Great River

The district between the Black and Caspian Seas on the north and the desert of Arabia on the south has been the scene of countless changes of government and ceaseless migration, to and fro, of the tribes of Asia and the conquering heroes of Europe. Every new influence that has swept over this stretch of country has materially marked its art, and never more absolutely than now was knowledge of the treasures of the past obtainable. Excavations and explorations are confirming the speculations of men of science and are indisputably establishing facts.

The geographical boundaries of this region are so distinct that with them we may easily frame each successive picture in the great world panorama that has there been unrolled. South of Lakes Van and Urumiah, and between them and the river Euphrates, the most important of western Asian civilizations lie buried.

The great monarchies of Assyria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia were parents of the numberless and intricate designs which we find handed down from the earliest times to the present, and from this centre art-motifs spread in every direction. One might study the region of the great rivers, and through each change in the world of events locate the Powers as they rose and fell for within the boundaries of the Euphrates and Tigris and Lake Van and Urumiah the past lies awaiting recognition.

As the Turkish empire includes this section of country at the present time, we must claim the district as Turkish in our classification. Both ancient and modern names are used in present-day nomenclature, and often, to prevent confusion in our study, these main geographical boundaries should in turn be filled in on the map with the names given during successive periods.

It holds to reason that the geometric art of the weavers of the Caucasus must have been the result of great thought and not of haphazard design. To the ancient Chaldeans and magicians who sought to account for the past and prophecy regarding the future, we owe a vast number of signs and forms which we now term “geometric,” but which originally were probably symbolic, and these claims of past civilization should be recognized and established as pre-Mohammedan.

The primitive peoples who occupied the fertile valleys of the great rivers were worshippers of the heavenly bodies, and their skill in astronomy and astrology is too well known to admit of dispute. Their cuneiform characters, cut into signets and pressed into bricks, may be examined to-day, and to their symbolic characters many modern patterns are traced.

Eastward, westward, and northward the evidences of the thought-life of these ancient peoples were scattered, even before the advance of Mohammedism, which, under penalty of the sword, gave the choice between submission and death. In the early weavings the most significant designs were wrought, and these may be traced in ancient sculptures and identified in rugs of the later centuries in which old tribal patterns were copied in fabrics presented to conquerors as ” tribute-rugs.” These old rugs are most highly prized by European collectors to-day.

It is plainly evident that in all records of the past we find much that will materially help us in our analysis of objects to-day, and we must endeavour to grasp with our thought as large a portion of the world’s history as possible, insisting upon a geographical concept of the relation of things to each other as influencing pattern.

The section of rug-producing country which stretches in a southerly direction from Lakes Van and Urumiah is held within the limiting boundaries of the two great rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. Whatever ornament still remains in the region of the buried cities, Babylon, Ctestiphon, and Nineveh, is of no immediate importance to the tribes who through the centuries have woven for utilitarian purposes their rough homespun fabrics and knotted carpets.

In the Caucasian district north of Mosul, and in western Persia, have been developed many of the motifs of design that we recognise as old “Chaldean,” “Assyrian, and ” Babylonian,” now that excavations have established absolute evidence for much that has heretofore been largely speculation. We note in old Mosul rugs many forms which have been adopted by the people of western Persia, who have used them without any regard to their significance. Noticeable among these designs are many that may be traced to ancient fortifications, moats, sites of towns, and crenulations, which have assumed the form of borders and have become tribal patterns of interest.

Mosul fabrications together with Kurdish weavings are the despair of the student when first he is trying to classify objects, until he learns that the Kurds, or wanderers in the mountain districts west of Persia, adopt every imaginable conceit in the designs with which they make bright and spirited their nomad existence. Soft and luxurious indeed are many of the rugs woven in mountain fastnesses and in remote villages, and as tributary offerings they have been taken by first one and then another sovereign, who has demanded service though he may never have succeeded in conquering the lawless tribes. So confused are the designs in many of these rugs that it is absolutely necessary to resort to other means of identification than the study of pattern.

There is a heavy, glossy, lustrous quality about both Mosul and Kurdish rugs : they are commonly woven with warp and weft both of wool, and the knots are tied in Turkish fashion. Occasionally the selvage shows a checkered effect in Kurdish rugs, and this is one of the features we find copied in Asia Minor fabrics. Old Mosul as well as Kurdish rugs have sometimes heavy braided loop ends extending beyond the fringe, and there are evidences of nomad workmanship about them.

