Posted by R. John Howe on 10-17-2006 10:40 AM:

“Persian City Rugs;” An Expression Reconsidered

Dear folks

Jerry Thompson entitled his TM Rug Morning using, in part, a familiar expression, “city rugs.”

In his opening comments he talked about what this expression usually signals in the rug world.

• Woven in a city (usually a particular set of cities is intended)
• Usually woven with a curvilinear design
• On the basis of a specific planned design (often a paper
• Usually made for sale, often outside Iran (have a clear
commercial purpose)

After looking at the characteristics of actual rugs made under particular city rubrics, I want to suggest that we examine our experience a little to see how well the “city rug” expression functions to pick out a particular set of rugs.

First question, have the rugs we have examined under particular cities been woven in the city named?

The answer seems to have two parts. First, there do invariably seem to be some rugs woven in the city named. Sometimes it might even be that most of the rugs with a given name were woven in that city, but the second part of this answer is that it frequently seems otherwise. A very small numbers of “Sarouks” were apparently woven in that city; as many as 80 locations joined in making “Kermans,” and the best of them are claimed to have been woven in a city with a different name 100 miles to the north. So it’s clear that the term “city” is very often not literally the case.

A second major quality that “city” rugs are alleged to have is that they are (almost always) woven with curvilinear designs. This claim seems met most of the time. Perhaps only early Fereghans sometimes depart from the curvilinear.

A third characteristic of weavings designated “city” rugs is that they are alleged always to have been planned and that the weavers are following this plan closely sometimes knot for knot with reference to a paper cartoon or in response to a chant. This characteristic seems generally met (again with the possible exception of some early Ferahans) although the closeness with which the weavers follow the design is not always knot for knot. Jerry noted variations in some of his “city” rugs. A further indicator that a detailed plan is being used is “resolved” borders. Most of Jerry’s “city” pieces met this requirement, but the last three seemed to have borders of the “butted” type. So this latter requirement is not fully met.

A fourth characteristic is that “city” rugs are “commercial” rugs and were made for sale, usually to overseas markets. Again this requirement is mostly met by the examples provided. Our reading, though, suggests that what are called “city” rugs were supported importantly at times by the Persian market. Kerman was fortunate in this way and Ishfahan was too although producers in both of these cities were inventive in the face of the loss of their traditional markets in WWII. But it seems not a stretch to say that “city” rugs were usually not made for use within the territory of their manufacture. In this sense they meet the “commercial” standard.

One does wonder, sometimes, about the exclusions. Some Hammadans, Bijars and Sennehs seem to meet the stated criteria as fully as some of the types included. This makes the “city” designation seem a little arbitrary sometimes.

So where do we stand? Is the expression “Persian ‘city’ rug” something that points reliably at something definite? I thought I remembered the typology that Jon Thompson popularized in his basic “Oriental Carpets,” but decided to look at it again anyway.

Here is what Thompson suggested:

Tribal rugs
Cottage production
Workshop and city rugs
Palace carpets

Well, you can see that “city” is in there, but its combination with “workshop” seems to help (the workshop is not always required to be in the city). And “cottage” may also potentially relieve some pressure on “city.” But it also pinpoints one problem with the “city” category: the latter is not “pure” enough for clear reference. In fact, this problem continues in Thompson’s typology since, both Kermans and Sarouks and maybe most Kashans were woven mostly in homes and for this reason seem closer on that score to “cottage” than to “workshop.” The problem that the “cottage” may or may not be in a “city” continues with Thompson’s typology.

I suspect that our musings here, amateur as they are, will not be very telling for readers who have employed the “city rug” designation with some confidence. But our considerations do, I think, suggest that the traditional confidence in this designation may not be fully merited.

Perhaps others will think differently.


R. John Howe

Posted by Richard Larkin on 10-17-2006 09:07 PM:


I never took that "city rug" label too literally, though I've always used it. It is a convenient term to describe rugs that are technically somewhet sophisticated, relatively speaking, and tend to come from urban venues, or places surrounding urban venues. Moreover, many of them center upon cities of decent size, such as Kerman, Tabriz, Isfahan, etc. It is the fine weave, the close cut pile (usually), the curvilinear designs, and perhaps the cartoon based production method that really identifies them. I've always believed at the same time that some of the "city" labels that have stuck, arbitrarily it seems in many cases (as the rugs didn't come from there), are the names of small towns. Clearly, there must be hundreds more places where rugs are and were woven than the handful of names current among us.

I don't imagine Jon Thompson intended to push his four part classification that far, either. There is surely a lot of overlap at the edges of the categories, even with the palace carpets if you think about it. Nevertheless, the four are a convenient means of sorting carpets out in an understandable way. Don't you think so? I think they work if one isn't too dogmatic about it, which of course you aren't.

Rich Larkin

Posted by Richard Larkin on 10-17-2006 09:55 PM:

other labels


So far, I've only skimmed this salon. I haven't had the time to really read through your postings, though I look forward to doing it with enjoyment. Over the years as I became interested in rugs, I had as much interest in mastering the various city types of weaves as the tribal. (It's an illusion that I only have eyes for Baluch.) After a while, I felt pretty confident about spotting the common types from the various venues (Kerman, Kashan, Tabriz, etc.), though I can surely use a refresher now. However, both then and now, some of the more obscure examples, even from some of the major centers, could be challenging. In addition, there are a few lesser known weaves under the "city rug" heading that occasionally appear. Teheran is an example. I know the attributes, but whether I can pick one out of a pile five times out of five is another matter. Isfahan rugs had a somewhat different character in years past than the easily recognized product of today. It is often observed that the older product was inferior to the current one, but in some respects, I find some of the older ones to be more interesting, though not as slick or technically accomplished. Anyway, I hope some of our knowledgeable Turkotekers will favor us with postings of some of the less well known types and the advice to go with them.

