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Secrets, Myths and Hidden Symbols in Oriental Carpets

 
 

Why is it that oriental carpets possess such an air of mystery and magic? In Aladdin they fly. In other tales of folklore they can be a gateway to the afterlife or an earthly manifestation of Paradise. To understand this we have to understand the role and status of carpets in pre-modern Middle Eastern society. Great effort, time and cost went into making a carpet—it holds true even today. In the pre-Industrial Age, however, these factors were amplified. Possessing a rug was having an object of tremendous cultural and material value.
Two particular genres of carpets stood out: prayer rugs and palace carpets. Prayer rugs were among the very few personal possessions of the chosen members of Sufi brotherhoods, wandering mystics who travelled near and far to study the world and preach their outlook. The fact that they had precious few material possessions lent those they did own—carpets foremost among them—substantial importance. Sufi prayer rugs were usually made of camel hair, a fiber in itself symbolic, and thus these objects came to acquire significant socio- religious value. An angular mehrab niche would crown the upper field of these carpets, an arch lifted from Islamic architecture that denoted the direction of prayer, or Qibla, towards Mecca. The mehrab on carpets acted as an arrow pointing in the direction of the realm of the Divine and, by extension, the possibility of salvation and immortality of the soul. Little wonder that magic and flying capabilities were then given to these humble objects!



At the other extreme of these self same societies we have the rich, ornate carpets commissioned by the leading artists of the day to decorate the palaces of Sultans, Emirs and Shahs. The most ubiquitous theme they shared, whether woven in Istanbul, Esfahan, Samarkand or Agra, was their quest to depict a heavenly garden—Paradise—on earth. This tradition of Garden Carpets goes back all the way to the Sassanid Dynasty that predates Islam. We see flowing water channels depicting the four rivers of water, wine, milk and honey described in the Quran. Lush vegetation abounds, with bounteous trees bearing fruits of all sorts. The magnificence of these masterpieces, today found in leading museums all around the world, left an imprint on the collective consciousness of carpet aficionados for centuries and they became an ideal to aspire to. The best way to praise a handmade carpet has become to claim that it is “fit for the Shah’s palace!” The fact that legendary rulers like Shah Abbas (1587 - 1629) was a carpet weaver himself only adds to the mystique, as does the knowledge that for long centuries carpets were the gift of choice between monarchs and rulers. Jahangir of India gifted Shah Abbas a pashmina carpet and the latter presented Murad III of Turkey a remarkably fine silk carpet in turn. These objects and events are well documented. When it comes to discussing the other 90% of carpets that survive, objects that belonged neither to kings nor to saints, we are faced with a cornucopia of mysterious motifs and secret symbols. They all had meanings when they were originally created or copied from the natural world or an artist’s imagination.

Many of them retain their clarity of depiction and their clear-cut symbolism while others’ meaning has been lost amidst the fogs of time. A majority of motifs on Oriental carpets are mere decorative ornament, generally in the case of flowers and most animals. Some however have particular meaning. Trees are all symbols of fertility and growth but the real Tree of Life is always a cypress. The weeping willow or bid majnun symbolizes sadness and nostalgia, a sense of waste and tragedy as in the romance of Layla & Majnun. Some motifs are straightforward in their symbolism: a crown for royalty or allegiance to the Shah, the comb on Caucasian prayer rugs standing for cleanliness, the peacock for fertility and prosperity in Persian village rugs, the ibriq ewer on Anatolian prayer rugs symbolizing ritual purity … A lion also stands for royalty and leadership in the ancient Persian tradition. Yet in the lion rug gabbehs of southern Iran they have an additional meaning. Tradition has it that when a girl’s hand in marriage is asked for among the nomadic Qashqai, she goes off to weave a lion rug while she considers the identity and character of her suitor. A few weeks later, the gabbeh is washed in the nearest river and hung to dry where members of the tribe may see it. If the lion’s tail is raised then that is a yes, whereas if it is lowered then the request has been denied—so endlessly endearing and captivatingly charming!

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J’ai fait la connaissance de Hadi lors de la préparation de l’exposition « L’Empire des roses, chefs-d’œuvre de l’art persan du 19ème siècle » qui a eu lieu au Louvre-Lens en 2018 et à laquelle il a participé par le prêt de tapis exceptionnels. J’avais alors été impressionnée par ses connaissances et sa passion pour les tapis orientaux. Cette rencontre a marqué le début d’une collaboration riche et fructueuse. Elle a notamment permis au musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac de voir ses collections iraniennes s’enrichir de plusieurs tapis et tentures dont certains n’ont pas leur équivalent dans les musées occidentaux. Ce que j’apprécie chez Hadi ? C’est son professionnalisme, son dynamisme et l’engouement qu’il a pour son métier ! Hana Chidiac, Curator of the Middle East Department at the Musee Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris, France 🇫🇷

 

 

Acquiring a piece from my dear friend Hadi is truly a journey. We start that journey with a lesson and detailed background on any piece that is of interest. After a thorough discussion regarding the chosen piece or should I say marvel, since Hadi's pieces are truly marvels, Hadi guides us into why he would advise us to acquire it or go for another of his marvels that would suit us more than the one initially chosen. This sincere advice always makes us feel that we are generously taken care of by Hadi. The learning process and honesty in guidance make us go back only to Hadi whenever we are looking for our next beautiful piece for our homes. All I can say is thank you Hadi for your impeccable guidance and service. Abdullah Al-Awadhi, Kuwait 🇰🇼

 

The idea of purchasing valuable rugs and other artwork online from an overseas seller is daunting for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that, not being able to examine and feel the rug for yourself, you are never entirely certain that the origin, age or condition of the rug corresponds with the dealer’s description. For me, I could never take this step unless I had absolute trust in the integrity of the dealer, and my recent experience with Hadi confirms that my faith in him was well placed. Every detail of the antique rug expertly explained by Hadi was accurate and when I finally received the actual rug, it turned out to be even more stunning than his photos depicted. F. Alsagoff, Singapore

 

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