How to Read Hidden Secrets of Islamic Carpets

When you look at a oriental carpet why is it you feel mesmerised and a deep feeling of happiness? Are they just aesthetically pleasing or is there a deeper story in their design and where the craftsmen trying to tell us something? An important concept to understand is that for the craftsmen of these carpets there was no strong distinction between art and science or sense and the spirit. It is a sensual experience with spiritual meaning that we are meant to use, by gazing and touching, to improve and refine the quality of our perception.

You can be forgiven for thinking I’m going too far…stay with me and lets begin by considering the history of carpets first.

How to know the history of a Carpet

Generally it is accepted that the oldest knotted carpet was woven in what is now Turkey in the 14th century A.D. — mostly around Anatolia. Although there are older carpet remains which have been found in excavations dating back to the sixth century in countries that cradle the Mediterranean basin.

A typical Turkish carpet from from the fourteenth century is shown below in Figure 1. These carpets were heavily geometric in nature and are considered brilliant and lively due to their use of the colour red. The people who made these were nomads who settled in areas around Anatolia. There is repetition in their designs.

Firstly, there is what seems to be a small geometric medallion that is surrounded by a white band that ties itself using eight knots. These medallions were carefully designed separately and then actually into the carpet.

The secondary motif is placed on a red background and is also geometric. it is made of a white interlace braid. These carpets are angular and geometric and would typically be quite large carpets.


typical Turkish carpet from from the fourteenth century

The Revolution in Carpet Designs

It is thought that around the 15th century carpet makers in Anatolia and Iran really started to make changes to their designs: curved patterns and designs were introduced. It is believed they were influenced by architectural designs and other artistic media such as book pages which were illuminated by a variety of patterns. The curved designs were achieved by (1) increasing the fineness of the weaving (consider this as the resolution of the carpet similar to dots per inch) and (2) by making the individual motifs much bigger. This is exemplified in Figure 2 which shows the Star Ushak carpet from the 16th century with the curved designs around the motifs.

fresh coloured carpet

The revolution of carpet design was made possible by four changes in the technical and social environment of the times. First, the yarn material itself was changing as silks and finer wool was introduced which allowed the resolution of the carpet to further change. Prior to this revolution, the carpet knot density was found to be no more than 120 knots per square inch and were fairly easy to find. Now it was possible to produce carpets close to 2,000 knots per square inch; although, more commonly thiswas 400 to 500 knots per square inch.

The second major change of that time was a taste for large sized carpets: they were seen as a sign of wealth and prestige. As a consequence, the designs on the carpets could be perceived to the naked eye as more curved, a close up of the carpet designs is shown in detail in Figure 3. The entrepreneurs in Anatolia and Egypt initialised production of large sized carpets for sale in the domestic markets of the Ottoman Empire and to European markets.

Close up of the “Star Ushak” Carpet

The third innovation was the use of new materials in the yarns that are used to make the carpets. Fine wool, cashmere and silk were introduced which give the carpets a three dimensional feel. Depending on the angle they are viewed the colours change due to the reflection of the light.

Lastly, the impact of the crusades resulted in the unification of the Islamic world. This achieved by the success of the son of Ertugrul known as Osman I who crystalized the Ottoman Empire. Osman I was the grandson of Sulyeman Shah who fought Mongol invasions and crusading forces. The unification brought political stability and the expansion of the arts from North Africa to the Balkan regions. Its impact on the artisans, theologians and scientific studies can not be overstated.

The international commerce generated by the new revolutionary designs was significant and their export is well documented by European painters of the time. The carpets and Islam as a religion was poorly understood and this is strikingly illustrated by considering some of the most famous European paintings of the time: which included Islamic carpets. Figure 4 shows Mary and baby Jésus with a prayer rug at their feet, the prayer rug which has designs pointing to the holy Kaaba for Islamic prayer.

Painting The Virgin Mary is shown on an inlaid marble throne, with an Islamic prayer rug at her feet. The Christ Child holds a pomegranate, a symbol of the Passion.

