Saturday, 27 February 2010

The World's Oldest Carpet Story: The Pazyryk

PAZYRYK, Siberia; Feb. 28, 2010 -- Every carpet tells a story. But few tell one as fascinating as the oldest intact carpet ever found.

It is the Pazyryk carpet, discovered frozen in a tomb beneath the Siberian steppe.

The carpet was woven sometime in the 5th century BC and recovered almost 2,500 years later when, in 1949, Russian scientists opened one of many burial mounds in the Pazyryk valley, in the Altai mountains south of Novosibirsk.

Because the tombs, where Russia borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, were dug deep into the permafrost and covered with piles of timber and stone, the carpet and the mummified bodies of the nobles it accompanied emerged in a remarkably well preserved state.

Here is a picture of one corner of the carpet, which is now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The picture at the top of the page is a detail of one of the carpet’s horsemen.

The century during which the carpet was put in the tomb is best known in the West for what was happening in ancient Greece at the time.

The 5th century was the time of the Greek-Persian wars, of Herodotus completing his “History,” of the construction of the Parthenon, of Sophocles writing ‘”Antigone,” and, finally, of the ruinous Peleponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.

But the story the carpet tells is a very different one from that of the ancient Greeks.

It tells the story of the Scythians, a partly settled, partly nomadic people whose home was the vast expanse of Eurasia north of Greece, Mesopotamia, Persia and China.

This is a picture of a Scythian horseman, made with an appliqué felt technique. It is from a wall hanging found along with the carpet in the Pazyryk tombs.

The domain of the Scythians, who were Persian speakers and a fiercely independent part of the Greater Persian world, extended from modern Bulgaria, through Ukraine and Central Asia, to close to today’s Chinese border.

The basis of their power, and their trading wealth, was the huge herds of horses they raised. They are among the first peoples to be mentioned as mounted warriors and their mobility made them almost impossible to conquer.

At the same time, they were a conduit for trade along the Silk Roads, which carried goods between Persia, India, and China.

But if the horse-herding Scythians were mobile, they also were able to maintain the kind of rich court culture one usually associates only with city dwellers.

They were able to due so thanks to their use of carriages like this one, which was found disassembled in the Pazyryk tombs.

Their carriages enabled them not just to easily move their tents and other necessities, but also carry along stores of luxury goods, some which they imported and others they produced themselves.

One of the things the Scythians are best remembered for today is their intricate gold jewelry, which regularly tours the world in museum exhibits.

The other thing they are best remembered for is the size of their royal burial mounds, known as kurgans, which sometimes could reach over 20 meters high. Inside, as in the Egyptian pyramids, nobles were buried with their treasure for use in the afterlife.

This map roughly shows the extent of the Scythian lands at the time of the Roman Empire.

The other great nomadic people of northern Eurasia at this time, located farther east, were the Turkic-speaking tribes.

Later the Turkic-speaking nomads would sweep west in a centuries-long confrontation with the Persian speakers that would be chronicled in classical Persia’s epic poems.

Still, if much is known today about the Scythians due to their mention in ancient histories and the excavation of their burial mounds, very little is known about their carpets and carpet culture.

The only certainty is that their carpets included both pile rugs (the only example of which is the Pazyryk) and felt rugs.

Here is a close-up of a felt saddle blanket found in the Pazyryk tombs.

Both the pile and felt work show a level of technical sophistication that makes it clear they belong to a very old artistic tradition.

But whether that tradition was the Scythians’ own or was borrowed from neighbors is impossible to know for sure.

Most carpet scholars believe the Pazyryk pile carpet could not have been woven in a nomadic setting in such a remote corner of the Siberian steppe.

Murray Eiland Jr. and Murray Eiland III note in their book 'Oriental Carpets' (1998) that the carpet "raises the question as to how pastoral nomads could have acquired such a technically proficient work of art."

They answer that "it could have been through trade, as some Chinese silk fabrics were found at Pazyryk and other early nomadic burials on the steppes."

Theories of the carpet's origin generally assume it was woven in either a major population center of Achaemenid Persia or perhaps an outpost of the Persian Empire nearer to Pazyryk itself.

If the carpet were made in Persia, that would make it not only the earliest intact carpet ever found but also a striking example of the early carpet trade.