The reason for the dismay of the student at finding it impossible readily to identify these fabrics is evident when he considers that he is attempting to study a subdivision of a great subject before the main divisions are thoroughly understood and recognised.

In Persian fabrics a class of rugs called ” Kurdistan ” seems to the casual observer very like those spoken of as ” Kurdish.” The Kurdistan province of eastern Persia bears a different relation to the output of that country from the fabrics manufactured west of Lake Urumiah, or at least so we find it to be in our grouping together, here in the Occident, the material objects in which are manifested Oriental thought, life, and manufacture. No better opportunity than this may present itself to us for studying some of the designs which trace back to a time prior to the present occupation of this district of country.

Assyrian and Babylonian art must always serve as the base upon which later designs Were built, and it is now possible to obtain illustrations of ancient life and habits which are proving and interpreting ornament. Sun and star worshippers, and observers of natural phenomena, studied the mysteries of existence in the part of the country called ” the region of the great rivers,” and to their speculations we have every reason to revert in our study of the migration of symbols.

The Garden of Eden, wherever it may have been, has given to Christian and Pagan design one motif beyond all others significant and artistic,—the Sacred Tree ; and before considering the weavings of any other part of Asia we must pause in the neighbourhood where the human story began. Not that we expect to find there anything that has to do with the past, but because, wherever it has travelled and in whatever fabric we find it, the tree in story and in ornament first developed beside the river Euphrates.

In whatever way it may have been worshipped and pictured, the tree has; given more definite art motifs than almost any other one object. From east to west it has extended, and root and branch have forced their way into ornament. We find that in definite designs the cypress, pine, willow, fig, bamboo, and sycamore figure in Oriental art with many less well-known trees.

For various reasons trees were deemed sacred those that in any way affected man’s weal or woe were especially venerated, and the fruit whose juice furnished a beneficial elixir was worshipped by those whose gratitude knew no bounds. It was therefore very natural for its decorative qualities to find recognition, and from earliest times man’s attitude toward its supernatural power caused him to carve, paint, and weave its form in stone and fabric.

Different countries have chosen one or another tree for special worship, though in central Asia half-a-dozen tree forms are often pictured together and vie with each other for favour. In ancient art the grape-vine is very frequently represented as a tree, and the fruit is so highly conventionalised that it is often mistaken for a cone. The fig-tree, too, is so crudely drawn as to withhold its distinguishing features and force itself upon us as an unknown object.

Recent illustrations showing the appearance of both of these forms on coins and medals have done much to lighten the task of the student of symbol, who finds in old Ispahan rugs various renderings of the vine and fig, and may now identify them with classic and archaic representations of the sacred tree,—sacred because its gifts to man were supposed to come direct from the gods.

In China there grows a species of palmate-leaved tree upon which the Fung-hwang is supposed to feed. Again and again we find this tree woven in Persian as well as in Chinese fabrics, and, true to tradition, the sacred bird hovers near it and establishes the truth concerning it.

The mulberry-tree, because of its service to the silkworm, has furnished art motifs which have been perpetuated in Mongolian fabrics, as have the three cone-bearing trees,—the cypress, the yew, and the pine. The cedar and the willow have both been highly developed in the art of Cathay, but it is to a mythical tree that we look for the most interesting arborescent development in that country.

Near the palace of Si Wang Mu grows the tree whose fruit grants immortality to him who can secure it ; for only those favoured by the fairy queen dare to make demand for it. This tree grows beside the sea of Jade, and its flower, fruit, and leaf are found in textile fabrics. A tree which is believed to be typically Chinese is called the calendar-tree, and upon it a leaf is supposed to grow each day for the first fifteen days of the month, and then each day for fifteen days a single leaf falls.

The eagle-tree is also a Chinese product, and that tree is guarded by two birds, who fight the attack of a dragon monster who attempts to steal the fruit and kill the birds.

The stories about these various trees, though mythical, are very absolute, and it is surprising how often in the rugs of Persia these Mongolian devices are met with. Upon the calendar-tree stars instead of fruit tip the ends of the branches, and often take the shape of well-known constellations. In the brocades and grenadines with which the Chinese clothe themselves are found designs that still remain absolutely true to tradition, often showing to which of the religions of China the weaver is a devotee.

