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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.

Rugs of the Lost Ark

by Horst Nitz

"When I was seventeen, it was a very good year", sung The Kingston Trio from the radio in the dashboard, and I wholeheartedly agreed. Now I was eighteen, and it was an even better year. The summer of 1966 saw me in a small band of friends roving the higher latitudes of Scandinavia in an old Volkswagen Beetle, enjoying life under the midnight sun and the company of nice Finnish girls. No thoughts of rugs at this time. But I had been working on it. The year before, in Belgrade, I had acquired my first kelim.

Back home Hannah Erdmann was pulling loose ends together of unfinished works and was writing the foreword to a posthumous publication of her husband Kurt Erdmann, former director of the Islamic Arts Department at the "Dahlem Museum" as it was called, in Berlin (West-). The book was published in the autumn (Erdmann K, 1966, Siebenhundert Jahre Orientteppich,. Busse Verlag, Herford; English Edition: 1970, Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets. Faber & Faber, London). It includes a chapter in which Erdmann undertakes a survey of the stock of oriental carpets in both Germanys that had survived WW II - not an inappropriate undertaking although it being twenty years after the war by now, considering that the Berlin Wall had been up only a few years, and cold war was going through an especially frosty period, restricting contact on most levels. One of the most outstanding pieces in this survey was the so-called "Synagogue Rug" in the Pergamon Museum in the East, being one of the oldest rugs in existence, being the oldest Spanish rug, dating to the 14th century or earlier and being the one and only known rug with a Torah Shrine motive. Before it was acquired for the museum by its founder Wilhelm Bode in 1880, it allegedly was kept in a Church in Tyrol/Austria. One wonders how it got there. A full account of it has been given by Friedrich Sarre, former director of the Islamic Art Department of the Berlin Museum (Sarre, F. & Flemming, E., 1930, A Fourteenth-Century Spanish Synagogue Carpet. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 56, pp 89-95). The rug is still there and open to visitors in the redecorated exhibition rooms of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, now hosting the reunited collections of both former Islamic Arts Departments.

The design represents a tree, from which rather thin stem branches spring off on either side, terminating in oversized blossoms, each representing a Torah Shrine.

01 The "Synagogue" Carpet, 303 x 94 cm, upper third

02 Detail

I quote from the early description by Wilhelm Bode in his "Handbook" (Bode, W., 1902, Vorderasiatische Knüpfteppiche, Leipzig). These (blossoms) are of a remarkable form. In the centre is a closed door surmounted by a pyramid; on either side is a hook-like leaf, much conventionalised, and angular in its outline; the interior of these figures is filled with a variety of small birds, stars, zigzag lines and similar ornamentation.” The border according to Sarre contains purely decorative Kufic characters meaningless in themselves. Bode refers to the peculiar method of knotting - unlike any other Oriental carpets - discussed in detail in the mentioned article by Sarre & Flemming and which gave rise to the term "Spanish Knot" (see below). In the form of the blossoms growing from the branches of the "Tree of Life", Sarre and Flemming perceive a decorative rendering of the Jewish "Ark of the Law": "The Aron-Ha-Kodesch", or holy shrine, which was (is) affixed to the chief wall of the synagogue, and contained (contains) the Rolls of the Law, enjoyed from remote antiquity the profoundest veneration. It always has the same form - a rectangular chest with double doors - each with four recessed panels - surmounted by a rectangular gable-end.

A full-size coloured image of the rug is depicted as plate 91 in Felton, A., 1997, Jewish Carpets, London.

The authors support their interpretation by relating the design to similar representations in architecture and decorative arts of the period, as well as to historic predecessors: the decorative marble slabs on the Great Mosque at Cordova (10th c.); a 10th or 11th century capital in the museum in Saragossa (B); a stucco ornament from the Casa de Mesa in Toledo, 14th or 15th c. (C); the mosaic pavement of the ancient synagogue at Bet Alfa in Palestine (D); on a door-post in the ruins of the synagogue at Tel Hûm, the ancient Capernaum; on figured gilt-glasses of the first centuries of our era (F); a picture of the Ark from a Pentateuch manuscript, presumably Egyptian of the middle of the tenth century, preserved in the State Library at St. Petersburg (E):

03 images of similar designs A - E

04 gilt glass F

The congruency of those designs of various origins and backgrounds is remarkable. It extends to details, which may easily escape one's perception, i.e. the three-piece construction of the floor in front of the shrine as depicted on the gilt-glass, and its very similar representation in the construction of the base of the blossoms in the carpet.

A few amendments on the observations and conclusion by Bode and Sarre seem appropriate.

It is a characteristic of the design of nearly all representations of the shrine that usually two or even three pentagonal constructions are boxed into one an other, as in the case of the carpet and the Pentateuch. As said, the Torah Shrine invariably comes with a pentagonal outline, many synagogues seem to have picked up this shape and show a pentagonal facade themselves, in this way demonstrating the principle. There also appears to be some confusion as to the significance of the Torah Shrine vs. The Ark of the Law or Ark of Covenant; the terms seem to be used interchangeably. The Torah Shrine is the most sacred space in any synagogue up to the present day. In it the Torah Rolls are kept from which members of the community read to the assembly. Usually the Torah Rolls are concealed from view by curtains. I don't know of any instance where a carpet has taken this function. Neither do doors seem to be a regular feature. On the other hand, not being a Jew myself, I have not seen many synagogues from the inside. The Torah Shrine on the gilt glass, looking much like a mixture of a cupboard and a temple, clearly contains objects that allow being associated with Torah Rolls. However, there are no rolls on the other images and, possibly, what looks like doors on them may really be something quite different.

The gilt glass dates to the 1st century AD, which is quite early in terms of the history of Torah Shrine as such. The representations on the rug and the Pentateuch and the Bet Alfa mosaic appear to stand in a much older tradition: that of the Ark of Covenant (5. Mos. 10, 1 ff). It has been suggested that the Torah Shrine is not the direct successor of the Ark of Covenant, after its disappearance from history in 6th century BC, although containing the Torah Rolls in much the same way as the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments were kept in the Ark, but the successor of the Second Temple. This could be the explanation for the "box principle" referred to before: in the synagogue (outer pentagonal box or shell) the Torah Shrine (second box/shell) modelled on the facade of the Temple (third box/shell), in it a representation of the Ark with two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

There may be another reading of the box principle. According to an entry in www.JewishEncyclopedia.com in the Rabbinical literature it is recorded "that Bezaeel made three arks which he put inside of one another. The outside and inside ones were made of gold ... while the middle one was of wood." This shows what it may have looked like in the fantasy of a later artist:

05 the Ark carried into the temple (Wikipedia)

A long time after the destruction of the First Temple (Solomon's Temple) by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the loss of the Ark, representations of the stone tablets appear to have gained a new meaning and have become "doors", possibly the representative doors of the later Second Temple.

The following images show representations of the stone tablets in different contexts:

06 in the Torah Shrine gable of an old synagogue, possibly Gibralter

07 on the facade of the Baroque synagogue of Lesko (Poland)

In the following part II of the original article, Ernst Flemming discusses the peculiar technique in which the carpet was being made (scan from the original article):

08 II Spanish Knot by Ernst Flemming

In the preparations for the "ORIENT" exhibition some years ago, the carpet had undergone restoration. Like some other early carpets, i.e. the "Ardabil" in the V & A (Victoria and Albert Museum) in London, it had been assembled from fragments of the same rug. This and other flaws had been put right in the course of restoration, slightly altering the carpet's measures.

Discussion  Proceed to Part 2