The Four Traditions of Antique Rug Weaving: (3) TOWN
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
In the first installment of my article, I focused on Tribal rugs, the art of the semi-nomadic weavers who captured their intimate experience of nature and the cosmos through ancient geometric symbols. My Part 2 overview of Village rugs explored this folk-art weaving tradition that employed abstracted botanical motifs drawn with spontaneous whimsy.
So, what distinguishes Persian Town rugs? Remarkably, in a single carpet, they achieved a never before seen aesthetic, a highly versatile combination of formality and playfulness, curvilinear and rectilinear. They offer a distinctive ambiance created by their fanciful drawing, refined weave, and resonant color palette. Town rugs could be seen as the natural offspring of their dual inspirations: the perfect curvilinear drawing and dense weave of the earlier Safavid carpets married with the casual geometry and abstracted patterns of the millennia-old village tradition.
From the 15th through the mid-17th centuries, the Persian Safavid rulers’ royal workshops literally revolutionized the Oriental carpet. During “The Golden Age of Persian Weaving,” the royal ateliers initiated both design styles that dominated later rugs: the central medallion format and allover field patterns, both of which were rendered through perfectly symmetrical curvilinear drawing in what is known as “The Art of Absolute Symmetry.” When the royal Safavid carpet workshops were shuttered, copies of the knot-by-knot cartoons of their masterpieces began filtering out into the hands of the Persian empire’s village weavers, who began incorporating the classical arabesque, cloud band, dragon, and split palmette motifs into their own aesthetic.
By the middle of the 18th century, village weavers had fully assimilated these influences into their area rugs. To fill the vacuum left by the Safavids for room-size to palace-size carpets, the Town rug tradition began to emerge, particularly in Ferahan and Bijar where there were great numbers of talented weavers. Small, permanently organized workshops employed a new approach to carpet design, interpreting Safavid central medallions, borders, and allover field patterns in their own inimitable way, melding the fine weave, use of symmetry and floral patterns of the Court rugs with the angularity and more whimsical botanical drawing of village rugs. These influences can be seen in all of the preeminent carpets of the town genre that I will discuss here. Unlike the home-crafted Tribal and Village rugs, Town carpet styles were the product of a sophisticated collaboration of carpet designers, weavers, dyer, and merchants.
On the Ferahan plain, an abundance of workshops created from mats to extremely large carpets. Here, seasoned weaving artisans had the liberty to employ floral drawing softened by uncanny realism with individually rendered flowers, tendrils and vines tilting at charming angles, with each tiny floret so delicate that they appear to be drawn by pen and ink. Such inspired flourishes would not be possible by the Safavid artisans whose task was to follow knot-by-knot cartoons to exactitude.
Elaborating on the disconnected, undersized medallions of Court carpets, Ferahan’s large multi-layered medallions contributed a sense of grandeur, while their innovative field patterning reflected the centerpieces’ themes for an integrated artistic statement. It is Ferahan’s carpet design, not the Safavid precursor, that inspired most medallion styles in the 19th century.
Bijar carpets offer a unique combination of gracious nobility and joie de vivre. Created at the highest inhabited elevation in Persia at 6400 ft by Kurdish artisans, with their extremely long history of rug weaving, these carpets offer exquisite knotting and a singularly dignified, yet fanciful design vocabulary. Known as “The Iron Rugs of Persia” for their famously durable construction, Bijars offer designs that include contoured geometric medallions, often on unadorned grounds displaying breathtaking abrash, exquisite renditions the allover “Garden of Paradise” design and highly-faceted Herati allover ornamentation. At times, all of these designs were fluidly incorporated into a single carpet. The resonant Bijar of color palette often includes rich madder reds and a prominent yellow hue to lift the spirits.
The last entry chronologically into the antique Town tradition is Persian Sultanabad carpets. Possibly initiated by enterprising Ferahan merchants looking to expand their line in the newly garrisoned town of Sultanabad, by the mid-19th century a Sultanabad style blending casual and cosmopolitan elements began to emerge. These rugs typically offered excellent, silky wool with overall, large-scale blossom patterns and a rainbow of exotic naturally-dyed colors.
Later in the 19th century, European merchants looking to invest in the growing Oriental carpet market, greatly expanded the number of Sultanabad workshops, adding the prized sub-category, Ziegler Sultanabads, which were the most finely woven and densely patterned of this style. In the surrounding region, small workshops produced a version of the Sultanabad style with a looser village knot count called Mahal that present an even more relaxed, informal ambiance.
After the Safavids, other Town weaving centers such as Senneh in Kurdistan and Joshegan near Isfahan were prominent at the beginning of the post-Safavid era. Yet, without the broad financial backing necessary to sustain a market for their finely woven rugs, their production was limited. The three 19th-century Town styles covered in this article went on to gain global recognition and contributed a ground-breaking artistic direction, seamlessly combining Courtly refinement and village spontaneity.
Bijar (Bidjar): Bijar carpets are often referred to as the “iron rugs” of Persia, due to their exceptionally high level of craftsmanship. 19th-century Bijar weavers were known for working with a very high-quality wool and adding additional weft, pounding down the knots as the wove, creating an amazingly sturdy heavy wool foundation that would withstand up to 200 years of heavy use.
Bijar (Bidjar) carpets are also distinguished by exceptional artistry, with the finest area sized rugs being referred to as “Halvai” Bijars (Bidjar). Common motifs used in Bijar (Bidjar) weaving includes detailed “Mina khani” and “Herati” repeating designs, a diamond-shaped medallion, and an anchor-like design as the pendant motif. Bijars (Bidjar) can also be found that use stylized flower and vinery motifs, with “Garrus” and “Guli Farang” carpets being particularly sought after.
