Legends, Riddles, and Mysteries in Armenian Carpet Weaving

English King Henry VIII—a famous collector not only of wives but also of Eastern carpets—did not hesitate to execute Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey to add to his collections.

However, after the death of the august owner, all his 800 carpets—including a significant number of Armenian ones—rotted on the damp stones of the royal Hampton Court.

Fortunately, the carpets that escaped the king’s reach avoided such a fate, and today we can see them not only in the paintings of famous medieval European artists but also firsthand.

Legends, riddles, and mysteries are woven into the knots of Armenian carpets—these carpets have witnessed the history of humanity. Take a closer look—could this be a trace of the luxurious body of Cleopatra, for one night with whom men paid with their lives?

The passionate Egyptian queen ordered herself to be wrapped in a purple carpet and transported to the island of Pharos—to Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. A fitting packaging for a royal gift! According to numerous chronicle accounts, “Armenian red” carpets were in high demand in the markets of Cairo.

And the “raspberry carpets” from the Egyptian city of Asyut were highly valued merely for resembling Armenian ones. Even among Persian carpets, those considered good were only the ones that “rivaled the Armenian.” However, the “best of the good” were products woven in the Iranian province of Isfahan.

They were created by Armenian master craftsmen who were relocated by Shah Abbas from Juga to Iran. Isfahani carpets “especially resembled luxurious Armenian” ones. On one of the crimson shag carpets, death overtook the great military leader Alexander the Great.

No other flooring could be in the grandiose chambers of the Babylonian palace, for the “gorg” (the native name for Armenian carpets) was in demand throughout the ecumene, even in the Arab world. It dominated the palaces of the Umayyads and served as a unique decoration on the walls of “desert castles.”

Only the senior wife of Caliph Harun al-Rashid—the ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate and a hero of “A Thousand and One Nights”—was allowed to sit on an Armenian carpet. The other wives of the harem had to make do with “Armenian pillows.” In 921, ambassadors of the Baghdad caliph arrived in Volga Bulgaria.

The Distinguished Nobleman, Ibn Fadlan’s Second-in-Command, was Astounded: the Khan’s Huge Tent, Easily Accommodating a Thousand Warriors, was Completely Covered with Armenian Carpets.

Emperor Nero purchased a luxurious carpet for four million sesterces. Dressed in a purple toga, wearing a laurel wreath, and holding a golden lyre, he paced across the incredibly expensive carpet while watching the raging inferno consuming Rome.

Only royal feet had the right to step on carpets crafted by Armenian masters of Persia, which adorned the palace of the Lydian King Croesus—the very man from whom the saying “rich as Croesus” originated—and the colossal temple of the Phrygian goddess Cybele in his capital Sardis.

An Armenian ‘gorg’ (carpet) presented as a gift was considered an expression of the deepest respect. This was well known to both Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire, who gifted it to the Kashgar Khan Qadir, and to the Vizier Abu Fazn Suri Maragi, who sent a gorg to his lord, Sultan Masudi of Ghazni.

The faithful vassal of Caliph al-Muqtadir, Emir Abu San, paid tribute to him with “seven Armenian carpets, one of which was sixty cubits in length and the same in width” (over 1000 square meters).

Great patience must have been required by the master who spent ten years crafting this marvel. Armenian carpets are not only a collection of legends and numerous historical testimonies but also a web—up to the point of confusion—of terms and names.

Carpets created in Armenia, as well as those woven by Armenian craftsmen in other lands, were called “Persian,” “Turkish,” “Seljuk,” “Polish”—based on the name of the exporting country, the origin of the previous owner, or the client. But far-sighted Armenian carpet makers employed various tricks to pass down the true “pedigree” of their creations to future generations.

This includes the weaving of Armenian letters into “Seljuk” carpets stored in the Metropolitan Museum (New York), the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Istanbul), the National Museum (Stockholm), and the Mevlana Museum (Konya, Turkey); eagles on carpets with “bird ornaments,” which orientalist academic Iosif Orbeli called the “speaking coats of arms” of Armenian medieval heraldry.

Patterns on the carpets also included the ‘vishap’ (dragon)—either a benevolent or malevolent character in Armenian folklore. And, of course, the cross, which would be total nonsense in the context of Muslim folk art! One thing is certain: ancient Armenian carpets had no global analogs—”few such carpets exist in other countries,” believed the Arab geographers and travelers al-Istakhri, Ibn Hawqal, and al-Muqaddasi.

In Armenia itself, carpets were initially intended for household use. They were hung on walls, spread on floors, used to cover thrones, beds, and seats, and to decorate chests. In temples, carpets served as curtains for vestries and altars.

