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Volume 40, Number 3May/June 1989

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Carpets and History

Written by Carol Bier

The story of Western trade with Persia in textiles and carpets casts a fascinating light on the exciting, sometimes turbulent history of the centuries following Europe's Age of Exploration.

The intense commercial and political rivalries of European mercantile expansion during the 400-year period from about 1500 to 1900 is revealed both by official historical documents - treaties, royal decrees and contracts - and by more personal ones, such as the reports of traveling merchants. Through the details of production and trade that these documents contain, we can view textiles and carpets as key commodities in the international marketplace. They played important roles in the establishment of bilateral commercial relations, the creation of international trade networks, the regularization of diplomatic exchanges, and even in occasional armed conflict, as the political interests of Europe and the East sought to accommodate and advance their ever-shifting commercial interests.

In the 16th and 17th centuries raw silk and finely woven quality textiles were commercial mainstays of the Persian crown, supplemented by luxury carpets marketed at the highest court and commercial levels. After a period of political instability and economic disruption in the 18th century - when intense European rivalries disrupted international trade - manufactured imports from Europe upset Persia's internal trade balance. Slowly carpets supplanted textiles as a major export. European investors organized the commercial production of carpets in the East specifically to broaden the export market in the 19th century, and it is these latter-day products that are the Persian carpets most familiar in the West.

Woven in patterns recalling gardens or bouquets of brightly colored flowers, they brought warmth and beauty to the parlors, drawing rooms and boudoirs of Europe and America, and were prized wedding gifts in our grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation at the turn of this century. They are still appreciated today for their color, beauty, craftsmanship and design - but the story of how they came to the West begins almost half a millennium earlier.

In 1498, with the help of Arab pilots, the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama found a new sea route from Europe to the East. British, Dutch and French merchant ships were not slow to follow, establishing trading outposts in the Indian Ocean which eventually undercut both Venetian shipping in the Mediterranean and the intermediary trade between India, Persia and the West on which the Arab Middle East had long thrived (See Aramco World, July-August 1988).

The Portuguese gained an early advantage in the new trade with Persia: In 1507, under the command of Admiral Albuquerque, the Portuguese fleet attacked the strategic island of Hormuz at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf. After finally capturing it in 1514, Albuquerque fortified ports all along both sides of the Gulf to ensure Portuguese control of the sea-lanes. Although the Safavid rulers of Persia accepted gifts of cannon and arms from Portugal to help oppose the invasion of their territory by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, they nonetheless felt the Portuguese presence to be a threat as well: For the remainder of the century, they sought to persuade the Portuguese to withdraw from their coastal postions.

Meanwhile, the first joint-stock company for foreign trade was formed in London in 1553. It was called "Mysterie and Companie of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands and Places Unknown," but became known as the "Muscovy Company" for the northern route by which it sought to obtain exotic riches from India, China and Indonesia. The company's agents traveled a combined land and sea route through the Baltic, down the Volga River and across the Caspian Sea to Persia and the lands beyond. In 1562 the flag followed trade as Queen Elizabeth sent an emissary to Shah Tahmasp, called "the Great Sophy" in the West, at his capital at Qazvin, in today's northwestern Iran. The ambassador arrived with a letter offering "to treate of friendship, and free passage of our Merchants and people ... for to bring in our commodities, and to carry away theirs to the honor of both princes, the mutual commodity of both Realms, and the wealth of the Subjects." Shah Tahmasp re-responded, extending commercial privileges to the Muscovy Company, but this northern route was found to be unprofitable and was abandoned in 1581.

There was also indirect contact between Poland and Persia at about this time. We know that the Polish king, Sigismund III Vasa, sent an Armenian merchant to central Iran to purchase carpets in 1601. The middleman presented an accounting of his expenses to the Polish treasury in Warsaw on September 12,1602:

A part of one carpet with the royal arms of Sigismund III Vasa woven into it survives today in the collection of The Textile Museum in Washington, DC, with a complete matching carpet in the Bavarian Museum in Munich - possibly the pair for which the Armenian merchant paid 82 crowns plus five crowns extra 387 years ago. In Poland, the Persian fashion in both clothing and the decorative arts became prevalent by the first half of the 18th century; in 1758 the Polish Prince Michael Casimir Radziwill established factories at Sluck to produce textiles executed, with Persian designs.

