Ardebil Carpets & Rugs

The ancient city of Ardebil, lying in the extreme north west of the country, has long been associated with possibly the most famous carpet of all; the great ‘Ardebil’ Carpet which is presently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This carpet serves as the most opulent, majestic example of ‘Safavid’ art, the period of 1501-1736. Indeed, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Ismail (1487-1524) himself originated from the city and his reign was pivotal for two important reasons; Firstly, he unified the central Iranian state under Iranian native rule, wrestling it free from Arab dominion; Secondly, he established shiasim Islam as the state religion, as opposed to sunni Islam, which the majority of Persian people had previously practised and adhered to. This led to the imposition of a virtual reign of terror against those who practised not just only sunni Islam, but also those who were of varying shi’ite belief, to the twelver Shiaism adopted by Shah Ismail. To this end, an entire clerical order was invited to preach their version of Islam and were integrated into the Iranian state from Lebanon, serving to implement the directives of the Emperor. Aside from creating great religious strife within Persia, this undoubtedly had another immediate effect, in that it alienated Iran from its powerful sunni neighbour, the Ottoman Turks, who they soon came to war with.

Despite the consequent turbulent history between the two Islamic empires that of the Ottoman Turks and Safavid Persians, art and architecture flourished, not least because they became emblematic of both empire’s need to assert their power and authority, but also to give credibility to the idea that it was they who represented religious orthodoxy. For the Safavids, art was seen as an extension of Iran’s increasing ascendancy, power and identity. Indeed, carpet production was also elevated to a position of great prominence, being given state patronage. To this extent, Shah Ismail’s second successor, Shah Thamasp (1514-1576) and later his great grandson, Shah Abbas (1571-1629) sponsored state looms or kharkhannas which produced carpets woven in the finest materials of wool, silk and gold metal thread. Also, carpets, for perhaps the first time, also saw depiction of animals and figures, due to the fact that unlike sunni Islam, shiasim allows for the depiction or representation of such forms.

The great ‘Ardebil’ carpet, which happened to be lying in the great shrine in that city (the carpet had lay undiscovered for possibly a few hundred years), certainly comes from this highpoint in Persian culture and history, as it is almost unique in having an inscription (by the enigmatic Maqsud of Kashan), but also remarkably bears the date 946.AH/1540.AD ( AH refers to after Hijra, the date of the Prophet’s exile from Mecca, from whence the Islamic calendar begins). The carpet was made during the reign of Shah Thamasp, whose reign seems to have reaffirmed the need to integrate the curvilinear design into carpets, which this magnificent carpet exudes. What is most interesting to note is that, though the carpet is known fondly as the ‘Ardebil’ Carpet (due to its being discovered in that city), there is no repudiated evidence to suggest that the city of Ardebil ever wove carpets, not least to such a breath-taking scale and grandeur (the size being a palatial 34ft 6 x 17ft 6). Most likely, the carpet was woven and ordered in one of the Royal workshops in either Kashan or Tabriz.

This rug is a product from a much later period, that of the middle period of the 20th century, which had seen many Tabrizi merchants set up looms in Ardebil in order to provide the burgeoning demand for good quality carpets and rugs. Often, as in this example, designs have been heavily borrowed from earlier classical carpets, from the famed ‘Safavid’ period. However, this splendid rug exhibits the most often used template for its design, that of the ‘Ardebil’ Carpet its self. This piece has been woven with the use of the very finest khurk wool and also has an extremely fine weave (70 rajj) a characteristic of the very finest Tabriz weavings. The colours are also somewhat peculiar, especially the use of the emerald green, ruby red in the borders and motifs. Almost certainly, this rug was the product of a master weaver and was a specially ‘commissioned’ piece. In its execution, design and use of the very finest materials, this rug serves as a perfect example of how carpets have been woven in Iran since the heady days of the Safavids up to even the present, under the collective prerequisite of both artistic and commercial demands.