts.

A second market was Chinese Muslims who needed substitutes for prayer rugs, which were not woven in China.

And the third and richest market – and the one which undoubtedly did the most to determine styles and designs -- was temples and noble homes.

Ningxia rugs, for example, were used extensively in the monasteries of Tibet and northwest China. The temple carpets included Banner rugs, Hanging rugs, Curtain carpets and Pillar carpets.

The Pillar carpets were sometimes made in two halves to fit around a column. Picture here is a column carpet from the 1880s in the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection.

Interestingly, special colors were reserved for special audiences. Yellow was reserved for royal use, such the court and temples, while red was for gift carpets exchanged between aristocrats.

But if these pile carpets are so distinctly Chinese in appearance, does it mean that the indigenous people of the northwest contributed no influence of their own?

Hans Bidder, a German diplomat and carpet historian who lived many years in China before his death in 1963, believes the felt carpet culture of the steppe lands had a great effect on how the pile woven carpets were decorated.

Bidder is particularly intrigued by the way the fields of Chinese carpets so often appear to be blank canvases upon which motifs – from animals to Taoist and Buddhist symbols – are placed in almost 'applique' fashion.

Shown here is a carpet from the northwestern city of Baotou (or Paotou) showing objects in sharp contrast with their background.

Often the motifs stand out so dramatically from the background that almost appear to have been inlaid into the field of the carpet the way motifs are rolled and pressed into the plain backgrounds of felt carpets.

The appearance is sometimes heightened by cutting the pile to put the motifs in even higher relief – a practice that remains very common in Chinese carpets today.

That preference for high relief makes a fascinating link not only to the art sensibilities of the nomadic felt makers but also to a period in China's own history when – due to the Mongol conquests of the 13th century – felt carpets briefly and unexpectedly rose to the level of a court art in Beijing.

Bidder writes that "during the period of Mongol Chinese rule (1260 to 1341) the felt carpet developed into a very luxurious object."

He continues, "in the year 1299 felt carpets with an area of 331 square meters were manufactured for the 'Palace of the Special Chambers' (imperial harem) … felts became so refined and improved in quality that the artistry of felt carpets finally equaled that of the best Oriental carpets and sometimes exceeded it." (Bidder, Carpets from Eastern Turkestan, published 1964.)

It is interesting to speculate on how much this experience may have helped set the subsequent taste for bold, high-relief motifs on knotted rugs. But the impact of Mongol rule on Chinese rugs may have been still larger than that.

Bidder notes that ancient China – the Han peoples within the Great Wall – traditionally associated wool with the barbarian world. Their fabrics of choice were cotton and silk, instead.

Here is a Ming Dynasty carpet that looks much like a silk robe in its pattern.

It was only through centuries of contact with nomads on the northern border that Chinese slowly began to adopt the use of felt mats as utilitarian floor coverings or insulation padding on beds. The example of the Mongol court would have done much to convince Chinese to regard wool as an artistic medium, as well.

Still, when weaving looms for carpets arrived in China, many people still regarded them as something alien.

Bidder, a scholar of Chinese texts, cites the earliest known mention of the technology as noting the "weaving process has been taken over from the barbarians and is performed in their strange way." The book was written sometime in the Ming period of the 14th to 17th centuries.

But if wool carpet weaving took hold relatively late in China, it rapidly developed into a major industry.

The most active centers in the northwest – the ones most early carpets are named after – became the provinces of Kansu, Ningxia, and Suiyan (a now defunct province located in today's Inner Mongolia), as well as another part of Inner Mongolia near the city of Baotou (or Paotou)

These centers thrived in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, setting the stage for the phenomenal growth of the Chinese export carpet industry when China opened to the world and major new weaving centers appeared in Peking and its nearby port Tiantsin.

From historical records, it appears wool looms appeared in Beijing in the early 1860s. There carpet-maker developed new patterns based on Ningxia carpet designs but which progressively responded to Western market demands.

Like the earlier Chinese carpets, the new Peking rugs depicted Chinese symbols and designs used for hundreds of years.

But where the symbols tended to be profuse and cluttered together on domestic rugs, the new rugs spaced them out -- usually around a central medallion -- in harmonious designs more suited to western tastes.

Blue Peking rugs made in Western room sizes gained huge popularity, particularly in America. They were followed by other rugs directly produced for the American market, often by companies owned by American expatriates in China.

The most famous of these "American" exports were the Chinese Art Deco rugs of the 1920s and 1930s. But their success is another story (see: The Jazz Age: Gowns, Tuxedos, And Chinese Art Deco Carpets).




Thursday, 25 November 2010

Khotan Carpets And The Lost Legacy Of The Silk Roads

KHOTAN, East Turkestan; Dec. 4, 2010 -- In the center of the Asian continent is one of the world's most isolated places.

It is a huge region – larger than Western Europe – and has a millennia-old carpet weaving tradition. Yet even today it is little known in the West because it is so remote.

The place is known historically as East Turkestan and, today, comprises China's eastern-most province, Xinjiang.

From any direction, East Turkestan is hard to reach.

Its heartland, the Tarim Basin, is ringed on three sides -- north, west and south -- by mountain peaks up to 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) high, or about half again the height of Europe's Mont Blanc. That walls it off from Central Asia, Pakistan, and Tibet.

On the fourth side, a vast desert cuts it off from China proper to the east.

But over the millennia, this remote place attracted waves of settlers from all directions. And it was the pivot point of the Silk Roads, where the route from China branched south to India, north to Central Asia, and west to Persia, Anatolia, and Europe.

The history of fused cultures can clearly be seen in East Turkestan's rugs and is what makes them both so fascinating and sui generis.