In dwellings, they were used to drape doorways and to serve as partitions to provide a separate “room” for grown children and newlyweds. Carpets were made into an array of items—saddlecloths for horses, ‘khurdjins’ (two-part saddlebags), ‘ahamans’ (salt bags), and ‘mafrash’ (storage bags for bedding). Gradually, carpets became precious adornments for the gray walls of royal palaces and feudal castles.

These were not just carpets, but works of art. Early ‘vishapogorgs’ (dragon carpets) captured all the images of a fantastical world—both the vishap itself and the phoenix bird, as well as woven rosettes depicting mythical and real animals like camels, lions, deer, and horses.

Marco Polo, the 13th-century Venetian traveler, had been many places, but he declared that “it is the Armenians who make the finest and most beautiful carpets in the world.” However, even two centuries before Marco Polo’s “PR,” in the early 11th century, permission to trade Armenian carpets was granted only at the highest state level.

Brisk trade took place in the square in front of the Church of St. Donat in the Belgian city of Bruges and in front of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Carpets brought to Venice by merchants from distant Armenian Cilicia were displayed for sale right at the port.

Representatives of the Armenian trading company of Isfahan delivered carpets to snow-covered Moscow, to the land of tulips and dykes in the Netherlands, to the oldest city in France—Marseille, and to the capital of balls and masquerades—Venice. The supplier of carpets to the medieval European market was Asia Minor.

Of all the peoples who populated it, only the Armenians had long-standing carpet-weaving traditions. Only the Armenian ‘gorg’ was distinct for its unique ornamentation and specific “thematic” foundation. It is no surprise that it enjoyed an excellent reputation on the global market.

Armenian merchants enjoyed special privileges in Poland. According to a decree by King Stephen Báthory on May 24, 1585, “exclusive rights to manufacture and trade carpets in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth” were granted for twenty years to Murad Yakubovich, a native of Kaffa (Feodosia).

In the spring of 1601, Polish King Sigismund III Vasa commanded Armenian merchant Sefer Muradovich to supply carpets from Iran for his palace. Armenian carpet-makers at the court of Shah Abbas I took into account the tastes of Polish aristocracy, brilliantly fusing the Baroque style with Eastern coloration.

Thus were born the world-famous gold-woven “Polonaises”… Beautiful carpets were also woven in Austria. The alpine landscapes appealed to the people from Ani—a populous medieval Armenian city, known as the “city of a thousand and one churches.” Spain, and then France, also welcomed Armenian carpet-makers.

Prominent Armenologist Acharyan does not rule out that the word for “carpet” in several European languages (carpet in English, carpette in French, krpeta in Serbian) may owe their origin to the Armenian word “kapert” (pile carpet), which, incidentally, appears in the Bible translated in the 5th century.

Medieval Europe was not short on carpets, thanks not only to Armenian merchants who held a monopoly on the international carpet trade but also… to the Crusades.

Returning from the East, Crusader knights brought back carpets, indispensable in poorly heated medieval castles: warm woolen carpets provided relief from the cold. The fashionable decoration of medieval interiors—Armenian carpets—added a vibrant color accent to otherwise bland “European-style” renovations and were immortalized in their paintings by many great artists.

Famous painters of medieval Europe—Italians like Giotto, Mantegna, Pinturicchio, Bellini, Jacopo Bassano, Caravaggio; Flemish artists like Rubens and van Dyck; Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Terborch, Jan van Eyck, and Memling; as well as Hogarth, Delacroix, and many others—have eternalized priceless Armenian carpets in their works.

Gorg, kapert, khali

Hans Holbein the Younger, “Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze,” 1532. Staatliche Museum, Berlin.

According to the 9th-century Arab geographer Abu-Awna, the word “khali,” meaning “carpet” in Armenian, Arabic, and Turkish, originates from the name of the city of Karin (Western Armenia, now Erzurum), which in Arabic interpretation sounds like Kalikala — “the city of carpets.”

By the way, in medieval Armenian poetry, another synonym for the word “carpet” is used — “bazmakan,” from “bazmel” — to recline or sit.

Wool from Armenia: “gehm” — fleece, “asr” — white combed sheep’s wool, “asrapayl” — the same but additionally soaked in whey to add luster, “asrakerp” — frothy, “gzats” — whipped, “kazn” — luminous, “chur” — fine pile of Angora wool, “dftyk” — soft goat hair was highly valued in the international market. The 11th-century Arab geographer Al-Sa’alibi ranks it second only to Egyptian wool (Persian is in an honorable third place).

Erna Revazova
Translated Vigen Avetisyan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *