ARAK, Iran; April 3, 2010 -- If you could travel back in time to an American home at the turn-of-the-last-century, it is very possible that the rug on the floor would be an American Sarouk.
The "Sarouk" in the carpet's name refers to the village of Sarouk, in northwestern Iran, where it was made.
But the "American" refers to how much it was modified to suit American tastes, and how hugely popular it became in America as a result.
The double-barreled name makes the American Sarouk one of the most striking examples of the way much of the Persian carpet industry changed between 1800 and 1900. It was a time when the Persian Empire changed greatly too, as it had to adapt to a new world order dominated by industrial powers.
The carpet is believed to have been designed by a dealer in New York, S. Tyriakian, who did what would have been unthinkable in earlier times.
He knew that for many Americans, Persian carpets were too "oriental." The floral patterns seemed too elaborate and overcrowded, while the colors called too much attention to the floor at the expense of the other furnishings.
So, he played with the design and colors to create rugs that owed as much, or more, to European artistic traditions than to Persian ones.
Here is a another Sarouk. This carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
Often the background color was chosen to go well with dark-wood Western furniture, something totally foreign to Persian homes.
But the way the colors were obtained was itself still more unorthodox.
To soften the "garish" colors of imported carpets, dealers in New York, London and other European centers had developed "chemical washes." But not all dyes could stand up to them.
In the case of the American sarouks, the original bright pink of the field tended to disappear almost entirely in the bath. So, to restore the color, dealers hired touch-up artists to hand paint the field in the shades they wanted.
Such labor-intensive alterations were possible in the labor market of New York at the time, and as a result the American Sarouks are also commonly known as Painted Sarouks today.
The American Sarouk, which enjoyed a peak popularity in the 20s and 30s, is one of the best-known Westernized designs that came out of northwestern Persia.
But it was neither the only nor the first.
Decades earlier, western capital and finally even Western carpet manufacturers began moving into the Persian carpet industry much as they also were doing in the Ottoman Empire.
As they did, they not only helped to create the boom in 19th century interest in oriental rugs. Ironically, they also helped satisfy it with rugs that often were far more at home in Western houses than they ever would be in Eastern ones.
One of the reasons creating Western-designed rugs was possible in Persia is that, as the 19th century opened, the Persian carpet industry itself was in a state of disarray.
After producing stunning carpets during the long and stable Safavid era that started in 1501, Persia plunged into a prolonged period of power struggles and strife beginning with a Pashtun invasion from Afghanistan in 1722.
The court patronage system, which had stimulated the art of carpet making, ceased and the great urban workshops that supplied the aristocracy of Persia and Europe closed down.
It was not until the establishment of the Qajar dynasty in 1794 that things stabilized again. But by then, the world had changed.
The new challenge for the Persian Empire was to compete with expanding military and commercial strength of Europe which was based upon the industrial revolution.
One reaction was to adapt. The first signs of that can be seen in this royal portrait of the second Qajar shah, Fath Ali.
Such realistic portraiture was a huge departure from traditional Persian court painting based on the miniaturist style. According to Julian Raby, a Lecturer in Islamic Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford, the look is directly borrowed from contemporaneous portraits of Napoleon, which were widely admired for their projection of power. The trees and sky in the background are equally European.
Fath Ali sought diplomatic contacts with the West. And he had an urgent reason to do so.
During his reign, Persia lost two wars in the Caucasus with the Russian Empire.
In 1813 it had to accept Russian annexation of Georgia and most of the north Caucasus region.
In 1828, it had to accept Russian sovereignty over the entire south Caucasus north of the Aras river (also known as the Araxes river and today's border between Iran and Azerbaijan).
This painting by Russian artist Franz Roubaud illustrates a scene from the Russo-Persian war of 1804 to 1813, when outnumbered Tsarist forces made a "living bridge" to transport their cannon to safety.
It was advances in artillery, many developed during the Napoleonic wars, that gave the Russian army a decisive advantage.
As part of their effort to secure the north of the Persian Empire against Russian expansion, the Qajars moved capital to Tehran.
And it is in the oldest historical building in this city – the Golestan Palace – that the empire's struggle to adapt to the West becomes still clearer.
By the time Nasr ud-Din, the best known shah of the Qajar dynasty, took the throne in 1848, Persian royal culture had adopted many of the trappings of European imperial style.
He alternated between wearing Western and Persian clothes, but preferred Western for official photos. As he posed, his empire was being flooded with cheap textiles from Russia and Britain, progressively putting traditional textile producers out of business.
