The Weight that Stands on Persian Rugs
United States – Iran Chamber of Commerce
April 1, 2022
One of the most notable and globally recognizable elements of Iranian culture is Persian textiles and handmade carpets. Persian rugs have been revered throughout history for their vibrancy, intricacy, and value. The centuries-old craft developed as an international trade as early as the 13th and 15th century C.E. Made with fine workmanship and artistry, Persian rugs have been displayed and appreciated in interiors around the world. They were traded to the far reaches of the Persian empire and beyond. These sought-after goods are in high demand by those who not only seek quality and functionality, but distinct one-of-a-kind works of art. Each region of Iran is known for its own style and pattern work with each rug style being named after the geographic proximity in which it was weaved. The various colors and geometry of the rugs identify where they were made and the symbolic heritage that they represent. The traditional Tabriz style, for example, is named after its city of origin and is known for its symmetry and uniformity. The Heriz style is known for its central medallion pattern, while Nain rugs feature more floral and bright-colored designs. Each style is unique and treasured for its individual detailing. These age-old styles have become synonymous with wealth and status in Iran and across the globe. Since the 12th century, Persian rugs have been a staple of the fine arts trade and a representation of luxury. The homes of nobility and the elite have featured Persian carpets since the early trade routes of the Silk Road enabled their spread across the known world. Traditionally, rugs are passed down as a familial heirloom and token of wealth and cultural identity in Iranian communities. To this day, Persian rugs can be seen in homes from Malibu to Muscat. They are so prevalent in our everyday lives that we are often unaware of their expansive reach. Through pop culture references, beneath the feet of our leaders, and in the homes of many citizens, Persian rugs are in many ways a part of who we are.
The practice of fine carpet weaving and its trade in present-day Iran dates back over 2,500 years to the Persian empire. The oldest known piece dates to the 5th century BCE and was discovered in Siberia in 1920 – an indication of how far-reaching and ancient the trade really is. The regional expanse of the Persian empire extended from modern-day Turkey all the way to the Indus River. Similar handmade practices have been sustained to the present day with deep roots in their Persian past. The craft is so historically significant that Persian carpet weaving is recognized by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. In modern-day, the industry employs over two million Iranians and is protected by national organizations such as The Iran National Carpet Center (INCC).
Traditional Persian rugs are woven with the finest sheep wool and silk which are spun and naturally dyed by hand. It can take years to make a single rug and can cost tens of thousands of dollars to the buyer. The most expensive Persian carpet ever sold was a 17th-century piece that sold at a 2013 Sotheby’s auction for $33.8 million. Each meter of material can take an individual artist over one month to produce. There are many styles of Persian rugs, with each having its own material, patterns, and weaving techniques. With a thick pile and rich reds and blues, Persian rugs feature jewel tones as well as beige and brown hues. Designs have a wide range of diversity, from geometric to floral, depending on what region or town they come from. The Persian craft of rug-making is highly revered because of the immense time, labor, and expertise it takes to produce a single piece. The art form has become a proudly recognizable symbol of Iran.
Persian carpets really began to pique interest in the western world under the Safavid dynasty and Shah Abbas the Great in the 17th century. Europe’s colonial interests sent out tradesmen who returned from the mystical land of Persia with great treasures. Persian fine goods became prominent in the West amid the Enlightenment period which brought attention to Iranian philosophy, poetry, and art. The world has become fascinated with Persian textiles ever since. In more recent history, the 1960s saw an explosion of paisley and other Iranian pattern-work in fashion and textiles. Musical legends such as the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with Persian carpets lining the stage. While commonly seen at department stores today, a large variety of paisley ties and blouses share their roots with Persian art and design. There are countless more examples of Persian textiles permeating the globe and being present in many aspects of our everyday lives.