To view a selection of antique Bijar (Bidjar) rugs in the gallery, click here.
Ferahan Sarouks: Ferahan Sarouks were one of the most highly sought after rugs of the 19th century, typically commissioned by a wealthy aristocratic clientele. After appearing in the Vienna Exhibit in 1873, Ferahan carpets caught the interest of a European clientele, who started seeking out and commissioning Ferahan and Ferahan Sarouk carpets.
Refined floral motifs dominate, with patterns showing a level of creativity and asymmetry not commonly seen in formal and semi-formal rugs of the 19th century. The use of color in Ferahan and Ferahan Sarouk rugs is another distinctive feature, as weavers worked with an expanded spectrum of vegetable dyed tones. A saturated midnight indigo shade was a specialty of the region, skillfully used to balance and accentuate the refined Ferahan color palette. Rare green tones are also frequently found in the best of Ferahan antique rugs, ranging from a delicate soft celadon up to the boldest and deepest of forest greens. The color artistry continues with the use of abrash in many high-end rugs, a technique that creates natural color gradients.
To see more of these extraordinary antique Ferahan and Ferahan Sarouk rugs in the gallery, click here.
Sultanabad: Sultanabad carpets are amongst the most desirable types of 19th-century weaving styles, the product of a cottage industry that were commonly woven by families. They are known for unique interpretations of classical Persian all-over patterns. The most frequently seen patterns are the repeating circular flowerheads of the Mina Khani, Herati with the diamond and curling leaf, and Harshang, a stylized interpretation of the dragon and blossom design. More rarely seen is the Garden of Paradise, or Mustafavi, design, which is highly in demand by connoisseurs.
Sultanabad carpets will typically have a thicker pile and more moderate weave than other rugs featured in this category, but the playfulness and creativity displayed in the rugs elevate them to a higher level. There are two subgroups of Sultanabad carpets, the “Ivory Sultanabads” known for their luminous neutral grounds made of undyed sheep’s wool, and Zeigler Sultanabads. Zeigler Sultanabads were commissioned by a Swiss-English group for export to the European market, and feature a finer weave and thinner handle, as well as a color palette and stylized design that appeals to a Western aesthetic.
To view a diverse gallery of beautiful Sultanabad antique rugs, click here.
Mahal: Mahal carpets are a subgroup of rugs from the Sultanabad region. These rugs are in high demand for their spacious allover designs, coveted (for their versatility and casual elegance) by interior designers and connoisseurs. Mahal are most often loosely woven carpets, with a floppy handle and cotton foundations.
Though the majority of 19th century Mahal carpets are of medium quality when compared to their more exalted Sultanabad cousins, these versatile rugs nevertheless maintain a generally high baseline of quality where natural dyes and soft, lustrous wool are used, permitting their ready use throughout the home, particularly in more heavily trafficked interior spaces. Occasionally, very beautiful, artistically inspired Mahals were also produced with a subtle attention to balance, color and design that is the equal to any of the very best carpets from the Arak region.
To browse a selection of exquisite antique Mahal carpets in the gallery, click here.
Senneh: Senneh was one of the most famous carpet weaving centers of the 19th century, known for the high quality of the rugs produced, which were fine examples of both virtuoso weaving techniques and exceptional artistic composition. Unlike many other weaving regions where the Persian knot was traditional, Senneh weavers almost exclusively used the Turkish, or Ghiordes, knot to produce one of the finest single-wefted weaves seen in antique Persian carpets.
Weavers in Senneh used a diverse palette of natural dyes and emphasized harmony in the colors selected for each rug, resulting in graceful pieces with soft, complimentary tones throughout. The Herati design and boteh are commonly seen in Senneh rugs.
See which of these rare, enrapturing antique Senneh rugs are available here, in the gallery.
Joshegan: Antique Joshegan carpets are among the easiest of 19th-century Persian weavings to identify because of their iconic, instantly recognizable designs.
All Joshegans share a universal geometric pattern based on stylized bouquets arranged in interconnecting diamond shapes. This characteristic pattern, produced for at least 250 years, is typically supported by intensely saturated madder or indigo dyes. This semi-formal town style bears a very heavy, stiff handle that adds greatly to its durability.
To view a selection of antique Joshegan rugs in the gallery, click here.
Seraband: 19th-century Seraband carpets are rarely encountered, being produced in relatively small numbers during the antique period. The style tends to favor saturated red fields with repeating boteh (“seed of life”) designs as their central theme. These very small, densely patterned motifs are arranged within the reserve with a strong linear orientation. Borders typically feature the traditional meandering vine and flowerhead design with the characteristic boteh pattern interspersed amidst the vinery segments. These sections are frequently based upon a soft ivory ground.
To browse a selection of exquisite antique Seraband carpets in the gallery, click here.
Samarkand: Samarkand is a town rug that bridges the gap between weaving traditions of the Central Asian steppe, including Turkoman, and those of China. Antique Samarkands present a more colorful, stylized design than what is typically found in Persian weaving, with intense saturation and spacious, open expanses of color frequently used. Chinese red and golden yellow tones are often present, revealing Turkish and Chinese influences.
Lotus, cloudband and pomegranate motifs are occasionally encountered as symbolic motifs. Samarkand carpets are known for a very supple handle, with a weave that ranges from coarse to medium-fine. 19th-century examples exist in both area and room size dimensions.
See which of these rare, enrapturing antique Samarkand rugs are available here, in the gallery.
See Our Entire Antique Town Rug Selection HERE