The English East India Company was founded by royal charter in 1600 and sent a yearly fleet to ports along the coast of India. The Dutch, who declared their independence from Spanish rule in 1581, rapidly developed their own maritime and commercial interests, and they too entered the lucrative arena of international trade. In 1598 the Society for Trade to Distant Countries was founded in Holland, and in 1602 it was chartered as the Dutch United East India Company. English and Dutch merchant ships were soon plying the waters of the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean carrying cargoes of spices and silk, precious metals and fragrant wood. It was not long before the English East India Company developed sufficient commercial power to threaten Portuguese supremacy in the India trade, and in 1608 it established a trading station at Surat, a port on the Indian Ocean north of present-day Bombay.

The same year, the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas (1588-1629), still seeking to persuade the Portuguese to quit his coasts, sent an embassy to King Philip III, ruler of both Portugal and Spain. Shah Abbas's delegation carried numerous gifts, and also 50 bales of good-quality Persian silk for sale. But the combined political and commercial mission failed so completely that when the ambassador returned home in 1613 he was executed for his efforts. The following year, what diplomacy had not obtained was won by force of arms: The governor of Shiraz, an inland city in the south of Persia, recaptured the coastal strip north of Hormuz, restoring it to Safavid rule. The Portuguese retained control of the island, however.

In 1615 the English sent a mission from Surat to Persia to obtain trading rights. Richard Steele, agent for the East India Company, suggested that Persia might provide a good market for English broadcloth, since its winters were so cold. This was the first English attempt to reach a Persian market, and it became the company's principal objective thereafter to sell English woolens in exchange for Persian silk. As a result of the mission, the Shah granted a farman, or decree, later that year protecting the company's rights to trade at Jask, a port outside the Gulf on the Arabian Sea coast of Persia, and at other ports. The next year the company sent the vessel James to Jask laden with a cargo of English cloth; it arrived safely in spite of an attempt by the Portuguese to intercept it. The company opened agencies in Shiraz and Isfahan to sell the cloth.

In the heat of the summer of 1619, an embassy from Philip III arrived at Shah Abbas's court requesting restoration to Portugal of the coastal strip north of Hormuz, lost five years earlier, and the expulsion of the English East India Company's agents from Persia. But Shah Abbas had already met with the company's men, and issued a farman which assured them the right to trade freely throughout his kingdom. He also promised to sell the company between 1,000 and 3,000 bales of silk annually, at a fixed rate, for shipment from Jask. In return, Shah Abbas expected the English company to assist him in ousting the Portuguese altogether.

He got his wish. In 1621 a joint force attacked the island of Hormuz and secured it once again for the Safavid dynasty. Twenty-one cannon captured there were displayed in the public square before the royal palace in Isfahan, and the English East India Company transferred its Persian headquarters from Jask, outside the Gulf, to Bandar Abbas, a harbor newly developed by Shah Abbas at Gambroon, just inside the Gulf.

When Charles I came to the throne of England in 1625, Shah Abbas sent an embassy to England, and two years later Charles reciprocated with an embassy from England to Persia. Two of the English emissaries succumbed to illness soon after they arrived in May 1627, but a third member of the delegation, Thomas Herbert, traveled throughout Persia for two years and subsequently published an account of his experiences. He was struck by the goods available for sale in Persia, and by the extent and orderliness of the bazaars, which he described as "spacious and uniform, furnished with silks, damasks, and carpets of silk, silk and gold, and, of course ... wool; no part of the world having better or better-colored."

Herbert also commented on the intensity of activity surrounding the manufacture of silks, satins, and cloths of gold. To emphasize the quantity of cloth produced, he quoted an English merchant named Cartwright, who had traveled there a quarter of a century earlier, around 1600, as saying that "there was more silk brought in one year into Kashan than broadcloths are into London."

