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.
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