How to Read Hidden Secrets of Islamic Carpets

Secrets within secrets, scene from Ertugrul. Unification of the Ottoman Empire revolutionised carpet design.

How to know the history of a Carpet

Generally it is accepted that the oldest knotted carpet was woven in what is now Turkey in the 14th century A.D. — mostly around Anatolia. Although there are older carpet remains which have been found in excavations dating back to the sixth century in countries that cradle the Mediterranean basin.

Fig. 1 From Anatolia first half 16th century
The field with three columns of alternating red and green panels containing octagonal hooked panels with knotted outlines and rosette or interlace centres flanked by smaller octagonal flowerhead panels, the large octagons divided by open quartered lozenge medallions formed of overlapping split palmettes, in a sang-de-boeuf stylised kufic border between light red barber-pole and spiralling ribbon stripes, even wear and differential corrosion, some colours repiled, small old repairs, very slight loss to outer stripe. 7ft.8in. x 4ft.6in. (234cm. x 137cm.).

The Revolution in Carpet Designs

It is thought that around the 15th century carpet makers in Anatolia and Iran really started to make changes to their designs: curved patterns and designs were introduced. It is believed they were influenced by architectural designs and other artistic media such as book pages which were illuminated by a variety of patterns. The curved designs were achieved by (1) increasing the fineness of the weaving (consider this as the resolution of the carpet similar to dots per inch) and (2) by making the individual motifs much bigger. This is exemplified in Figure 2 which shows the Star Ushak carpet from the 16th century with the curved designs around the motifs.

Fig 2 Showing the “Star Ushak” Carpet, This fresh‑colored carpet is one of the earliest, largest, and best-preserved examples of its type. Woven in the Ushak region of western Turkey, “Star Ushak” carpets were made for regional consumption and for export throughout Europe. A similar carpet is depicted under the throne of the Venetian doge in a painting by Paris Bordone dating to 1534, and another is seen under the feet of Henry VIII in a sixteenth-century portrait of that ruler. Their association in European painting with royalty and sanctity underscores the status these carpets enjoyed as luxury trade goods.
Fig 3 Close up of the “Star Ushak” Carpet. Revolutionised carpet design by use of curved designs.
Fig 4 Painting The Virgin Mary is shown on an inlaid marble throne, with an Islamic prayer rug at her feet. The Christ Child holds a pomegranate, a symbol of the Passion.

Everyday Use of Tribal and Nomadic Carpets

There was a time when Western collectors and museums would turn their nose up at nomadic and village carpets simply because of the utilitarian uses. The women who made these rugs did so for the use in their daily lives and not typically for international commerce. The Europeans collectors were in it for the business and not the beat: even though the purpose of the carpet was domestic use they did not focus on the artistic beauty of the carpet itself. A particularly nice example is the Zaarshahi Carpet from Herat from Afghanistan as sold by DelCalifa.

Fig 5 Zaarshahi Carpet from Herat from Afghanistan as exhibited by delcalifa.com Barcelona.

Commercial and Court Designs

Carpets from 1500 to 1700 were often referred to as Islamic court carpets because their styles originated from the courts of their times. As opposed to villages the carpets where made in workshops often by men.

Fig 6 16th century Anhalt carpet with large medallion design in the centre

Understanding Symbolism in Carpets

Searching for the hidden meaning in beauty can be both a frustrating and vastly rewarding exercise. The idea that designs and specific symbols actual mean something by having a deep impact to daily life and spiritual well being isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. Lets consider the symbolism in carpets…

Prayer Rugs

The arch in the prayer rug is like a niche in a mosque giving the direction to the Kaaba, giving muslims the way to position themselves when praying. The symbolism of this is that this is the gateway to Paradise. Also there may well be lamps in the rug which signify light from the divine. Such prayer rugs are sold across the muslim world for domestic use, Figure 7shows such a rug from the Codani Balouch by DelCalifa in Barcelona.

Fig 7 Codani Balouch prayer rug Pakistan, sold by DelCalifa Barcelona 2021.

Symbols in Persian Carpets

The peacock birds is often present in carpets from the 15th century onwards and is known as a symbol of Paradise in Islamic art. In particular the strong piercing call of the peacock is poetically interpreted as cry of sorrow over the human condition and expulsion from the garden of Paradise.

Fig 8 Peacock known for it’s cry of sorrow appears frequently in Persian carpets

Auspicious Signs in Carpets

The symbol chintamani is found throughout designs in the Islamic world and is believed to guard against jealously, commonly called nazarlik in Turkish and functions to protect against “the glance of the evil eye”. It is used thought that somethings such as a child or a precious carpet could incite jealously and the attention of the mischievous spirit “the jinn” so it is commonly used to safeguard against this.

Fig 8 Example of chintamani motif found on this Ottoman carpet

Domestic Life Shown in Carpets

We find nomadic carpets often show symbols of everyday life, this may be sheep, camels or even instruments she used such as scissors and spindles. Humans can also be inserted into the designs with comical and amusing depictions of what might be the head of the tribe. There may also be examples of architecture such as fountains, mosques and shrines. These everyday symbols are secondary motifs inserted into the designs.

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