Woven carpets are traditionally crafted in North Africa and many parts of Asia, mainly along the Silk Road. They are sometimes called Oriental carpets, and are often associated with Islamic cultures, partly due to their tradition of producing prayer rugs.
Travellers in these regions will usually have access to a considerably wider variety of carpets than they might at home, and often at better prices provided they can haggle somewhat competently. Carpets are among the most popular souvenirs for such journeys.
There is a relatively small wiki called WikiRug, bilingual in English and Persian, which is devoted to oriental carpets.
|“||Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon another site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day's journey and difficult to reach.||”|
Traditional carpets are made by knotting coloured wool to a base on a loom. The same regions often also produce rugs which are flat-woven rather than knotted; these are quicker to make and usually cheaper, but they are not as hard-wearing as pile rugs and not nearly as finely-woven as high-grade ones. There are two main types of flat-woven rug:
- Kilim. These are sometimes called "slit-woven" because the weaving technique may leave slits in the fabric.
- Soumak. This type is less common, thicker and stronger than a kilim. They can be recognized by looking at the back side; a soumak will be ragged where the back of a kilim looks the same as the front.
This article concentrates on knotted rugs with a pile.
Carpets are traditionally used as floor coverings, and that is a fine application for many of them, but others may be hung on a wall. Some, such as the saddle bags nomads use, are designed for that. Some, such as silk carpets or kilims, will not wear well in a high traffic area of floor. Others, such as prayer rugs or a high-grade carpet that fits within a budget, are too small to be of great use on the floor but make a fine wall decoration.
If you want to put a carpet on a wall, it is likely wise to seek help from a local carpet shop; the method is slightly tricky and doing it wrong may cause unsightly sagging or even damage the carpet.
Many factors go into any rating of the quality and price of a rug.
- Knot count. Knot density is a key indicator of the quality of rug, and strongly affects the price since more knots take more work and smaller knots may require more skill. It is usually measured in knots per square inch, abbreviated kpsi.
In some places a top-grade rug will be about 650 kpsi, roughly one square mm per knot or 100 knots per square cm. A rug need not be even close to that to be worthwhile, though. For one thing, such high knot counts are common only in the great weaving centers of Iran or Turkey, and even there by no means all rugs are that fine. Also, there are whole regions that produce only carpets at lower knot counts, and some of their rugs are beautiful.
Wikipedia says "≤80 kpsi is poor quality, 120 to 330 kpsi medium to good, and ≥330 kpsi is very good quality", and cites an authority where they got those numbers. Certainly one could quibble about the exact numbers, but equally certainly there are worthwhile rugs with a count in every part of the 100-800 kpsi range.
Size is also a factor; big knots look better on a big rug than on a small one, and a high knot count on a large rug will make for a painful price, so larger rugs fairly often use a lower knot density. In a large rug, even quite a low knot count often looks fine; for example a 10 by 14 foot Afghan carpet with 100 kpsi has as many knots as a 5 by 7 foot rug at 400 kpsi, and it will probably look lovely on a floor though someone who goes down on hands and knees for a close inspection will be unimpressed.
The amount of work that goes into carpets is phenomenal; either a 3 by 5 foot (~90x150 cm) carpet at 600 kpsi or a 6 by 10 foot carpet at 150 kpsi has about 1.3 million knots, each hand tied. Wikipedia suggests the average weaver can do about 360 knots an hour (10 seconds per knot); at that rate, those rugs need 3,600 hours of skilled labour. Do not be surprised if the price is somewhat steep; the only reason you can afford one at all is that most are made in areas where labour is extremely cheap.
Another large factor in evaluating a rug is its origin; products from some regions or tribes are rated more highly than others. Sometimes the buyer pays a premium for the "brand name"; for example a genuine Persian rug, especially one from a well-known city such as Isfahan, will usually sell for considerably more than an Indian rug with similar knot count and a Persian-inspired design. Nearly any carpet collector would strongly prefer the Isfahan, but a non-expert might not see a difference. A traveller might consider either.
The materials used are also important; silk costs more than wool, and there are different grades of wool. The quality of dyes used and of the design also matter; in many rug-weaving areas, the dye masters and the artists who draw the designs are respected specialist craftsmen.
- Arbrush. In some rugs, large areas which are nominally the same colour actually show slight variations; this is called arbrush in Persian. It is most common in nomad rugs that use vegetable dyes, because the plants are harvested at different times and in different places, giving slightly different colours. Sometimes it becomes more visible as the dye fades.
