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Walter B. Denny
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Carpet weaving constitutes one of the most well-known Islamic art forms, whether manifested in the more familiar knotted-pile carpets or the larger variety of flat-woven examples. The heavy textiles we know as Islamic rugs or carpets are found in a geographic “rug belt” usually characterized by a dry and temperate climate, an abundance of marginal grazing land, and nomadic or seminomadic pastoral traditions. The rugs are usually destined to be used in the form in which they left the loom; they are woven from Morocco in the west to northern India and western China in the east. Carpets were traditionally woven and used in all levels of Islamic society: court carpets were unique creations made singly or in pairs for the palace; commercial carpets were woven in workshops and sold in urban bazaars; village and nomadic carpets served the domestic needs of their makers, and were also made and sold as a source of cash.

In one sense, because of their social embeddedness, carpets are among the most unchanging of Islamic art forms; yet because of their popularity in urban and Western markets, carpets are also subject to influence from outside Islamic society. Carpets woven in the central Islamic lands in the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries exemplify a classical age that has continued to influence carpet weaving in subsequent centuries. The four most important historical Islamic carpet-weaving traditions are those of Anatolia, Iran, Transcaucasia, and Turkic Central Asia, with other production found in the Balkans, the Maghrib, greater Syria, Egypt, and northern India.

Anatolian Carpets.

Of all Islamic carpet weaving, the tradition of the heartland of the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) can be most fully documented since the fourteenth century. Early Anatolian carpets were exported to Europe and were extensively depicted in European paintings from the fifteenth century onward; today scholars use the names of painters such as Holbein, Lotto, and Memling to denote early classical carpet patterns. Like almost all Anatolian carpets woven since that time, these carpets use counterclockwise or z-spun wool for warp and weft and employ a symmetrical knot in the pile; their designs have continued to influence local Turkish weaving to the present day. The earliest Anatolian carpets share some aspects of design and layout with those of northwest Iran, Syria, and Egypt; in the later sixteenth century the Ottoman court began to commission carpets from Egyptian weavers that incorporated designs by Istanbul court artists. These are identifiable by their clockwise or s-spun wool, asymmetrical knot, and insect-based red dyes. After 1480 much of the commercial weaving in Anatolia was based in the western region of Uşak, and employed traditional Anatolian dyes and weaving structure in large carpets with distinctive curvilinear designs from classical Ottoman court art, which differed markedly from the then prevailing geometric designs rooted in a distant Turkic past.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century Anatolian carpet production was in decline, in part because of a shrinking market in Europe. Over the nineteenth century, Anatolian handwoven carpet production gradually increased, because of the wide-scale use of the putting-out system (which enabled women, the traditional nomadic and village weavers, to participate in commercial production from their homes), but also, in the case of larger carpets, to the growth of urban weaving factories. Demand for the more traditional village carpets also increased over the century, and the carpets associated with the areas of Milâs, Bergama, and the northwest Anatolian coast, with Mucur, Karapınar, Kırşehir and Lâdik in the west-central Anatolian plain, were produced in ever-increasing numbers. New commercial centers of manufacture such as Kayseri, Bandırma, and Gördes, in central, northwestern, and western Anatolia, produced small seccade (Ar. and Pers., sajjādah) or prayer rugs (around 1.5 x 1 m or 5 ½ x 3 ½ feet), sometimes reflecting European taste, for foreign markets. In 1843, the Hereke factory on the Marmara Sea near Istanbul was founded by imperial decree and in 1891 began producing pile carpets in a variety of traditional and Persianized designs. Sometime after 1860, commercial aniline dyestuffs from Europe flooded Anatolia and quickly replaced some of the more laborious traditional dyeing methods used for carpet yarn. The aniline blight affected several generations of Turkish carpets, producing colors that often faded or ran in washing; later carpets employed wool dyed with modern chromium dyes, whose colors were permanent but often harsh and alien to Anatolian traditions.

The fortunes of Anatolian carpet weaving waxed and waned with the fluctuations of taste and economy in the twentieth century; the Turkish War of Independence (1919–1923) resulted in massive population dislocations around traditional rug weaving centers in west and central Anatolia, and consequently affected carpet production, as newer immigrants, refugees from political turmoil in Transcaucasia and the Balkans, resettled in Anatolia, often bringing their own carpet-weaving traditions with them. The growth of serious carpet collecting in Europe in the late nineteenth century, and the establishment of new museums devoted to carpets in Turkey, helped to maintain respect for earlier weaving traditions, but by the 1960s new carpets woven in Turkey were in large part mere shadows of their artistic ancestors, and the fashion for broadloom carpets in the West had significantly reduced exports.

