In traditional Islamic society, textiles and dress played a significantly greater socio-cultural role than in the western world. A crucial item of furnishing in the Islamic world, the carpet served not merely as a floor covering but as seating and bedding as well. Carpets were used in religious settings – prayer rugs and the multi-niche prayer carpets, or safs made for mosques – but also in political settings: the monarch held official audiences in a throne room richly embellished with textiles and carpets, and sometimes outside, either beneath a dais or a kiosk with fitted rugs or less formally, seated cross-legged on a small mat. Luxury textiles in the form of robes of honor (Arabic khil’a), bolts of silk cloth and fine carpets were routinely conferred as a mark of favor and as diplomatic gifts.
A vital trading commodity
The three empires were fortunate in inheriting a thriving weaving industry implanted in the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia at strategic sites along the Silk Road. The development of the textile industry was closely allied to the silk trade with China, home to sericulture.
Silk weaving requires the intervention of a highly skilled craftsman capable of operating a drawloom. Weavers enlarged their repertoire of techniques to include damask, velvet (solid cut pile and voided) and brocades, frequently couched in metal thread. Cloth of gold exercised a particular fascination on European merchants and adventurers, among whom two Frenchmen, Jean Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who wrote accounts of their travels in Persia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The textile trade was vital to the economic health of the entire region and an important source of tax revenue to the governments concerned. The Ottomans had for centuries dominated the export trade in woolen pile rugs to Europe, but they were dependent on their political rivals for their supply of raw silk and upon India for cotton fabrics. The Iranians had since antiquity imported from India cheap cotton stuffs and cash crops, from jute, raw cotton to entire cargoes of the precious red insect dye lâc. The Persians exported luxury goods to the Indian sub-continent, but they generated insufficient foreign currency to compensate for the quantity of imports, which meant that the Safavid government ran a permanent trade deficit with India.
The fifteenth century design revolution
The fifteenth century witnessed the emergence of a new iconography in carpet design, inspired by the arts of the book: floral motifs and fantastic animals such as the dragon, the phoenix and the vaq-vaq are clearly derived from manuscript illumination. Paradise garden carpets depict idealized spring landscapes peopled with mythical creatures. The animals prancing amid foliage on Chinese silks and porcelains were however transformed into ferocious animal combats: the dragon and phoenix or feng huang (Persian simurgh or rukh), auspicious creatures in the Chinese tradition, are shown fighting. The floral repertoire underwent a similar metamorphosis: while the lotus blossom was known to Islamic artists, new complex variants of the flower (incorrectly dubbed the “palmette”) were combined with spiral tendrils and foliage.
Intense political and cultural rivalry reigned between the royal houses, which competed for the services of the artists and craftsmen or captured them as spoils of war. When the Ottomans defeated the Shah in 1514, the booty included a thousand artisans from the Khurasan and various other provinces and thirty-eight Tabrizi artists and craftsmen, three of whom were weavers. A few decades later, the great Mughal emperor welcomed into his newly founded royal workshop émigré artists from Tabriz and Herat made redundant by Shah Tahmasp.
The carpet industry during the sixteenth and seventeenth century
By the early sixteenth century, carpet weaving had evolved into a highly complex and sophisticated craft. The weaving of intricate floral and figured carpets required the competence of a master craftsman, accustomed to handling the delicate fibers which permit a more compact weave and thus more intricate patterns. This included not only silk, but the wool from the Angora goat used by the Ottomans and the pashmina goat hair preferred by Mughal weavers. The tasks involved in the execution of court carpets evolved into two separate skills: the court artist on the one hand and the master weaver on the other, although a single individual sometimes cumulated both professions.
By the time the first Safavid shah acceded to the throne in 1501, carpetmaking was a well-developed industry in Iran. Important centers were located in Tabriz, Isfahan, Kashan, Yazd, Hamadan (former Susa), Kirman, Jawshaqan and Mashhad; Amul specialized in prayer rugs; Fasa, Darabjird and Kirkub in tapestry weaves. Iranian carpet art reached a rare degree of perfection during the reign of Shah Tahmasp. A pupil of Bihzad and Sultan Muhammad, the shah is recorded as being versed in the art of calligraphy and carpet design as well. Hunting scenes and episodes from the classics of Persian literature proved to be a fertile source of inspiration for pictorial designs on carpets and textiles alike. Religious and poetic inscriptions appear as a decorative motif. Poetry in the nasta’liq script, generally contained within repeating cartouches, frequently decorates the borders of so-called Salting rugs. Weavers sign their work more often than in the past.