This is considered a feature rather than a bug; collectors will pay more for a rug with nice arbrush.
The age of a rug can also be a factor; antique rugs will often bring a higher price than new ones. However, do not be fooled into thinking a carpet might be a valuable antique just because it looks somewhat worn. Rugs are routinely spread out on roads in Iran to be "aged" by the traffic, and there are other bogus "aging" methods as well.
Silk carpets are usually small, finely woven and quite expensive for their size. They much are less durable than wool carpets, so typically they are hung on a wall, but they can also be placed in a low-traffic area of floor. It is also common to use silk for highlights in a wool carpet; the silk wears better in this case because it is protected by the surrounding wool.
Beware of "art silk", cotton that has been chemically treated (mercerized) to give it a silk-like sheen; this is fine at the right price, but some dealers try to sell it at silk prices. You can test for the difference by removing a thread from the rug — with the seller's permission! — and burning it. See this site for details.
Nomads and towns
One way to categorize carpets is as nomadic or town rugs.
Nomadic tribespeople often produce rugs, both for use on the floors of their tents and for a "nomad chest of drawers", a set of decorated bags that hang on walls in camp and are hung on their camels or other livestock when they are on the move. Because nomad looms have to be portable, it is rare to find a nomad rug larger than about 5' by 7' (1.5 by 2.2m) and the rugs may be slightly irregular because the tension on warp and weft is different each time the loom is torn down and reassembled.
Rugs are also made in villages, towns and cities. Larger sizes are more common, as are rugs woven more finely than most nomad rugs. Also, the range of materials is larger; historically the nomads used only wool (or goat and camel hair) from their flocks and natural dyes, while settled people were more likely to include cotton, silk and synthetic dyes. Today, though, many nomads use synthetic dyes and have cotton for the base threads because it is less likely than wool to stretch and make the rug irregular.
In many tribes and towns, rug-making is mostly done by women, a tradition going back to the days when nomadic men would be out with the flocks while the women stayed in camp. This is not universal; some groups, such as the Uyghur, have mainly male weavers. Often quite young girls do the weaving, partly because small hands are an advantage in making tiny knots.
Oriental rugs are made more-or-less everywhere from Morocco to China. Historically, Turkey (Anatolia) and Iran (Persia) have been the two greatest sources, and many fine rugs are still made in both countries. Either Turkoman or Caucasian rugs might rank third, and you could start a lively debate among enthusiasts by suggesting either. Several other regions have also always been important.
Identifying the origin of rugs is a bit like recognizing accents. Almost anyone can identify broad categories; one is no more likely to take an Afghan rug for Turkish than to label an Aussie accent as American. As with accents, an expert can usually be much more precise; quite often they can identify the exact tribe or village where a carpet was made.
We list the main rug-making areas below in roughly West-to-East order:
Arabian carpets refers to carpets made by the Arabs, a diverse group of people who inhabit much of North Africa and the Middle East, with distinctive styles in each region. In North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are known as the main centres of Arabian carpet weaving. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Syria are centres of carpet weaving. Iraq also has a long carpet-weaving tradition, but the political instability that has followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 means that the tradition is now in serious danger of being lost to the annals of history.
Morocco is one of the main centers of Arabian carpet weaving. In addition, the Berbers also have their own distinctive carpet-weaving tradition, and Berber carpets are some of the most iconic Moroccan souvenirs. They can be bought from the weavers in the countryside or in souqs and shops in tourist destinations.
Turkey is rightly famous for its carpets, with rich regional varieties. Carpet weaving is often associated with the tradition of the Yörüks, nomadic Turkish clans which roamed (or, in a few cases, are still roaming) Anatolia for centuries.
- Istanbul — The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Sultanahmet has the richest collection of carpets in the world, with the oldest pieces in exhibit dating back to the 15th century. With many carpet shops, you may also want to have a stroll through the nearby Grand Bazaar, although this will inevitably be a touristy experience.
- Hereke — The huge carpets bedecking Istanbul's newer and European influenced palaces, which date back to the late years of the Ottoman Empire, came from this town's imperial factory, opened in 1841 and now a museum. Often dubbed the 'Ottoman Baroque', the style of the Hereke carpets differed from that of traditional designs.
- Bergama — No trip to ancient Pergamon is complete without visiting one of the many local carpet shops, which have regional products on offer. Decidedly away from the tourist trail, nearby Sındırgı is (relatively speaking) known for its Yağcıbedir rugs, honoured by an annual festival.
