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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Human Representation in Oriental Rugs by Marvin Amstey

The earliest rug known to show obvious human figures is the Pasyryk carpet with riders on horses as a major border. It is believed that this carpet is a sophisticated, "urban" product because of the fineness of its weave and the relatively correct resolution of corners. The tomb in which the carpet was found dates to the 5th c. BC; however, it is not known when or where the carpet was made. No other carpet with human figures is known until the 16th c. AD in Persia at the time of Shah Tahmasp. Surviving from that time are silk carpets with hunting scenes; one dated to 1542 in the Poldi Pazzoli museum and another, the Vienna Hunting carpet. Another carpet belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch in England is a medallion carpet from the 16th c. filled with cartouches of falconers, musicians and revelers. A mogul hunting carpet from the 16th c. can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and in the National gallery in Washington. Figure 2 illustrates a close-up of these human figures.

Following this period is the so-called Portuguese carpets from the 17th c. with Figure 3 clearly showing people in boats from a well-known example in Vienna.

Not until the late 19th c. do we find human representation to be so prominent in urban and court production in Persia. Here we find the so-called "famous people" rugs from Kerman, of which many exist, the Maggie and Jiggs rugs and court ordered pieces showing images of important shahs, ministers, governors, etc. from both Kerman and Tabriz. Also in the 19th and 20th c is a production of similar carpets with portraits seen from Sivas in Turkey.

Except for the examples given above, within Islamic countries, there are very few carpets showing human figures. It is this observation that prompts the introduction of this topic. The representation of human and other figures in art is forbidden to Muslims as stated in the sayings of the Prophet (hadith). It seems to me that the explanation for the non-observance of this in the 16th and 17th c. with figures depicted in famous classical carpets is simply the fact that a ruler can do what he wishes. All of these classical carpets mentioned above are court products, and an important leader can break the rules (is that what's happening in Washington?).

The explanation for the Kerman, Tabriz and Sivas productions at the turn of the 19th-20th c. may simply be a reiteration of the observation that commerce and religion do not mix. This is certainly true for the later 20th c. production from places such as Qum.

However, when we come to village and ethnographic carpets in the 18th and 19th c, the explanations are not so forthcoming. I own a Kurdish rug with an obvious male and female figure "dropped" into a field of many elements. There is a Kurdish saddle cover in a collection in this town with the only decoration being two couples - male and female - holding hands. A perusal of James Opie's Tribal Rugs turned up only 10 such examples; there are only two examples in his

Tribal Rugs of South Persia. Shurman's Caucasian Rugs illustrates only two rugs from Karadagh and Shirvan with human figures. Lastly, Brain MacDonald's Tribal Rugs: Treasures of the Black Tent show only three examples, one of which is figure 4. These are very few rugs among hundreds of illustrations.

I have slowly gone through my rather extensive library of rug books and find very few others. Conspicuous in the absence of human figures is 18th and 19th c. Turkish rugs (except Sivas) and Turkomen rugs. I do not believe that the differences in Islamic practices - Sunni, Shiite - account for the dearth of human figures in ethnographic rugs. The few that do exist are found in South Persian (Shia) and Kurdish (Sunni) production. Can anyone suggest other reasons for these observations? Another question that arises is based on the observation that when we do find the few examples of human figures in ethnographic rugs, they appear as stick figures or very primitive, two-dimensional figures. I do not believe that this is due to less-skilled weavers since there are many examples of these village and tribal production that have sophisticated drawing. What else accounts for the crudeness of the human figures?

Anyone with ideas, explanations, a better take on history or anthropology is welcome to correct my statements or add to them.


Bode, W. and Kuhnel, E Antique Tugs from the Near East, 4th ed. Translated By C. Ellis, 1970.

Schlosser, I. The Book of Rugs; Oriental and European, English translation,1963.

Ford, P.R.J. The Oriental Carpet, 1989

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