Antique rugs – the real history how they came

Tents, temples and tombs

Among tent-dwelling people the antique rugs have its birth. Tent-dwellers from earliest times have made use of hangings and floor-coverings of great interest and beauty. Tents themselves were far more gorgeous than we are apt to suppose, until study brings to light many commonly unknown facts concerning them, the nations and tribes of the Orient availing themselves of all the luxuries that time and skill afforded in making their tents sumptuous.

In the long ago, Alexander the Great is said to have been so charmed with tent life that he imported the idea to Greece. His tent was supported by fifty golden pillars, carrying a roof of woven gold, embroidered in shimmering colours, scarlet and white hangings separating the apartments. This tent was even exceeded in beauty by one belonging to an Egyptian king, which was covered with golden eagles, the pillars which supported the roof representing palm-trees of gold, about which twined vines of gold leaves, with fruitage of amethysts. The Bedouins frequently sheltered many thousand people in their native tents, and, great as was the expense necessary to protect so many, the sides of the tents were decorated with beautiful embroideries; and precious stones and gold were used in the greatest profusion.

Even after tents are abandoned by tent-dwelling people, and rude structures take their place, wall-hangings and weavings of all sorts are made to clothe architecture, and upon them we find that the decorations are the same as those worked formerly upon the canvas of the tent homes themselves. Returned travellers, at the present day, give most enthusiastic descriptions of the beauty and luxury of the tents that even now are used by nomads, or wandering tribes, all over Asia, and much that will materially assist the student is being gathered from people who have not yet sacrificed tribal traditions.

The ornamentation on the tents of primitive people, and upon their tabernacles and tombs, was in early times either painted and embroidered on canvas, or engraved on stone and wood. Such methods of decoration antedated weaving in Eastern rugs design patterns. When the effort was first made to copy in warp and woof the patterns which had been formerly embroidered upon a smooth, woven surface, the weavers found it impossible to work in curves because of the limitations of the art.

This forced the geometric in design, and we claim for the weaver’s art the origin of that style of ornament. The very beautiful and highly developed geometric designs that soon evolved from the weaver’s dexterity and skill were in turn copied in painting and in mosaic work in stone, so that later weavers found inspiration and guidance by studying the rock-cut tombs and sculptures of the Orient. These stone carvings are invaluable to us in the study of the art of the ancients, and each year places us under more of a debt to antiquarians and eminent scholars whose scientific skill and indefatigable perseverance and patience discover and interpret the relics of the past.

Antique Asia Minor Prayer Rug

By way of example, let us trace one simple pattern found as a border design in the very early weavings of people near the shores of the Mediterranean, the Black, and the Caspian seas. The angular hook pattern which is apparent in all Western Asian designs, is traced by some to a wave or water motif and by others to a more involved ancestry ; the zigzag in different places has different meanings, but it is generally claimed as a water motif ; while the space which separates the lower from the upper ornament, though it appears with slight variations in numberless old patterns, is usually marked off by simple diagonal lines at regular intervals. The oft recurrence of these three motifs of ornament in certain tribal patterns seeming to point to some remote origin, a search among museum treasures brought to light various rock sculptures with designs in relief of old galleys and craft of various sorts, and tracings from these give mute evidence of the right of the student to draw his own deductions.

A consideration of the development in decoration, from that which could be freely applied with a brush or easily cut in a soft substance to that which is necessarily restricted in expression because of the inadaptability of the materials used, reveals the fact that all primitive peoples have found the same difficulties, and that consequently a similarity in early art is to be expected. In primitive geometric ornament straight lines are used, and patterns are made to assume angular forms giving great vitality. As obstacles are overcome, however, straight lines give place to curves, the concessions of the weaver being everywhere apparent, and we note a decline in the vigour of the designs, which may quite easily mark the age and periods of development in the art of any special locality.

In certain parts of the Orient geometric design has developed features that are different from those most often found in other places. In one region the star, in another the equilateral triangle, and in still another the octagon, furnish motifs that receive novel and interesting treatment in the various localities where they have been most fully developed. In the early history of the weaver’s art, these main features were distinct, and serve to guide our judgment accurately in making decisions. There was fidelity in pattern to the symbol from which it evolved, and every effort was made to hand down from one generation to another that which had been long honoured and revered.

The poetry of rug-making has been turned into prose by the modern European manufacturer, who orders in the East, according to his own fancy or knowledge about the market, that which he thinks will sell best. There was a time when to finish a rug in the home of a native weaver was to accomplish something worthy of recognition. The father of the fair weaver would go about and say : ” Oh, come ! My girl ! She has made a rug ! Come, come and see the rug my daughter she has made!” And then the neighbours would go to see the rug, and would congratulate the father of a girl who could weave so fine a rug, one that she might use as a dowry-rug. No money value could be placed on such a production as that. By the rugs thus woven young girls were sometimes judged by their suitors, and a rug showing patience, skill, and fidelity to tribal distinction was apt to mean that the weaver would make a good wife.

The study of Oriental rugs will reveal much that can be discovered in no other way. The needs of human beings are alike the world over, and the tent, the temple, and the tomb draw upon the inventive genius of all peoples alike,— a place in which to live, which shall be as beautiful as our knowledge and means will admit ; a place in which to worship, which shall be adorned with the choicest manifestations of thought and art ; and a quiet spot somewhere to bear evidence that we are not forgotten.

In the Orient the rug has always served all these purposes,— it adorns the home, makes beautiful the temple, and is thrown upon the tomb in loving memory. It is told of Robert Louis Stevenson that he so endeared himself to the natives of Samoa, that after his death they crept silently to the spot where he was resting, and drew over him one of their own native rugs, as the most absolute token of their regard.

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