Until within a century the casual student of things Oriental has been apt to look upon Asia chiefly as “Bible country,” and through a glass of semi-religious colouring has endeavoured to make the things of long ago explain the life of the intervening centuries.
Without doubt the tent of Abraham was similar to those which have been used ever since by nomad tribes, and the curtains before it probably resembled the khilims we know so well to-day, but the modern student has added to his research by considering both Christian and Mohammedan ascendancy and would not look upon the art product of to-day as revealing in absolute purity the thought life of the Abrahamic period.
More or less, to be sure, racial conditions and methods have obtained in spite of changes brought about by the Cross and the Crescent. The ages were not dark ages, in the Orient, that are chronicled as such in the history of Christian Europe, and the influences from the Orient were felt through the Saracenic conquest, and were noticeable in European art antedating the Crusades.
The Christian Dark Ages were explained by writers of Sunday-school text-books, as without light, so far as the development of Christian truth was concerned, and all but the bare outlines of Mohammedan supremacy was eliminated. It must be borne in mind that we are speaking of the way historical facts have influenced art, and are not making an argument for or against methods of dealing with religious truths.
Formerly, missionaries with eager desire to establish the Cross in foreign lands, wrote in their books of travel more about converts made than about manners and customs. ” Idols ” were spoken of indiscriminately as such, without according any individuality to either the man or the animal worshipped. Not until religious fervour was accompanied with scholarly research did we receive much valuable assistance from the books of travel written by missionaries.
When English interests in the far East developed, the government sent out scholars whose reports were hailed with delight by waiting students, and the monographs published, and the reports in the Asiatic Society journals, were among the earliest literature that we could claim in the bibliography of the rug.
When Mr. Vincent Robinson wrote his earliest papers for the ” Journal of the Society of Arts,” and the distinguished secretaries of various museums and societies expressed to the world their convictions in regard to objects examined, we began to feel that we had something definite and tangible to take hold of, and we sought for encyclopaedic information which might enlighten us in regard to products and their uses in manufacture.
From ethnological and consular reports we were able to form a somewhat definite idea of the rug-producing countries and their physical aspects; of highland and lowland, towns and villages, and the manners and customs all through the caravan-traversed East.
Neither railroads nor cameras aided the early writers, and yet much was described by them that interpreted Eastern affairs better than aught else ever has ; for, without intention of proving a point, certain things were mentioned, or illustrated, by laborious process, which did reveal and explain to those whose eyes were ready to read, and whose intelligence was quickened to respond.
After this followed more popular writings, sent to both Europe and America by their respective ministers to Asia, and by army and navy officers who described in the most graphic manner things that really occurred, thus adding fuel to already kindled imaginations.
Scrap-books containing all that could be secured from periodicals of the time are among the most cherished possessions of those whose interest in the Orient has now covered nearly half a century of time.
Following the scarcely obtainable accounts of present-day conditions in Asia, came the reports from exploration and archaeological societies, which, with overwhelming conviction, indorsed the speculations of our foremost thinkers ; and in the unearthed testimony, cut into stone which had been buried for centuries, were found mute answers to questions that had been asked by antiquarians throughout the years.
Today we stand at the result of all the ages. We have not only all that has been written of a speculative nature in regard to Oriental rugs, but all the facts that could be gathered for our use by travellers and writers ; and still we may be confounded by the simplest specimen of the weaver’s art in our possession unless we have ourselves some method which shall serve as a key with which we may unlock the mysteries of Eastern thought which it represents.