These devices appear also in old and modern rugs, and, while they are yet unspoiled by outside influence, should be studied and interpreted. Si Wang Mu’s mythical tree of immortality is supposed to grow in the Taoist heavens, and is unlike any paradisiacal tree described in Buddhist legends. Ancient Taoist tradition testifies to the belief that upon a high mountain grows a tree by which men m a y climb from earth to heaven, and this tree in art is not unlike the calendar-tree, only that it is always represented conventionally, with mountains at its base.

Gem-trees, upon which various sorts of stones and jewels were clustered in the shape of fruit, suggest the tree of life in the Garden of Eden which bare ” twelve manner of fruits,” and these beautiful objects are often pictured in rugs of the Ferraghan district, in which old designs are being reproduced.

Japanese tree-worship is strongly tinged with Buddhist thought, and the spirit within the tree is poetically fancied and ardently courted and addressed. Written messages tied to the branches of the tree are supposed to reach the resident god, and fanciful thoughts regarding the counterpart in Paradise of the most beautiful trees on earth are instigated and nurtured’by contemplation and reverie.

Branches of trees were and are used in all Eastern worship, not merely for decorative purposes, as we use them, but with significance. The willow wand is used as a talisman to keep off evil in China ; the bamboo twig serves numberless beneficial ends ; and the pine, as an emblem, of longevity, accompanies all illustrations of th,: genii who are thought to dwell in a land where the sacred tree flourishes. Tied to the branches of trees, and made fast to magic wands which are planted in the supposed pathway of gods and goddesses, are the prayers of those who believe in direct communication with the Divine.

The path of prayer

” Among the gnarled pines of old Japan,
That shade a hill where patient crickets sing,
I chanced upon a hidden path that ran Upward beneath a mystic covering.
“A hundred gates the sacred pathway keep,
Mere stems of red with one straight beam across, In rigid angles mounting up the steep,
Their scarlet hue bepatched with ancient moss.
” And springing from the mould on every side,
Like ghosts of grass that march in pilgrim band,
Grew fluttering papers written all and tied As banners pendant from a mimic wand.
” I wondered long, when from the drowsy wood
A whisper reached me, “Tis the Path of Prayer,
Where nightly Kwannon walks in pitying mood To read the sad petitions planted there.’ ”

—Mary McNeil Fenolossa.

Travelling westward across the Himalaya Mountains, we find in the Hindu cosmogony a different form of the tree, and one that in every way suggests the tree of life. The branches, whatever they be like in form of fruit or foliage, are filled with birds and animals, and rustle with the spirit of creation.

Growing out of the chaotic conditions at the centre of the earth, the Hindu tree is supposed to be watered by the great rivers, and to bear seeds of all sorts which are carried hither and yon by birds, so that the earth may bring forth plants, trees, and herbs for the sustenance of mankind. The drink called soma was derived from the leaves of the Hindu tree of life, and it so quickened the intellect that knowledge was added to the attributes of the wonderful tree.

Wherever these ideas originated, and however they may have migrated all over the Orient, we constantly find expressions of them and it shows a lack of knowledge of the universality of the belief in the sacred tree to call every tree in ornament by the same name, —” the tree of life.”

The influences so far described have their manifestation in the countries east of Persia, and it is wise to draw the line somewhat abruptly right here, and to speak of Mohammedan ideas about the sacred tree, and then we may intelligently distinguish between Arabian and Mongolian devices when they appear in Persian fabrics.

The fruits and the rivers of the Mohammedan Paradise promise most alluring and attractive delights, and in the trees the ” green birds ” hover in which the souls of the righteous are supposed to lodge. In an old Ispahan carpet of rare beauty and quality the birds are portrayed as flying in constellations which, held within cloud-bands, are twined in the branches of the tree of paradise. All sorts of mythological ideas are given form in Arabian tree devices. We find the zodiac-tree, which bears stars upon its twelve branches, and the tree of punishment, upon the extended arms of which appear the heads of animals.

In strictly decorative art the tree takes vine-like characteristics, and birds standing on either side of it destroy small serpents which seem to be attacking the roots. This device is not unlike an East Indian rendering of a design which demonstrates the belief in the ability of the peacock to destroy serpent life, and in either one or the other direction the idea must have migrated. It would be impossible in an ordinary lifetime to learn one half of the myths of Islam, but nevertheless it is surprising how many reveal themselves in designs on rugs even to our limited knowledge.