- Uşak — A major centre of carpet weaving since the 11th century, producing some of the finest Oriental rugs. The export to Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries was such a big business in this Western Anatolian town that its name, or rather its Anglicized form of Ushak, was a synonym for all Anatolian rugs, regardless of their origin.
- Milas — Taking full advantage of its Yörük roots and its proximity to Bodrum, one of Turkey's most favourite resorts with international holidaymakers, most travellers to the Turkish southwest will be familiar with this variant.
- Konya — The capital of the Seljuk Empire, preceeding the Ottomans, is famous with the style named after that empire. Mevlana Museum in the old town has a collection of the Seljuk carpets, mentioned by Marco Polo in 1292.
Rugs are produced across this region, with a wide range of styles. There is an overall tendency to bold geometric designs and primary colours. Most of these rugs are produced in the villages, not in the cities.
Among other areas, Azerbaijan and Dagestan are well-known for rugs. The Azeri town of Ganja both makes rugs and has a long history as a trading center for rugs woven elsewhere. Dealers may call them all "Gendje" rugs.
- Azerbaijan Carpet Museum (Baku). A large museum with over 10,000 items in the collection, mainly carpets but also metalwork, ceramics and jewellery, some dating back to the bronze age.
"Azerbaijan" is the name both of an independent country (formerly part of the Soviet Union) and of an Iranian province. The people, the language and the rugs of the two regions have much in common. Some Persian rugs, such as those from Ardabil, show strong Caucasus influences.
Armenians also have a long tradition of carpet weaving, not only in Armenia but in several neighbouring countries. Marco Polo described Armenian carpets as "unsurpassed and more splendrous in color than anywhere else in the world". It is thought that the English word "carpet" comes (via Latin and French) from Armenian karpet.
Kurdish rugs are made by the Kurds, a traditionally nomadic ethnic group who inhabit parts of what are today Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Armenia. The most famous Kurdish rugs come from the Kurdish parts of Iranian Azerbaijan, though other Kurdish regions also produce their own unique styles of Kurdish rugs.
Iran — known as Persia until the 20th century, and the center of several different Persian Empires over its long history — has a history of carpet-making that spans 2,500 years, and Persian carpets have been exported for centuries. Today, Iran is still the world's leading exporter of handmade rugs, with about 30% of the world market.
The range of styles in Iran is enormous; there are minority ethnic groups such as Azeri, Kurds, Turkoman. Afghan and Baluchi, each with its own style, and ethnic Persians produce a stunning variety of rugs. The range of quality is also large; top-grade Persian rugs are among the finest (and most expensive) in the world, over 600 knots per square inch, but there are also plenty of more affordable knotted rugs and some relatively cheap kilims.
Many nomadic tribes, some villages, and most cities and towns in Iran make carpets and most of them have their own distinctive style.
- Tabriz — Tabriz rugs reached their zenith in the 12th-16th centuries.
- Kashan — renowned for its silk carpets.
- Heris — Heris/Heriz rugs often have bold, geometric designs.
- Isfahan and the nearby town of Na'in — famously finely-woven rugs
- Mashad has its own style of Persian rug plus earth-tone kelims. It is also a center for trade of #Baluchi rugs.
Garden carpets are a common design for the Bakhtiari tribe in the Shiraz region, and are sometimes made elsewhere as well. They are divided into many squares, each with its own design.
- See also: Turkmenistan#Rugs
Turkoman tribes have a long tradition of carpet-making. The small central Asian nation of Turkmenistan (once part of the Persian Empire, and later the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union) is the main source, but neighboring countries, especially Iran but also Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, also have some Turkoman people and rugs. In most cases red is the dominant colour and the pattern includes repeated elements called guls.
- Turkmen Carpet Museum (Ashgabat). An enormous collection including many antique carpets, some in designs that are no longer made, and what was for many years the world's largest handmade carpet at 14x21m. An even larger carpet has since been made in Iran for a mosque in Dubai.
These are sometimes called Bokhara rugs because that city was once a center for their trade. India and Pakistan produce many rugs that are also marketed as "Bokhara", using designs derived from Turkoman ones. Some of these are quite fine rugs, but they are not as valuable as real Turkoman carpets.
Both Baluchi and Afghan designs have been influenced by Turkoman carpets.
See below for "Golden Bokhara" rugs.
Historically, the Baluchis were a group of tribes, mainly nomadic herdsmen, spread across parts of today's Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the past few centuries many have settled in villages or cities, but Baluchi rugs still reflect the nomadic heritage; there are almost no Baluchi carpets larger than about 5x7 feet (150x210 cm) since larger ones cannot be woven on looms that nomads can move from camp to camp.