One example is the rug from the town of Khotan shown at the top of this article. At first glance, it looks vaguely Islamic, vaguely Chinese, and vaguely Indian. In fact, it is all three.

Here is a map of the Tarim Basin, showing Khotan (here spelled Ho-t'ien) at the center of the Tarim Basin's southern edge.

Khotan and all the other major towns of the region are oases fed by mountain rivers that disappear into the Taklamakan desert at the basin's center.

Appreciating East Turkestan's carpets means peeling back layers of history, perhaps to about 1,500 to 1,000 BC. That is when historians believe the earliest agrarian settlers began penetrating into East Turkestan which, at the time, was dominated by Turkic nomads.

The settlers were Indo-Europeans who were members of the same peoples of greater Persia whose wars with the Turkic nomads are chronicled in Persia's epic poem, the Shahnameh. They lived in the oasis towns and adopted Buddhism from India while the nomads roamed over the mountain slopes.

Here is a picture of another Khotan carpet. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

The medallions are called Ay Gul, or "moon" motif, and are arranged in a pattern reminiscent of the three lotus seats on which Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas is represented in temple art. The border recalls nomadic felt carpet traditions.

Just when weaving began in East Turkestan is unknown. But Western archaeologists have dated the earliest pile carpet fragments found in the Tarim Basin to about the third century AD. The fragments were found at Buddhist sites excavated by Sir Aurel Stein in Niya, an oasis east of Khotan, around 1900.

During their history, the Buddhist oasis towns would be repeatedly overrun by powerful Turkic nomadic confederations, notably the Hsiung-nu (or Xiongnu) in the second century BC. But the nomads were content to levy tribute without changing the towns' culture or their role as middlemen for the Silk Roads.

Similarly, China, which increasingly dominated the oasis states from the second to fourth centuries BC, had no interest at that time in colonizing or in spreading Chinese culture to them, unlike today.

Instead, the Chinese were interested in maintaining garrisons to guard their Silk Road trade and assure their own imports of jade, which the mountain rivers bring down to the Tarim Basin. Whenever the rival Tibetan Empire displaced the Chinese, it too left the oasis states largely independent.

The first real changes came about with the waves of Turkic conquests which began in the ninth century as huge new confederations of nomads mobilized for the westward migrations that would change the face of Eurasia.

As the Turkic tribes adopted Islam, they also forced the conversion of the Buddhist oases, imposed their language, and created East Turkestan as we know it now.

But if the conquests and later settling of the region by the Turks, and definitively by the Uigur Turks, brought new religious and cultural influences, it did not mean the end of the old artistic ones.

Rug expert Hans Bidder writes in his landmark book Carpets from Eastern Turkestan (1964):

"Iconoclastic Islam which spread into the oases from middle of the 10th century was indeed able to subdue the religious art of Buddhism, but the new faith proved incapable of gaining any hold upon individual arts and crafts which had their roots in the traditional customs and economic existence of the oases.

"The old carpet weaving craft in Khotan, for example, whose precious fund of designs had been influenced by ten centuries of Indo-Grecian art, freely continued its own path of natural development."

Here is another Khotan carpet, this one in a "coffered gul" pattern.

Bidder writes that "the coffered gul design, so characteristic of Khotan, dates back to either the Gandhara-Buddhism period, or to an even earlier epoch." (Gandhara, stretching from Kabul to Peshawar, reached its height under Buddhist kings from the 1st to 5th centuries AD.)

He observes that the rosettes in the coffer boxes may be a floral "Khotan modification of a Turkoman Gul," while the border – with its curious multi-colored disintegrating design is Indian-influenced.

Another major influence in the design of many East Turkestan rugs was undoubtedly the patterns on Chinese silks that passed up and down the trade routes.

East Turkestan's carpet trade flourished through the middle ages and into the early modern era as the courts of Turkic rulers patronized the carpet workrooms of the oases. The carpets also found markets in India, Persia and Central Asia as part of the Silk Road trade and absorbed new influences from them in exchange.

But when China occupied the whole of East Turkmenistan in the 1750s, things changed radically. The Chinese court had little interest in pile carpets beyond receiving them as diplomatic gifts and Chinese homes made no use of them at all.

Worse, East Turkestan's incorporation into China cut its economic connections with the west. Commercial weavers who previously imported dyes from India were cut off both from their supplies and their best route for connecting to the fast growing rug market of 19th century Europe.

Here is a photo of one of the most common East Turkestan patterns. It is a carpet woven in Yarkand with a pomegranate-vase design. This and other designs were also woven in the best known of the oasis towns, Kashgar.

Those carpets from East Turkestan which did make their way west usually did so via the mountains into the Russian Empire and on to Central Asia's great carpet market in Samarkand.

By the time they reached Europe, they were generically – along with other Central Asian rugs – termed "Samarkands" and their identity was lost.

Similarly, if they went to Europe via oriental arts dealers in Beijing, they were called Kanju after one of the provinces they passed through on their way to the Chinese capital. That name, too, told nothing of their real origin.

Today, after decades of an isolated and then re-opened communist China, the weaving industry of East Turkestan is so weak that it offers little for carpet enthusiasts.

Commercial workshops are as likely to produce knock-offs of Persian carpets as copies of the region's own designs. If traditional carpets are woven for home use in any numbers, they are rarely seen or remarked upon by travelers.

But the fact that weaving still exists at all in a place so long forgotten by the world's carpet markets is something of a miracle.

Considering how many millennia and changes East Turkestan's weaving culture has already survived, it would be wrong to count it out now.