With its motifs of horsemen and deer, it may have been expressly designed for export to the steppes. Or, it might have been specifically commissioned by a Scythian chief.

Here is a saddle found in the Pazyryk tombs, showing the same kinds of tassels that can be seen on the saddles depicted in the carpet.

The mystery of the Pazyryk carpet's exact origin may never be solved. And perhaps it does not need to be, because the Pazyryk itself makes a still more important point.

That is, that carpets, whether woven at home or imported from afar, seem to be a universal human interest as old as time.

How did the Scythians use their rugs which – judging by their inclusion in a royal burial tomb – were clearly prized possessions?

The answer must be left to the imagination.

One possibility is that the carpets were at the center stage of decorating schemes that also included elaborate furniture like this table, also found in the Pazyryk tombs.

Perhaps the lion motifs of the table combined with the motifs of both natural and fantastic creatures on the carpets to fill Scythian tents with the echoes of the things their culture most prized.

The Pazyryk carpet alone includes horses, griffins, and deer. Its size is 180 x 198 cm (5'11" x 6' 6").

Today, the Pazyryk carpet is regularly reproduced by modern carpet weavers who find its design still has a magical appeal.

This high-quality replica is produced by weavers working in northern Afghanistan using natural dyes and handspun wool. It is available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.

It is interesting to think of the Pazyryk carpet, placed in a royal tent, as the world’s earliest known example of a room with a rug.

And it is even more fascinating to think that this earliest known example is so stunning in its beauty that it can equally express all the pleasure and excitement people have taken in furnishing their rooms with rugs ever since.




Friday, 12 February 2010

Oriental Carpets And The Legacy Of The Silk Roads

SAMARKAND, February 14, 2010 -- The Silk Roads, those great trading highways of the ancient world, had a huge influence upon carpets.

So much so, that discovering carpets and carpet culture inevitably leads to discovering the unique world that the Silk Roads created.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the map of the Silk Roads corresponds almost exactly to the map of today’s carpet belt, the countries with a long and still living tradition of producing oriental rugs.

The main trading networks of the Silk Roads stretched across western China (today’s Xinjiang province) to Central Asia, where they either turned south to India or continued straight ahead to Persia, Anatolia, and the Mideast.

At the shores of the Mediterranean they stopped, but boats extended the trade to many ports of southern Europe as well.

What held the Silk Roads together, from time immemorial until they were bypassed by trans-oceanic trade beginning in the 15th century?

The obvious, but incomplete answer, is commerce. And for the markets at the poles of the trade, as in eastern China, southeast Asia, or Europe, that was probably the sole stake.

Eastern China, for example, was throughout most of the history of the Silk Roads the world’s greatest export economy. It produced enormous quantities of ceramics and silk and its export business, organized by independent traders, was a major source of tax revenue for the court.

But where these exports items were headed as they moved in vast camel trains across the empire’s western horizon was of little interest to most Chinese.

Just how much so can be judged from an epic poem written in China in the 3rd century BC. This was about the same time Alexander the Great was firmly linking the West to the Silk Road by expanding his empire to Central Asia.

The poem is “18 Songs of the Nomad’s Flute” and it tells the story of a Han princess who was forcibly abducted by Turkic-Mongol Hsiung-nu (or Xiongnu) nomads and taken north beyond the Great Wall.

Lady Wenji, who was also the daughter of one of the most famous Confucian scholars of the time, was forced to marry one of the nomad chiefs and remained among the barbarians for 12 years.

But she appears to have found nothing of value among them even as she has two sons with her husband and wonders “how could I have become bound to my enemy in love and trust?”

When finally an embassy comes from China to offer ransom for her release, there is no question which choice she will make. She returns to civilization even at the cost of parting from her children and suffering the eternal melancholy the songs describe.

The pictures above are from illustrations for “18 Songs” painted sometime in the 13th century.

But if Lady Wenji’s story became a pillar of Chinese classical literature, the image it gives of the barbarians beyond the Great Wall was only half true. In fact, the nomads and the Chinese were bound together not just as enemies but also as trading partners.

The trade relations between the nomads and China is well explained by Stewart Gordon in his 2008 book “When Asia Was the World,” which describes Asia in the millennium from 500 to 1500 AD.

