Learn about Oriental carpets and rugs, and the history of them, with our valuations and appraisals experts. Find out how they have developed over the years.
Carpets and rugs from Asia have been popular in western culture and markets for hundreds of years; the famous 16th century German-born painter Hans Holbein, renowned for his portraits of famous Brits such as Henry VIII, even has a style named after him for the significance of these carpets in his desirable portraits. The demand for carpets from all over Asia only grew from Europe in the following centuries, and good examples of rugs and carpets from Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Central Asia and the Far East still fetch high prices today.
Persian and Caucasian Carpets
The early traditions of Persian and Caucasian rugs and carpets were linked by their connection with the ancient silk road and as the Safavid Empire (1501-1732) expanded, Caucasian tribes interacted with the empire through both politics and trade. The great cities of carpet manufacture such as Kashan and Isfahan grew during the Safavid period. The nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes of the Caucasus shared various design features with iconic Persian designs, including Chinese motifs such as dragons, cranes and cloud bands. Recognisably Persian styles such as the ‘vase’ type also feature in Caucasian rugs.
This, however, is where the similarities end. Caucasian carpets are not identifiable by city, but instead by district or even village, although there is a village tradition to Persian carpet-making too. Caucasian rugs feature bold, repeating designs that are recognisably geometric with high-contrast colours. Persian carpets by contrast will use brighter, more vivid colours with less focus on repeated geometric boarders. Later town and city-produced Persian carpets featured garden-inspired designs. In some cases, such carpets will have the mark of an ‘ustad’ – a master carpet designer.
Ottoman Rugs and Carpets
While most surviving old Turkish carpets date from the 16th and 17th centuries, it is thought that the Seljuk Turks brought the craft to the region when they ruled Anatolia in the Middle Ages. As in Persia and the Caucasus, there can be seen significant Chinese influence in the earliest surviving Seljuk carpets. Later, Ottoman carpets were very popular with western collectors and many of the styles are now known by names associated with famous westerners who depicted or were associated with particular designs of which the ‘Holbein’ style is one. The carpet motif, known as a ‘gul’ is the primary distinguishing feature of different Ottoman designs. Carpets of Egypt and Ushak are identifiable traditions in their own right, the former includes motifs such as the cintimani with the latter being recognisable for large ‘star’ and ‘medallion’ repeating patterns. As in Persia, after c.1700 carpet-making became commercialised and developed separate city and village/tribal traditions. In the 20th century pieces became produced for the European market and are less desirable.
Central and East-Asian Carpets
Although Chinese symbolism has had an influence on many carpet-making traditions, rugs are not known to have been made in China before c.1600. Since then, Chinese carpets have become very recognisable for their colour scheme and developed into a mass-industry for the western market. Traditional Chinese designs feature iconic yellows and blues and often Buddhist and Daoist symbols amongst the great array of other Chinese symbols which, unlike in other traditions, all have specific meanings. More modern Chinese carpets are relatively common and were produced in response to western demand in the 20th century.
Carpet-making further west in Turkestan was closely linked with the societies of the great array of tribal peoples that lived there. The complex and dynamic politics and culture of the region led to great variety in rug design, with individual tribal styles being distinguishable by their signature gul motif. As in China, later copies were made of these very individual and distinct designs that lack the qualities of the originals. As the region came under the influence of Russia in the late-19th century and later the Soviet Union, tribal traditions died out as their community structures and nomadic lifestyles were threatened.