Khotan Rugs: Samuel's Antique Rug Gallery

Khotan Rugs: Doris Leslie Blau's 'Samarkand' Gallery

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Rags To Riches: The North American Art Of Hooked Rugs

BOSTON, November 20, 2010 -- It is always fascinating to see how rugs in so many parts of the world originated as practical necessities but evolved into items of art.

One example is hooked rugs.

They are a peculiarly North American creation that began as floor coverings and today are just as likely to be prized wall hangings.

In the process, they have become one of the more enduring handcrafts in Canada and the United States and a medium for endless creativity.

Just how wide ranging they can be is shown in the rug below by Massachusetts artist Margaret Arraj.

It is in the style of a Khotan carpet from east Turkestan in the 1700s, inspired by the original in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Arraj, whose rugs are for sale at her website Mill River Rugs is particularly interested in ethnic floral designs and old textiles.

As she says, her designs “honor the artistic life and tradition of a variety of countries. In this way, they bring us closer to other cultures and times.”

But most hooked rugs do not wander so far from home.

Instead, they take their themes from North American folk culture as they depict flowers, wildlife, people, historical events, geometric patterns or simply express the imagination of the artist.

And in that way, hooked rugs today remain surprisingly close to their origins in the in the 19th century.

Just how hooked rugs evolved in the 1800s is a fascinating story.

Author William Winthrop Kent writes that the earliest forebears of hooked rugs were the floor mats made in Yorkshire, England in the early days of the industrial revolution.

At that time, workers in weaving mills were allowed to collect the excess pieces of yarn that were by-products of the work. The pieces, which were called “thrums” and usually some 9 inches (23 cm) long, were valuable to the workers because yarn in general was expensive and the products of the mills were affordable only to the middle and upper classes.

The mill workers put the thrums to good use.

They pulled the strips of yarn, one by one, through a grid backing to make carpets. The backing was linen or burlap or any other such heavy material and the tool for pulling the yarn through was a simple hook with a wooden handle.

Later, this technique transferred to North America, specifically to New England and the Canadian Maritimes, and flourished.

It became a favorite way for poorer households in these regions to produce colorful floor covering at a time when most 19th century homes had unsightly floors that were hastily cobbled together by the builders from softwood boards of random sizes.

Because yarn was expensive, and always saved for knitting sweaters, poor families without access to thrums usually made their hooked rugs using scraps of ordinary cloth.

But no matter what fabric was used, the hooked rugs were more attractive than the common alternative at the time: inexpensive mats woven from coconut fiber, straw, or corn husks.

Here is an antique hooked rug. It is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

One might expect hooked rugs to have died out once machine-powered carpet weaving, invented in the 1830s, developed sufficiently to produce cheap carpeting in massive volumes. And by the 1870s, machine weaving was doing just that to solve people’s flooring problems.

But instead of disappearing, the pastime of “hooking rugs” passed from being a household chore into a hobby.

Over time, as standards of living improved with the industrial revolution, the materials used in the rugs also upgraded.

By the 1930s, when artists and author Pearl McGown widely popularized the art by publishing formal guidelines for it, the “pile” material had become wool strips and the rugs – as they are still called – had become wall hangings.

In their heyday as a floor covering, hooked rugs were often produced by poorer families and even businesses for sale commercially.

The most ambitious products were hooked carpets of living-room size.

Here is an antique hooked rug – 12.5 feet by 16 feet (3.8 x 4.8 meters) – designed in the style of a baroque European carpet.

Such old pieces today are highly prized and are sold by some dealers in North America as “American Hooked” rugs right alongside antique oriental ones.

And, because there is not enough supply of the large antique hooked rugs to meet demand, there is also a market for reproductions. That's as some American decorators try to recapture the look of New England homes of days gone by, particularly for vacation cottages.

The commercial reproductions, made outside of North America, exist side-by-side with the very active output of rug hooking hobbyists and artists across Canada and the United States.

As always, the hobbyists continue to hook rugs for their friends and family but, unfortunately, only rarely for sale.

For a video demonstration of how hooked rugs are made, and examples of folk art motifs, click on this YouTube link:




Related Links:

Mill River Rugs: Gallery of New Hooked Rugs

Absolute Rugs: Gallery of Antique Hooked Rugs

Gene Shepherd Rug Hooking Video

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Attend the 12th ICOC in Sparkling Stockholm: June 16-19, 2011

By Dennis Dodds, Secretary General of the ICOC

We invite you join us for the International Conference on Oriental Carpets' big events in Stockholm, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg. The deadline for the 'Early Bird' Registration discount is just 30 days away!

Book before December 1st and enjoy considerable savings. At the conference, hear educational lectures from international experts, greet old friends and meet new ones. Visit a robust International Dealers’ Fair of antique rugs and see exhibitions of Caucasian, Anatolian and Persian rugs and textiles from private collections. A special display of rare Turkmen carpets and trappings is also being organized.

Feast your eyes on the world famous ‘Marby’ rug (pictured here) and 17th century Turkish ‘Transylvanian’ rugs, glorious "Polonaise" carpets, tapestries, colorful 18th century Swedish folk textiles and the exquisite Safavid silk velvet coat that belonged to Queen Christina...and this is just a sampling!

Visits to several museum exhibitions include the Royal Palace with their vast collections of fine art. Day-excursions to Stockholm’s many splendid cultural and historic sites will be available.

An art-filled pre-conference tour takes you to Copenhagen, Denmark and the incomparable David Collection, considered one of the world’s finest collections of Islamic art, including carpets and textiles.

