The Muslim Carpet and the Origin of Carpeting
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Table of contents
1. Historical and cultural background
2. Ottoman and Persian carpets
3. Europe before the carpet
4. The Muslim carpet and Europe
5. Imitation of the Muslim carpet in Europe
6. Summary and conclusion
Note of the editor
A first version of this article was published on www.MuslimHeritage.com in April 2004. The present version was slightly revised and edited, and new illustrations were added.
* * *1. Historical and cultural background
Muslims regard the carpet with special esteem and admiration. For the traditional Bedouin tribes of Arabia, Persia and Anatolia, the carpet was at the centre of their life being used as a tent sheltering them from the sand storms, a floor covering providing great comfort for the household, wall curtains protecting privacy, and useful items such as blankets, bags, and saddles. It was indeed a resourceful inspiration to make use of the abundant wool produced by their herds.
With Islam, another significant value was added to the carpet, being a furniture of Paradise mentioned numerous times in the Qur‘an. For example in Chapter 88 (Surah), the carpet is counted as one of the riches the believer will be rewarded in the afterlife.
There is considerable material dealing with the history, nature and character of the Muslim carpet. Such material is published under three main themes: the Oriental carpet, the Muslim carpet, or under regional classification such as Turkish carpet, Persian carpet and the like. Historic sources have established that the carpet tradition is a very old custom practised by early civilisations. Recent discoveries (dating from 1949) of a carpet in the tomb of a Scythian prince in Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains (southern Siberia) date back to the 6th century BCE. This carpet, now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, is the oldest extant knotted carpet . From a study of its knotting technique, as well as its decoration, it appeared clearly that the so-called "Pazyryk carpet" had a Persian origin . The next evidence available in the early development of the carpet consists of small 6th-century CE  fragments from Turfan (east Turkestan), on the old silk road, which were discovered between 1904 and 1913. It appears clear from these two evidences that the carpet was first made in the region of what was to become later a substantial part of the Muslim world.
The earliest surviving Muslim carpet, however, are fragments found in Al-Fustat (old Cairo). The oldest of these belonged to the 9th century (821 CE), while the remaining were dated to 13th, 14th and 15th centuries . Based on the form of their knots and decorative designs, these fragments were classified into two types. The first group included fragments having a knot similar to a later Spanish knot (knotted onto a single warp) and decorated with geometrical design similar to Spanish (Andalusian) carpets of the 15th century from Alcaraz . Therefore, these were considered to be the first prototype of the latter Spanish design. The other category of fragments incorporated stylised animal presentations and were considered to be of Anatolian typology from the 14th and 15th centuries, when animal decorative designs were the fashion. The similarity to the Spanish and Anatolian carpets has made some historians think they were only Fatimid imports. However, the fame gained by the so-called "Cairene carpets" during the 17th century can only refer to the refinement reached by the Fustat carpet tradition.
Rice confirmed this as he argued:
"The fact that similar designs inspired the woodwork of the middle period in Egypt, as well as the known competence of Egyptian weavers in other veins in early times, tends to support the existence of a local carpet industry, and that, if it existed at all, it was probably established as early as the eighth or ninth century." 
Under the Seljuks, the Muslim carpet reached a high degree of proficiency of technique and high quality of design. Descending from Anatolian origins , the Seljuks brought with them the talent and tradition of carpet making and other arts as they spread their reign to Persia and Baghdad by the 11th century.
Ettinghausen , and many others, considered the Seljuks to be the real originators of the Muslim carpet. A study of two specimens of this period, found in museums of Turco-Islamic art in Istanbul and Konya, revealed the characteristics of the Seljuk carpet art. Carpets in the Istanbul Museum belonged to the Ala' al-Din Mosque of Konya, which were dated back to 13th century when the mosque was first built, and Konya was the capital of the Seljuk of Rum (1081-1302). The carpets of the Konya Museum, however, were originally made for Eshrefoglu Mosque at Beysehir, built in 1298. The carpets incorporated beautiful geometrical designs of stars framed by a band of calligraphy.