About this time, too, a French Huguenot jeweler named John Chardin traveled in Persia and wrote detailed descriptions of the crafts, activities, and markets of the country. He, too, commented at length on the textile industries, and the quality of the velvets, cloths of gold, and other rich stuffs. The most famous of the carpets, he said, were from the province of Kirman in south-central Persia - the ones called "Turkey carpets" in Europe because, until the English imported them by sea, they had reached the West overland through Turkey. He also said that the Persians knew good carpets and, to rate their quality, they "laid their Thumb on the edge of the carpet to tell the Threads in a Thumb's breadth, for the more there are, the dearer the work is." Today we count knots per square centimeter or square inch, but the principle - knot density as an indicator of quality - is exactly the same.

Another traveler, Adam Olearius, journeyed to Persia from Holland in 1637 as part of a Danish trading mission. Fascinated by the cosmopolitan Safavid capital, he wrote, "There is not any nation in all Asia, nor indeed most of Europe, who sends not its merchants to Isfahan.... Besides... Indians, there are Tartars, Turks, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, English, Dutch, French, Italians and Spaniards."

Englebert Kaempfer, also from Holland, sketched the rich attire of both natives and foreigners residing at the capital when he visited in the same century, for he was impressed by the varieties of dress, the billowing turbans and stylish hats decked with feathers and jeweled ornaments, the sashes and scarves draped around loose trousers and elegant coats.

The Western mercantile and political competition unfolding in the East was but a reflection of the national rivalries of Europe, of course, and one incident which took place in the North Sea at about this time has an interesting Persian aspect.

In 1665, the Dutch flagship Walcheren, homeward bound from Batavia - today's Jakarta - in the East Indies, was caught in a storm. Her holds were full of what was reputed to be one of the richest cargoes ever brought from the East; England and Holland were at war. The Walcheren took refuge in the neutral port of Bergen, Norway, where it was attacked by the English. Reportedly, Frederick III, the Danish king in whose domain Bergen fell, had quietly agreed to allow the English to pillage the ship and its rich cargo, but his local governor, unaware of the plan, interceded - as international law required - to protect the Dutch ship and to maintain his country's neutrality.

The outraged English then declared war on Denmark, but the following year, in a move of nice diplomatic irony, the grateful Dutch presented a treasured Persian carpet from the Walcheren's cargo as a gift to Sophie Amalie, the Danish king's wife. In April 1700, this carpet, "woven with gold," was used in the annointing ceremony of the coronation of Frederick IV and Queen Louise, and it has served in the coronations of Danish kings ever since. It is kept at the Rosenborg Palace, alongside such other national regalia as the Danish scepter and orb and the king's throne.

The trading Dutch, true middlemen, also figured in a 1714 commission for other royalty, far to the East. The archives of the Dutch East India Company in The Hague record an order by the Dutch agent at Bandar Abbas for a "gold and silken cloth for the King of Siam." As the cloth was too wide to be woven on the equipment available, special looms even had to be built.

The devastating Afghan invasion of Persia in 1722 ravaged Isfahan, brought the ruling Safavid dynasty to its fall and crippled trade in the country. Woven silks attributed to the period of Nader Shah, who expelled the Afghans in the 1730's, do show a continuity - in terms of color, structure, and style - with textiles that had been produced under the Safavids, but Nader Shah's death in 1747 was followed again by a period of disorder and uncertainty. Indeed, trade declined throughout the world in this period. Wars in Europe, an increase in brigandage along the caravan routes, piracy at sea, and political unrest led to the gradual abandonment of Dutch, English, and French trading stations along the Arabian Gulf.

During the reign of Karim Khan Zand (1750-1779), who reunited southern Persia, the British were persuaded to establish a trading station at Bushire on the northern coast of the Gulf. Fine carpets continued to be manufactured at Kirman in the south, and the highly esteemed wool from Kirman goats was also exported. Persian shawls - not quite as famous as those from Kashmir, in northern India - were produced both in Kirman and in Mashhad in northeastern Persia. They competed in the market with shawls woven on jacquard looms in Russia and Europe.

The Kashmir shawl had a dramatic effect on women's fashions in Europe and on men's fashions in India, as well as in Persia. Early 19th-century paintings of the court and entourage of Fath 'Ali Shah show many uses for shawl fabrics. The word comes from Persian shal, meaning "fabric," and the cloth was used in Persia for turbans, hats and caps, men's long overgarments and robes, as border and edging fabric for both men's and women's garments, and for the waist sashes that were, and are, part of a man's formal dress. The English word "cummerbund" comes from the Persian words kamar, loins, and band, band. But by this time there was also European influence in both design and fashion in Persia.

