“Oriental Rug” is a moniker used originally by Europeans when they became aware of and began to appreciate the art of handmade rugs across the Islamic world and beyond. Essentially, the term can be applied to rugs made in an area rug dealers call the Rug Belt, which spans North African rug producing countries, Middle Eastern countries, Central Asia, all the way east through India, Pakistan, China, and Tibet.
Oriental carpets are made using techniques, materials, and designs as varied as their countries of origin. They can be woven flat or with a pile using unique knotting techniques. Designs range from the simplistic Moroccan and Tibetan carpets to the most ornate Persian and Turkish rugs. Sizes range from the scale of a small notebook to carpets large enough for palace ballrooms. The range of Oriental carpets is so wide and eclectic that it must be broken down into individual regions and the characteristics that define rugs made in those regions or countries.
Persian rugs are arguably the most prominent of all floor coverings termed “Oriental rugs.” That is because Persian rugs are not only floor covering but works of art known for their rich natural colors and fantastical designs. They are made with organic wool, silk, and cotton and are dyed with natural coloring. The work and importance placed on high quality at every step of the process is instrumental in adding to the beauty of these rugs.
Intricate patterns that have evolved over centuries are a hallmark of Persian rug design. The majority of rugs made in Iran have floral detailing. Flowers and other botanical and natural elements make up the smallest details. However, the way to identify a rug’s town, city, or region of origin, which is how Persian rugs are identified, is to step back and look at the big picture.
The center medallion is an uber present feature. Many Persian carpets incorporate a central ornate element, a sort of chandelier of floor covering. Isfahan, Nain, Kashan, Kerman Tabriz, Mashad, are all examples of Persian rugs that very often have a center medallion. Medallions can vary and one of the most discreet and tasteful versions, the Mahi (elongated lozenge), is popular in very fine rugs made in Tabriz. By contrast, the circular or hexagonal medallion with protruding floral points and elements are typical of fine Isfahan and Nain rugs.
The second most prevalent persian rug design is the Allover pattern, so called because a single flower or paisley (also called a Boteh) shape is repeated on the majority of the carpet and framed by a border that esthetically unifies the Allover design. Another common Allover pattern is the Herati, which consists of four leaves for four corners accentuated by other understated floral elements and then repeated all over the rug.
Heriz and Tribal rugs utilize designs that are more geometric or abstract and look very different from their cousins from other Iran provinces. Yet in fact their base elements evolved from the natural world just like the more ornate Persian designs. Over centuries the rug weaving artists melded the designs created by artisans of the royal court with the designs often seen in practical carpets woven by nomads. The geometric shapes we see in Bakhtiar, Hamadan, Nahavand, and especially Heriz rugs are the product of this progression.
The most unique element in the hand crafting of Turkish rugs is the knot. Unlike any other carpet, Turkish rugs (sometimes called Anatolian) are made using a double knot, that is each strand of yarned loops twice through the weft. Although Turkish carpets can be made from wool, silk, cotton, or a blend of several materials, the most famous of Turkish carpets are made of all silk dyed with organic pigmented colors.
One of the most coveted and well-known hand knotted Turkish rugs is the Hereke, which were originally only produced in the coastal Turkish town of the same name. Hereke carpets are made predominantly of silk, wool, and cotton, sometimes with added gold and silver threads. The color palette for the Hereke rug evokes luminous warm light, amber, golden browns and luminous beige. The look is very sumptuous. The Flower of Seven Mountains is one of the most recognizable patterns, but the burucie and polonez patterns are also quite popular.
The best way to identify a Hereke Turkish rug is to search for the Hereke insignia at the outer edge of the foundation, in between the pile and the fringe.
Caucasian & Turkmen
The mountainous Caucasus region has been producing rugs since the 18th century. Nomadic rugs woven in this region feature bold geometric patterns. The distinctive tribal, sometimes primitive, designs often feature primary colors that pop. Originating countries for these popular collectible items are Dagestan, a country that lies along the Caspian Sea just east of Russia, Chechnya, Georgia, and north of Azerbaijan, another country that produces fantastic Caucasian rugs.
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan both lie on the opposite side of the Caspian and produce their own distinctive Caucasian rug. The Kazak rug is a more luxurious soft and luminous type of rug that was originally designed and woven for locations with high status, such as grand churches and palaces. Kazak rugs have risen in popularity in recent years because they pair so well with contemporary interiors. They have a soft sheen and simple patterns that lend style and cozy warmth to chic interiors.
The “Turkmen” rug was once one of the most popular designs, appreciated all over the globe. The “Bokhara,” as it was often called after the central Asian city of its origin, was easy to spot with its dark reds and distinct lozenge pattern. Weavers from Uzbekistan and Baluchestan updated the color palette to include softer colors like peach, beige, brown, and green, but remained loyal to the lozenge pattern.
Egypt is not known throughout the world for its Oriental Rugs. As a nation, Egypt was never drawn to the art of rug making. Although there are some fine examples of Egyptian rugs that date to the 16th and 17th century, it was not until imports from Iran were halted in 1952 after the Egyptian Revolution, that the country began making its own rugs with gusto. As such Egyptian rugs don’t necessarily have their own distinct look, but mimic Persian rug designs. Because the model for Egyptian weavers were Persian rugs, the Egyptian rug is woven using the unique asymmetrical knot that Persian weavers use, or the Senneh knot.