2. Ottoman and Persian carpets
By the collapse of the Seljuk Caliphate under the invasion of the Mongols, who by 1259 took Persia, Syria and Baghdad, carpet manufacturing seemed to halt for a while. The barbarity of the Mongol attack wiped out any artistic production, inevitably affecting the development of the carpet industry. There are no recorded examples of this period, but historic sources indicate that carpet manufacturing recovered after a short period. The famous traveller Ibn Buttuta (1304-1377), for example, talked of the quality of Anatolian carpets, which he found in the hospice to which he was invited , and in his travels Marco Polo (1254-1324) praised them . Historic sources talked of the spread of stylised animal designs during this period (14th century) (figure 1).
However, the only evidence available is found in some European paintings made by artists of this period, who made contact with some of these carpets. The first painting of Saint Ludovic crowning Robert Angevin made by Simone Martini (circa 1280-1344) in 1317, which is kept at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, depicted a carpet with geometrical patterns and eagles under the throne. More paintings of carpets having stylised animal motifs were executed, including The Marriage of the Virgin of Nicolo of Buonaccorso  (1348-1388), the Madonna and Child with Saints of Stefano de Giovanni, or that of Anbrogio Lorenzetti Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints.
The origins of the depiction of animals have been traced back to the 9th-century Egypt, as excavations at Fustat (old Cairo) have revealed the existence of such designs in Cairene carpets. There is also a Turkish element in these carpets, as shown in these paintings, exhibiting similar traditional knotting techniques . Sometime in the 15th century, carpets with animal motifs ceased to exist but so far no concrete explanation has been established. It might be due to the rise of more religious Ottomans who could have prohibited the depiction of such animals, which depiction is Islamically discouraged. Consequently, a return to abstract geometrical forms took place, signalling the beginning of the Ottoman art.
Figure 1: Anatolian prayer rug from the pre-15th century, showing stylised animal motifs in symmetrical rectangles. (Source).
The Ottomans gave great impetus to art as reflected in the quality of various works they produced, especially in architecture and textile. Ottoman carpets gradually became renowned for their proficient treatment of plant motifs, in addition to the sophisticated geometrical and colour schemes. Historic evidence gathered from European paintings, produced around the second half of the 15th century, shows the eminence and distinction which the Muslim carpet reached under these leaders.
The most famous of these paintings are those of the renowned painters Holbein . These two artists, especially Hans Holbein the Junior, dedicated their paintings to Muslim (Ottoman) carpets that they became named after them the "Holbein carpets". These carpets are characterised by their geometrical design, which consists of a repeated number of squares as the main frame and octagons as the border followed by a band of "S" pattern and calligraphic designs. The arabesque is used in abundance to fill the squares and the rest of the area.
In the 17th century, and under the influence of the Persian carpets, the Ottomans adopted a new style consisting of the inclusion of star medallion and prayer niche patterns, features which extended to most Ushak carpets  (figure 2). The design and presentation of these elements varied considerably; in some instances the carpet was dominated by the central medallion, and in others smaller medallions and scrolls were arranged in particular patterns or in a band around the main theme of the centre. It is worth noting that such designs coincided with the appearance of the Baroque and later Rococo art styles which appeared in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. These styles, which were based on arabesque forms organised around geometrical frames and medallions, influenced the development of these two art forms.
This is confirmed by Sweetman, 1987 in his statements:
"If we look back from here to 1660 at the fortunes of Islamic and Islamic-inspired art in France and England, we have an overwhelming impression of the importance of decorative arts. The style had a part to play at the Baroque courts of Europe… In England, under later Stuarts, as under the Tudors, the brilliance of Islamic textiles and the captivating intricacy of the arabesque found a happy correspondence with existing tastes and also made notable contribution to them." 
The Baroque, especially in architecture, is highly ornamented with medallions and irregular shapes as the word 'baroque‘ means. Historians admitted its connection with the Muslims, at least in language format, as Baroque came from the Portuguese `Barueco' and Italian `Barocco' which is derived from the Arabic meaning irregular shaped pearl. The Rococo, however, used light and linear rhythms together with natural shapes like shells, corals and ammonites breaking form the formalities of the Baroque style. The Rococo was developed in France at a time when it had strong contacts with the east as explained earlier under the reign of Louis XIV, a time when the Turqueries and Turkish themes were highly appreciated in France.
The niche carpets were mainly rugs destined for Muslim prayers, which explains the inclusion of the directional niche (mihrab) in their centre sometimes with a pendulum of light hanging from its arch. This development is a clear sign that the Muslim artist develops his themes from religious as well as natural sources. The use of the mihrab and the lantern in the carpet was highly symbolic reflecting that part of the mosque which locates the direction of the holy Ka'aba as well as translating the Divine meaning of the niche as defined in Chapter 24, Verse 35.