European firms established trading houses in Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad and supplied local markets with wool broadcloth and cheap machine-printed cottons from England and India in exchange for Persian raw materials such as wool, silk and cotton. In 1830 a British merchant noted that "There is much [business] to be done in Persian silk.... Everybody says it must rise and is [the] safest possible article for speculation." The industry did flourish for a while, principally in Gilan in the northwest, but in the 1860's it was devastated by silkworm disease. Persian cotton, introduced as a cash crop, faced strong competition from the longer-staple varieties of America and Egypt, but found a market in Russia.

The textile industries of 19th-century Persia were no longer as masterfully innovative as they had been under the patronage of Safavid rulers. The mechanization of yarn spinning, the development of stronger strains of cotton in Egypt and America, stiff competition from cheaper European printed cottons and woolen broadcloth, and the commercial rivalry between Russia and England - both of whom fought brief wars with Persia during the century - all led to further declines of the economy.

Persia also suffered an influx of other European manufactured goods, including clocks and watches, tools and such implements as scissors, and synthetic dyestuffs, which were introduced after the 1860's. European imports reached a peak during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah (1848-1896). As Iran sought to balance its trade deficit, cotton, opium, wheat and tobacco were cultivated as cash crops, mainly for the Russian and European markets.

Toward the end of the 19th century, however, investment and capitalization by local and foreign firms in the country spurred development of a new Persian carpet industry, the fame of which was to become legendary. Income from the sale of commercial-style carpets soon supplanted that earlier derived from the export of raw silk, fine textiles and luxury carpets - and even today, carpets are modern Iran's most important non-oil export.

Although much has been written about the luxurious Persian carpets of the 16th and 17th centuries, the enormously popular Persian carpets of the 19th century, imported in great quantities by Europe and America from the mid-1870's, have received little attention from historians.

The reemergence of carpet production and export in the late 19th century reveals a new level of international economic and political interest in Persia. Against the background of the floundering textile industry and the existing cottage-based rug industry, which was sufficient for local needs, the transformation of the Persian carpet industry began in the mid-1870's, with the investment of huge amounts of money and energy by foreign and local capitalists. The result was a marked increase in the square footage of carpets produced, and a dramatic rise in the numbers of carpets exported.

Management and financing of production took place in the cities, and the finished carpets passed through cities or were marketed in city bazaars, but most of them were produced in surrounding villages and in the countryside, wherever looms were set up. The raw materials - wool clipped from sheep raised by nomads in upland pastures, silk for the pile or foundation, cotton for the warp and weft - came from rural regions sometimes distant from the weaving site. Dyestuffs were often imported from abroad.

Initially, production relied on the existing informal structure of cottage - based weaving, particularly in the areas of Kurdistan and Khurasan, in western and northeastern Persia, as well as around the city of Kirman. Persian carpets were thus luxury products produced in a harsh and unluxurious environment. In village homes or town workshops, it took long hours to carefully knot a fine carpet's thousands of knots - one at a time. The work was done by women and children, for the most part, often in work-places lit only by stray shafts of daylight, and if the work was commercial, pay was low. Men were active in trading and dyeing.

By the 1890's, foreign firms were heavily invested in the Persian carpet industries. Their presence was felt in the areas of setup and organization, acquisition of raw materials, including wool and dyestuffs, in dyeing and weaving processes, and in insuring quality standards. The companies encouraged more standardized designs, prepared as cartoons on graph paper or as carpet samplers. Their role extended to aspects of land tenure, grazing rights, flock maintenance, and the migrations of people and flocks; it even intruded at times on the always precarious relationship between tribal groups and Persia's central government.

Ziegler and Company, a firm from Manchester, took the lead in investing heavily in the production and export of Persian carpets, and in marketing them abroad. Other firms soon followed suit. P. Hotz and Company set up competitive establishments, and Oriental Carpet Manufacturers of London (today Eastern Kayam, OCM) expanded its operations from Turkey into Persia and India. By 1914 Ziegler's and OCM each had investments in the Persian carpet industry amounting to the equivalent of about £200,000.

