The Ardabil Carpet – Not Quite Islamic

Tim Stanley, the senior curator of Islamic Arts at V&A, tried to simplify the term Islamic Art as the art produced under the Arab influence in the region, and as an example he presented the Ardabil Carpet as the oldest dated Pazaryk Carpet(1)carpet in the world. This is untrue due to the discovery of Pazaryk Carpet in 1940s excavated by U.S.S.R archaeologists Rudenko and Griasnor, which is dated around 400 BC and is now on exhibition at the Hermitage. Pazaryk Carpet is also believed to be an Iranian carpet, so one must ask why do curators insist calling Persian carpets Islamic?

The Ardabil carpet, which one cannot deny is the oldest fully preserved carpet, resides in V&A’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Arts, and was made in Iran around 1540 AD, and this is known due to the date 946 AH woven into the carpet.  The carpet has been signed by Muqsud Kashani, and it contains the first couplet of a poem by Iranian poet Hafez Shiraz.

The wrap, the weft, the pile, knot count and knot density, are all features which can help identify the carpet. It is generally known that carpets made in places like Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt or China, differ in style and techniques used. What is intriguing is that one can identify the actual city in Iran where the carpet was made, and even the workshop, making each carpet unique.

The size of the carpet is also of great importance. The bigger the carpet the more weavers were employed for the job, who would have sat side by side and had great skills and timing in order to make the carpet evenly and with the best quality possible. The Ardabil Carpet measures 34ft x 17ft 6ins, and the sheer size and quality of it makes it one of the most noteworthy carpets in the world.

Due to these characteristics, historians have come to the conclusion that the Ardabil carpet was made for Safavid Shahs, the royalty of Ardabil, hence the title. Adding to this notion, is the fact that the carpet has been signed, a procedure only undertaken by the person in charge presenting his or her work to the palace, a tradition in Iran to obtain as much favour from the royals as possible.

Arabs defeated the Byzantine army at Damascus in 635 AD and headed to Iran, where they occupied the Sassanian capital Ctesiphon in 637 AD, however it was in 650 AD when they managed to fight off the Iranian resistance. Political dominance seems to be initial goal of the Arab army, and then they proceeded to force Islam onto the people, however in theory only. The Arabs invaders, of whom the Umayyads had succeeded Muhammad from 661-750, started adopting many Iranian traditions and styles of governance. The Sassanian coinage system was adopted, as well as the office of minister, and the Divan, a bureau for controlling the expenditure and revenue. Many pre-Islamic influences can be observed in ornaments and textiles long after the Arab Invasion of Iran, and many artists and designers disagree and to this day fight the ideas behind an Islamic Iran.  

HafezAnother feature of the Ardabil Carpet, which has been overlooked, is the beginning of the poem by Hafez. He is indeed a controversial figure in Iranian literary history, and has been misrepresented as a religious figure among the western historians, partly encouraged by the Islamic Government of Iran, which one should point out tried to ban the publishing of his book after the 1979 revolution.

Poetry in Iran has a long history, and to this day ordinary people take part in reciting poetry in social games. Iranian poets, like many intellectuals have always questioned the idea of faith especially that of Islam. Ferdowsi’s epic poem “The Book of Kings” (Shahnameh) which was written before Hafez, had eliminated every Arabic word, producing a purely Persian text. “The Book of Kings” is memorized by Iranians and acted out in ceremonial plays around the country, another tradition that the religious Imams pushed to destroy throughout history. Hafez was fully aware of these struggles by the people to hang on to their cultures, and so he portrays people’s discontent with religion and constantly questions the idea of faith in his poems.

The couplet from Hafez’ poem weaved into the carpet has been wrongly translated as:

“I have no refuge in this world other than thy threshold.

My head has no resting place other than this doorway.”

The issue of translation is a much overlooked problem, which exists in all languages, and many translators have adopted a new “sprit of the poem” method which will simply create confusion about the original. In the couplet above, the translator has clearly, either on purpose or by mistake, replaced the word “your doorway” with “this doorway” in the second line, thus bringing another meaning to the poem. Hafez is essentially showing his love for “Saghi” (the girl who pours the wine and is also his muse) in this poem. His love for drinking wine and women are prevalent in his poetry and at odds with Islam, and this fact brought him problems with the religious figures who had influence in the courts in his own lifetime.  On one occasion he was charged with blasphemy against Islam.

If we look closer at the Iranian history we realize that the art of carpets has nothing to do with religion, especially Islam. These misunderstandings and popular misconceptions do not end with Iran. Many Middle Eastern countries are losing their identity daily due to lack of knowledge and research carried out within their countries, and more importantly by laziness of the western academics. Let’s face it: it’s easier to turn a blind eye to the oppression of traditions than having to carry out a comprehensive research.

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One comment

  • Well said Taymaz.
    I have seen similar trends in other areas. It looks like western intellectuals
    simply do not care. To them we all look alike. The current Islamic regime in
    Iran is one of the reasons no one in the west even wants to acknowledge Persian
    civilization and its great influence on Greek and Islamic culture. Oil money is
    also another factor. I was not surprised when I saw President Obama sold
    himself to the Arab kings and let the US navy to change Persian Gulf to the
    fabricated “Arabian Gulf” in their correspondences. But it truly bothers me
    when I see western researchers and intellectuals are either careless or sell themselves to some interest groups.

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