Egyptian rugs primarily borrow from Persian designs of Isfahan, Kerman, Qom, and Tabriz. Most are woven with wool on cotton, but there are some extraordinary silk pieces with high knot density to be found. The Egyptians often favor a bright luminous golden yellow as the dominant rug color. In fact, if you spot a fine silk hand knotted rug that features this sumptuous yellow, you just may be looking at an Egyptian rug even if it looks deceptively like a Persian carpet.
Another country that benefitted from Persian influence in the rug trade is India. Due to Persian migration and Indian appreciation for hand knotted fine Persian rugs, traditional rug makers in India place great importance on Persian designs, particularly those from Tabriz.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, India also produces thick simply designed rugs by hand. These practically solid colored Indian rugs, embellished sometimes with only a border in a shade slightly darker or lighter than the dominant color, are inspired by Tibetan rugs, another so-called “oriental rug.”
In Pakistan, weavers produce a wide range of rugs from carpets styled after the Persian designs of Gabbeh, Kashan, Mahal, and Sultanabad to Caucasian inspired Bokhara rugs and flat-woven Dhurrie rugs which are similar to Kilim carpets. But the most popular Pakistani hand knotted rug is without a doubt the Chobi, also called Ziegler, Oushak, and Peshawar. Chobi rugs are woven using handspun wool and natural dyes.
These gorgeous rugs seem to shine from within, illuminating rooms with warmth but never overpowering. They have become quite possibly the most popular non-Persian hand knotted rugs because they have taken Persian classical design and removed the factors that often do not appeal to contemporary customers— rich colors and busy design. The designs of popular Ziegler and Oushak rugs have been simplified and their colors muted. Pass by any hand knotted rug store and you’ll often see a Chobi hanging in the window.
Afghan rugs are hand woven carpets made in Afghanistan, mostly in the north and the western parts of the country. Afghan refugees outside the country, due to almost a century of practically continuous political turmoil , also produce rugs most notably in Pakistan and Iran. Some of the most beautiful and sought after Afghan rugs are made in western Afghanistan in the province of Herat. These oriental rugs are called Adraskan or Shindand.
Balouch prayer Afghan rugs are woven by the Balouch ethnic group who come from the south western part of Afghanistan. Afghan rugs are often quite dark in color. They use natural dyes and prefer dark browns and even blacks with deep dark reds. It’s possible the choice is borne of necessity to prevent dirt, dust, and discoloration that’s part and parcel of a nomadic lifestyle.
Rug weaving is art and art is usually an escape or a reflection of the world the artist has experienced. From the Soviet invasion in 1979 to 9/11 and US occupation, Afghan rug weavers have incorporated war imagery into these hand knotted floor coverings. Their experiences are recorded, reflecting death and the war apparatus, including most recently the depiction of drones. These Afghan rugs are referred to as War Rugs and are considered collectible items.
Almost all Moroccan rugs are handmade from start to finish. From shearing the wool, to washing and dying the wool, to weaving the rugs knot by knot, every step of the process is carried out manually. The techniques have evolved over the years, but derive from ancient knotting and weaving methods passed down over centuries from weaver to weaver. Another source of knot methodology for the Moroccans was brought in by the Persians in the 14th century.
The most popular Moroccan rugs seen in the west tend to be the thick pile hand knotted Berber and Beni Ourain rugs woven and used by Moroccans themselves, especially in the Atlas mountains. The thick heavy pile served them well in the cold winters, as they often used the carpets as bed coverings, sleeping mats, and saddle blankets. The thinner flat weave rugs are favored in the hotter Sahara desert regions of the country.
The demand for Moroccan rugs has exploded in recent years, but the gain in popularity actually began in the mid-20th century when modernist designers like Le Corbusier, Eames, and Mies van der Rohe fell in love with how these rugs complimented their sleekly designed furniture. Mid-century modern furniture pairs well with Moroccan rugs because the primitive simple designs in the rugs reflect the simple lines of the architecturally inspired furniture yet add a warm touch to offset the sometimes austere quality of modern interiors.
The most famous antique Oriental Carpet is the Pazyryk rug. It is one of the oldest rugs in the world, believed to have been woven between the 4th and the 3rd century BC. The rug was well preserved in ice in the grave of a Scythian nobleman in Kazakhstan when it was discovered in 1949. It is currently housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Although the exact origin is unknown, there are several theories. The images woven into the carpet reflect the Scythian culture. There are deer, gryphons, and most importantly people on horseback. Unfortunately, the images do not help in identifying the exact origin. Men and women across the Eurasian steppe were tremendously skilled horseback riders. Many were able to ride into battle standing atop their horses. Some scholars believe the Pazyryk rug to be Oghuz-Turkic. Others claim Armenian origin. Some say it is a Saka funeral piece made by the Iranic nomadic people who roamed the Eurasian plains from the Old Persian period to the Middle Persian period. Regardless of its origin, we are lucky to have found the Pazyryk Rug if only so that we know how far back the art of hand knotting rugs goes back. And how much more advanced their artistry was than once thought.