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Persian Prayer Rugs – Between Art and Religion

The region of Iran and surrounding areas, which once belonged to the mighty Persian Empire, is probably the brightest star in the so-called “Rug Belt” constellation, stretching from Morocco, across North Africa, the Middle East, and into Central Asia and Northern India. The oldest surviving pile-woven carpet – the Pazyryk carpet – dates back to circa 400 before Christ, and so does the earliest presently known mention of a Persian carpet.

 It was a notice made by a Greek author Xenophon in his book Anabasis, where he says: “Next he went to Timasion the Dardanian, for he heard that he had some Persian drinking cups and carpets.”, and “Timasion also drank his health and presented him with a silver bowl and a carpet worth ten mines.” The author describes the rugs as luxurious, precious and worthy to be given as diplomatic gifts. Although we have no knowledge of whether they were pile- or flat-woven, or produced using any other technique such as, for instance, embroidery, it is extremely important that the very first reference to Persian carpets puts them in the context of prestige, diplomacy and splendor.

In the early 16th century A.D. Persian rugs became something much more than just exclusive goods made to cater for the needs of the royal court or utilitarian objects produced by nomadic tribes for domestic use – they became one of the driving forces in the development of the state. Shah Abbas introduced a program for restructuring the economy and attracting European merchants to the country. The major part of the project was advancement of the textile industry and export of fine pile-woven carpets to the West. Persian rugs from all famous weaving centers, like Tabriz, Qum, Kerman or Meshad, have always been of the best quality wool, camel fur, goat’s hair, silk and cotton – each of the fibers selected for its distinct qualities. The dyes have always been natural, even nowadays extracted from plants and animals (just as carmine, made of cochineal bugs). So much effort and thought put into the creation of Persian masterpieces resulted in their worldwide fame and recognition. It is easy to imagine that such a crucial part of life as religion must have found its reflection in the art of weaving. 

In the 7th century A.D. Persia experienced the advent of Islam. The Arab conquest brought about the intermingling of Persian tradition with Islamic art and religion. Carpets proved to be the bridge between cultures and quickly adapted to the new influences, at the same time keeping their unique and remarkable qualities. This is how Persian prayer rugs were born. Those rugs serve Moslems during prayer which involves prostration, kneeling and sitting, as an insulation from the ground. They play an extremely important role by providing a clean spot for a worshipper. Cleanness and purity are crucial in religious rites of Islam – a person must not only find a relatively neat place, he or she is also obliged to perform an ablution in order to properly praise Allah. Some of the carpets contain motifs of a comb and a pitcher to serve as a reminder.

Every prayer carpet is composed in a particular way. The central part is occupied by the symbol of mihrab – a niche. Mihrab is a an architectural element which is present in every mosque and constitutes a directional point to Mecca (it is also a symbol of the doorway of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca). There are various types of niches, the ones from nomadic and village regions are woven in a more simplified and angular way, whereas town and festive prayer rugs tend to take on a more rounded and opulent form. Basically, it is a rectangle, one end of which has its corners angled off to form a pointed arch. A Moslem, when he kneels to pray, rests his forehead within the arch, placing his hands at sides. Persian prayer rugs are usually made with a single mihrab – multiple are quite rare and associated rather with Turkish prayer rugs. Nonetheless, many-niche rugs are occasionally produced in Persia, as well as in the Caucasus region of Russia.

In terms of design, rugs made by nomadic tribes in small Persian villages are much simpler than town and ceremonial ones. They very often are plain and undecorated in the center, or comprise of minute stylized stars or flowers. The most noticeable rug motif from Persian prayer rugs is the tree of life, appearing quite frequently in all kinds of carpets, not only devotional ones, regardless of whether they come from the country or the city. In general, the tree of life is a widespread mytheme or archetype, closely related to the concept of the sacred tree, and hence present in religious and philosophical tradition. It always has multiple connotations, even within a single cultural circle. Here, in Islam, the tree of life signifies the garden of Paradise and more generally – eternal life. There are cases where two trees of life grow within one carpet field. Their branches entwine, so they resemble two loving souls holding hands for good and for bad – such a design is a variation on the tree of life and bears the name of the marriage tree. The marriage tree motif most frequently appears on carpets from Qum and Tabriz. The weavers from the region of former Persia, especially form the towns of Isfahan, Qum and Tabriz, have mastered the skill of making lifelike representations of the tree of life. The intricacy and craftsmanship of their execution is absolutely unmatched and fully shows the artistry of Persian rug makers. Here, the boundary between art and religion does not exist – the two categories intertwine and combine to create a whole new level of quality with the preservation of sacrum. Anyone who would like to invest in a prayer rug, even for strictly secular use, should not hesitate – they are the gift of Islamic art and constitute an indisputable artistic value.