Beloved by royals, nobles and common people over the centuries, Oriental rugs found their way into modern households, often as priceless heirlooms. Their fascinating history began not centuries, but thousands of years ago, in antiquity.
The oldest evidence on the existence of carpets can be found on clay tablets which belonged to the royal archives of the kingdom of Mari, an ancient Semitic city in contemporary Syria, from the 2nd millennium BC:
“To my Lord speak! Your servant Ašqudum (says), About the woman who is staying by herself in the palace of Hişamta—The matter does not meet the eye. It would be good if 5 women who weave carpets were staying with her.”
The speaker clearly wants this lone woman to have a company of female weavers. Maybe she, as a weaver herself, was tired of working alone? Another archives, this time of Nuzi, an ancient Mesopotamian city in modern Iraq, talk about 20 large and 20 small mardatu (carpets) to cover the chairs of Idrimi, the king of Alalakh. In order to please the king himself, those rugs must have been of impeccable quality, just as Oriental rugs are today.
Later mentions of the rugs can be found in Homer’s Odyssey or Xenophon’s Anabasis, but the most interesting one comes from Pliny the Elder, Roman natural philosopher, who claimed that carpets were invented in Alexandria. However, he never enclosed any details about said carpets, so we cannot be sure whether or not they were flat weaves, pile weaves… or if they existed at all.
The oldest carpet in existence was found in Pazyryk valley and is currently exhibited at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. Discovered in late 1940’s by Sergei Rudenko in the Pazyryk area in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, the carpet was preserved in the ice of the Scythian burial mounds. The rug is almost intact, which allows its full evaluation in every aspect. While its country of origin is still a matter of debate, the pattern and symmetric knots suggest an advanced state of the art of weaving at the time of its production. The pattern itself shows the elements which later became characteristics elements of Oriental rugs: repeating patterns in the center, framed by a border in elaborate design, and several secondary borders. Years later, Rudenko discovered fragments of the carpet, dated to 3th or 4th century BC, at Bashadar’s burial mounds in Russia. Their very fine weave is estimated to have as much as 4650 asymmetrical knots per square decimeter. Other fragments, with symmetrical or asymmetrical knots, were found in Turfan, Dura-Europos, the province of Samangan in north-eastern Afghanistan, which were carbon-dated to the turn of the second century to the early Sasanian period.
Those historical findings are the proof that the art of carpet weaving and dyeing in western Asia before the first century AD. was not only well known, but also extremely advanced.
Centuries later, during his travel from Sivas to Kayseri, Marco Polo was astonished by the beauty of local carpets, woven by skilled handcrafters, as he wrote in his journals:
“…and here they make the most beautiful silks and carpets in the world, and with the most beautiful colors.”
Other sources from Polo’s times include Abu’l-Fida, who cited Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi, refering the craft from Anatolian cities in the late 13th century: “That’s where Turkoman carpets are made, which are exported to all other countries”.
It is still unknown if the first pile-knotted carpets were made by nomads who tried to imitate the pelts of animals or the works of settled tribes. A proof for the latter was found in the graves of women of an ancient community in southwest Turkestan. The knives with which women were buried,were strikingly similar to the tools used by Turkmen weavers for trimming piles of carpets. Some evidence suggest that Turkmen were in fact among the first people to develop pile-woven carpets, but this invention was not exclusive to them. The pile weave was created around the 3rd or 2nd millennium BC in either West Asia or Eastern Anatolia. Inventing this weaving technique was probably possible due to their earlier knowledge of extra-weft wrapping. Places like the East Turkestan, Lop Nur or the At-Tar developed different knot types, which suggest that this particular technique evolved in different circumstances. There is also a possibility that during the migrations of nomadic groups from Central Asia different techniques were spread in the areas which are now best-known for their exquisite carpets. With the influence of Islam, rugs gained importance. As a result, the tribes began to create what we contemporary know as Oriental carpets.