Nasir al-Din Shah himself actively promoted Persian carpets abroad. In 1876 he presented Queen Victoria with 14 new Persian carpets from Kurdistan and Khurasan, of the kind being produced for export. These carpets became the property of London's South Kensington Museum - today the Victoria and Albert Museum - and show a range of floral designs, some with central medallions, some with stripes of different colors. Several from Kurdistan have the familiar "Herati" pattern of five flowers arranged on intersecting stems, while "boteh" designs, related to the Kashmir shawls, are seen in the carpets from Mashhad and other centers of Khurasan.

These gifts came at a time of active collecting for the South Kensington Museum. One of the most intrepid of its traveler-curators, Robert Murdoch Smith, was director of the British Telegraph Service, established in Iran in the 1860's. In keeping with the new systematic and scientific approaches that characterized museums and collecting in the 19th century, Murdoch Smith provided extensive documentation when he acquired objects of cultural interest - documentation for which we are grateful today.

In these times, antique carpets as well as current production were sought for museum collections. Ziegler's, in addition to their mercantile interest in new production, also exported old Persian carpets, one of which, the now-famous "Ardabil" carpet, is also in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Nasir al-Din Shah also sent Persian carpets to the Vienna Exhibition in 1891, where they were appreciated by a public growing ever more interested in things Oriental. Carpets, furniture, and decorative objects, as well as paintings by European Orientalist painters, were all reminders of the East, and romantically evocative of exotic distant lands.

In 1904, eight years after Nasir al-Din Shah's death, the Persian government forbade the import of synthetic aniline dyes. They had become an important item of trade, but their pervasive use, though providing bright - even, for our taste, sometimes garish - colors, reduced the durability and thus the overall quality of carpets dyed with them. Graduated taxes were introduced as an incentive for compliance with the ban, but many surviving carpets testify that enforcement of the ban remained a problem.

Foreign investment in the Persian carpet industry remained high into the 1930's. Then a more nationalistic government began to curtail foreign economic activity, heralding the demise of Ziegler's and other foreign firms still producing carpets for export, and bringing an era of international involvement in Persia's textile history to a close.

The commercial carpets of the late 19th century are what we usually think of when we refer to "Persian carpets," yet specialists have accurately called them "the rugs we walk on, but rarely study." They are characterized by wide main borders, narrower inner and outer borders with guard stripes, and an oblong central field which often has an overall repeated pattern. The designs are almost mechanical in appearance, showing series of stylized floral forms in crowded but pleasing arrangements. Some carpets have a predominant central medallion. There is a richness of color, often with a wide range of tonality and hues, and a good knot density. Though these are "commercial" carpets, they are generally of good quality.

As did classical Persian carpets, the 19th-century carpets share stylistic features with contemporary textiles, architectural decoration, book illustrations and otfier visual arts. They have a particularly close relationship to shawl designs and colors. One special category of design harks back to the glorious past, featuring images of Persian kings, both legendary and historic, and illustrating episodes from Persian epic and verse. Antique carpets were sometimes copied and reinterpreted to meet new demands of the contemporary market.

Prized by our great-grandparents for their touch of the exotic, Persian carpets, with their hand-made qualities of design and craftsmanship, were the perfect antidote to 19th-century industrialized civilization, well-loved and well-worn. But, at the Eastern starting points of their long journeys, they were also the prosaic products of intense commercialization, of carpet-making specifically for export, produced in response to a particular set of historical circumstances.

We gain cultural perspective in studying the textile arts. Through understanding the material object, we learn to understand the social and economic forces at work in its creation. Persian textiles and carpets were valued in distant lands for many centuries, first by monarchs, then by newly emergent middle classes. Despite the sophisticated preference for classical carpets of the Safavid period, which figured historically in trade, diplomacy and war, the more humble products of the late 19th century had the broadest appeal and reached the widest market.

The richness that once was survives even today in Persian carpets; the turbulence of past times is reflected in their artistic achievement. They preserve a portion of the march of history.

Carol Bier, Curator of Eastern-Hemisphere Collections at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., oversees one of the richest collections of Oriental carpets in the United States. She is the editor of Woven From the Soul, Spun From the Heart: Textile Arts of Safavid and Qajar Iran (16th-19th centuries).

This article appeared on pages 8-15 of the May/June 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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