Your amazing post-conference tour of 5 nights and 4 fabulous days to the incomparable city of St. Petersburg, Russia, will cap off an unforgettable ICOC experience. See the Pazyryk carpet and other rare textiles, carpets and collections of great art in the magnificent setting of the Hermitage Museum, with informative programs presented exclusively for ICOC participants. An exhibition of Central Asian carpet masterpieces from the Russian Ethnographic Museum’s celebrated vaults, the Kunstkamera Museum of Peter the Great and tours of Czarist country palaces will make this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Evenings in Stockholm, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg (with its ‘white nights’) will be filled with festive receptions. June is an ideal time to visit these wonderful cities with their rivers, canals and cultural attractions. Please join us in making this 12th ICOC an educational and memorable travel experience. For more general information about ICOC, go to:

To book your discount registration before the deadline, go to:




Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Kabul's Old City Gets A Facelift

KABUL, October 16, 2010 -- Kabul has been so damaged by wars and pell-mell rebuilding that it's hard to remember this was once a pretty city with elegant mud-brick mansions, elaborate carved-wood lattice windows, and shady courtyards.

But some of the old neighborhoods still exist, hidden away in what today are the poorest parts of town.

To find them means going to the very center of Kabul, where a bazaar the locals call "Titanic" appears each summer in the dry gulch of the Kabul River, then disappears again with the spring floods.

There, you have to duck behind the Soviet-era buildings and concrete-box shops surrounding the bazaar and plunge into a labyrinth of smoky, noisy lanes. As the smoke from the blacksmiths' forges stings your eyes and the hammering rings in your ears, you reach the neighborhood of Murad Khane.

For decades, this neighborhood of once-grand homes was so neglected that it literally fell into ruin. The mud-brick homes crumbled around the residents as they became too destitute to repair them. Some of the largest homes turned into cheap warehouse space for the nearby bazaar and their courtyards became dumping sites for trash from other parts of town.

But now, Murad Khane is reviving. Since 2006, it has been the focus of a major renovation effort funded mostly by private international donors. And as its buildings return to view, the neighborhood is becoming one of the city's most charming historical treasures.

Rory Brown, the development officer for the project, says the task of just digging out the trash has been prodigious. "Since 2006, we have removed almost 20,000 cubic meters of rubbish from the streets, courtyards, and sites of collapsed buildings in Murad Khane," he says. "In places, that has meant the street level has dropped by up to 2 meters."

Here is a picture of one of the neighborhood's landmark buildings, the "Peacock House," after extensive restoration. A 'before' picture of the house is at the top of this article.

The recovery is part of a $25 million effort by the Kabul-based Turquoise Mountain project and the brainchild of two well-known British personalities.

One is the Prince of Wales, who famously dislikes modern architecture, and the other is Rory Stewart, Turquoise Mountain's founder. Stewart walked across Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban to write the best-selling book "The Places In Between" and, like Prince Charles, admires Afghanistan's cultural and artistic traditions and wants to help revive them.

The Peacock House is named for the motif of peacocks that appears on its carved wood facade. Like many of the other landmark buildings in Murad Khane, it dates to the 1920s, when dozens of buildings with elaborate wood carvings were erected by rich families.

The district itself was long associated with the royal palace that stands nearby. Afghanistan's founding ruler, Ahmad Shah Durrani, built several buildings there in the 18th century to house members of his court and it remained a prestigious address for centuries afterward.

The aim in restoring Murad Khane now is both to save the centrally located district from being bulldozed to make room for new buildings and to find a new life for some of the finest structures as a crafts school. Fifteen of the buildings will provide the campus of the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, which will not only teach new generations of artisans but also help provide a sustainable economy for the rest of the district.

This student at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture practices calligraphy.

At the same time, the urban-renewal project has built a primary school in Murad Khane, provided the neighborhood with electricity, water, sewerage, emergency repairs on private houses, and now is completing a women's community center. All the work has created near full employment in the neighborhood.

In one of the restored buildings, the institute's ceramic school is already up and running. Its teacher and headmaster is Abdul Matin, who graduated from the school last year.

Matin says one of the most difficult things for the students to master is the traditional glaze that gives Afghan ceramics their characteristic blue-green coloring. The glaze is based on a plant that grows in northern Afghanistan called "gaz" and which requires many steps to process before it delivers a rich range of colors from yellow to green.

"Actually, we don't burn the [plants] ourselves, but the people of Hairaton in [northern] Balkh Province collect them, ignite them, and collect their coal," Matin says. "We purchase the coal, then we heat it by adding some special products and next crush the coal into powder in a special machine. Once we have the powder, we can use it as a glaze."

Matin, a native of the nearby village of Istalif, which is traditionally famous for its ceramics, operates his own pottery business in addition to teaching. His studies at the school prepared him to do that by including not just pottery classes in the three-year curriculum but also general art history and design classes, business classes, and even English-language lessons.

Pictured here is one of the woodwork teachers at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture.

The comprehensive education the school offers has made it a magnet for would-be artisans across the country, despite its small size. The total student body is only 120 students, with some 30 places in each of the four craft areas of ceramics, woodworking, jewelry-making, and miniature-painting.

Khan Etebari, a spokesman for Turquoise Mountain, says each year the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture gets hundreds more applicants than it has places.

"Each year we announce the process of institute enrollment and on the average we receive between 800 up to 1,200 applications for 30 seats," Etebari says.

Unlike traditional apprenticeship programs in Afghanistan, where a student begins to study under a master at 12 and completes his training with almost no other education by 18, the new art institute only takes students who already have graduated from high school. The arts-and-crafts education at the institute is so complete that it has received Britain's demanding City and Guilds Accreditation, which certifies the quality of the students' work.

For now, as reconstruction in Murad Khane continues, the institute's three other schools remain housed in an old fort the Turquoise Mountain renovated elsewhere in Kabul as a temporary quarters. The older students there may or may not ever see the new campus being prepared for them before they graduate.

Here is one of the restored buildings in Murad Khane that will serve as part of the new campus of the arts school.

But the teachers say that all the students of the new art institute have one thing in common that previous generations of artisans in Afghanistan lacked. That is, the possibility of making a successful commercial living in their own country when previously many had to flee to find work elsewhere.

Haji Aslam, the head of the school of jewelry and gem-cutting, was trained by his father, who was a jeweler to the Afghan court. But he spent much of his own professional life as a refugee in Pakistan because of Afghanistan's recent decades of turmoil.

"[The economy] wasn't good, it was collapsing, and then all of us became refugees and headed toward the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran because there was a big fight here," Aslam says. "Our own home got hit with a rocket; my kids were injured and we couldn't live here."

Aslam says that today the jewelry business is good in Kabul, for both modern and traditional styles, and he believes his students will not have to live as he did.

It is an optimistic thought in a country still struggling with an insurgency and major economic problems. But such optimism seems fully at home in the newly awakened neighborhood of Murad Khane.




Related Links:

Turquoise Mountain Foundation

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Strong Sales But Low Investments Spell Trouble For Afghan Carpet Producers

KABUL, October 2, 2010 – Sales are good in Kabul, where both large numbers of foreigners and newly prosperous Afghans create a steady business for carpet dealers.

In Najeb Zarab market, where wholesale and retail carpet shops fill the inner courtyard of a large building, the famous red-and-black weavings so characteristic of northern Afghanistan reign supreme.

NATO and U.S. soldiers come looking for souvenirs and buy a six-square-meter Khal Mohammadi design for $ 2,000 or two of them for $ 3,000.

And Afghan shoppers come for rugs to fill their reception rooms or give as gifts. During the recent Eid holidays, the shop owners say, business was particularly brisk.

But if the fast turnover suggests good times for Afghan rug merchants, that is only half the story.

Many will tell you that the sales only hide a very worrisome business trend. And that is the flight of capital investment from their industry. Without new investment, they fear, the country's still just revived carpet sector will shrink despite the strong market demand.

Subhan Gul is CEO of Hali Weavers, a young company that has exhibited its products at international trade shows such as Domotex in Hannover and won awards for its design innovations.

A visitor might expect him to be upbeat about his success, and he is. But he also surprises guests with the extent of his concern about the future.

In previous decades, Subhan says, when he and many other Afghan weavers were based in refugee camps in Pakistan, there was virtually no domestic Afghan market for rugs. But unlike today there was plenty of investment money.

In those days, wealthy Afghans who fled the country to escape its wars needed somewhere to put their money to work. And in Pakistan they often put it into the refugee carpet industry since they lacked the contacts needed to invest it in other sectors of the Pakistani economy.

The returns for the investors were good because, at that time, the global economy was strong. Afghan weavers in Pakistan enjoyed notable successes, including launching the now famous chobi design which swept the export market with bold Indo-Persian designs and natural dyes.

The chobi, which appeared some 10 years ago, still remains one of the best selling carpet designs in the world today.

But as Afghan refugees have returned in large numbers to Afghanistan over the past decade, the investment possibilities for those with money have broadened considerably.

Subhan says that these days faster returns can be made by investing in virtually any kind of business that imports consumer goods. The number of shops – from kiosks to a shopping mall complete with escalators – that now fill Kabul's streets offers a measure of how much investment has gone that way.

The impact of the capital flight out of the carpet industry is compounded by a number of other factors, particularly the difficulty of getting bank loans as an alternative. The interest rate for commercial bank loans in Afghanistan today runs 13 to 14 percent. That is compared to just 2.5 to 3 percent in Pakistan, but loan shopping across the border requires the borrower to first be a Pakistani citizen.

Some of the other factors complicating the Afghan producer's finances are the high tax of 15 percent which the Kabul government levies on sales (and which is collected annually when companies renew their licenses); the lack of any government rebates on exports; and a crushing level of bureaucracy which means producers spend some 15 days processing their export documentation for each consignment.

Here is a detail of the weaving on the border of one of Afghanistan's popular red-and-black rugs, a Konduz-Waziri woven in Konduz province.

Afghan carpet producers say they will need new investment if they are ever to complete the process of rebuilding their industry at home. Afghanistan has yet to establish high-quality cutting and finishing facilities comparable to those in Pakistan and much of that downstream work continues to be done at high cost across the border.

New investment is also needed to build up Afghanistan's dye industry and develop its wool sector further. Most of the wool used in Afghan weaving today comes from New Zealand, despite the country having its own famous Ghazni wool which is highly prized by foreign customers.

And, perhaps most of all, investment is needed for that all important activity of any industry: advertising. Without it, and publicity about the uniqueness of the weavers' work, Afghanistan will almost certainly lose ground to powerhouses like China and India which are ready and able to duplicate the Afghans' most successful designs.

For now, the Afghan weavers, many of whom are ethnic Turkmen like Subhan, rely upon the timeless appeal of their traditional red-and-black rugs -- the famous "red rugs" of Central Asia. One of them, a Konduz-Waziri is shown here.

They also are counting upon their ability to keep innovating with the best-selling chobi pattern. Some of the current innovations include add-ons such as silk and gold thread or embossed motifs, and trying different washing techniques such as 'golden wash' to add depth of color and tone.