In the 19th century much of their territory was conquered by the British Raj; that part is now the Pakistani province of Balochistan (capital Quetta). Another part is now the Iranian province of Baluchestan (capital Zahedan), and there are also Baluchis in Iran's Khorasan province and in southwestern Afghanistan. Today, the main cities where many Baluchis live or trade are the capitals mentioned above plus Herat (Afghanistan) and Mashad (Iran). The rugs, however, are available all over the world.
- Prayer rug. Prayer rugs, typically just large enough for one person to kneel on (though there are some designed for multiple worshippers) and usually with either a tree-of-life or an arch design, are quite common across the Islamic world. They are also used by some Christians.
Prayer rugs are made in many areas, but the Baluchi ones are among the best-known. One reason is that Baluchis making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca often sell a few rugs en route, to help finance the trip. Other pilgrims then buy them and bring them home — a prayer rug is almost the perfect souvenir for a pilgrimage — so they are found all over the Muslim world.
Prayer rugs are also popular with non-Muslim travellers, small enough to be reasonably priced and fairly portable.
The Uzbeks are also known for their tradition of weaving Uzbek carpets, especially in the Qashqadaryo Region, with the villages of Kamashi, Hadzhaki and Jeynov being the best known.
The Kazakhs are known for producing many types of carpets, but the two that stand out as the most famous are tekemet and syrmak. Tekemet is a white carpet with pieces of dyed felt sewn into it, usually incorporating rhombuses in the central section which are filled with ornamental patterns. Syrmak is a carpet in which two layers of felt with mirroring patterns are stitched together back-to-back, essentially the same thing as the Kyrgyz shyrdak. Both types of carpet are also produced by the ethnic Kazakh minority in China's Xinjiang province.
Despite the name, Kazak rugs are not from Kazakhstan, but are rather a type of rug from the Caucasus.
The nomadic Kyrgyz tribes are known for a style of carpet known as shyrdak, essentially the same thing as the Kazakh syrmak, which consists of two layers of felt with mirroring patterns are stitched together back-to-back.
The Tajiks have their own unique carpet-weaving tradition, known as Tajik rugs, mostly centred around the region of Kayrokum.
- See also: Afghanistan#Carpets
Afghanistan has both Turkoman and Baluchi minorities and their rugs are widely available. There are also some rugs imported from Iran, Pakistan or Central Asia. However, most rugs in the country will be in the distinctive Afghan style.
Afghan rugs are generally similar to Turkoman carpets, mainly red in colour and with guls a major design feature, but typically they are less finely woven and considerably cheaper. Large rugs and large guls are fairly common. Some dealers describe one Afghan design as an "elephant foot" carpet; the guls are about a foot (30 cm) across. If you have a limited budget but want a large carpet, then an Afghan carpet is quite likely to be your best buy.
See below for "Golden Afghan" rugs.
There is evidence some carpets were produced on the subcontinent as far back as Mohenjo-daro, about 2000 BCE. Major production in what are now India and Pakistan, both for the local upper classes and for export, began under the Mughal Empire, starting in the 17th century.
Many Mughal factories used forced labour in jails; the most famous was in Agra, but Lahore, Amritsar and other cities also had carpet factories in jails. The Emperor Aurangzeb (ruled 1658-1707) imported Persian experts to train the prisoners, and many of the jail carpets were very high quality, considered among the best in the world at the time. Today these carpets are rare, sought after by collectors, and quite expensive.
British rule overlapped the period of the Mughals, and British merchants both handled most of the export of Mughal carpets and set up some of their own factories.
Today these countries are major sources of carpets for export. Some extremely fine carpets are still made, but most are lower grades because there is a much larger market for those. If you see handmade carpets in a non-specialist store in a Western country, they are most likely Indian or Pakistani.
There are exceptions — notably antique jail carpets — but in general collectors do not rate subcontinent carpets as highly as those from various other countries. The main reason is that most use design ideas from Persian or Turkoman carpets, and collectors almost unanimously prefer the "real thing". However, for a traveller who has neither the eye nor the budget of a collector, some of these carpets can be an excellent buy.
- Central Cottage Industries. This is a government-owned company promoting Indian handicrafts. They have stores in several major cities and an online store. Among other things, they sell Kashmiri silk carpets.
The Uyghur are the main ethnic group of Xinjiang, China's westernmost province. They are culturally more similar to Central Asians than to the Han Chinese, and there is a long tradition of carpet weaving among them.