The nomads, he notes, raised horses that were in constant demand by the Chinese elite and the army and they raised cattle that was essential for sedentary agriculture.

The picture here is of a young Chinese nobleman on horseback, around 1290.

In exchange, the nomads bought the grain and silk produced by China. They also bought iron for horse trappings, elegant cloth for courtly robes, and steel for weapons.

As a result of the trade, the semi-nomadic chiefs not only wore robes of Chinese silk, modeled their own elite life on that of China’s rulers and imported rice as a high-status food, they also adopted many Chinese artistic techniques, including painting, for their court culture.

This porcelain depicting a “Westerner,” or nomad, on a camel is from China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Similar ties between steppe peoples and their sedentary neighbors repeated across Eurasia – from the frontiers of India, and Persia, to the Arabian peninsula. The symbiotic relationships laid the basis for a stable cross-continental trading network that served everybody’s interest.

Over time, the Silk Roads transported goods of almost every conceivable type, from silk to spices to new plant dyes to medicines to industrial products. The industrial products not only included Chinese ceramics but Damascus steel and blown glass from China, India and Persia – the world’s three great glass-making centers in 1,000 AD.

That was at a time when, as Gordon notes, “glass-making had been entirely lost in Europe for centuries and would not be recovered for more than two centuries.”

But if commerce was the raison d’etre of the Silk Roads as far as most people in the manufacturing centers were concerned, it was the cultural exchanges that ultimately became the most important dividend for the people along the Silk Roads themselves.

Over the centuries, these exchanges were so great they created a shared Silk Roads culture that can still be seen in much of the weaving and other art of the region today.

In tracing the history of Asia from 500 to 1500, Gordon describes the cultural exchanges as taking place in two great successive waves: first Buddhist and, then, Islamic.

Both religions were “universalizing,” coming from outside and spreading across huge areas of the Silk Road network by recruiting on a basis of personal commitment rather than ethnicity or region.

At the same time, both religions encouraged people to travel for spiritual development and encouraged rulers to build rest-houses, pilgrimage sites, and colleges (monasteries or madrassas) to facilitate their quest.

Shown here is the complex of three madrassas on Registan Square in the center of Samarkand. The oldest (Ulugbeg Madrassa) dates to the 15th century, the newest to the 17th.

Thanks to these shared religious networks, ideas and artistic styles traveled as easily along the Silk Roads as commercial goods did between bazaars.

Gordon notes that by the Islamic period a man trained in Shari’a law in one state could find employment as an administrator in another.

And court painters “corresponded, viewed each others' work, and moved to find patronage across a network that stretched from Spain to southern India.”

As an example of court painting, here is a book illustration by the most famous court miniaturist, Kamal ud-Din Behzad (or Bihzad), who died in Tabriz in 1535. It clearly shows the influence of Chinese landscape painting in the background.

The evolution of much of the Silk Road region -- think today’s ‘carpet belt’ -- into a shared cultural space was hastened by two other factors: migrations and conquests.

The world being what it is, the increasing riches of cities along the trade routes both gave rise to empires and tempted conquerors from afar.

Just a few of the results were the Seljuk Turk empire extending from Central Asia to Anatolia; Genghis Khan’s empire covering most of Eurasia; and the Timurid empire stretching from Persia to Central Asia to northern India.

These vast empires united very diverse areas which ordinarily were isolated by geography. As Gordon notes, Genghis Khan ruled both steppes and large areas of agricultural China. The Mughals ruled both sides of the Himalayas.

If the shared culture of the Silk Road world could be given a single name, it would be this improbable sounding string of hyphens: Turkic-Mongol-Persian.

But the fusion was real, powerful, and long-lasting. And it helps explain much about what otherwise would be inexplicable in carpet history.

Just one example is the cosmopolitan style of the classical Persian court carpets of the 16th century. In them, Chinese-style cloudbands mix with Islamic calligraphy and Persian legends. All of them together is the legacy of the Silk Roads.

(The term “Silk Road” is a recent, elegant name for a network that needed no name in its own day. The term was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the Red Baron.)




Related Links:

Silk Road and China Trade

Wikipedia: Silk Road