What is an Oriental Rug?
The term ‘oriental rug’ can be a source of some confusion to those unfamiliar with the subject. It literally means a rug manufactured in the Orient, and could legitimately be applied to any rug of oriental origin, regardless of its appearance or hot i was made. In practice, however, the term is normally used only to describe hang-made rugs produced by traditional methods in the ancient weaving regions of persia (iran), Antolia (Turkey), Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Baluchistan, Turkestan, China, India, Pakistan, he Balkans and parts of North Africa.
This vast area – stretching from China to the Balkans and from India to the northern tip of the Caspian sea – is inhabited by peoples of infinitely diverse cultural, religious and ethnic origins, whose only common feature (apart from occupying territories along the old silk route to the east) seems to be their desire and ability to elevate rug-making from a functional craft o an expressive and deeply satisfying form of art.
It can be difficult for Westerners to appreciate the importance of weaving in the East. Among many nomadic tribal peoples it was often the only medium of creative release, and even in the more sophisticated cultures of Persia, China and Ottoman Turkey, weavings has always ranked alongside painting, architecture , sculpture and ceramics as a valid and celebrated visual art. A master weaver in Persia or Anatolia was held in the same esteem as we hold Rembrandt or Vermeer, and even today there are some textile artists whose reputation and status are equivalent to whose of an contemporary artist in the west.
Much of this veneration is due to the fact that rugs, in addition to there aesthetic value, have long been a integral part of thereligious experience of the Islamic world. Every good Muslim has his own special prayer rug, and Islamic religious symbolism is at the root of many of the most universal rug designs. It is for this reason that many experts prefer th expression ‘Islamic textile art’ when describing oriental rugs, despite the fact that many of the items covered by this description will certainly have been woven by non-Muslims and possess no trace of Islamic symbolism in their compositions. Nor does this expression take into account the element of Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and even Christian imagery found at the heart of manyrug designs.
It is quite probable that religious symbolism was once exclusive to each particular faith. But centuries of migration, conquest occupation, intermarriage, trade and cultural exchange – not to mention the tendency of artists to copy or reinterpret the most successful facets of other artists-work have been eroded much of this exclusivity. Today it is quite normal, and acceptable, for non-Muslims to weave prayer rugs purely for their schemes. This interchange of visual ideas permeates every facet of the weavers’s art and is one of the prime reasons why alloriental rugs , regardless of their compositional differences, oissess an underlying character that sets them apart from hand made rugs produced in other areas of the world.
By virtue of being hand-made, all oriental rugs can be said to be unique – a weaver, no matter how hard he or she tried to follow particular design, will invariably make small mistakes or innovations which will impart some individual flavour to the work but it is rare to encounter a rug in which the weaver gas consciously striven to express his own creative ideas at the expense of a traditional design.
New designs have of course evolved over the centuries, and will no doubt continue to do so, but the western passion for artistic freedom, novelty and personal expression is not shared by the textile artists of the East. It is perhaps because they are both unique and at the same time a faithful continuation of ancestral traditions that oriental rugs are objects of allure and fascination for the West.
In addition to their underlying similarities of character and appearance, oriental rugs are also defined by the manner in which they are made. They may be either ‘hand-woven’ or ‘hand-knotted’. The former are generally referred to as Kelims or Flatweaves, and are normally cheaper and less frequently encountered of the two types, or simply as rugs, and are generally regarded as the most important aesthetically satisfying manifestations of the oriental rug-maker’s art. They are usually very well made, and although there are always some relatively shoddy examples on the market, the vast majority and extremely durable; provided they are treated with a reasonable degree of care, they will last for many years. Evidence of this can be seen in the surprising number of items surviving from the late 19th and easily 20th centuries, which one could be forgiven for thinking where only a few decades old.
In summary, we can say that an oriental rug, in order to be truly authentic within the generally accepted meaning of the term, must be either hand-knotted or hand-woven, originate from one of the traditional weaving regions and also follow certain ancestral patterns of composition and design.
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