Those relating to trees mention the tooba tree, which is described as being so large that the fleetest horse could not gallop around it in a hundred years, or from one end of its shadow to another. It bears dates, grapes, and all manner of fruits. Should it be desired, its branches will yield the flesh of birds and animals, and clothes of green silk will burst from its blossoms, and beasts to ride on. The lotus-tree, depicted as ” upon the utmost limit of created things,” appears in illustrations, in silk carpets, of Mohammed’s journey to heaven. Only as far as that tree of somewhat mysterious shape and nature could the Angel Gabriel go with the Prophet, and according to the fancy of -the weaver this so-called lotus-tree figures in design and fabric.

In the carpets of Persia we discover a mixture of legends. In old Kerman and Ispahan designs, many of which are being copied in the newest of silks to-day, are portrayed Mohammedan angels in Mongolian clouds hovering over easily recognised Persian tree and plant forms. The mingling of religions has made it impossible to draw the line accurately between the decorative emblems and symbols which record man’s belief, but in the Oriental rug there is more fidelity to motifs that have import and significance to individuals, than in any other art object possible for us to handle.

The cypress-tree of Persia, as it originally figured in the belief of the fire-worshipping people as the emblem of Zoroaster, casts its shadow over many of the most treasured specimens of Iranian looms. Pointing ever upward with unerring directness, the cypress-treeis reverenced as a symbol of immortality and is pictured in both crude and highly elaborated styles.

As a design it was used naturally in mosque and grave carpets, when such were made for native use ; but now, with loss of meaning, it has become a very popular motif in modern rugs, as it is always artistic and generally an easy design to work. One of the most interesting examples of the mixture of ideas and styles was demonstrated not long ago in a moderately old Ispahan rug, in which the cypress-tree as main design was drawn so as to show a series of overlapping leaves, on each of which characters were written in almost exact reproduction of the design on the leaves of the Buddhist ” tree of ten thousand images,” which are supposed to have magic power and to be written upon by the gods.

In architecture and the decorative arts one finds the cypress-tree so often used that we can readily examine its details and determine whether or not it is true to tradition in shape and proportions. Hammered into brass and silver its form stands eloquently true to ancient belief, even when handled by unthinking artisans to-day, who, because they desire to put upon their lotas, or drinking-vessels, something that has honourable significance, decorate with the cypress-tree these articles of everyday use.

Of no figure in ornament can it be said more truly than of the tree that it is easy to distinguish between the literal and the poetic representation of it. When it appears, as it does in the Buddha window at Ahmedabad, as ornament merely, we find that the most poetic imagination has given rise to as graceful a form as was ever devised, while an attempt to picture a tree of knowledge, a tree of evil, or a tree of life leads to a grotesque representation from which art-lovers naturally shrink. Only by frankly admitting this can we summon courage to examine the woven horrors that aesthetic taste eschews.

As the soma-tree provided a drink for the Hindu gods, so in Persia the sap of the haoma-tree yielded the same sort of beverage and granted immortality. Leaves of these sacred trees are even more often represented in art than the trees themselves, and the significance of many of them is more thoroughly understood than formerly.

The much-talked-about palm-leaf has fluttered down upon the fabrics of all peoples, and one student after another has gleaned his quota of information about it to add to the general mass of opinion. At least we have discovered that many forms were called in Europe “palm-leaves ” when they were first noticed upon chintzes and shawls that were brought from the Orient by early travellers, and so the name was popularly applied to all leaves, in ornament, with twist or gourd-like termination or appendage. Our little knowledge has been greatly to our disadvantage, and many are obliged to admit that they have inadvertently perpetuated error by failing to notice the difference between the forms with which textiles are ornamented.

The palm-leaf in design has within a few years been very carefully considered by students and writers, both in Europe and America, who have given names to its various forms, that have been so universally adopted that it is both courteous and desirable to accept them as descriptive.

The form known to us as the ” palm-leaf ” was originally fraught with religious meaning, and in its simplest rendering followed the outline shape of the cone, which, as the fruit of a sacred tree, served as an emblem of immortality and was revered by the ancients. Its winged seed hidden in the cup-shaped sections of the cone was without doubt pictured as surmounting the form far oftener than we think, and sculptured evidence is supposed to point to the fact that the cone itself was burned in religious worship.

As students of ornament, our task is to learn to distinguish between forms as they appear, and never to try to twist or turn in a speculative way that which is, into what we would most like it to be, in order to prove our theories. Taking from known objects various renderings of the palm-leaf in ornament will so quickly train the eye to note the difference between leaf, fruit, and composite forms, that one will soon stand possessed of personal convictions which he may apply in his analytical study.

