Visiting ancient bazaars on a journey across Iran.........Ramdas Iyer ( 2014)
03.04.2014 - 25.04.2014
I asked the owner of Kashmir Emporium in Madras, India, the home of my youth, about Kashan and the origin of the design of my very first oriental carpet bought from him. This was in 1986, when Kashmir was one of India's leading producer of fine carpets, honed from the traditions of Safavid era Persia and improved upon by the artisans of the Mughal court. As a young man living in the United States heaven was listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash with a cold beer at hand. As refinements entered life it lead to sipping wine while perched around an oriental carpet, but with the music remaining the same.
The Kashan carpet, a silk and woolen gem still ranks amongst one of my finest acquisitions. But Kashan has always been on my mind. I read up on oriental carpets, their classifications including Persian, Turkic, Turkoman, and Caucasian masterpieces: kelims, carpets, weaves, knots, warps and all. After nearly 30 years of falling in love with carpets, I finally stood in the desert light of Kashan, Iran. A silk route gem, it was one of the leisure spots of the Safavi kings, Shah Abbas I who created the Bagh-e-fin, a World heritage garden reminiscent of the classical Persian version of paradise. There was production of Persian carpets at Royal workshops in the 17th and early 18th century. The Persian carpet workshops ceased production in about 1722 after the Afghan invasion. But its designs endure and are made in other parts of Iran and the Khoresan region encompassing north east Iran near Mashad and parts of Turkmenistan.
I scoured the city that is visited by less than a thousand tourists a year these days, only to find a handful of large shops where the merchants were so indifferent to commerce and the carpets so large that I suspected that only the mullahs could afford and fit them inside one of the many new mosques being built all over Iran since the revolution. Disappointed, I went to visit the Sialk Teppe, one of the oldest Zigguarts in the world with a history from 5500 BC . It is possible that they too wove carpets, but the fragile nature of the materials used could not last the test of time.
Another interesting legend in Kashan was that of the origin of the three wise men who followed the star that guided them to Bethlehem to witness the nativity of Jesus, as recounted in the Bible. Whatever the historical validity of this story, the attribution of Kashan as their original home testifies to the city's prestige at the time the story was set down. The small tomb/mosque of the Three Wise Men, covered with fine carpets from Kashan, was also another highlight of my time spent there.
From being simple articles of need, floor and entrance coverings to protect the nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp, the increasing beauty of the carpets found them new owners. - kings and noblemen, art lovers and energetic immigrants like myself, who looked upon them as signs of wealth, prestige and a thing of beauty with distinction.
Historical evidence points to carpet weaving being prevalent during the reign of Cyrus the Great in 529 B.C. They were made in villages for personal use with designs and weavings identifiable of the specific village or tribe. The artistic design and quality of Persian rugs reached its pinnacle during the Safavid Dynasty (1499-1722), because the reigns of Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas created a weaving industry that focused on "large-scale artistic and commercial enterprise revolving around highly skilled and organized weaving workshops." During this time, trade was established with Europe with Persian rugs as one of the threads that spurred economic exchange, and Persia reached its golden age.
The word Oriental carpet is bestowed on carpets from Persia, Turkey, Turkestan and the Caucasian regions of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the splendor of carpets is normally attributed to Islamic artistry, it also thrived in the Christian Caucasian regions mentioned above. While on a trip to the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad in 1989, during the final years of the Soviet empire, I was drawn to a small ragged display of a carpet . Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov in 1949 discovered the oldest known "knotted" carpet in the Pazyryk valley, about 5000 feet up on the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Dating back to the fifth century BCE . The Pazyryk carpet is of rare beauty and woven with great technical skill. It was found preserved in the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, which were 2400 to 2500 years old.
My arrival in Teheran during the Iranian spring of 2014 was not without excitement and wonderment , but along with a strange discomfort caused by three decades of isolation from the western worlds. It is a land once ruled by the Persians of Fars province ( Shiraz) but now contains a republic of many tribal and ethnic groups. Representing 35% of the population they include Azeris(Turks), Baluchis(western Afghan and Pakistan), Kurds and Turkmen. I spent two days of visiting the major sites, including the US Embassy building ravaged by students of the Khomeini led Islamic revolution of 1979. Late evenings were spent in the many carpet shops near hotels to get a flavor of what I expected to see over the next three weeks. The prospect of a carpet hunt after seeing the variety and workmanship energized me for the rest of my wonderful travels from Kerman Province in the South East to the Azerbaijan province in the North west. All the legendary silk road cities and carpet weaving centers lie near the mountainous deserts of this ancient land.The Zagros mountains run across the country while the Alburus mountains form a northern chain.
