SCENES FROM 14th-Century Italian paintings indicate that Oriental rugs were being imported to Europe that early. They were regarded as rarities and were used sparingly, often as table coverings.
Originally, Oriental rugs were not luxury items. The tribesmen of Asia Minor used them daily as saddlebags, as horse coverings and as flooring for tents--not for decoration but for warmth.
In the mountain regions of the East, stretching from Turkey through Iran (earlier Persia) and Central Asia into China and Tibet, the art of carpet weaving has been a thriving cottage industry for centuries. Early tribesmen and villagers made sturdy, hard-wearing fabrics with hair from camels and goats but most often used sheep wool. Two and three weavers side by side at the loom, they turned these natural materials into pile rugs.
One early example is preserved at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad: a knotted-pile carpet recovered from a frozen Siberian tomb, dating from the 5th Century BC. The variety of subsequent rugs has been enormous, and the area in which they have been produced a vast one. There are Ottoman rugs, for example, and rugs from India, the Caucasus, China and Tibet--each with its own tone and pattern.
Deep, rich colors and intricate designs have always made antique Persian rugs the most popular style in the West, along with the simpler, more primitive work of the Turkoman and Beluchi tribes. Finest of all Persian rugs are those made during the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736) named after their predominating motifs: hunting carpets, garden carpets, vase carpets and so forth. Many of these same patterns are still made in the villages in which they originated: Kashan, Kerman, Isfahan, Tabriz, Herat, Shiraz and Bakhtiari. The evocative names are without end.
Names, in fact, are part of the immense problems involved in collecting Oriental rugs. The field is enormous, and each rug is virtually unique. This fact requires that a collector possess an awesome range of knowledge, and it therefore is essential to find an informed (and unimpeachable) dealer. Rugs may vary in quality from one area to another and may have been treated to give them a false air of antiquity.
Rugs made before the 19th Century are practically unobtainable, since most are in museums or sold at high-priced auctions. But to find a fine 19th-Century rug--even a good modern reproduction--makes all the trouble worthwhile, especially if it is a gorgeously colored Herat with lions, tigers and mythical animals; a vivid, red and blue, primitive Baluchi with a diamond pattern; a Dagestan prayer rug with a tree-of-life design, or a delicate floral-patterned Isfahan.
Today, even the most unsophisticated creations of the Asiatic mountain tribesmen and the village factories of ancient Persia put all the Axminster, Brussels and Wilton carpets to shame.
Authentic Oriental rugs can be found at Adil Besim in Pasadena; Aga John and Ames Auction Gallery, both in Beverly Hills, and N.S. Minassian Oriental Rug and Oriental Rugs by Haroutunian, both in West Los Angeles. Galerie Bensoussan in San Diego and Alexander's Rug and Furniture Co. in Anaheim also have Oriental rugs.