Carpets were probably first made by nomadic peoples to cover the earthen floor in their tents. It is not certain however, if the Egyptians, the Chinese, or even the Mayas first invented carpet making. It is quite possible that many peoples, none of whom were in contact with each other, began to make carpets at about the same time.
We can be certain however, that by the fifth century BC carpet making had reached a high artistic level. This was proven by the Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov, who in 1949 discovered the oldest known “knotted” carpet in the Pazyryk valley, about 5000 feet up on the Altai Mountains in Siberia.
Through out history Persia has remained the epicentre of the carpet making craft, where it has developed into an art form.
When Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BC, he was struck by its splendour, and it was probably he who introduced the art of carpet making into Persia. It is said that the tomb of Cyrus, who was buried at Pasargadae (Persepolis), was covered with precious carpets . Even before his time, it is very likely that Persian nomads knew about the use of Knotted carpets . Their herds of sheep and goats provided them with high quality and durable wool for this purpose.
The first documented evidence on the existence of carpets , came from Chinese texts dating back to the Sassanid Dynasty (AD 224 – 641). In AD 628, the Emperor Heraclius brought back a variety of carpets from the conquest of Ctesiphon, the Sassanian capital. The Arabs also conquered Ctesiphon in 637, and among the spoils brought back were said to be many carpets , one of which was the famous garden carpet, the”Spring time of Khosroe”. This carpet has passed into history as the most precious of all time. Made during the reign of Khosroe I (531 – 579) the carpet was 90 Feet square. The Arab historians’description is as follows:”The border was a magnificent flower bed of blue, red, white, yellow and green stones; in the background the colour of the earth was imitated with gold; clear stones like crystals gave the illusion of water; the plants were in silk and the fruits were formed by colour stones”However, the Arabs cut this magnificent carpet into many pieces, which were then sold separately.
After the period of domination by the Arab Caliphates, a Turkish tribe, named after their founder, Seljuk conquered Persia. Their domination (1038 – 1194) was of great importance in the history of Persian carpets . The Seljuk women were skilful carpet makers using Turkish knots . In the provinces of Azerbaijan and Hamadan where Seljuk influence was strongest and longest lasting, the Turkish knot is used to this day.
The Mongol conquest and control of Persia (1220 – 1449) was initially brutal. However, they soon came under the influence of the Persians. The palace of Tabriz, belonging to the Ilkhan leader, Ghazan Khan (1295 – 1304) had paved floors covered with precious carpets . The Monghol ruler Shah Rokh (1409 – 1446) contributed to the reconstruction of much that was destroyed by the Mongols and encouraged all the artistic activities of the region. However, the carpets in this period were decorated with simple motifs, which were mainly geometric in style.
Perhaps the most important time in the history of Persian carpets came with the accession to power of the Safavid rulers (1499 – 1722). Indeed the first concrete proofs of this craft date back to this period. Approximately 1500 examples are preserved in various museums and in private collections world-wide. During the reign of Shah Abbas (1571 – 1629), commerce and crafts prospered in Persia. Shah Abbas encouraged contacts and trade with Europe and transformed his new capital Isfahan, into one of the most glorious cities of Persia. He also created a court workshop for carpets where skilled designers and craftsmen set to work to create splendid specimens. Most of these carpets were made of silk, with gold and silver threads adding even more embellishment.
The court period of the Persian carpet ended with the Afghan invasion in 1722. The Afghans destroyed Isfahan, yet their domination lasted for only a short period and in 1736, a young Chieftain from Khorassan, Nader Khan became the Shah of Persia. Through the whole course of his reign, all the country’s forces were utilised in campaigns against the Afghans, the Turks, and the Russians. During this period, and for several turbulent years after his death in 1747, no carpets of any great value were made, and the tradition of this craft was continued solely by nomads, and craftsmen in small villages.
Today, Carpet weaving is by far the most widespread handicraft in Iran; it is also the best-known one abroad. Persian carpets are renowned for their richness of colour, variety of patterns and quality of design.