Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Carpets from the Islamic World, 1600–1800

Under the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal dynasties, carpet weaving was transformed from a minor craft based on patterns passed down from generation to generation into a statewide industry with patterns created in court workshops. In this period, carpets were fabricated in greater quantity than ever before. They were traded to Europe and the Far East where, too precious to be placed on the ground, they were used to cover furniture or hung on walls. Within the Islamic world, especially fine specimens were collected in royal households.

In Iran, the carpet and textile industries formed part of Shah ‘Abbas’ (r. 1587–1629) program for restructuring the economy and attracting European merchants to the country. He transferred silk merchants and weavers to the new capital of Isfahan and signed trade treaties with Spain, England, and France. Of the scores of carpets exported abroad at this time, the “Polonaise” type (50.190.1) was the most popular; over 300 of them are in foreign collections, and many bear the coat of arms of the family that commissioned them. Vase and garden carpets were among the other common types. In each of these, vegetal motifs replace the figural ones of the previous century.

In Ottoman Turkey, weaving patterns and techniques changed in the early sixteenth century after conquests in Persia and Egypt. Anatolia had been known for carpets with stylized animal and geometric designs, but with these new cultural contacts, carpets designed around a central medallion and with flowing saz-style vegetation came into vogue. Similar motifs also appeared on book covers, textiles, and in manuscript borders. The style of these Ottoman court rugs, first produced in Istanbul, then spread to other weaving centers in Cairo and Ushak (58.63; 1984.69), but never fully overtook the various regional carpet traditions. Caucasian and Armenian carpets retained their customary geometric patterns, and kilims (or flat-weaves) remained popular (62.156).

Before the time of Akbar (r. 1556–1605), it seems that few carpets were produced in India—perhaps because of the climate—but his court historians record royal workshops in the capitals of Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, and Agra. Early Mughal rugs closely resemble those from contemporary Persia, and in particular those produced in Herat. Later in the seventeenth century, patterns changed as European engravings and illustrated books circulated at the court, and a Mughal idiom, distinct from the Persian manner of depicting flora, developed. With the work of European traders, Indian carpets traveled to the West and as far east as China and Japan, and were avidly collected in England and Portugal.

Many carpets now have no record of date or place of origin. Early scholars devised one dating system based on carpets that appeared in Italian and Flemish paintings, and some rugs are now known by the name of the artist in whose paintings they appear, such as Lotto and Holbein. More recent studies focus on the technical aspects of carpet production, such as material, dyes, and weaving structure, finding these to be important clues in determining where a particular carpet was made. While patterns were popular over wide geographical areas or were sent from court workshops to provincial production centers, each region had a characteristic style of weaving that remained the same over time. In Persia, for instance, an asymmetrical knot was most often used, and in Turkey a symmetrical one. Egyptian carpets are always fully wool, and Indian ones are recognized by their distinctive red hue.