But if tradition and innovation seem to be enough to keep sales booming for now, they are not enough to make anyone complacent about the future. Instead, without the missing third ingredient – new capital – they may be only enough to stand still in an industry where standing still means losing ground.




Related Links:

Hali Weavers

Friday, 20 August 2010

Isfahan And The Safavids' Design Of The World

ISFAHAN, August 21, 2010 -- If there is a single phrase that best evokes Safavid art, it might be "orderly excess."

Curiously, that is the same phrase that could be used to describe European art at the height of the Safavid Empire in the 17th century: Baroque.

But if Persia, too, had a Baroque period and Safavid carpets and other art forms show it, how did it develop and what was its goal?

The greatest builder of the Safavid era – Shah Abbas I – left the answers in a single place for both his contemporaries and for us to see.

The place is Isfahan, one of the world's most famous planned cities.

In Isfahan, his capital, Shah Abbas sought to create a vision that would symbolize his empire.

That was in line with the tradition of dynasties everywhere, but Abbas went further than most.

He wanted to unify his empire by giving its diverse peoples a strong national and religious identity, so he transformed the heart of his capital city into an idealized place they would affiliate with.

And he gave it an unforgettable, almost unworldly, beauty by combining the two artistic elements that do the same for Safavid carpets.

They are: designs with an almost mathematical sense of order combined with effusive use of colors and patterns as decoration.

The effect is to make heavy structures light, whether they are carpets or massive buildings.

Here is a picture of one of the walls of the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, the first mosque built by Shah Abbas when he permanently moved his capital to Isfahan in 1598.

Kim Sexton of the Dept. of Architecture at the University of Arkansas sums up the trick neatly in an article entitled Isfahan – Half the World:

"The application of colored tile patterning (i.e. curvilinear arabesques, floral designs, kufic inscriptions, and imitation tile "carpets") hides a building's structure.

"It prevents the viewer from contemplating the workings of the physical laws which keep the building standing up. Thus, a huge building can be made to seem rather weightless, like an otherworldly miracle hovering on earth."

The trick -- equally known to Baroque artists in Europe -- was not unique in Persia to the Safavids. But it is fair to say that they used it to lift structures to previously unknown heights.

In Isfahan, Shah Abbas heightened the effect still further by organizing some of his greatest buildings around a single city square – a square that with only a little imagination can itself be thought of as a grand Safavid carpet.

The original name of the square is Naqsh-i Jahan, or Design of the World. Measuring 165 meters by 500 meters, it is one of the largest city squares ever built.

That alone represented extraordinary city planning at a time when Abbas' contemporaries were Elizabeth of England and Suleiman the Magnificent and cities usually grew haphazardly by themselves beyond the royal palace.

But the square was extraordinary in other ways, too.

For one, it was truly a shared public space, used for everything from exclusive royal polo matches to popular carnivals. The shah's palace looked out over the square, with a broad verandah for viewing the events below.

The Imperial Palace occupied the entire west side of the enclosed and arcaded square. But it also shared the space with the two other great institutions of Safavid society, the mosque and the bazaar.

Just as weavers might do, the city planners placed all these institutions like motifs around the square's border.

Directly across from the palace is the mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, the first new mosque to be built in the new capital. It was completed in 1618 as a private mosque for the members of the Shah's harem and so has no minarets.

The stunning ceiling of the mosque shows how much decorated tiles could lift a building's interior, as well as exterior, to seemingly boundless heights.

Here is a photo of the dome interior. The picture at the top of this article shows the details of the ceiling pattern.

The design of the ceiling, with its central sunburst medallion, is highly reminiscent of some contemporaneous carpet designs, showing the high degree of unity in Safavid art style across different media.

On the north and south ends of the square are two other great mosques and, on the north end, too, is the entrance to the Grand Bazaar.

Both the mosques are worth mentioning in their own right.

The mosque at the north end, the Imperial Mosque (now Imam Mosque), is an entirely Safavid construction completed in 1629.

The dome in the main prayer hall is 36 meters high, creating an echo chamber where scientists have measured up to 49 repetitions, only 12 of which are audible to the human ear.

Here is a view of the square from the Imam Mosque. The mosque itself is turned at an angle to the square so as to face Mecca.

At the south end is the Great Friday Mosque, which is much older. It was built when Isfahan was the capital of the Seljuk Empire (1038-1194) that stretched from Central Asia to Syria. It was partly redecorated in Safavid style to harmonize with the other buildings.

The Friday mosque is the largest mosque in Iran and has a central fountain that resembles the Kaaba in Mecca, so prospective pilgrims can practice their rituals before the Haj.

It is interesting to see how the square's designers found a way to visually integrate buildings as varied as mosques, bazaars, and palaces into a single great square.

They did so by highlighting something common to all of them: the iwan.

An iwan is a vaulted arch that has been used in Persian architecture since time immemorial. It was originally used for public buildings, including palaces, but under the Seljuks became part of mosques as well.

Here is a picture of an iwan, with the addition of two minarets, in the courtyard of Isfahan's Great Friday mosque.

It was the Seljuks who first placed iwans at the center of all four sides of a mosque's inner courtyard, creating a unique design that today architects call the 'four-iwan mosque'.

Eventually, the 'four-iwan mosque' design swept the eastern Islamic world, giving its mosques a look as distinctly their own as the Byzantine-based dome mosques of the Ottomans or the columned-hall (peristyle) mosques of the western Islamic world.

To tie together the varied buildings in their 'Design of the World,' the Safavids erected giant iwans as gateways in each of the square's four sides.

As Sexton notes, that made the entire square look like the courtyard of a four-iwan mosque, giving everything inside it -- including the centers of political and commercial power -- a sanctified feel.