By the 1970s, an explosion in collector interest in early Turkish carpets in Europe and North America resulted in new museum exhibitions and very high prices for fine early examples. In Turkey, a revival of traditional dyeing methods and a concomitant return to traditional carpet designs were supported by the growth of government-sponsored cooperatives such as the DOBAG project (the Turkish acronym for Natural Dye Research and Development Project), centered in two western Anatolian weaving areas; free market imitators quickly followed. Turkish and foreign scholars produced a flood of publications on traditional carpet weaving, carpets were more prominently featured in the Islamic departments of Western museums, and in Istanbul two new museums devoted to pile and flat-woven carpets were opened by the Directorate of Pious Foundations. By the turn of the twenty-first century the Turkish carpet industry was producing carpets of markedly improved quality in record quantities, fueled by new interior design tastes, collector interest, and increasing tourism.


The designs and layouts of Transcaucasian carpet weaving can largely be traced to earlier Anatolian and Persian prototypes, and to the large seventeenth-century commercial “dragon carpets” and floral carpets with stylized designs based on Persian proto-types that were probably woven in urban centers on the west Caspian littoral. Like Anatolian carpets, most Transcaucasian carpets are primarily woven with z-spun wool warp, weft, and pile, and employ the symmetrical knot. Surviving examples, the earliest dating to the seventeenth century, allow art historians to posit a continuous tradition of commercial and village weaving over almost four hundred years, that in its rich diversity reflects the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic mixture of Transcaucasia.

While local traditions of village weaving apparently endured through the nineteenth century, resulting in a limited production of small carpets in traditional designs, it was in the mid- to later-nineteenth century that a marked increase in production occurred, primarily of carpets in sajjadah and other smaller formats. These carpets, many destined for export, pose special historical problems arising from the patchwork nature of ethnicities and cultures in Transcaucasia. Documents indicate that the majority of weavers were Muslim, while the functions of dyeing, marketing, and a good deal of local patronage came from the prosperous Armenian communities of the south Caucasus. Around 1900 production apparently reached its zenith, with large numbers of carpets—many with aniline dyes or whose colors had been chemically altered—reaching markets in Europe and the United States. A revival of weaving in traditional designs occurred after Sovietization in the 1920s, probably in an attempt to gain foreign exchange through sales in Europe. With the publication of Ulrich Schürmannʾs book on Trancaucasian carpets in the 1960s, Western collectors turned their attention to Caucasian carpets preserved in Europe and the United States with great enthusiasm. With the collapse of the Soviet Union a new wave of older carpets, including some relatively unknown types, reached Western markets. The national governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have recently promoted the study of older carpets, and institutes for carpet design and production exist in both states.


For well over a century the great classical court and commercial carpets produced in Iran under the Ṣafavids in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been prized by museums and collectors throughout the world. The large medallion carpets associated with earlier Ṣafavid rule, the spectacular carpets with figural designs and silk pile thought to come from sixteenth-century Kāshān, the so-called “vase-technique” carpets now associated with Kermān in the seventeenth century, and the “Polonaise” carpets with their silk pile and brocading in precious metals, have long been the most prestigious of “oriental” carpets in both East and West.

It was once believed that with the fall of the Ṣafavid dynasty in 1732, the Iranian carpet tradition virtually collapsed, only to revive, partially under foreign stimulus, in the 1880s. New research has proven the “black hole” in Iranian carpet weaving between 1740 and 1880 to be largely a fiction; despite overall weakness in the Iranian economy, the local weaving traditions of Iran continued in the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries. In the later nineteenth century, Iran experienced a revival in carpet making that once again brought Iranian weaving tradition to international prominence. By 1880 merchants from Tabrīz, joined by foreign entrepreneurs, increased production of commercial carpets in Iran, stimulated by the same European and North American markets that had supported increased production in Anatolia and Transcaucasia at the same time. By adapting the old Iranian traditions of weaving large, regularly-woven, intricately-designed carpets whose multiple-plied cotton warps and carefully supervised production made them lie flat and four-square on floors, in new sizes suitable for the proportions of European and American middle-class living and dining rooms, hallways, foyers, and bedrooms, the new entrepreneurs quickly created a huge market for Iranian carpets. Companies such as OCM (Oriental Carpet Manufacturers) and Ziegler, based in Europe, controlled urban weaving factories in many Iranian cities, and operated their own design ateliers. Looms were built and placed in the homes of village and urban weavers, allowing women to participate in the commercial weaving process.

By the early twentieth century, the urban looms of Kāshān, Tabrīz, Kermān, and Mashhad were producing finely-woven carpets with intricate designs, while weaving centers in the Kurdish areas of Bijar and Sanandaj, in the Arāk district with its Feraghan and Sarouk production, and in Tabrīz, Heriz, and Serab weaving areas of northwestern Iran, all produced distinctive local products that sold well.

Iranian tribal weaving, especially that centered in Fars in southern Iran (Qashqai, Afshar, and Khamseh carpets) and Azerbaijan (Shahsevan carpets) largely kept to old traditions through the nineteenth century, and the best pieces today command high respect, and prices, in world markets.

