Short Teaching Module: Early Modern Islamic Carpets as Transcultural Objects
Islamic carpets were ubiquitous in the early modern period (1500-1800) in Europe as much as it was in the Islamic world. They were important objects of decor within homes, imperial palaces, and religious buildings. These decorative art objects were produced in great numbers and in a variety of designs and techniques across the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. They, however, circulated far beyond their centers of production. Islamic carpets are therefore what can be called transcultural objects. They are objects that were produced by the co-mingling of concepts and techniques that came from different cultures. Simultaneously, they are objects that were used by multiple cultures in very different ways. Islamic carpets are thus transcultural both in the way they were produced and used. Because of their aesthetic, use, and symbolic value, these objects were able to cross seemingly rigid cultural and political boundaries between the Islamic world and Christian Europe in the early modern period. Although Islamic carpets were as popular in Europe as it was in Islamic cultures that produced them, they were used somewhat differently in these two cultural spheres. Their symbolic value too changed, depending on the culture that used them as well as from one century to the next. Throughout time, what remained common to the appreciation of Islamic carpets were the high aesthetic and monetary values placed on these decorative art objects. In this module, we look at Islamic carpets from two major carpet-producing empires—Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran—and learn about their varied use and symbolisms.
Different uses of Islamic carpets in Islamic World and Europe
Early modern Islamic cultures used carpets as highly aesthetic if utilitarian things that were used to sit down, sleep, and pray. Their use in the Islamic world was therefore an embodied one where people came into close physical contact with these beautiful objects. Because they were used so intimately, the designs were often perused for their meaning and aesthetic enjoyment in ways that were very different from the western world. For example, the late-sixteenth-century Persian carpet popularly known as the "Salting Carpet," now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was made for the particular use of sitting on it within a garden enjoying not only the beautifully-woven motifs of birds, flowers, vines, and wondrous mythical creatures, but the borders of this carpet also had woven inscriptions that the person seated on the carpet could read and enjoy. These verses were taken from the poetry of the great fourteenth-century Iranian poet Hafez and included these romantic verses:
“Call for wine and scatter roses: what do you seek from Time?/ Thus spoke the rose at dawn. O nightingale, what say you?
Take the cushion to the garden. You may grip the lip and kiss the cheek of the Beloved and the Cup-Bearer. You may drink the wine and smell the rose.”
The use of carpets in Islamic cultures were, however, driven first and foremost, by practicality. Amongst nomadic tribes and in villages, carpets were used to keep floors and walls warm. The tribes of Central Asia, for example, used carpets as doors on their temporary tent structures in lieu of an actual door. They were also used as bags, animal trappings, and as special objects within rituals. Even in urban centers, one of the most popular types of carpets in this period, the sajjadah or prayer rug was borne out of the need for a clean place for devout Muslims to conduct their prayers, which they are required to do five times a day. The smaller-size of the prayer rugs were necessitated by their function as easily portable objects that can be carried during travels. In Europe, however, Islamic carpets had largely an aesthetic function. While they were used as floor coverings, Islamic carpets also found use as objects to decorate tables, walls, and window sills. Because they were an item of luxury, they were also used to indicate wealth and eliteness of the user. But they were never used as furnishings in the way Islamic cultures did since carpets were things to walk upon and look at but they were rarely objects to sit, sleep, or pray in the western world. In other words, while in Islamic cultures, the appreciation of carpets were both visual and tactile, in Europe their appreciation was largely limited to the visual.
Symbolisms Within Islamic Carpets in the Islamic World and Europe
Some Islamic carpets were imbued with symbolic value. Such symbolism in the Islamic World was intentional in that symbolism in carpets were directly related to their manner of use. For example, the sajjadah or prayer rugs were often woven with the representation of an arch or a colonnaded arcade within the carpet's main design field as seen in the early eighteenth century carpet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. Arches, particularly, colonnaded arcades represented the earliest form of mosque architecture thereby bringing a little bit of the ambience of a mosque on to the prayer rug. Other prayer rugs had single arches that filled the main design field of the carpet such as in this Ottoman eighteenth-century prayer rug at The Walters Art Museum. The single arch represented the mihrab or niche in a mosque that denoted the direction of prayer. A mihrab is a special niche that is place on the wall of a mosque that is in the direction of the Muslim holy site of Mecca. Symbolically, the arch in a prayer rug thereby signaled the rug as a place of piety and worship as well as its axial design with the pointed arch was used to orient the worshipper in the right direction for prayer.
Of course, such symbolism would not have been understood in early modern Europe. However, a different set of symbolisms, not originally intended by the makers of these carpets, came to be associated with Islamic carpets in Europe. In general, because of their status as expensive and exclusive luxury goods, Islamic carpets symbolized wealth and stature in the West. For this reason, carpets can be seen adorning the tables of important men—diplomats, clergy, merchants—in early modern paintings such as the seventeenth-century painting of Lucas van Uffel, a Flemish merchant, by the celebrated painter Anthony van Dyck. Islamic carpets were imbued with other more use-specific or period-specific symbolisms as well. For example, in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, carpets were included in scenes of excess, a symbol of excessive conspicuous consumption, a cautionary message to Dutch middle classes about the amoral nature of too much wealth and worldly pleasures. In the painting, A Maid Asleep, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer shows a woman nodding off to sleep at the kitchen table decorated with an Ottoman Turkish carpet. Vermeer uses the carpet not only to add color and texture to the scene and show off his painterly skills, the carpet is symbolic of the maid’s laziness while at work. Islamic carpets had a religious symbolic value associated with it in Europe as well as seen through its widespread use within European churches. This was in part due to the knowledge of the Middle Eastern custom of using carpets under the feet of holy men, a concept transmitted to the western world through the story of Palm Sunday in the Bible. Thus both in Islamic and Christian cultures of the early modern period, Islamic carpets were highly regarded status markers and had symbolic uses.