Leaving Teheran, I landed in Shiraz; capital of Fars province, home of the legendary Cyrus and Darius founders of the Persian Empire and a city of refinement and culture .The bazaar of Shiraz ranks as one of the greatest in Iran second only to the World heritage bazaar of Tabriz, in the Azerbaijan province. While in Teheran I had only visited air-conditioned shops, here I finally arrived in a real bazaar. In fact I had no time to visit the great carpet bazaar of Teheran.The vaulted ceilings and the many carpet shops with almost no customers was one big rug paradise of wool and silk in resplendent colors and classic motifs. After a couple of hours of walking around I focused on one shop who had a couple of small woolen rugs that caught my attention. I fell in love with both of them but was quite shocked by prices which still are only a third of that sold in the famous ABC Carpet shops in New York City.
It was a small carpet slightly bigger than a prayer rug but had all the qualities of a silk rug with very intricate non repeating patterns, displaying a menagerie of animal motifs possibly making it a one of a kind masterpiece for my collection. It was a Qashqai Nomadic carpet also known as Shirazi. The Qashqai nomads are a conglomeration of clans of different ethnic origins, mostly Turkic, but also Arab, Kurdish, and Luri. Majority of Qashqai people were originally nomadic pastoralists and some remain so today. The traditional nomadic Qashqai travelled with their flocks each year from the summer highland pastures north of Shiraz roughly 480 km or 300 miles south to the winter pastures on lower (and warmer) lands near the Persian Gulf, to the southwest of Shiraz. They are referred as "Shirazi" because Shiraz was the major marketplace for them in the past. The wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz is exceptionally soft and beautiful and takes a deeper color than wool from other parts of Iran.
"No wool in all Persia takes such a rich and deep color as the Shiraz wool. The deep blue and the dark ruby red are equally extraordinary, and that is due to the brilliancy of the wool, which is firmer and, so to say, more transparent than silk, and makes one think of translucent enamel".(Hawley, Walter A. (1913) Oriental Rugs Antique & Modern)]
Qashqai carpets have been said to be "probably the most famous of all Persian tribal weavings".( Bennett, Ian (1978) "Later Persian Weaving." In: Rugs & Carpets of the World, edited by Ian Bennett.
Prices were agreed upon but I had no clue as to the transportation of the rug to the United States. The Baazari merchant had no international experience and was at a loss to assist me. I left town for a couple of days to visit Persepolis and other sites before returning to my new love that I had left hanging at the front of his shop. Other neighboring shop keepers offered help including one of them calling a relative in Los Angeles ( place with the largest Iranian diaspora in the US) for help with the credit card transaction. Alas the shopkeeper found a courier to hand carry it to Dubai, usually by Arab Dhow, that plies the waters of the Straits of Hormuz near Bandar Abbas to Dubai, a distance of only 300 miles. These waters are the life blood of Iranian commerce that enables the smuggling of western merchandise into Iran.
I immediately contacted my brother in law in Dubai who was glad to pay cash for the merchandise and hold on to my Qashqai treasure until it was safe to bring it into the USA. The Shirazi Baazari trusted me to act in good faith and concluded his perhaps first international transaction since the embargo.
Leaving Shiraz for Kerman, the road was carved out of the Dasht-e-Lut Desert, one of the 10 hottest places on earth. Being spring time, patches of small green sprouts were quickly devoured by the Qashqai black Tibetan sheep, renowned for fine carpet quality wool and succulent meats. Groups of nomads could be seen herding the animals as far as the desert horizon.
While I did not have the time nor opportunity to visit their traditional homes, I was able to photograph some of them on the range.