Nasr ud-Dinh made several trips to Europe -- the first shah to do so – and encouraged the introduction of Western science, technology, and educational methods.
He also dramatically changed the Tehran skyline by building a new wing of the Golestan Palace with two European-model towers. Completed in 1867, and blending Eastern and Western designs, the towers were the first of their kind in the capital.
At the same time, Nasr ud-Dinh furnished some of his palace rooms in Western style and created museum rooms to display gifts received from European monarchs, especially chinaware.
Similarly dramatic changes happened in the world of traditional Persian carpets.
With Europe as the world's richest consumer market, Persian producers came under enormous pressure to adapt to that market's tastes.
That taste was no longer for court carpets – the shared culture of Renaissance days – but for carpets that fit middle class European homes with no equivalent in Persia at all.
Arto Keshishian, a London rug dealer, describes what happened next in his fascinating article 'Ziegler and Their Carpets,' published in Antiques and Fine Arts Magazine.
He notes that the traditional decorating scheme for the 'reception' room of a Persian home was one central rug surrounded by runners on all four sides.
But when these rugs were imported as individual pieces to the West they were considered “generally either too long or too narrow” for Western homes.
So, carpet designers – especially in Tabriz – began expanding production specifically to supply the Western market.
Focusing on the region around Sultanabad (now Arak), they encouraged weavers to weave larger carpets that could accent or fill large rooms. They also began modifying designs with Western styles in mind.
But that was hardly the only change.
By the 1880s, several Western companies moved into northwest Persia themselves, commissioning rugs to still more closely fit the home market. The most prominent was the Ph. Ziegler & Company, which would operate in Iran for 50 years and export tens of thousands of rugs to London and New York.
At the turn-of-the-last-century, Ziegler had about 2,500 looms in more than one hundred villages around Sultanabad.
The rugs traveled west on the same caravans that took Shi’ite pilgrims to the shrine city of Karbala in Iraq. At Baghdad, they were transferred to small steamers going downriver to Basra and then onto ships for London. (Patrice Fontaine’s ‘The Carpet Weaving Industry in the Arak Region,’ Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies III, Part I, 1987.)
Keshishian says the Ziegler carpets “were made to achieve a balance and symmetry in keeping with the scale of a room and its furnishings.”
Whether they were designed with a medallion or all-over floral pattern, they were “never overcrowded” so that they would “give a sense of open space and elegance.”
He writes: "The airy visual effect of Ziegler carpets resulted from the design as well as from a weave that was much coarser than that of traditional carpets."
As for color, “fewer color combinations were used, resulting in a simpler balance and harmony; the color green was liberally incorporated, perhaps to echo the English fondness for the countryside.”
The foreign companies' success had a direct impact on the other producers around Sultanabad.
Patrice Fontaine’s writes in her ‘The Carpet Weaving Industry in the Arak Region’ that to compete, Iranian merchants tried to lower production costs. They supplied weavers with lower-quality wool colored with new Western chemical dyes. And they commissioned designers to simplify rug patterns to speed up weaving and reduce the chance of mistakes.
It is possible today to view this Western tailoring of Persian rugs as an early example of globalization – of the same process of simplifying rug designs to match mass market tastes that characterizes much of the global carpet industry today.
And, indeed, there are some carpet experts who reject calling ‘American Sarouks,’ for example, oriental rugs at all.
As Murray L Eiland Jr. and Murray Eiland III, note in their book Oriental Carpets (2005):
“One might go as far as to say that there was nothing Persian about these rugs except the technique of pile knotting, and the same judgment could be made about thousands of Turkish rugs of the early 20th Century.”
But perhaps the first Western-designed Persian carpets tell a larger story than that.
They are equally a fascinating record of a time when the East’s whole relationship with the West was radically changing and ancient empires were desperately trying to adapt in order to survive.
The Persian Empire, like the Ottoman Empire, did not succeed. Here is a map showing its progressive loss of territory in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries.
With its territorial losses went ties to some of the most famous cities associated with the Persian Empire's traditional artistic culture, including Bukhara and Samarkand.
Meanwhile efforts to regain another key city, Herat, from Afghanistan failed definitively in 1857 with the Anglo-Persian war. Thereafter Russia and Britain directly vied for influence over the region, ending with the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 dividing nominally independent Qajar Iran into British and Russian spheres of influence.
By the start of the 20th century, the Persian dynasties were so weak that every shah thereafter would die in exile. The country has had to re-invent itself in a process that continues today.
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