Saturday, 19 May 2012

Silk Carpets And The Story Of The Silk Road

PRAGUE, May 15, 2012 -- There are few things in this world more mysterious than silk carpets.

More than any other kind of rug, they conjure up images of ancient luxury from distant lands, of camel caravans and the Silk Roads.

But in reality, very little is known about where silk carpets came from – or even whether they ever traveled the Silk Roads at all.

The reason: silk is not only the most luxurious of weaving materials, it is also the most perishable.

So, like the ephemeral nature of beauty itself, they exist for only a time before taking their secrets with them.

The oldest surviving silk carpets are from the 16th century, where they were woven in the Safavid court of Persia. That was a time when the Silk Roads were already giving way to increasing sea trade between Asia and Europe and the modern era was beginning.

Above is an antique silk carpet woven in Tabriz, Iran, in the last century. Below is an antique silk Khotan rug from East Turkestan. Both are available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Whether silk carpets were woven before these oldest surviving examples is a question that continues to fascinate experts.

Many think they must have been, because silk has bewitched mankind and been woven into fabrics since the very earliest times.

Yet it is equally possible that silk carpet weaving did not begin until carpet weaving itself reached its greatest heights under royal patronage in the 16th century.

That was when rulers across the Islamic world vied to outshine each other by creating the most splendid objects in court workshops without regard to difficulty or cost.

As one expert, Jon Thompson, notes, both the difficulty and cost of weaving silk carpets were far greater in earlier times than today.

And that could suggest that no weavers other than those in court workshops would have been able to undertake it. Thompson writes in his book Silk, Carpets and the Silk Roads (1988):

"The silk carpet is in a class of its own in terms of the specialization involved in its production. For a start an enormous amount of silk is required, it must be dyed by highly skilled professionals, the looms have to be built to a standard appropriate to the fineness of the carpet to be woven, and so on."

The reason silk carpets particularly appealed to royal courts despite the difficulty was that they combined a number of extraordinary qualities at once.

For one, the knot count that weavers could achieve with fine silk threads was far greater than could be achieved with wool.

That allowed the depiction of much greater detail in carpets than before, including in naturalistic scenes.

Here is a carpet woven in Turkey's famous silk-weaving town of Hereke depicting Istanbul in stunning detail. It is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

At the same time, silk could be used entirely to weave a carpet or to provide highlights to a wool carpet, in either case bringing a texture and sheen that could not be achieved with any other material.

But most of all, it was the "richness" of silk – its millennia-old association with wealth and luxury – that made silk carpets undisputed status symbols for any court which wove them.

Those courts included not just those of the Safavids but famously also the Mughals in India, the Ottomans in Turkey, and the Mamluks in Egypt.

To fully appreciate the richness associated with silk can be hard today, when we are used to seeing silk cloth mass produced for clothes, as well as many synthetic imitations.

But a quick review of just how strange a substance natural silk is, and how rare it once was, can bring back the feeling.

Silk appears to have first fascinated people for both its unusual source – insect cocoons – and its translucence when it is woven into a sheer fabric.

The classical Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote:

"The process of unravelling … and weaving a thread again was first invented in (the Greek island of) Cos by a woman named Pamphile, daughter of Plateus, who has the undoubted distinction of having devised a plan to reduce women's clothing to nakedness."

Cos (or Kos), in the Aegean Sea near the coast of Turkey, was a major early producer of silk, which was obtained by gathering cocoons abandoned by silk worms after they metamorphosed into moths.

The cocoons, broken open when the moths exited, provided broken strands of silk that could be spun into thread.

But demand for silk really took off after ancient China discovered the secret of cultivating silk worms so that the cocoons could be collected before they were broken open.

That allowed later unraveling the silk thread that forms the cocoon the same way the silk worm had originally woven the cocoon, with a single unbroken filament up to a kilometer long.

Here is a picture of the cocoons of the silk worm, or Bombyx mori.

The caterpillar weaves its bird-egg sized cocoon with a weblike filament excreted by a spinneret on its lower lip.

The construction begins with attaching the web to twigs and then moves inwards as the caterpillar twists its body round and round to fully enclose itself over the course of several days.

When producers in China spun thread from the unbroken silk filaments, the quality was vastly superior to anything before.

The thread, and fabrics from it, created enormous demand across Eurasia, including in ancient Rome.

Pliny writes that the Roman Empire spent vast amounts importing silk from the East via the trading routes that today we call the Silk Roads.

So much so, that the Roman Senate eventually forbade men from wearing silk in hopes of at least confining the demand to women, but to no effect.

Interestingly, as much as ancient Rome valued its silk imports, it had no idea precisely where they originated. The Romans simply described it as coming from a land they called Seres and which they imagined to be at the end of the world.

Thompson gives this explanation of where the word Seres might have come from:

"The term probably does not even refer to China itself but to a region of the Tarim Basin, in Chinese Turkestan or Sin-kiang (Xinjiang), through which silk passed on its overland route to the West. The last stop on this route before the mountains, Kashgar, formerly called Sarag, may be the origin of the word Serica. If this is so, it underlines how little the Mediterranean world knew of China."

Here is a picture of the kind of silk fabrics that traveled the Silk Roads.

The road also carried, in reverse, Roman glass to China, which would not discover the secret of clear, colored glass until 424 AD.

Eventually, China's secret of how to cultivate silkworms leaked out to Japan in the 4th century and Persia in the 5th and 6th century, creating major silk industries in both places.

As knowledge of the technique spread, the supply of silk goods became ever less of a problem yet the demand for silk, and inventive new forms of silk weaving, has remained high right up to our own times.

The question of when silk carpets first joined the list of silk luxury goods may never be resolved.

But today they continue to provide one of the most popular ways to include silk in home decors and enjoy the sense of luxury and mystery it imparts.