III. The Presence of Persian Rugs in American Politics
Persian carpets are more prevalent than one might assume despite forty-three years of differences between the United States and Iran. Imagine what may line the living room floor of a wealthy American family, or the office of your local legislature. Maybe one is centered in your local historic library or a fancy hotel suite. These pieces hold more symbology and influence than your typical textile. Throughout history, Persian rugs have served as a token of the trade relationship between America and Iran. From the earliest beginnings of the American colonies, Persian rugs have been present. Some have even been proudly owned by America’s Founding Fathers. In fact, Persian rugs are at the very foundation of diplomatic relations between the US and Persia (it was only in 1935 when it was declared that “Iran” be used, not “Persia”). In the early 1900s, the newly appointed Ambassador to Persia was instructed to establish consulates in American cities in which there existed demands for Persian goods. Since there was little to no Iranian community in the States at the time, General Izhaq Khan Moffakham od-Dowleh turned to merchants of all races and backgrounds who operated in the rug or antique trade. For instance, Dikran Kelekian, an Armenian, turned his Fifth Avenue art gallery into the “Imperial Consulate of Persian in New York”; Alfonso Rutis, a Brazilian, was made consul-general for New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Persian rugs are present in our nation’s Capitol Building and the White House. Aristocratic elites have gifted them as diplomatic gestures. Handcrafted carpets have been used in trade relationships with world leaders throughout history and have been used as key tokens of international diplomacy. In 1876, for example, Nasir al-Din Shah gifted Queen Victoria of England thirteen fine carpets as a symbol of luck and good relations between the two powers. Today, these carpets are on display at London’s South Kensington Museum. Many of America’s foreign policy and political decisions have been announced while standing on a Persian carpet – even in recent years. During then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation of Iran, and a return to sanctions under the Trump Administration, many of his public remarks were ironically made while standing on a Persian carpet. He tweeted, “We discussed ways to address Iranian malign influence in the region, shared challenges the U.S. and Israel face[.]” and attached a photo of himself and a tribal patterned Kurdish rug in the same frame. It should be pointed out that the procurement of the rug itself could have been a violation of US economic sanctions – depending on when and how it was acquired. One can argue that there is significant irony in condemning a country through economic sanctions while simultaneously using their imported fine goods.
IV. The Presence of Persian Rugs in American Culture
Persian rugs have a substantial presence in American pop culture as well. Countless artists have mentioned their ownership of a carpet as a status symbol and a quantifiable level of wealth. Rapper Kanye West’s infamous tweet, “I specifically ordered Persian rugs with cherub imagery!!!”, expresses his boastful nature. Other hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and Biggie’s lyrics make mention of their Persian rugs in boasting about their grand lifestyles – alluding to their possession of such pieces as byproducts of their success. In Hollywood and the media, Persian rugs are referenced in many well-known scenes. In Wes Anderson’s The Big Lebowski, The Dude seeks retaliation when his Persian rug is defaced by one of the goons sent to intimidate him. He thought “that rug really tied the room together.” In Central Perk, the famous coffee shop in the hit television sitcom Friends, a Heriz lies at the center of the meeting place. A Persian Kashan lies beneath the start of every entrepreneurial partnership on business reality TV series Shark Tank. In our lives, we often see a carpet in our periphery without noticing it. But the fact that they are everywhere alludes to their true power and influence. Persian rugs are a staple part of the internationally homogenous culture and identity of America.
To most, including Americans, their prized Persian floor coverings symbolize a connection to intricate human detail and effort – an art and appreciation lost on many of recent generations. To Iranians of the diaspora, it stands as an act of homage to their heritage and homeland, an object of national and cultural identity. Having Persian carpets in the homes creates a sense of togetherness and preservation of tradition. To Americans, handmade carpets are equally treasured for their high quality and timeless elegance. To all, the rugs symbolize prosperity and coming together as a family, as a rug often serves as a space on which children and adults alike can sit and lay with the comfort of a high pile rug beneath them. They are similarly cared for as investment pieces and heirlooms. In luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest, for example, some of the most regal spaces are tied together with a richly colored Persian Rug. The iconic magazine even goes as far to say that a hand-crafted Oriental rug “never goes out of style” and there are options available for every space. The love for Persian rugs is transcultural and resonates across borders.
Many hope to see a resurgence of the Persian rug with the looming return to the JCPOA (also known as “the Iran Deal”). At one time, Iran was the premier global exporter of rugs but since sanctions have been imposed, the spot has been overtaken by its competitors. In 2018, Turkey exported over $1.9 billion in handmade carpets worldwide, far higher than Iran’s 2018 total of $35 million.
In a world where unique production and authenticity are scant, Iran continues to mainly produce handmade rugs that hold historic cultural significance. The Iranian market, having been insulated from the demands of the world market, has remained fairly consistent with its rug production. In contrast, competitors of Iran’s handmade industry have been plugged into the global market and have begun to shift their production styles to tailor to western consumer trends. They do so by producing rugs with muted color palettes, more palatable patterns, and even undertaking rigorous processes called “antique washing” and “color washing” which bleaches the rug’s color and gives it an antique or overdyed look. Meanwhile, Iran’s rug industry continues to generate the same style and type of handmade rugs it has always produced. With a re-implementation of the JCPOA, it will be interesting to see whether Iran’s handmade rug industry will pivot to cater to western market trends – much like Turkish, Pakistani, and Moroccan exporters have been doing in the last two decades.
Handmade carpets from Iran are present around the globe and have been for centuries. The instances of the Persian rug’s pervasion of American culture are far too abundant to possibly mention in this piece. From pop culture references to our personal homes, Persian rugs have permeated our everyday lives. They have stood as timeless articles of genuine craftsmanship and luxury. The prevalent examples of Persian textiles in America and the West exemplify their significance. Their status and power will continue to deepen and allure us for years to come.
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