Woven carpets are traditionally crafted in North Africa and many parts of Asia (usually known as oriental carpets) along the Silk Road, where they can be bought at a lower cost than in high-income countries. Carpets are often strongly associated with Islamic cultures, partly due to their tradition of producing prayer rugs.
|“||Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon another site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day's journey and difficult to reach.||”|
Traditional carpets are made by knotting coloured wool to a base on a loom. One way to categorize them is as nomadic or town rugs.
Nomadic tribespeople often produce rugs, both for use on the floors of their tents and for a "nomad chest of drawers", a set of decorated bags that hang on walls in camp and are hung on their camels or other livestock when they are on the move. Because nomad looms have to be portable, it is rare to find a nomad rug larger than about 5' by 7' (1.5 by 2.2m) and the rugs may be slightly irregular because the tension on warp and weft is different each time the loom is torn down and reassembled.
Rugs are also made in villages, towns and cities. Larger sizes are more common, as are rugs woven more finely than nomad rugs. Also, the range of materials is larger; historically the nomads used only wool (or goat and camel hair) from their flocks and natural dyes while settled people were more likely to include cotton, silk and synthetic dyes. Today, though, many nomads use synthetic dyes and have cotton for the base threads because it is more stable than wool.
In many tribes and towns, rug-making is mostly done by women and often by quite young girls, partly because small hands are an advantage in making tiny knots — a top-grade rug can have over 600 knots per square inch, roughly one square mm per knot — but this is not universal; some regions have many male weavers.
Silk carpets are usually small and quite expensive for their size. They much are less durable than wool carpets, so typically they are hung on a wall, but they can also be placed in a low-traffic area of floor. It is also common to use silk for highlights in a wool carpet; the silk wears better in this case because it is protected by the surrounding wool. Beware of "art silk", cotton that has been chemically treated (mercerized) to give it a silk-like sheen; this is fine at the right price, but some dealers try to sell it at silk prices.
The same regions that make knotted rugs often also produce kelims which are flat-woven rather than knotted; these are quicker to make and usually cheaper, but they are not as hard-wearing as pile rugs and not as finely-woven as high-grade ones.
Carpets are heavy. If you plan to bring home a large carpet, be sure to check flight baggage allowance.
Oriental rugs are made more-or-less everywhere from Morocco to China. Historically, Turkey (Anatolia) and Iran (Persia) have been the greatest sources, and many fine rugs are still made in both countries. However, other regions have also always been important, and today India and Pakistan are major sources as well.
Identifying the origin of rugs is a bit like recognizing accents. Almost anyone can easily learn some broad categories; people are no more likely to take an Afghan rug for Turkish than to label an Aussie accent as American. It takes an expert to be really precise, but it is not uncommon for them to identify the exact tribe or village where a carpet was made.
Turkey is rightly famous for its carpets, with rich regional varieties. Carpet weaving is often associated with the tradition of the Yörüks, nomadic Turkish clans which roamed (or, in a few cases, are still roaming) Anatolia for centuries.
- Istanbul — The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Sultanahmet has the richest collection of carpets in the world, with the oldest pieces in exhibit dating back to the 15th century. With many carpet shops, you may also want to have a stroll through the nearby Grand Bazaar, although this will inevitably be a touristy experience.
- Hereke — The huge carpets bedecking Istanbul's newer and European influenced palaces, which date back to the late years of the Ottoman Empire, came from this town's imperial factory, opened in 1841 and now a museum. Often dubbed the 'Ottoman Baroque', the style of the Hereke carpets differed from that of traditional designs.
- Bergama — No trip to ancient Pergamon is complete without visiting one of the many local carpet shops, which have regional products on offer. Decidedly away from the tourist trail, nearby Sındırgı is (relatively speaking) known for its Yağcıbedir rugs, honoured by an annual festival.
- Uşak — A major centre of carpet weaving since the 11th century, producing some of the finest Oriental rugs. The export to Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries was such a big business in this Western Anatolian town that its name, or rather its Anglicized form of Ushak, was a synonym for all Anatolian rugs, regardless of their origin.
- Milas — Taking full advantage of its Yörük roots and its proximity to Bodrum, one of Turkey's most favourite resorts with international holidaymakers, most travellers to the Turkish southwest will be familiar with this variant.
- Konya — The capital of the Seljuk Empire, preceeding the Ottomans, is famous with the style named after that empire. Mevlana Museum in the old town has a collection of the Seljuk carpets, mentioned by Marco Polo in 1292.
Persian carpets are one of Iran's leading cultural exports. The country has a history of carpet-making that spans 2,500 years. Many nomadic tribes, some villages, and most cities and towns in Iran make carpets and most of them have their own distinctive style.
- Tabriz — Tabriz rugs reached their zenith in the 12th-16th centuries.
- Kashan — renowned for its silk carpets.
- Heris — Heris/Heriz rugs often have bold, geometric designs.
- Isfahan and the nearby town of Na'in — famously finely-woven rugs
Garden carpets are a common design for the Bakhtiari tribe in the Shiraz region, and are sometimes made elsewhere as well. They are divided into many squares, each with its own design.