The city of Kerman today has a pleasant atmosphere with mosques, blocks with bazaars and tea houses. The carpet manufacturing has long been an important industry and carpets from Kerman are easily recognized. The ground color is often red, and the pattern is dominated by a centrally placed medallion together with a wide border filled with flowers. When Nadir Shah finally wrested control of Persians from the Afghans around1746, whose insurgency cost Kashan its place as a royal workshop, Kerman became the recipient of royal patronage. However for modern consumption these carpets are not very popular and found mainly in mosques and Islamic assembly halls. I could not locate a single shop in Kerman Bazaar since perhaps like the rest of Iran, carpet making has moved from their traditional homes to concentrated workshops in Esfahan and Meshad.
From Kerman I went further south to the famous Bam citadel, which was destroyed by an earthquake, much to the sorrow of adobe architecture lovers. The road from Bam to Baluchistan province of Pakistan is less than 100 miles from Bam and is rampant in banditry. However near Bam one can find many dark skinned Baluch nomads and merchants who straddle both sides of the border. I stopped to photograph a Baluch nomad on a donkey. He spoke fluent Hindi and had tended sheep near the Indian border a few years beforehand. Before my experience of buying a Baluch nomadic carpet, I wish to give some history of the production of non Persian rugs that form the family of Oriental carpets.
Great oriental carpets, I must reiterate do not belong to Persians alone. In 1219 Genghis Khan went to war against the Khwarezm (Khoresan)Empire ( Aryan-Persian rulers) in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The sultan there had agreed to a trade treaty, but when the first caravan arrived its goods were stolen and its merchants were killed. The sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors. Despite once again being outnumbered, the Mongol horde swept through one Khwarezm city after another, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench. Skilled workers such as carpenters and jewelers were usually saved, while aristocrats and resisting soldiers were killed. As the Mongols ruled a predominantly Turkic population in central Asia a cultural synthesis( Turco-Mongol era) that arose. During the early 1300s among the ruling elites of Mongol Empire successor states such as the Chagatai Khanate and Golden Horde were notable. These elites adopted Turkic languages and local religions such as Islam and Buddhism, while retaining Mongol political and legal institutions. Many later Central Asian states drew heavily on this tradition, including the Timurid dynasty, the Khanate of Kazan, the Nogai Khanate, the Crimean Khanate, and the Mughal Empire.
I bring up this important history because this conquest gave rise to the fine tradition of carpet making in non Persian areas ;Afghanistan-notably Herat, Samarkand, Bokhara, Anatolia and the caucuses regions. Baluchistan being a neighbor of Iran has produced some amazing tribal tugs. While in Esfahan, I purchased a relatively inexpensive Boluch Yakub khani rug( see photograph). The story of Yacub Kahni rugs is as rich as the history of carpet making itself and falls outside the focus of this article.
Turning back and heading north towards Esfahan, I had the opportunity to stop in the storied silk route city of Nain. Close to the western edge of the great desert Dasht-e-Kavir, it has one of the oldest Islamic mosques in Iran built in the 9th century soon after Islamic incursions from Arabia. The semi adobe architecture with classic Persian and Arab elements was a unique site.
Outside the mosque I happened to make eye contact with a person who introduced himself as the Director of the Museum of Ethnology which was housed in a classical Qajar era house from the 18th century. After my brief tour, the gentleman inquired if I would be interested in seeing a Nain carpet woven by his family members. Carpets from the city have a high reputation and were very popular. The material in the more exclusive carpets consists of wool on a silk warp or silk in the warp as well as in the weft and pile.( The terms warp and weft are used in reference to textiles that are woven. They are the technical terms for the two types of thread used to create a finished woven product. The warp is the tightly stretched lengthwise core of a fabric, while the weft is woven between the warp threads to create various patterns.). I had him display the rug next to my car but did not find it visually appealing despite the very attractive price quoted.
I finally arrived in Esfahan (Isfahan), the magnificent capital city of the Safavids and a city over 2500 years old. Such is Esfahan’s grandeur that it is easy to agree with the famous 16th-century half-rhyme ‘Esfahan nesf-e jahan’ (Esfahan is half the world). Robert Byron, author of the 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana, was slightly more geographically specific when he ranked ‘Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity’.
