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Human Representation in Oriental Rugs by Marvin
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
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
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
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
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
Ford, P.R.J. The Oriental Carpet, 1989