- See also: Turkmenistan#Rugs
Traditionally Persia (now called Iran) and Turkey have been the two greatest sources of oriental carpets. Depending who you ask, the small central Asian nation of Turkmenistan (formerly part of the Persian Empire) might be third.
See Turkmenistan for the main source, but neighboring countries, especially Iran but also Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, also have some Turkoman people and rugs. They are sometimes called Bokhara rugs because that city was once a center for their trade. In most cases red is the dominant colour and the pattern includes repeated elements called guls.
India and Pakistan produce many rugs that are also marketed as "Bokhara", using designs derived from Turkoman ones. Some of these are quite fine rugs, but they are not as valuable as real Turkoman carpets.
Both Baluchi and Afghan rugs (next two sections) somewhat resemble Turkoman carpets.
See below for "Golden Bokhara" rugs.
Historically, the Baluchis were a group of tribes, mainly nomadic herdsmen, spread across parts of today's Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the past few centuries many have settled in villages or cities, but Baluchi rugs still reflect the nomadic heritage; there are almost no Baluchi carpets larger than about 5x7 feet (150x210 cm) since larger ones cannot be woven on looms that nomads can move from camp to camp.
In the 19th century much of their territory was conquered by the British Raj; that part is now the Pakistani province of Balochistan (capital Quetta). Another part is now the Iranian province of Baluchestan (capital Zahedan), and there are also Baluchis in Iran's Khorasan province and in southwestern Afghanistan. Today, the main cities where many Baluchis live or trade are the capitals mentioned above plus Herat and Mashad. The rugs, however, are available all over the world.
Baluchi prayer rugs, just large enough for one person to kneel on and usually with either a tree-of-life or an arch design, are quite common; prayer rugs are made in many areas, but the Baluchi ones are among the best-known. One reason is that Baluchis making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca often sell a few rugs en route, to help finance the trip. Other pilgrims then buy them and bring them home — a prayer rug is almost the perfect souvenir for a pilgrimage — so they are found all over the Muslim world.
Prayer rugs are also popular with non-Muslim travellers, small enough to be reasonably priced and fairly portable.
- See also: Afghanistan#Carpets
Afghanistan has both Turkoman and Baluchi minorities and their rugs are widely available. There are also sometimes rugs imported from Iran, Pakistan or Central Asia. However, most rugs in the country will be in the distinct Afghan style.
Afghan rugs are generally similar to Turkoman carpets, mainly red in colour and with guls a major design feature, but typically they are less finely woven and cheaper. Large rugs and large guls are fairly common; dealers describe one Afghan design as an "elephant foot" carpet.
See below for "Golden Afghan" rugs.
The Mongols are traditionally nomadic people, and there is a long tradition of carpet weaving among them.
The Uyghurs of Xinjiang are culturally more similar to Central Asians than to the Han Chinese, and there is a long tradition of carpet weaving among them. The cities of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan in particular are known for their fine Uyghur-style carpets that have been traded along the Silk Road for centuries. Rugs produced one of those three cities are often known in the West as Samarkand rugs, named after the city of Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan, due to the fact that rugs from Xinjiang passed through it on their way to Europe via the Silk Road.
Tibet and central China also have their own styles of carpets. The town of Gyantse is most famous as a centre of Tibetan carpet-weaving, though there is also production in other Tibetan cities, as well as among the Tibetan exile communities in India and Nepal.
Like their counterparts in independent Mongolia, the ethnic Mongols in Inner Mongolia are traditionally nomadic people, and share their long tradition of carpet weaving. The city of Baotou is widely regarded as the traditional centre of the Mongol carpet weaving industry in China, having long served as a trading hub for carpets produced by ethnic Mongols in the surrounding region.
As usual for craft shopping, items are cheaper in the small towns where they are made than in cosmopolitan cities.
Haggling is customary for these kinds of affairs.
Do not be fooled into thinking a carpet might be a valuable antique just because it looks somewhat worn. Rugs are routinely spread out on roads in Iran to be "aged" by the traffic, and there are other bogus "aging" methods as well.
"Golden Afghan" or "Golden Bokhara" rugs became fairly common in Western countries early in the 20th century; they were invented by Western dealers who bleached Afghan or Turkoman carpets to eliminate the red colour, leaving a blue or black on orange or gold design. Apparently this was a better fit for the colours wanted in their markets. These rugs are rare in the countries of origin, where the traditional colours are preferred. In the West, collectors also prefer the traditional colours and bleached rugs bring a lower price. Also, the "golden" rugs often do not wear as well as unbleached rugs since bleaching can damage the fibres. In nearly all cases, bleached rugs should be avoided.
By about 1980 "golden" rugs made without bleaching appeared; these are woven with the "golden" colours in the first place. They have no problem with damage from bleach and have a wider range of colours available than bleached rugs. Some of these may be a good buy, but their resale value will be lower than rugs in the traditional colours.
Machine-made carpets are not much seen in the areas with a long tradition of carpet weaving, and carpet collectors almost unanimously scorn them. However they are fairly common in other places and usually cheaper than handmade rugs. The simplest way to distinguish is to look at the back of the rug; on a handmade rug the design will be clearly visible, but on a machine-made one it will be covered.