The architecture, history and the classic elements of Persian society were on display for the world to consume. Despite the severe embargo, the shops were filled with handicrafts, foods and fabric of a superior quality. It has become both the production and trade center for carpets representing the diversity of designs from the entire country. Carpets from Isfahan have high class especially when it comes to the composition of the patterns, materials and designs. They are characterized by thin, often carpets with extremely high knot density (Senneh knots) that sometimes are made on silk warp. The motifs often consists of medallions with palmettes and arabesques (Shah Abbas pattern), but figural motifs also occur.
I spent perhaps the most amount of money on any purchase ever other than buying a car, in Isfahan. After dedicating an entire afternoon to studying the various offerings I settled on a store where the buyers seemed to have an eye for rugs that suited mine. I purchased a fine Qashqai Nomad silk carpet( see photograph) with animal motifs, a Qom made silk Bakhtiari carpet( see photographs); a timeless classic and the Baluch Yakub khani mentioned above.
All the carpets were shipped to Dubai or India for safe keeping until the embargo with Iran is lifted. Many Bakhtiari rugs, especially the one I purchased, are in fact tribal pieces that rely upon a repertoire of abstract geometric and animal motives. But Bakhtiari weavers are also acclaimed for their ability to produce sophisticated medallion all over, and garden designs of classical Persian inspiration, with an added vitality and boldness.
As with any mighty dynasty the decline of the Isfahan based Safavid dynasty happened around 1722, due to neglect by rulers who failed to share the wisdom of their forebears. The Mughal court of India which maintained great relations with the Safavid court became a natural choice for mass migration of talent to India as the Safavid era faded. Its great poets, architects, weavers and statesmen found employment in India. Sufi Islam, monument building, carpet weaving and other handicrafts flourished in Mughal India. Oriental carpets reached international standards first in Kashmir, the winter retreat of the Mughal emperors and also in Agra, capital city of the Mughal king Shah Jahan, famous for being the builder of Taj Mahal( with an architect from Shiraz). With today Kashmir in severe religious turmoil this industry has moved to Jaipur. The Indian woolen carpets are inspired by the classical Persian motifs transformed to the most contemporary style. Bright glowing colors, hand-knotting technique allowing high number of knots per square inch and exquisite design sense have made Indian hand-knotted woolen carpets, cherished products in home decor. The Iranians need to wake up to this fact.
My own collections from India include the silk and cotton Kashan from Kashmir, a large Isfahan in robust colors from Jaipur (purchased at ABC carpets, New York), and an antique Turkoman Tekke carpet ( from Agra).
The Esfahan experience left me elated about my new acquisitions and yet was a nagging source of concern for their eventual transportation to the USA. Leaving Esfahan and traveling to many ancient centers including Hamadan, Kermanshah and Qazvin, another capital of the Safavids, I reached the legendary carpet city of Tabriz. Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity. Its historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centers on the Silk Road. Tabriz was a gateway to the West, since it lay on one of the principal trade routes from Iran to Anatolia and then onwards to Europe. The city of Tabriz was also the terminus of the Silk Route from China. The most prosperous time of Tabriz and its bazaar was in the 16th century when the town became the capital city of the Safavid kingdom. The inhabitants are primarily Azeris from nearby Azerbaijan which was a Persian province until the Ottoman Empire carved out most of it from Persia. One can see many Turkish and Kurdish inhabitants in this town. I have never seen so many carpets in one place in my life. The style of the carpets are predominantly of Ardebil and Tabriz designs; "Tabriz", "Heris", "Lachak-turanj", "Afshan", "Agajaly", "Dord Fasil", "Sardorud". Ardabil", "Sheikh Safi", "Sarabi", "Shah Abbasi" and "Mir".
The carpet section of the bazaar with must have at least 300 stores each stacked with large carpets ranging from 12 X 16ft to 36 x 48 ft. There were very few customers and most of the shop keepers were quietly reading the morning papers or chatting over tea with the neighbors. None of them were interested in selling anything. Unlike in Turkey or Morocco where touts will constantly harass one to visit their shop, this was a pleasant surprise. I understood that their main customers were Arabs especially from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Tabriz designs though very likeable, belonged in another era. The prices of large woolen carpets of similar quality were half the prize of those Isfahan. If one is keen on Ardabil carpets, Tabriz is the place to acquire. I was burnt out both financially and emotionally for any further carpet buying expeditions.
