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Volume 16, Number 2March/April 1965

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Carpets East Carpets West

Written by Kurt Erdmann

"...East is East, and West is West, and never," wrote the skeptical Mr. Kipling, "the twain shall meet." With respect to carpets he may have had a point.

Everybody knows that no one makes carpets like the craftsmen of the Middle East. Everybody knows that one of the real prizes a tourist can carry back home in triumph is a bargain in a "Persian rug." And everybody knows also that the Western world has been extravagantly enthusiastic about Oriental rugs ever since that first shrewd Arab merchant loaded a caravan with rugs and plodded off to Europe some 500 years ago. What everybody does not know is that despite this apparent reverence for carpets, Westerners do not really appreciate them.

Contradiction? Not really, but it will take a good long look into history to see why not. And that look might as well start with the observation in 1554 of Pierre Belon, the French naturalist, who was fascinated by what he found out about the Arab world and carpets. "A Turk," he wrote, "will neither require nor acquire any furniture as long as he has a carpet spread out on the ground on which he can sit."

To M'sieur Belon's observation can be added that of Mechior Lorch, a painter from Flensburg, Germany, who said that before entering a room, "a Turk will take off his shoes to prevent the fine carpets from being soiled," and that of a man called Helfrich who visited Cairo in 1581 and noted that the Egyptians' greatest ornaments are carpets.

"The Egyptians," he wrote, "have neither tables nor benches in their homes or rooms because they always sit on the floor, where they rest, eat, sleep and attend to their business affairs."

As those comments suggest, the Oriental carpet several hundred years ago was much more than a mere floor covering. It was an integral part of one's living arrangements, one which took the place of chairs, beds and, sometimes, tables. The carpet was an object of such importance that to describe the severity of the sacrifices made by a certain ascetic called al-Tusi it was said that "he never possessed a carpet."

Carpets, in short, were necessities, not merely decorations, and so were worth the great care that was lavished on them. Those belonging to the wealthy never remained in one place all the time. At the Seraglio in Constantinople, for instance, they were changed every three months. The ones removed were first expertly cleaned and then sent to a treasure chamber for safekeeping. In Persia there were special "carpet houses" where the valuable carpets that needed a rest were stored. They were looked after by the house's own permanent staff and the director (custodian) also decided which carpets should be used, where and on which occasion. A traveler named Engelbert Kaempfer visited the royal carpet house in Isfahan in 1683 and wrote: "... it is very huge and spacious as not only all kinds of carpets and mats are piled up there but also tents and accessories for camping in the open. Management of this establishment rests with the Warden of the Royal Carpets whose function is a respected and influential one; his task is also to supervise the servants who wash the Shah's clothes."

Since not only the wealthy and the mighty maintained such storage facilities, but also personages of less importance, such as well-to-do merchants, there were probably many such carpet houses. None, unfortunately, has survived except one in Yeypur, in India. Many of the pieces kept there still carry their original labels, showing in detail the carpets' history.

From that it is clear that people of the Orient treated their fine carpets with great respect and did all they could to protect them and keep them in an excellent state of cleanliness and beauty. They were, of course, less exposed to injury than in the West since there was no furniture to leave its imprint, and since no one would think of entering a house, and thus step on a carpet, wearing shoes. "Even the Shah," Tavernier observed, "took off his slippers when he stepped on the carpets that were embroidered with gold and silk threads. In his retinue were always two old and venerable men whose only task was to take off the Shah's footwear when he entered a room and put it back when he left again." So important was this custom that the report of the German envoy Damian von Virmondt of his experience in Persia seems shocking. Received at the Persian court in 1723, von Virmondt reported with crude pride that he had "walked on Turkish, gold-embroidered carpets wearing boots, which had never been done before because the others first put on what we call Paposchen (slippers)."

Carpets were so vital that when kings, generals and other important men went off hunting and visiting, or even when they went off to war, their carpets went along with them, as furnishings for the great tents. (These tents could not be compared to the original Bedouins' tents or "houses of hair" where, in all probability, the woven carpet was developed some 2,000 years ago.) In that period, when a ruler traveled the most ingenious means were employed to make his tent as comfortable as his palace. Nothing was lacking and a whole army of servants kept well ahead of the sovereign so that at the place of destination they would have time to erect huge tents which were really portable palaces with many rooms furnished with every imaginable luxury and with many fine carpets. In some cases brooks would be diverted, gardens laid out and fountains built. Even trees would be carried along and the master's menagerie would not be forgotten either. During such trips, tent palaces, even whole communities of tents, would suddenly emerge, to be pulled down a day or so later in order to be erected somewhere else.

In the West this simply isn't the case. Even in the very early days when carpets had a very specific and important function—covering the damp and drafty walls of great castles—the West's emphasis was already different. For it was on the walls, for the most the part, that the carpets were displayed—which is why pictorial designs were woven into European carpets. On walls the pictures and the stories they told could be studied and appreciated.

This difference in focus can be seen in many ways. There is much more furniture in Western homes and there is far more decoration of walls. Carpets, of course, are an important part of the total decor, but they are not the focal point by any means.

Even today in the most modern of Eastern homes, there are subtle differences in the arrangements of furniture. There is an uncluttered look, a sense of openness to rooms, as if perhaps the furniture had been juggled around in deference to a particularly handsome carpet. And today still, carpets are always removed from the floors in the summer time, partially, it is true, because it is thought that homes are cooler when rugs and draperies are removed, but also to avoid unnecessary wear.

Such sentiments go back to the essential differences between carpets in the East and carpets in the West, differences one summarized this way: "The West walks on carpets; the East lives on them."

Dr. Kurt Erdmann, director of the Islamic Department of West Berlin State Museums until his death last fall, was an authority on Islamic and pre-Islamic art, particularly carpets and ceramics, and was the author of two books on the subject of Oriental rugs.

This article appeared on pages 8-9 of the March/April 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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