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The History of the Oriental Carpet

The Carpet Merchant by Jean-Leon Gerome circa 1887



Beauty, History, Intrigue, & Mystery; Woven between the Warp and the Weft


What do the Plymouth Mayflower, Persian art, Victorian homes, glacial ice, and even mysterious flying objects have in common? Like a Persian knot, the common thread weaving all these together is the Oriental Carpet.


For millennia, in countries spanning the globe, Oriental Carpets have maintained a quiet yet ever constant presence. Whether as art, a trade item, furnishing or investment, the Oriental Carpet crosses historical, ethnic and cultural lines in both Eastern and Western societies.


The mere mention of “Oriental Carpets” can evoke the sounds and scents of ancient villages, bazaars, wooden looms, tea parlors and smoke-filled hookah dens. Not just scenes from films or a bygone past, but at this very moment such scenes are being lived out in many parts of the
Eastern world.


It is easy to envision Oriental Carpets accenting a beautifully furnished paneled library or a luxurious Victorian home. Upon hearing the name, most carpet lovers can see in their mind’s eye the unique diamond-like shapes on rich indigo backgrounds and recognize a “Bokhara” (Uzbekistan). Many can correctly identify a lovely Tree of Life design and know it is a “Tabriz” (Persia).


Since the Victorian Era, Oriental Carpets have been a staple in the decor of western societies. Most Americans would guess that Oriental Carpets made their first entrance to the North American continent during the Victorian Era with all its lavish furnishings, yet that guess would be wrong. Though it is not possible to pinpoint an exact date, Oriental Carpets first came to North America before the United States was formed--a full 200 years before the Victorian Era. Without explaining their research procedures, Plimoth* historians conclude that it is very possible the Pilgrims brought Oriental Carpets with them on the Mayflower in 1620. If they did not bring carpets on board the Mayflower, historians conclusively agree that within the next 15-20 years, Oriental Carpets were an important part of Mayflower Company household furnishings.


Plimoth Plantation Re-enactment


Multi-Purpose Nature


Westerners invariably think of the Oriental Carpet as strictly a floor covering. This is perfectly understandable, considering that its use as a floor covering is essentially how it is known in western societies. However, upon viewing the entire span of the carpet’s history, the idea of it being used strictly as a floor covering is both inaccurate and a recent concept. Because its history covers at least 3500 years, the term “recent” is appropriate. Only in the past 500 years has the concept of an Oriental Carpet being used strictly as a floor covering become commonplace. They have possibly been used as floor coverings from their inception; however, historical evidence clearly shows that during the first 3000 years of their existence, Oriental Carpets were very multi-purpose in nature and usage (as is the case today in many countries of the world).


Their multi-purpose nature includes: artistic wall hangings; decorative coverings for furniture; and coverings for stacked personal and household goods such as bedding, clothing, and other fabric items. Prior to the 20th century in both the East and the West, Oriental Carpets were widely used in the animal transportation industry. Whether for more decorative functions on carriages or thoroughly practical applications on horses, camels, oxen, or donkeys, their usage was integral and indispensable.


To better grasp this multi-purpose concept of the Oriental Carpet, it is helpful to understand its composition and texture. In the west when we think of an Oriental Carpet, we tend to think of it as being large, stiff, and even cumbersome. This is not the case for all carpets, and certainly not the case for the multi-purpose Oriental Carpet. This multi-use carpet is a far more pliable item. It is very flexible, and hence handily used as a covering.


It is also helpful to understand this multi-purpose usage by the household needs that it met and still meets today. Actual living space in homes can be quite small and space a premium, therefore the multi-purpose carpet is used in a utilitarian as well as a decorative manner. Imagine a small dwelling in which the family uses the main room for many facets of daily life: the living room, family room, dining room, and even bedroom. Consequently, bedding used at night is daily folded, placed in a corner, and draped with a fashionable decorative carpet. In the evenings the same carpet may be used as a table or divan/couch covering. This is precisely how the Pilgrims of the Mayflower Company used their Oriental Carpets. The Mayflower Company’s carpets (referred to by Plimoth historians as “Turkey Works”) were woven in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and the Pilgrims quite likely obtained them during their stay in Holland before departing back to Plymouth, England, and then on to the North American continent.


As I write this, I am looking at a carpet on my office wall. It is a Sumahk made in Van, Turkey, an extremely pliable carpet that can be easily folded up like a blanket. It looks nearly identical to carpets Plimoth* historians associate with the Pilgrims and was quite likely woven in the same region as theirs.


If you were to travel today to rural regions of Central Asia, visiting yurt dwellings of the Kazak or Tajik peoples, you would see Oriental Carpets used in this multi-purpose manner. If you entered homes and witnessed daily life in the modern city of Istanbul, you would certainly see this same manner of use. Yes, you would see beautiful Kayseri, Konya, or other Turkish carpets on the floors, but you would also see carpets used in this multi-purpose capacity. Many a night I’ve stayed in the homes of friends in Turkiye and slept on bedding kept in a stack under such a carpet. In the morning, after a good night’s sleep, the bedding is again stacked and stored under just such a decorative carpet.


*Plimoth is the spelling for Plymouth as used at Plimoth Plantation and by Plimoth Historians.


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