I finally flew back to Teheran from Tabriz on a very old DC-8 aircraft wishing that I could have done better on a flying carpet. Back in Teheran and reunited with my wonderful guide, I visited the famous Carpet Museum of Iran, built under the patronage of Shahbanu Farrah, the wife of the Late Shah of Iran, in an architecturally amazing building. Staring dumbfounded at the quality, designs, colors and intricacy of those carpets, made me realize that the art of carpet weaving ranks amongst one of the greatest expressions of art; both tribal and royal.
Inspired by this museum visit, I returned to the original carpet store in Teheran to look at my early selections. One more time I was floored by the tribal motifs of the Qashqai and purchased a woolen carpet with cotton waft produced in the great carpet making area of Mashad. That too found its way to Dubai.
The Iranians were among the pioneer carpet weavers of the ancient civilizations, having achieved a superlative degree of perfection through centuries of creativity and ingenuity. The skill of carpet weaving has been handed down by fathers to their sons, who built upon those skills and in turn handed them down to their offspring as a closely guarded family secret. To trace the history of Persian carpet is to follow a path of cultural growth of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen.
Having covered the silk route from Luoyang in China though Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenstan,parts of Khazakhstan, Iran and to Azerbaijan and Anatolia, my other great oriental carpet shopping experiences were in Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva/Urgench in the remote Khoresm region. While in Shanghai I came across a lot of carpet making facilities and are producing quality silk carpets using fine Chinese silk yarn, synthetic dyes with old designs from Persia. The Kerman design silk carpet that I purchased there more than a dozen years ago has all the qualities of a fine oriental carpet in my living room. The classic Turkmen Yomut and Tekke designs purchased in Bukhara and Samarkhand are also some of my favorites.The Koneh and Anatolian carpets purchased in Istanbul add a different dimension to that of the Persian ones in my home.
It is sad to see Iran losing its place as a premier carpet producer. Before the 1987 embargo, the total wholesale value of Oriental hand-knotted rugs imported to the United States was about $750 million in current dollars. Iran had the biggest share of that market, 28 percent, followed by China and India. Today they are probably place fourth or fifth -- about where they have been all along during the embargo. Both now and in the long term, industry experts agree, Iran faces tough competition. Iranian weavers will have to adjust their designs and colors for a share of the American market. India, Pakistan, China and Turkey may not be easy to push to the background again.
Carpet dealers in Iran have also had to improvise. Their products have been getting to the lucrative American market via Pakistan, or Mexico, where they are mixed with shipments of local carpets. Money is channeled to Iran via middlemen in the Gulf. Some of the bazaar’s larger dealers have contacts in Dubai who help with bank accounts and offer chip-and-pin services for foreign buyers and tourists, whose cards are otherwise, owing to sanctions, useless in Iran. “We have to trust the middlemen with thousands of dollars,” explains a dealer, who says he pays up to 3% on transactions to get paid from abroad. “Many of us have been cheated. The weak have left the business. Only the strong dealers with good foreign connections have survived.”
Iran has an amazing history of rug production and I sincerely hope that the past 3 decades of embargo has not permanently damaged the industry. Of the 2 million weavers in the 1980s only half of them are in the trade. The weavers are very poor and need advance cash and materials to start a new rug. Youngsters find other professions that are less difficult, such as selling clothing in the bazaars more appealing. Carpet making is in the Iranian DNA and I am eagerly awaiting its chance to dominate the oriental carpet industry.
In conclusion, I just gathered that the most expensive carpet ever sold was a Kerman carpet that was auctioned by Southeby's of London for $43.5 million dollar in 2013!
While I still have a lot of room in me for oriental carpets, I have literally run out of space.
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A brief history of Persian Carpet and its patterns-Iran Chamber of Commerce, June 28, 2015
The Economist Iran’s carpet trade-A magic comeback? Oct 2013
New York Times- No More 'Pssst!' For Iranian Rugs, But Who Cares? March 23, 2000
Wikipedia- a wide variety of information
=====ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS FOLLOW=====
THE MAKING OF A NOMADIC CARPET
BAZAAR AT TABRIZ
CARPET MUSEUM OF IRAN, TEHRAN