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Isfahan Rugs: Celebrated Works of Art

Isfahan rugs are quite possibly the finest rugs in the world, in terms of both beauty and quality. They are woven tightly with the highest quality soft “kork” wool and adorned with silk details. It’s no surprise they are so beautiful and fine considering where the carpets originate.

Born of Unparalleled Culture

Isfahan, or Esfahan as Persians call it, is the most culturally important city in Iran. Imam Square is the focal point of the city. Formed on each side by a mosque, a palace, a bazaar, and a school, it brings four necessary elements of society (government, worship, work, and education) together in harmony. 

Tradition is alive and interwoven with contemporary life in this city. Tourists and locals gather daily, walking the immense square, passing by traditional artisans hard at work. These artists work in plain sight on miniature paintings, copper molding, traditional printed tablecloths. This is, of course, one of the best places to see Isfahan rugs being made in person. The culture and beauty of the city gave rise to the well known phrase: Esfahan—nesfeh jahan. Isfahan—it’s half the world.

History of Isfahan Rugs

Shah Abbas the Great was an inspired King of the Safavid dynasty, and a great patron of the arts. He moved the capital of Persia from Qazvin to Isfahan and launched an artistic renaissance in the 16th century which gave rise to “The Golden Age of Persian Weaving.”

Shah Abbas commissioned extraordinarily fine large rugs, incredible works of art that allowed carpet weaving to flourish. During this golden age, designers of Shah Abbas the Great’s court introduced more curvilinear floral patterns, along with arabesque, scroll, vines, vase, and hunting motifs. Designs inspired by nature, architecture and artisanal works flourished in the city at this time. The trade diminished during the Afghan invasion in the 1700s, but re-emerged later and became celebrated once again.

Famous Antique Rugs

The world famous Polonaise (or Polish) rugs which incorporate real silver and gold thread were woven in Isfahan. Despite their moniker, they are not Polish. A Polonaise Safavid era Isfahan measuring only 5ft3in x 3ft6in sold for a whopping $4.3 million at Sotheby’s in 2009. Some of the world’s most coveted rugs hail from Isfahan and date back to the 17th century. 

When it comes to fine Isfahan rugs though, they don’t have to be antiques to fetch a pretty penny. Even new Isfahan rugs by contemporary masters can cost anywhere from $7000 for a small rug to hundreds of thousands. It all depends on the size and knots per square inch. These works of art are so precious that some collectors refuse to put them under foot. They prefer to hang them on their walls. 

Structure and Weave of Isfahan Rugs

Isfahan carpet weavers use exceptional quality “kork” lamb’s wool for the pile. The pile is then clipped low, creating a dense, thin rug. Isfahan rugs are also among the few Persian rugs which consistently use silk in the weave for accent details.

The density of the weave is also much greater than tribal and other regional rugs. While other rugs star at a minimum of 120 knots per square inch (kpsi), the average knot density of an Isfahan rug is 500 to 700 kpsi. The finest Isfahan rugs can reach a density of up to 25,000 kpsi! This high-density weave is made possible because most Isfahan rugs are woven on a silk foundation, rather than the more common cotton foundation of other rugs. Silk is more delicate than cotton, allowing weavers to tie thinner, tighter knots. The density, quality, and the additional draw of jewel-toned natural dyes create one of a kind collectible pieces. Famous weavers of the city are led by the Seirafian family and their workshops.

Design and Color of Isfahan Rugs

At the outset of Isfahan’s re-emergence as the carpet center for upmarket quality Persian rugs, most rugs incorporated traditional motifs. These designs were inspired by the architectural compositions and tile patterns that decorated the historical buildings in the city. Designers were also inspired by nature, evident in the curvilinear floral patterns, vines and pastoral scenes. They were particularly fond of scenes depicting fauna. Less tangible inspiration came from intellectual and spiritual sources such as the great poets of Persia. Sometimes carpets were even inscribed with well known stanzas of the poets Hafez, Rumi, and Attar. Of course they were also inspired by religious or spiritual motifs that are deeply ingrained in the culture, most often applied to the artistry of prayer rugs. 

Classical and contemporary Isfahan carpets are extremely attractive. The recent shift towards a more subdued palette, through the elimination of strong reds, makes these rugs more compatible with Western decorative schemes. In contemporary pieces the color combinations now favor either more pastels, or dark, subdued autumnal tones. Common designs include Shah Abbas, Vases, Tree of Life patterns, and pictorial scenes. Still, traditionalists continue to produce the popular composition of a circular central medallion set against a field of intricately intertwined floral and vine designs.

It is hard for other rug producing regions to outdo Isfahan in the realms of design, quality, luminosity or creativity. Most don’t even try.

Contemporary Use

Thanks to their beautiful craftsmanship, Isfahan rugs never go out of style. As expected, they pair well with furnishings in classic homes with traditional interiors. They can serve as a focal point in understated rooms or in harmony with richly designed opulent spaces filled with antiques and other patterns. An Isfahan can add a touch of theatricality to otherwise low-key rooms like a monochromatic bathroom or a simple office. While the subdued pastels of more contemporary Isfahan rugs can provide a gorgeous counterpoint to spaces with stark minimalist design. If the piece in question is particularly fine, possibly depicting a pictorial of forest animals and foliage, some collectors prefer to hang the rug on the wall. An Isfahan rug is a work of art, after all.

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