The cities of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan in particular are known for their fine Uyghur-style carpets that have been traded along the Silk Road for centuries. Rugs produced those cities are often known in the West as Samarkand rugs, named after the city of Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan, due to the fact that rugs from Xinjiang passed through it on their way to Europe via the Silk Road.
The Mongols are traditionally nomadic people, and have a long tradition of carpet weaving. Their rugs tend to use less red than many others and more brown or other earth tones. Some use cashmere wool, remarkably soft but still hard-wearing. Today rugs are produced by ethnic Mongols both in Mongolia (an independent nation, once called Outer Mongolia) and in Inner Mongolia (a province of China).
In Mongolia, the city of Erdenet has Erdenet Carpet, the largest carpet factory in the country, though its carpets are machine-made ones and not made using traditional methods or designs. For more traditional carpets, the Black Market in the capital Ulaanbaatar is a popular place to get them.
The city of Baotou is the traditional centre of the Mongol carpet weaving industry in China, having long served as a trading hub for carpets produced in the surrounding region, and is particularly known for its dark blue carpets.
Tibet has its own styles of carpets. The town of Gyantse and the city of Xining in modern-day Qinghai (formerly the Tibetan provice of Amdo) are most famous as centres of Tibetan carpet weaving, though there is also production in other towns and cities throughout Tibet and Qinghai. Tibetan carpets are also produced by the Tibetan exile communities in India and Nepal, with Dharamsala in India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, being the best known centre of production.
Today Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet are all parts of China. Their carpets can be bought in those regions, or any major Chinese city will also have shops selling them. Often those shops will also have a range of imported carpets; Pakistani rugs traded via the Karakorum Highway are particularly common.
There are also Chinese carpets which are none of the above, but purely Chinese. These are rarely as finely-woven as high-grade carpets from further west, so the designs tend to be less intricate. Chinese carpets fairly often use designs that represent something, rather than the abstract geometric designs that are common elsewhere. In particular, they are much more likely to depict animals; dragons, phoenixes and lions are popular motifs, along with clouds and mountains.
A unique feature of some Chinese carpets is that they are three-dimensional. Everyone else trims carpets so that the upper surface is completely flat, but on some Chinese carpets the height of that surface is varied to make some design elements stand out.
Haggling over the price is customary for carpet purchases almost everywhere; see our article on bargaining for some tips. As usual for craft shopping, items are often cheaper in the small towns where they are made than in cosmopolitan cities.
If you travel through any of the carpet-producing regions, you will have an enormous range of choices. What to choose depends (at least) on your itinerary, your budget, how you want to use the carpet, and your personal taste. The same budget might get you a single carpet — perhaps a huge Afghan rug for the living room, or a small top-quality piece such as a silk Kashan for display — or several carpets that are neither enormous nor top-grade. Buy mostly the cheaper kilims and you could get more pieces.
As usual for luxury goods, there is a huge range of quality and price, and most travellers should avoid the big-ticket items unless they have a large budget and are either experts themselves or have trustworthy expert advice.
If you bring valuable carpets home from a trip, you need to check and perhaps adjust your insurance coverage. You likely also need to get them appraised by a local expert.
"Golden Afghan" or "Golden Bokhara" rugs became fairly common in Western countries early in the 20th century; they were invented by Western dealers who bleached Afghan or Turkoman carpets to eliminate the red colour, leaving a blue or black on orange or gold design. Apparently this was a better fit for the decor in their customers' homes. These rugs are rare in the countries of origin, where the traditional colours are strongly preferred. In the West, collectors also prefer the traditional colours and bleached rugs bring a much lower price.
Bleached rugs should be avoided, except perhaps at a giveaway price; often they do not wear well since bleaching can damage the fibres. They can usually be identified by looking at the base of the pile, down around the knots; often the bleach does not penetrate there and traces of the original red can be seen.
Later in the century "golden" rugs made without bleaching appeared; these are woven with the "golden" colours in the first place. They have no problem with damage from bleach and have a wider range of colours available than bleached rugs. They are still available and some of them may be a good buy, but their resale value will usually be lower than rugs in the traditional colours.
Machine-made carpets are not much seen in the areas with a tradition of carpet weaving, and carpet collectors almost unanimously scorn them. However they are fairly common in other places and usually cheaper than handmade rugs. The simplest way to distinguish is to look at the back of the rug; on a handmade rug the design will be clearly visible, but on a machine-made one it will be covered.