We detect a pattern here—for centuries, Persian carpets have been prized around the world for their masterly weaving and meticulously detailed designs. Every color, shape, and form is part of a central motif in one-of-a-kind kilims, or tribal rugs, considered works of art that can sell for millions of dollars.
A carefully guarded skill handed down from father to son, Persian carpet weaving shares a collective history that reaches back thousands of years; ancient Chinese and Arabian texts from the 600s BC recognized the superlative work of Iranian rug makers. The oldest known piled or “knotted” piece—discovered inside a frozen tomb in Siberia’s Pazyryk Valley—dates much earlier: nearly 2,500 years ago. Displaying remarkable beauty and technical skill, the Pazyryk carpet now hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
The walls of the world’s greatest museums are a far cry from these carpets’ humble origins—as coverings for floors and walls to protect nomadic tribesmen from the outer elements. Yet as the generations of weavers became more accomplished, their works would come to be coveted by kings, noblemen, and wealthy merchants, who regarded them as status symbols. The craft reached its zenith during the 16th century; around 1,500 pieces from that era still survive in collections around the globe.
Persian rug design is typified by symmetrical patterns, which are then repeated in a motif; “reading” these motifs allows experts to determine the particular tribe or region of origin for each rug. The most common element is a large central medallion, much like the artwork found on Iranian mosque domes; the shape is most likely influenced by the weavers’ deep religious nature, with the center point representing the eye of an all-seeing deity. The rug makers’ mastery and imagination allow them to vary certain patterns with great adeptness, creating incredibly intricate art pieces.
Every form or image used is emblematic. A star indicates good luck; a cross, one’s faith. Hands are found on prayer rugs. The pomegranate and flower blossoms, which represent fertility, are often found on wedding carpets. A lotus or peacock symbolizes immortality. Snakes are a sign of good luck. Dogs and parrots offer protection against evil spirits.
The colors used in Persian carpets have symbolic meanings, as well. White is for purity; blue denotes the afterlife. Gold hues indicate wealth, while brown is a sign of fertility. Black, which denotes mourning or loss, is rarely used except for borders; nor will you see much green, the color of the Prophet Mohammed, least it should be walked upon in blasphemy.
Your best bet before buying a Persian rug is to visit a number of shops. Many Iranian shop owners will likely invite you in for a cup a tea, ready to explain the story behind each carpet in his stall. Another tip for “reading” a rug—turn it over. If the front pattern is clearly detectable and a bit irregular, that means it’s handmade. The more distinct the design on back, the higher the quality.