Figure 2: A star-Ushak carpet from west-central Anatolia, dated to the late 16th century. (Source).
The next development in carpet chronology is the contribution of Mamluk Egypt (1250-1570). Although there are only a few specimens left of the Mamluk carpet, the oldest dates back to only the 15th century, which leaves a considerable period from which no samples are extant. However, there is some evidence that these carpets became renowned for their quality and rich décor . They were generally characterised by their geometrical designs which included stars, octagons, triangles, rosettes and so on, often arranged around a large central medallion. Once more, we find arabesque and floral motifs being successfully inserted to fill around these shapes giving the design the unity it requires. The Mamluk carpets set a design tradition that continued to be influential in most Egyptian carpets of the 18th and 19th centuries until the present day.
Besides the Ottoman (Turkish) carpet, no other carpet reached the status and popularity of the Persian carpet. As mentioned above, the Persians had a long carpet tradition extending back to the Sassanian times. However, the earliest surviving evidence of carpet manufacturing in Muslim Persia were dated to the 15th century mainly through illustrations in miniatures. Carpets were clearly knotted, comprising a rectangular centre dominated by a medallion and a border which sometimes took the form of several bands of various widths  (figure 3).
The earliest surviving specimen, however, are only dated to 16th century, the period of the reign of the Safavids when the production of carpets became a state enterprise, as these rulers developed trade relations with Europe and carpet exporting was at the centre of this trade . Carpets were also considered as valuable gifts, exchanged during diplomatic missions to Europe. Under Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), in particular, carpet export and the silk trade became the main sources of income and wealth for the Safavid state. The production took on a wholesale dimension as manufacturers were receiving orders from European consumers. Carpet making became a professional art, requiring designers to draw patterns first on paper before translating it into woven designs .
Figure 3: Persian carpet from Azerbaijan, late 19th century with large central medallion bordered with "S" pattern band.
Persian craftsmen from Tabriz, Kashan, Isfahan and Kerman produced eye dazzling and mesmeric designs ranging from the medallion centred carpets, mihrab carpets (figure 4) and vase carpets to "personalised" carpets bearing the coat of arms of a number of European rulers. Besides these carpets, the Persians excelled in the execution of carpets depicting human and animal scenes, a new style unparalleled in the Muslim world. By the early 19th century the carpet industry started to decline partly due to historic events and conflicts which lost Persia its stability and security in addition to the decline of carpet export as Europeans established their own manufacturing.
Knot form and technique
In the Turkish (or Ghiordes) knot, the yarn is taken twice around two adjacent warp threads and the ends are drawn out between these two threads.
In the Persian (or Sinneh) Knot, the wool thread forms a single turn about the warp thread. One end comes out over this thread and the other over the next warp thread.
Turkish carpets are prominent in the treatment in the treatment of plant motifs, using rich colours.
Persian carpets use more human and animal figures and often refer to landscape elements, using dominant delicate interplay of red and blue colours
Table 1: Comparison between Turkish and Persian carpets.
The above brief is not exhaustive as other parts of the Muslim world such as Andalusia, North Africa, Afghanistan, and India made also their own contributions to the richness and quality of the Muslim carpets. The concentration, however, has been on these regions for their lasting impact on European art.
Figure 4: Beautiful mihrab Persian prayer rug from Azerbaijan, late 19th century.
3. Europe before the carpet
How did Europe manage before the arrival of the Muslim carpet? Historic sources indicate that the earliest floor covering in Europe consisted of rushes. Rushes were scattered over the floor and renewed from time to time . This practice continued up to the second half of the 15th century. The evidence is found in the illumination in a manuscript at Lambeth Palace (The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers) depicting King Edward IV (1461-83) receiving a copy of it from its translator William Caxton . The King was seated in a room strewn with bright green rushes. Hampton Court is said to have had its rushes changed daily on the orders of Cardinal Wolsey .