That sense of a divinely ordained order increased the Shah's power and his subjects' loyalty the same way arguments that kings ruled by "divine right" increased monarchs' power in Europe.

The beauty of Isfahan staggered people of the time, including European ambassadors and traders who lived in the city.

Here is a portrait of one of Shah Abbas' successors, Shah Suleiman I, depicted with courtiers and visitors in Isfahan in 1670

Thomas Herbert, who was part of Britain's first embassy in Isfahan in 1627 famously remarked "I have thought of writing a book about it, but nobody at home in Yorkshire would ever believe..."

He went on to write a book anyway, 'Travels in Persia,' which was published in 1634 to great success.

The famous half-rhyme Esfahan nesf-é jahan (Isfahan is half the world) was coined by a visiting French poet, Renier.

Persian wags said later that he described Isfahan as only half the world because he had seen only half the city.

(In the panorama of the square at the top of this article, the mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah is on the left, Ali Qapu palace is on the right, and the Imperial – now Imam - mosque is at the back.)




Related Links:

Isfahan – Half the World, by Prof. Kim S. Sexton, Univ. Of Arkansas

Friday, 6 August 2010

Safavid Floral and Polonaise Carpets: When Persian Rugs Came To Europe

AMSTERDAM, August 7, 2010 – Sometime before the end of the 16th century, Persian carpets – with their signature floral designs -- burst into European interiors.

It was a dramatic entrance and European artists recorded it.

For centuries, they had painted portraits of wealthy families with geometric Anatolian carpets. Now, they began to depict families with Persian carpets instead.

Above is a painting of the children of English King Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck in 1637.

The change of taste was no accident.

This was a time when European seafarers had finally established routine connections with Persia, India, and China.

It was a time, too, when the Safavid Empire was actively promoting the production of luxury export goods, including silk textiles and carpets.

The two sides came together in places like the port of Hormuz, held by the Portuguese and also used by Dutch traders.

So, it is in paintings of wealthy Portugese, Dutch, and Spanish homes by artists such as Velásquez, Rubens, and Vermeer that the newly arriving Persian carpets most often appear.

The Persian floral carpets often had medallions. But many were also of a new type developed in Persia at this time. They were carpets whose whole field was covered with floral and vine patterns with no medallions at all.

Perhaps the most appealing of these were the so-called Vase Carpets, whose flowers were arranged in either real or imaginary vases. Here is one example.

The full-field floral carpets were a huge success in Europe and, like floral medallion carpets, continue to be one of the most popular formats for Persian rugs today.

At the same time, the new design was exported to Mughal India, where it inspired a whole range of similar full-field styles – dubbed Indo-Persian – that were shipped in large quantities to Europe.

Just how successful an innovation the Safavid vase carpets were can be judged by the value modern collectors attach to them.

This year, a vase carpet – with imaginary vases – sold for just short of $ 10 million dollars, the most money every paid for a rug sold at an auction.

Here is a picture of the carpet. (See: $ 10 Million Persian Carpet Sets New Auction Record.)

The vase carpets were woven in Kirman, whose weavers were particularly innovative during the Safavid era. They developed a special loom setting that gave a wavy finish to the surface of such carpets, adding to the appeal.

European travelers to Persia at this time often remarked on the system of court workshops in cities like Kirman, Isfahan, and Kashan which produced luxury rugs.

Their production reached a zenith under Shah Abbas I (reigned 1587-1629), who was famous for his interest in the arts. Like the earlier Shah Tahmasp, he is believed to have enjoyed designing some carpet motifs himself.

This picture of Shah Abbas is from a ceiling fresco that decorates one of the pavilions in his palace complex in Isfahan.

The royal workshops produced carpets for the palace and mosques as well as gifts for neighboring monarchs and foreign dignitaries.

Some of those gifts, such as a medallion carpet sent to the Doge of Venice, survive in museums today.

So do other priceless carpets that appear to have been commissioned especially from Persian workshops at this time by some European families.

The most famous of the commissioned rugs are the so-called "Polonaise" carpets, such as this one in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is a floral carpet with an overlying pattern of compartments formed by overlapping cartouches. The pile is silk, highlighted with gold and silver brocading, all in muted colors.

The carpets were termed Polonaise by 19th century carpet collectors because their origin in Isfahan was forgotten over the centuries.

When, in 1878, a carpet similar to this one was exhibited in Paris, it was widely assumed that the coats of arms woven into the rug were Polish and that the rug was made in Poland.

E. J. Brill's First Encyclopedia of Islam (published 1913 – 1936) notes that the carpets were "erroneously connected with an 18th century workshop in Scucz where brocaded girdles in Persian style were made."

That error may be more understandable than it at first seems.

One reason is that the design of the carpets shows a certain adaption to European tastes – something not everyone would expect of an early 17th century Persian weaving.

But it is interesting to know that as early as 1601 Sigismund of Poland is documented to have ordered such a carpet. And that suggests Persian producers and European customers may have come to know each others' tastes from very early on.

The finely-knotted silk carpets woven in the time of Shah Abbas are rarely represented in European paintings, because – unlike the floral carpets that often made their way into interior scenes - they were doubtless very unusual in European homes.

But at least one painting does exist that shows the kind of ultimate Persian carpet a wealthy merchant family could hope to acquire.

The picture is A Lady playing the Theorbo by Gerard Terborch, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The silk carpet is spread over the table on which the lady's cavalier is sitting.




Related Links:

Persia.Org: Safavid Carpets Photo Gallery

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The World's Most Famous Museum Carpet: The Ardabil

LONDON; July 17, 2010 – The world's museums are full of splendid carpets but the most famous of all is the Ardabil.