In Chinese fabrics we find a representation of an almond leaf, and also one of a design based on a section of the mythical fruit of immortality, in both of which shapes ceremonial pottery was formerly made. Among Canton and Nankin porcelains taken in old times to Europe were leaf-shaped dishes which were so enthusiastically received that they were finally made in China for commercial purposes, and few sets of blue and white ” India ware ” ” lack side-dishes of this sort.

The palm-leaf in India has given outline ornamentation to various floral forms contained within its conventionalized limits, and whole stories of root, plant, leaf, and blossom are found in the composite figures that are distributed freely in the ornamentation of all sorts of East Indian art objects. Sometimes gourds furnish motifs in Eastern patterns, and their roughened, warped surfaces have decorative qualities which the art-worker quickly recognizes.

Almost all things sacred are pictured in the art of the mystery-loving East Indian ; and whether or not in the Jong ago, the pilgrims to the sacred mosque in the mountains, that bound the Vale of Cashmere endeavoured to reproduce in ornament the remembered beauty of the peaceful winding of the river upon which their weary eyes feasted at the end of their long journey, cannot be definitely proved, because the pattern now known as the ” river-loop ” is older than any living weaver, however skilfully it may be reproduced at the present time.

In Persia the palm-leaf takes every possible sort of flower, fruit, cone, flame, and composite form. It is fantastically arranged in the rug designs of Khorassan province in eastern Persia, symmetrically distributed upon the field of Shiraz weavings, and in unrelated fashion finds representation in both border and field designs in western Persian and Trans-Caucasian fabrics. There are two ways of studying each of these forms, and both are necessary. We should trace first the outline and then the make-up of each figure. In this way we begin to notice that whole tree and plant forms are often contained within the ornate boundary of the leaf itself, and gems and jewels are skilfully copied in knots of lustrous silk and wool.

he crown-jewels of Persia, as also those of India, have been accurately reproduced in ornament, and are thought by many to be easily discoverable in Oriental rug designs. True it is that there are those among so-called palm-leaf forms that seem composed of jewels, and the term ” jewel-palm ” has found its way into catalogues, where it may be sure of an enduring fame to which it has more right than some are willing to admit.

It is impossible to determine with absolute certainty the origin of the ” palm ” or ” seal ” pattern which figures in two ways in rug designs one where the whole hand appears in outline ; the other which describes the curve of the bent little finger and the side of the palm of the hand. When casually observed, both of these patterns are erroneously classed as palm-leaf patterns, but tradition and the testimony of many Orientals, who know what it is to covenant and seal with blood, urge the belief in the primitive symbol from which the design has evolved. To dip the hand in human blood and with it press a document by way of making signature, is a custom well known in the East, and one that is recorded on old parchments and copied in classic and tribal patterns.

” And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Belief in this idea originated the custom of depicting all sorts and kinds of fruit as growing upon the sacred tree, and about the natural fruits of the Orient and their curative and stimulating properties more of interest is being discovered every year. Pits, seeds, and stems have each and all, with the outlines of cross-section cuttings of the fruits, given motif s for tree and fruit forms, and beyond all that it is possible to prove we find at last that the imagination of the weaver has blossomed on all sorts of woven trees and taken shapes and characteristics unlike anything natural.

” The fruit of the tree ” has always been the object of reverent care of animals which have guarded it through the centuries. One creature on one side and one on the other either eat of the fruit or bend over it with approval and protection. Sometimes certain animals seem to have charge of special fruits, whether they are growing on the tree or have been plucked and are piled by themselves, so that vases and baskets of fruit are sometimes represented as between two birds or two animals, and in some cases, in very old designs, between two human beings,—evidently kings or priests.

It is to be noted with great satisfaction that, limitless as these subjects seem to be when first our interest is awakened in them, they are very definitely bounded. ” Thus far shalt thou go and no farther,” the student hears again and again repeated as he endeavours to find evidence for what he believes, and it is both reassuring and convincing to find that only the absolute seems to have endured through all the chances and changes of time. When that which has been established as fact is thoroughly comprehended, it is surprising to see how quickly all art that has been based upon it can be distinguished from that which is purely fanciful, and only when we can thus contrast the two can we sufficiently respect fidelity to tradition in the former and revel in the unfettered freedom of the latter.

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