Everyday Use of Tribal and Nomadic Carpets

There was a time when Western collectors and museums would turn their nose up at nomadic and village carpets simply because of the utilitarian uses. The women who made these rugs did so for the use in their daily lives and not typically for international commerce. The Europeans collectors were in it for the business and not the beat: even though the purpose of the carpet was domestic use they did not focus on the artistic beauty of the carpet itself. A particularly nice example is the Zaarshahi Carpet from Herat from Afghanistan as sold by delCalifa.

In actual fact the nomadic and village weaving developed its own traditions and characteristics which apart from serving the needs of the communities were vastly more complex than anything the commercial workshops produced.

Red Zaarshahi Carpet

Commercial and Court Designs

Carpets from 1500 to 1700 were often referred to as Islamic court carpets because their styles originated from the courts of their times. As opposed to villages the carpets where made in workshops often by men.

Elaborate Medallion Designs

The carpets from Iran are famous for the use of medallion designs. It is thought this design originated from bookbinding as shown in Figure 6.

16th century Anhalt carpet with large medallion design in the centre

In the Mughal era prayer rugs with with widespread use of flowers represent the islamic traditional symbol of Paradise as a flower garden. This in turn represented the Mughal fascination with botanical accuracy within art.

Carpets from Cairo

Reading carpets from Cairo presents an entirely different challenge. These are known as Cairene carpets and are known for their limited use of colours, fine designs, insect derived dyes of red, blue, green and some yellow. This is in sharp contrast to the carpets of Turkey which are more coarse and colourful. Plants and landscape are symbolic of Paradise.

Understanding Symbolism in Carpets

Searching for the hidden meaning in beauty can be both a frustrating and vastly rewarding exercise. The idea that designs and specific symbols actual mean something by having a deep impact to daily life and spiritual well being isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. Lets consider the symbolism in carpets…

Prayer Rugs

The arch in the prayer rug is like a niche in a mosque giving the direction to the Kaaba, giving muslims the way to position themselves when praying. The symbolism of this is that this is the gateway to Paradise. Also there may well be lamps in the rug which signify light from the divine. Such prayer rugs are sold across the muslim world for domestic use, Figure 7shows such a rug from the Codani Balouch by delCalifa in Barcelona.

Symbols in Persian Carpets

The peacock birds is often present in carpets from the 15th century onwards and is known as a symbol of Paradise in Islamic art. In particular the strong piercing call of the peacock is poetically interpreted as cry of sorrow over the human condition and expulsion from the garden of Paradise.

Auspicious Signs in Carpets

The symbol chintamani is found throughout designs in the Islamic world and is believed to guard against jealously, commonly called nazarlik in Turkish and functions to protect against “the glance of the evil eye”. It is used thought that somethings such as a child or a precious carpet could incite jealously and the attention of the mischievous spirit “the jinn” so it is commonly used to safeguard against this.

Example of chintamani motif found on this Ottoman carpet

Other auspicious symbols that may be found in carpets are hanging pendants or jewellery on carpets from Central Asia. There is much written about they beautiful meanings related to what is unseen, to be honest it is very deep and discussing in detail here would not serve the topic justice.

Domestic Life Shown in Carpets

We find nomadic carpets often show symbols of everyday life, this may be sheep, camels or even instruments she used. such as scissors and spindles. Humans can also be inserted into the designs with comical and amusing depictions of what might be the head of the tribe. There may also be examples of architecture such as fountains, mosques and shrines. These everyday symbols are secondary motifs inserted into the designs.

I hope this provides you a brief insight into how to read hidden secrets of Islamic carpets and why carpet designs mean something, by having a impact of our sensual understanding of the world we can see and not see.

It should be noted that geometrical designs using sacred numbers and proportions are not discussed as it deserves a much deeper discussion.

If you are interested in understanding more or seeing examples of handmade nomadic carpets then please feel to visit our shop in the historical centre of Barcelona La Galería del Califa.

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