One big reason is simply its size: 38 feet long (11.5 meters) by 18 feet wide (5.5 meters).

That is so large that the curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London had to make a choice.

They could either keep it on permanent display or not display it at all, because it would be far too much work to just bring it out occasionally.

So, the V&A built a special gallery for it where it is spread in its full glory across the floor and is protected by a glass box.

The Arbabil draws huge numbers of visitors every year and that brings us to the second reason for its fame.

It has a stunning floral medallion design whose center seems to radiate like a sun, transforming the world around it into a sacred-feeling space.

There are very few people who do not feel its power.

On the carpet is an inscription which reads:

I have no refuge in the world other than thy threshold.

There is no protection for my head other than this door.

The strength of the carpet is no accident.

It is one of a pair of matching rugs woven around 1539-50 for a shrine to the spiritual father of Persia's Safavid Empire. It was intended to be, and is, a symbol of power, respect, and holiness on an imperial scale.

How the Ardabil survived almost 500 years and finally came to a London museum is a fascinating story in itself.

But telling it means first describing the origins of the Safavid Empire and the man whose shrine it was made for.

The shrine, in the northwestern city of Ardabil, not far from Tabriz, honors Shaykh Safi al-Din, who died in 1334.

The Shaykh was a plain-living Sufi mystic who inspired a large following at a time when Tabriz was the center of a powerful Turkic state.

His followers remained loyal to his family after his death and the movement grew until, 150 years later, one of its leaders was strong enough to launch a revolution.

That leader was Shah Isma'il, who seized Tabriz in 1501 and, within a decade, all of Persia.

He and his followers, known as Qizilbash (Redheads) for their distinctive turbans with a tall and slender red cone, were messianic warriors who made their brand of Islam, which by now had become mainstream Shi'ism, their empire's state religion.

Ismail and his warriors were Turkmen and spoke a Turkic dialect close to today's Azerbaijani.

But they also were fluent in Persian, the empire's administrative language, making them acceptable to much of the landed gentry.

They dubbed their empire the Safavid – after Shaykh Safi – and it lasted until 1722.

The Safavids inherited the court workshops of Tabriz, Herat, and other leading cities from Persia's previous dynasties and soon began creating their own royal masterpieces.

The design of the Ardabil carpet, woven under Ismail's son, Shah Tahmasp, shows many of the artistic trends already evident in the earlier Timurid era.

Most striking are the resemblance of its medallion design to the format of contemporaneous book covers and the resemblance of its floral pattern to floral designs in miniature paintings.

Here is a miniature painting by one of the most famous artists of Shah Tahmasp's time, Mirza Ali.

It depicts the musician Barbad who hid in the branches of a tree to audition for one of Persia's legendary early shahs after he had been barred from the court by the ruler's jealous leading singer.

The artist has given the figures from ancient times the distinctive Qizilbash turbans of the Safavid court.

Many art historians believe that some miniature paintings not only inspired carpet designs but that some illuminators may also have directly designed carpet patterns.

That is because leading court artists freely crossed between artistic disciplines to help create or influence a unified "court style" identified with a particular monarch.

According to E. J. Brill's comprehensive First Encyclopedia of Islam (published 1913 – 1936), "under Shah Tahmasp excellent painters were employed to sketch carpet cartoons and they introduced human figures and genies into the designs, especially of the large hunting carpets." (see Portable Paradises: The World Of Safavid Garden Carpets)

Interestingly, Shah Tahmasp himself was an accomplished amateur artist who is often said to have designed carpets. He was trained, like many Persian nobles in "the arts of the book," including calligraphy and illustration, and kept a retinue of artists around him.

The twin Ardabil carpets were woven, most likely in Tabriz, when Shah Tahmasp undertook the expansion of the shrine in the late 1530s.

The goal was to expand it as a place of pilgrimage but also, some historians believe, to provide a burial chamber for Tahmasp himself.

Here is a diagram of the floor plan of the Ardabil shrine showing the two carpets' placement.

In fact, Tahmasp was not buried at the shrine, but the idea of creating a mausoleum might help account for the inscription which appears on both carpets.

The inscription (quoted above) is a couplet by the fourteenth-century lyric poet Hafiz. Under it appears the name of the master artist who apparently oversaw the massive weaving project, Maqsud of Kashan.

But how did one of the splendid Ardabil carpets come to rest in a London museum?

In fact, both of them arrived in England around 1893 virtually in tatters. For centuries they had withstood heavy wear in the shrine but as Persia's fortunes rose and fell both they and the shrine were badly neglected.

Carpet historians believe – though no documents prove it -- that both pieces were sold around 1890 to the English carpet producer Ziegler & Co., which had workshops in the northwestern Iranian city of Sultanabad.

The shrine's curators are presumed to have sold the carpets to pay for repairs to the building after it suffered heavy earthquake damage

A British carpet broker then acquired both pieces and used parts of one to repair the other. The result was one 'complete' carpet and one incomplete.

The complete carpet came to the attention of the V&A. There, William Morris, the pioneer of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and one of the V&A's Art Referees, pressed hard for the museum to buy it.

The V&A did so partly by using a public subscription to raise the then vast sum of £2,000.

The existence of its incomplete twin was kept secret by a succession of private owners for many years. It was only revealed publicly in 1931 at an exposition in London.

The "secret" carpet – smaller than the V&A's and borderless – eventually passed into the hands of American industrialist J. Paul Getty and from there to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It too, is a marvel but due to the ironies of fate, must live forever in the shadow of its better-known twin.