The flight abroad of many carpet merchants and their inventories in the late 1970s, large inventories of Iranian rugs in European dealer warehouses, and a porous Iran-Turkey border, kept Iranian rugs in a prominent place in Western markets after the Iranian revolution. By the 1990s, the government of the Islamic Republic began to support carpet exports and invited foreign collectors and dealers to attend international trade fairs and carpet conferences in Iran. A revival of traditional dyeing, and the promotion of formerly neglected genres of carpets, such as gabbeh with bold geometric designs, have contributed to a new dimension of interest in Iranian carpets.

Central Asia and India.

The Turkmen peoples of Central Asia have probably woven carpets for well over a millennium, but these carpets appear to have been almost totally produced for their own consumption, and thus examples of Turkmen weaving generally thought to date from before 1800 are rare. In the nineteenth century, the six major Turkmen rug-weaving tribes—the Salor, Saryk, Yomut, Chaudor, Tekke, and Ersari—experienced political and economic change with the expansion of the Russian empire, turmoil in Afghanistan and Iran, and intertribal conflict in Central Asia. Traditional Turkmen tribal carpets woven before the middle of the nineteenth century, usually constructed completely of wool with occasional accents of silk or cotton used in certain tribal groups, are distinguished by designs and techniques emblematic of particular tribes and subtribes, and by a wide variety of genres, such as camel-trappings, decorations for tent architecture, and bags used for various utilitarian purposes, as well as carpets for floor use. The predominating dyestuff found in Turkmen carpets is madder (Rubia tinctorum, a Eurasian herb), giving a variety of reds and red-browns from scarlet to mahogany. Misnamed “Bukhara” in the marketplace, the red rugs of Central Asia began to migrate to Western markets in the late nineteenth century. Today the older examples are widely sought after by collectors, while traditional Turkmen nomadic carpet designs have been appropriated by commercial weavers from across the rug-weaving world; the cotton-warped examples from Pakistan are perhaps the best known.

The Mughal dynasty in the Indian subcontinent, itself of Central Asian and Turkic origin, fostered a classical carpet-weaving culture in northern India in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and a weaving tradition continues in the subcontinent today, especially in Kashmir. The Mughal carpets of the classical age include examples of prodigious size and unprecedented fineness of knotting, and are highly prized by museums and collectors; their relationship to the weaving traditions of Iran has led to serious questions of provenance in certain groups of seventeenth-century classical carpets in particular.

Carpets, Culture, and Economy.

As Islamic nation-states attempt to find living expressions of their cultural identity, as Western museums and collectors expand their notions of what constitutes art and what constitutes the legitimate subject of a collectorʾs interest, and as an eclectic and historically conscious aesthetic of interior decoration flourishes in the early twenty-first century, many parts of the Islamic world are witnessing an increase in carpet production, against all predictions made in the early 1970s by carpet historians. This phenomenon has been fueled by the economic needs of oil-poor Third World Islamic nations, the rise in global tourism, the growing appreciation of Islamic art in the West, and most of all an informed appreciation of national cultural traditions in the Islamic world itself. At the same time, carpet weaving has often tended to migrate to nontraditional locations such as China, where cheap labor, or the need for foreign exchange, have allowed production at low cost. The taste for antique carpets has also led to new weavings that are artificially aged by chemical or physical means to imitate older carpets, and to a new generation of highly sophisticated forgeries meant to deceive collectors and museums. At the same time scholarly interest is increasing, and the pendulum of decorating taste has for the time being swung toward appreciation of one-of-a-kind handwoven carpets from the Islamic world. In the face of profound social and economic change, the long-term survival of the Islamic carpet, as both artistic and economic production, continues to remain a matter for speculation.



  • Brueggemann, Werner, and Harald Boehmer. Rugs of the Peasants and Nomads of Anatolia. Munich, 1983. A classic survey of traditional Anatolian carpets, their culture, weaving and dyestuffs.
  • Denny, Walter B.The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets. Washington, D.C., and London, 2002. A summary of current thinking on the origins of early Anatolian carpets and their impact on later weaving.
  • Eiland, Murray. Oriental Rugs: A New Comprehensive Guide. Revised and expanded edition. Boston, 1981. Still the standard “rug manual” for more recent carpets.
  • Ford, P.R.J. Oriental Carpet Design: a Guide to Traditional Motifs, Patterns, and Symbols. Thames and Hudson, 2008.
  • Mackie, Louise, and Jon Thompson, eds.Turkmen: Tribal Carpets and Traditions. Washington, D.C., 1980. An exhibition catalogue, and the most important publication on Turkmen carpets.
  • Schürmann, Ulrich. Caucasian Rugs. International edition. Munich, 1963. A basic classification of village weaving from Transcaucasia.
  • Thompson, Jon. Oriental Carpets from the Tents, Cottages, and Workshops of Asia. New York, 1988. The best general introduction to the medium of carpets and their place in traditional and modern Islamic culture.
  • Thompson, Jon. Milestones in the History of Carpets. Milan, 2007. A far-ranging enquiry into carpets of the classical age and their legacy.
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