The Anatolian Turks benefited from a long-established tradition of carpet-weaving. Important weaving centers such as the one in Konya, where the Lotto rug was probably made, remained active after the Ottoman capture of Istanbul. An imperial carpet weaving guild, the cemaat-i kaliçe bafan-i hassa is documented from the reign of Murad I (1451-1481). From this time, floral carpets in the saz style were woven in Turkey, either in Bursa, or more probably in Istanbul. The term “saz” is used to describe a pictorial and decorative style introduced by the painter Sahkulu around 1530, mixing feathery leaves with hatayi lotus flowers. The saz style is also detectable in certain Safavid carpets.
The Mughal carpet repertoire reflects the Iranian style, albeit more naturalistically interpreted. During the reigns of Shah Jahangir (1605-1627) and Shah Jahan (1627-1657), an indigenous floral style emerged which coexisted with the Persianate style. Indian artists excelled at naturalistic interpretations of nature. The Mughal floral style was also indebted to Europe, particularly the drawings of plants introduced by foreign visitors to the court. Similar in quality to velvet, the carpets made with pashmina goat hair in Lahore and Kashmir, like the shawls for which the latter city was justly famous, rank with the most aesthetically and technically accomplished weavings made anywhere.
Luxury fabrics for the court
Ottoman and Mughal weavings have often been confused with the Safavid examples; although this is still true of certain Safavid and Mughal pieces, recent research has shed light on the aesthetic and technical criteria proper to Ottoman textiles.
Most prized was the cloth of gold and silver (taqueté, Turkish serâser), made for the royal household. Among other grades of luxury silk fabrics were plain satin (atlas), lampas weave couched in metallic thread (kemha), plain velvet (kadife) and voided velvet couched in metal thread (çatma). Silk weaving centers were situated in metropolitan areas dotting the caravan route leading south to the major trading centers of Aleppo, Baghdad and Damascus, and later in Ottoman dominions in the Aegean and Tunisia. Istanbul was reputed for its embroideries and for brocaded silks produced in the imperial manufactory, while Bursa principally made fabrics for trade. The decorative repertoire refers more to abstract motifs such as the çintemani, variants on calligraphic script in addition to a wide range of floral patterns. The mid-sixteenth century corresponds to the emergence of the saz style. Kara Memi, inventor of the so-called “four flowers style”, incorporated artful arrangements of hyacinth sprigs, carnations, sprays of plum blossom and tulips, a flower indigenous to Anatolia, into meandering stem or ogival layouts.
Shah ‘Abbas I (1587-1629) initiated a series of reforms aimed at revolutionizing the textile industry. The shah made the production of silk into a royal monopoly and reorganized the imperial manufactories, or karkhaneh, which were encouraged to develop and diversify and export surplus. As a means of circumventing Ottoman hostility to Shia’ merchants, the shah forcibly displaced the Armenian community of Julfa to his new capital in Isfahan and having granted them the status of protected minority (dhimmi), charged them with transporting Persian merchandise overland to Europe. He also sought to subvert the power of Portuguese and Venetian traders by allowing two rival companies, the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to establish trading posts on Iranian soil, and by creating his own seaport, Bandar Abbas, on the Strait of Hormuz.
Pictorial textiles reflect new fashions at ‘Abbas’ court, characterized by the swaying figures of young women or plump male courtiers, identical to contemporary miniatures and ceramics. Rows of flowering plants or bushes with hovering butterflies or home to various species of birds, in particular the nightingale, are among favored new fabric layouts.
In addition to trade relations, the Persians maintained close diplomatic and intellectual ties with the Indian sub-continent. In 1549, artists from Tabriz and Herat integrated Emperor Humayun’s art academy. At the instigation of his successor, Akbar the Great (1556-1605) textile manufactories were founded in the emperor’s new capital at Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Lahore and Ahmedabad, with the aid of Persian weavers. Predictably, therefore, Mughal designers took their cue from the Persian Islamic repertoire. Indian textiles and carpets are sometimes so close aesthetically to their Safavid prototypes that a trained eye is required to distinguish them. Embassies were also exchanged with the Ottoman Empire, and indeed the brocaded velvets of Bursa are recorded as being among Akbar’s most prized possessions. Even so, the influence of Ottoman art on Mughal textiles is less overt than that of their near neighbors.
The fall of Isfahan in 1722 and the collapse of the Safavid dynasty in 1736 ushered in a period of anarchy. The skilled weavers and metal thread artisans died of starvation with the rest of the populace during the siege of the capital, taking their closely-guarded secrets with them.