For the people who originally used these carpets, these types of symbolic references would have been part of their everyday vocabulary and therefore, they would have been able to use and enjoy these objects in ways very different from that of a modern viewer. Many carpets also used stylized flora and fauna intertwined in vines, tendrils, and stylized cloud bands to represent the eternal spring in Paradise promised to the devout worshipper in his afterlife. Specific trees like the Cypress which are mentioned in the Quran appeared on carpets as recurring motifs that symbolized Paradise. Other motifs like hanging lamps or rays of light symbolized the divine light of God. In addition to these kinds of symbolism, carpets also sometimes contained apotropaic symbols such as the chintamani motif (3 spheres bordered by two wavy lines) seen in Ottoman Turkish carpets. These types of motifs have a longer visual history but in early modern Islamic cultures they were used to ward off the evil eye.
Even though the exact nature of use of Islamic carpets differed in Islamic and Christian-European cultures in the early modern period, they continued to be highly valuable decorative art objects across North Africa, Europe, and Asia in the period between 1500 and 1800. While they were ubiquitously associated with the Islamic cultures that largely produced them, because of their rich and colorful designs, their complex production techniques, and their relative portability, Islamic carpets were able to navigate the needs of multiple societies and take on different symbolic meanings and cultural values. Transcultural objects such as these carpets underline the porousness of geographic and cultural boundaries that one encounters in historical maps and political histories. Even within cultures as varied as Persia and Prussia, the presence and use of these objects highlight aesthetic commensurability that is often missing in traditional historical accounts.
Islamic Carpet made in Safavid Iran
Islamic Carpet made in Ottoman Turkey at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Early Modern Ottoman Carpet at the Walters Art Museum
Why I taught this source
In teaching the transcultural value of early modern Islamic carpets, my objective is to introduce students to a new way of looking at popular objects that have long histories, and that belong to multiple decorative and cultural traditions. The understanding of Islamic carpets as decorative art objects that have different symbolic and cultural values across different societies will raise students’ awareness of (a) transculturality as a world history concept; (b) the symbolic and cultural value of objects we have come to regard as everyday objects in the modern world; and (c) the ability of historical objects to act as connective tissues between different cultures. Students will also get a brief look into how art historians study complex decorative art objects.
How I introduce the source
I would start with presenting the image of a carpet and ask students to do some basic visual analysis - what are their eyes drawn to at first? What are the different colors in use? Is there a theme? Is there an overall design or patterns that they can identify? Is there a particular direction in which the design of the carpet might be oriented? Are there motifs that they can recognize? Are those motifs representational or stylized? What is the field and border of the carpet? Are there inscriptions? How big is the carpet?
I would also introduce, with the use of a video, the techniques by which carpets are made on a loom so that they can understand the complexity of weaving an Islamic carpet in the traditional handwoven manner.
Reading the Source
Because the study and “reading” of carpets is a very specialized field, I think the first step is to recognize that unless you are an expert in the field, you cannot full understand the many motifs, techniques of production, cultural and symbolic meaning of carpets. So this should not be attempted. But, using an introductory visual analysis that has been detailed in the section above, students can be more cognizant of the complexities and nuances of Islamic carpets and derive more aesthetic enjoyment of these art objects.
Document Based Question
• What are some types of early modern Islamic carpets?
• What are some of the popular representations of carpets that you can think of in books, movies, or social media?
• What does “symbolic value” mean?
• Can you design a carpet that has symbolic value to you?
• Using the resource the MET Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, can you find one example of a carpet that was used in an Islamic culture and one example of a carpet that was used in the west in the period between 1500 and 1800?
• Do you have decorative carpets in your home? How do you use them?
• The next time you see a decorative carpet in a domestic setting, would you interact with it differently including: looking but also touching, sitting, or lying down on them?
Carrier, David. 2008. A world art history and its objects. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Denny, Walter B. 2019. How to read Islamic carpets. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Denny, Walter B. 2017. “Carpets, Textiles, and Trade in the Early Modern Islamic World” in A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, edited by Finbarr Barry Flood. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley&Sons, p. 972-995.
International Conference on Oriental Carpets, Murray L. Eiland, and Robert Pinner. 1999. The salting carpets.
Carrier, David. 2008. A World Art History and Its Objects. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Denny, Walter B. 2019. How To Read Islamic Carpets. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Denny, Walter B. 2017. “Carpets, Textiles, and Trade in the Early Modern Islamic World” in A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, edited by Finbarr Barry Flood. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, p. 972-995.
International Conference on Oriental Carpets, Murray L. Eiland, and Robert Pinner. 1999. The Salting Carpets.