Humans have an innate need and desire to be close to the natural world, especially plants and animals. This may be because more than 99 percent our evolutionary history was spent out in the wild. Yet the rise of cities in the last several centuries has meant more and more humans are isolated from the natural world. This is unfortunate because scientific evidence shows that a person’s well-being is closely linked to the amount of contact they have with the natural world. Humans are less stressed and more relaxed the more time they spend in nature.
In many parts of the Middle East, city planners noticed the decline in people’s mental and physical health centuries ago and began to rectify the problem through art and architecture. The construction of mosques, weaving of tapestries and rugs and other forms of art in the Middle East was partially aimed at bringing the serenity of nature to the spaces we occupy in cities. Rug weavers found inspiration in and brought the longed-for natural world into their designs. Beautiful florals and animal depictions grew in popularity.
The Garden and the Hunt
Aside from repeated floral designs, the two most common types of realistic, as opposed to abstract, depictions of wildlife and nature found in hand knotted carpets are the Tree of Life motif and Hunting scenes. In these two types of rugs, designers and weavers use animals and nature symbolically to represent prevalent ideas and values in their culture and origin, many of which relate to respect for nature, the human life cycle, and religion.
The Garden, also referred to as Tree of Life or Paradise motif, and the Hunt can be naturalistic or lean towards the mythical and abstract. Many rugs depict magical elements from tiny songbirds, often the nightingale in Persian rugs, to large majestic peacocks, lions, and even bears. Countless deer are often present as fish swim by in streams. Huntsmen mounted on muscular horses in motion jump over these streams as foxes look on.
In a Tree of Life motif, the tree or trees usually sprout from the base of the carpet field and branch out poetically to fill the rest of the “canvas” with leafy branches on which sit colorful delicate birds. More often than not there is a flowing stream with other animals strolling along its banks. Larger birds might sweep across the sky protecting or preying on the scene below. Alternatively, there can be a pool of water at which larger animals might drink and frolic. Tree of Life pictorials represent eternal life, on earth and in heaven. The symbolism is derived from many religions and evokes what is divine.
Symbols and Meanings
The elements of The Garden and The Hunt rugs can have profound or whimsical meaning. Tree of Life motifs signify truth and understanding as well as a path from Earth to Heaven. Birds are ubiquitous in many Persian rugs and as a whole represent power, happiness, and love. A resting eagle symbolizes honor and high principles. An eagle in flight is said to bring good fortune. A parrot touts evasion of danger and stands for protection while a peacock takes that concept to the highest level, symbolizing divine immortality and divine protection. Many also equate peacocks with nobility and royalty. Unfortunately, some birds do not portend good thing. Ravens and owls almost always represent bad luck and death.
Persian, Turkish, and Kurdish rugs are also rife with fish or “mahi.” Fish symbolize prosperity and good fortune. Camels represent strength and endurance. Scorpions, spiders, and other venomous creatures are also occasionally woven into the design and are said to protect their owner from destructive forces. In mythical portrayals of the Tree of Life there is often a dragon present, which represents wisdom and power, and serves as a guardian of the tree of life.
Hunting Scenes in Persian Rugs
Finely woven and highly detailed pictures of hunting scenes woven into the design of a Persian rug were originally only made for royals to represent the masculinity of Shahs, in contrast to the feminine florals of traditional rugs. We know the hunting scene design emerged at the latest in the mid-16th century because a fine example of it made in Kashan is on exhibit in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan. Animals depicted in hunting scenes includes not only horses and dogs, but also camels, deer, gazelle, elephants, rabbits, various birds, such as the peacock.
Hunting dogs indicate glory and honor. Many of the finest hunting pictorials have been made in Isfahan, Kashan, Kerman, Tabriz, and Qom. These rugs are almost always finely knotted ranging from 350 kpsi up to 700 kpsi. They are also highly valuable and owners generally do not place these rugs under foot but rather hang them up on walls as art.
Animal Motifs in non-Persian Rugs
Animals depicted in rugs made in North Africa, China, India, Eastern Europe and tribal rugs from around the world contain more figurative pictorials. These rug weaving cultures rely heavily on more abstract non-realistic designs. Rustic or nomadic carpets made by these cultures favor game animals, dogs, camels, horses, chickens, and insects. In the Caucasus, dragons represent immense power. Across cultures ram horns appear on tribal rugs to symbolize masculinity, strength, and heroism. The Phoenix personifies majesty and beauty in China and eternal life in India. The crane is sacred and the parrot is love.
The frog sometimes appears at the four corners of a pictorial rug made in India and is a harbinger of happiness. In Persian rugs ducks are the animal which herald happiness. Crocodiles seem to hold a special place with Moroccan rug weavers, often accompanied with the inscription “He is God.” Butterflies signify vanity in China, Cobra snakes denote wisdom in India, and the lion represents power everywhere. As one might expect, panthers, tigers, lions, leopards, and other wild dangerous animals appear often in pictorials because of the power, strength, and exalted place they occupy in the hierarchy of wildlife. Finally, a common scene contains animals fighting, either to represent the struggle of life, or the triumph of good over evil.
Whether Hunt pictorials are used to evoke masculinity and power in a space, or Garden pictorials to bring peace and serenity, the concrete jungles the majority of us live in today ache for nature. Hand knotted rugs are a great way to incorporate wildlife into our living spaces, especially if we don’t have green thumbs or even pets at home. These rugs can work well in modern spaces just as easily as in traditional spaces. A touch of the wild can add a whole lot of character to an otherwise conservative or simply furnished space.