Erasmus (1466-1536) revealed that these rushes were sometimes left too long that he condemned their use:
"The doors are, in general, laid with white clay, and are covered with rushes, occasionally renewed, but so imperfectly that the bottom layer is left undisturbed, sometimes for twenty years, harbouring expectoration, vomiting, the leakage of dogs and men, ale droppings, scraps of fish, and other abominations not fit to be mentioned. Whenever the weather changes a vapor is exhaled, which I consider very detrimental to health. I may add that England is not only everywhere surrounded by sea, but is, in many places, swampy and marshy, intersected by salt rivers, to say nothing of salt provisions, in which the common people take so much delight I am confident the island would be much more salubrious if the use of rushes were abandoned, and if the rooms were built in such a way as to be exposed to the sky on two or three sides, and all the windows so built as to be opened or closed at once, and so completely closed as not to admit the foul air through chinks; for as it is beneficial to health to admit the air, so it is equally beneficial at times to exclude it." 
In a later stage, rushes were woven into mats and widely used in Europe in this form. A miniature in the Book of Hoursin the Chateau at Chantilly entitled Tres riches Heures du Duc de Berri depicts the Duke (1340-1416) seated at a table under which the floor is covered with rush matting . The miniature is dated to early 15th century. Another miniature, found in Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, shows the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless (1371-1419), receiving a book in a room displaying rush-matting floor. Even at times of Queen Elizabeth I, floor rush-matting was still used in England. Evidence from a portrait of William, Earl of Pembroke (d. 1570), shows the persistence of this practice. In fact rush matting continued till the reign of Charles I (1625-49) .
 Gans-Ruedin, E. (1975), Antique Oriental Carpets from the Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Century, translated from Le tapis de l'Amateur by Richard and Elizabeth Bartlett, Thames and Hudson, London, p. 10.
 Ibid, p.12.
 Ibid, p.13.
 Ibid, p.14.
 Spuhler, F. (1978), Islamic Carpets and Textiles in the Keir Collection, Faber and Faber, London, p. 27.
 Rice, D.T. (1975), Islamic Art, Thames and Hudson, Norwich, p. 139.
 For more details, see FSTC, Architecture Under Seljuk Patronage (1038-1327) on www.MuslimHeritage.com (article published 13 April 2003).
 Ettinghausen, R. (1974), "The Impact of Muslim Decorative Arts and Painting on the Arts of Europe", in The Legacy of Islam, edited by J. Schacht and C. E. Bosworth, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2nd edition, p. 300.
 Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa (1325-1354), translated and selected by H. A. R. Gibb, edited by Sir E. Denison Ross and Eileen Power, Robert M. McBride & Company, New York, p. 126.
 Sterstevens, A. (1955), Le Livre de Marco Polo, Albin Michel, Paris, p. 73.
 Which contains a floor carpet with octagons depicting eagles, now at the National Gallery of London.
 Mills, J. (1975), Carpets in Pictures, Publications Department, National Gallery, London, pp. 4-5.
 Hans Holbein the Elder (1460–1524) father of Hans the Younger, and Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497–1543), better known of the two, court artist to King Henry VIII of England. See the entries on Hans Holbein in Wikipedia (retrieved 24.04.2010).
 Spuhler, F. (1978), Islamic Carpets and Textiles in the Keir Collection, op. cit., p. 47.
 Sweetman, 1987, pp. 71-72.
 Gans-Ruedin, E. (1975), "Antique Oriental Carpets from the Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Century", op. cit., p. 21.
 Elke Niewohner (2000), "Iran: Safavid and Qajars. Decorative Arts", in Islam: Art and Architecture, edited by M.Hattstein & P. Delius, Konemann, Köln, pp. 520-529.
 Blair, S., & Bloom, J. (2000), "Islamic Carpets", Islam: Art and Architecture, edited by M.Hattstein & P. Delius, Konemann, Köln, Konemann, pp. 530-533.
 Ibid, p. 532.
 Scott, S.P. (1904), History of the Moorish Empire, The Hippincot Company, Philadelphia, vol. 2.
 The book was translated from French Les ditz moraulx des philosophes by Guillaume de Tignoville. Apparently it was the first book to be published in England in 1477.
 Victoria and Albert Museum (1920), Guide to the Collection of Carpets, HMSO, London, p. 59.
 Cheyney, E.P. (1908), Readings in English History, Ginn and Company, New York, pp. 316-317.
 Victoria and Albert Museum, op. cit., p. 59.
* Dr Rabah Saoud, BA, MPhil, PhD, wrote this article for www.MuslimHeritage.com when he was a researcher at FSTC in Manchester. He is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Ajman, Ajman, UAE.
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by: Rabah Saoud, Tue 13 April, 2004