Rich Larkin

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-18-2006 01:25 AM:

Hi John,

A fourth characteristic is that “city” rugs are “commercial” rugs and were made for sale, usually to overseas markets
I’m, not sure what “overseas markets” means in this case, but I think that often it’s interpreted as “Western markets”.
Which is not exact, because also M.E. countries have always been – and still are – avid consumers of Persian rugs.


Posted by R. John Howe on 10-18-2006 04:38 AM:

Rich -

No, I don't intend any dogmatism at all in my examination of the use of the expression "city rugs." I have, at times, hung out a bit too much with philosophic types who take a lot of care "unpacking" key concepts to see if they "hold up," so to speak.

I think what I learned here (in addition to discovering that "Sarouk" is more a reference to quality than to strict geography) is that the distinctions in play between "workshop and city" rugs on one hand and "cottage" production on the other suggest two rather broadly overlapping disks in a Venn diagram.

One implication of this to me is that it seems less justified to exclude such types as Bijars, Sennehs and some Hammadans from the same category. Even some Bakhtiaris and Afshars are pretty darn "citified."

I do think I, personally, will tend now to use the expression "city" rug less and to be more precisely descriptive as I point at some variety.

One unrelated additional thought. The area of Persian rugs that we see as of the more "decorative" types, are, of course, those we see most often when we visit rug stores. Although I can recognize some distinctions between them reliably I notice that this is an area where I continue to make mistakes. I read Edwards and Eiland carefully but much of it is either too intellectualized or simply "runs off." I think it would stick if I handled such rugs continually for say 30 years or so.

Filiberto -

Yes, the literature is pretty clear that it intends that its references to the export market are mostly to western ones. I don't know how much of the export business was with Middle Eastern or other Asian countries (certainly some) but sometimes the literature is explicit. Edwards says that at the beginning of WWII 90% of the rugs made in Kerman were destined for the U.S. Willem Floor gives interesting historic data on more local trade in textiles in his book on the Persian textile industry, but says explicitly that his treatment of rugs is incomplete.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-18-2006 05:33 AM:

Hi John,

I don’t have historical data either, but I know by personal observation that there is plenty of rugs in the M.E., and a lot of them are from Persia.
Of course the upper or relatively healthy middle class that drove the demand here couldn’t be compared numerically with the U.S. one… Even so they represented a lucrative market.
They still do: every time I go to Beirut I’m always surprised by number of rug shops there (the souks were destroyed years ago by the war).


Posted by R. John Howe on 10-19-2006 09:09 AM:

Hi Filiberto -

Yes, there is certainly some local market for such "city" rugs in Iran at least. Both Kerman and Ishfahan producers seem to have survived during WWII and after by reorienting themselves to local markets, importantly to those who could afford rugs in Teheran.

And certainly Persian rugs have been and are of interest in other M.E. cities. Istanbul has long been a key player in the international market and this continues.

One oddity I know of: I have a nephew who is kind of a "world citizen." He's become fluent in several languages as he has lived in various parts of the world. Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabi, one other M.E. Arab country and he now lives and teaches in both Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan. He "goes native" wherever he has lived (hard in some places because he's 6' 4", weighs over 220 and has red hair and freckles ). He told me that it was hard to find oriental rugs in Saudi Arabia when he lived there. That surprised me.


R. John Howe

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-21-2006 01:12 AM:

Hi John

Depending on where - and when - your nephew was in Saudi Arabia, rugs may have been relatively sparse. Over the last 25 years, in the major cities, shops have been present in moderate numbers, and for those on the west coast, the hajjis are around a couple times each year with items from their home countries.

It is true that "old classics" are uncommon in Saudi Arabia, although a few dealers handle genuine antique pieces. Most are 20th century production, and lower quality pieces abound. Still, when we were there, we found several interesing rugs (at least, to us...).

High quality Persian city rugs are available, particularly Ghom and Tabriz pieces. Oddly, coarse pink and white silk Kashmiri pieces are almost more popular among the local population that the Persian city rugs.

Afghan and Uzbek items are also available, and from time to time, some interesting Saudi handicrafts show up on the market (we can look at them some other time). Here are a few images from shops in the Eastern Province in the early 1990's:

Chuck Wagner

Chuck Wagner

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-21-2006 03:14 AM:

Chuck, John,

Perhaps the main consumer of rugs, the middle class I was speaking before, appeared only recently in Saudi Arabia. In other countries such Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, the situation was different; they already had a well-off and cultivated bourgeoisie at the turn of the last century.

Before Saddam’s overthrow, a local dealer of Iraqi origin assured me that Iraq was the “rug vault” of the Middle East. At the time of Saddam exportation of rugs was forbidden and the dealer had them smuggled to his shop by his Iraqi relatives.

Now I am told that a fellow journalist (a colleague of my wife) bought a hundred or so rugs - mostly Persians - in the course of in his missions to Iraq in the last years.
Must have done quite a collateral business.


Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-21-2006 11:25 AM:

Hi Filiberto, John,

Yes, things are a little different in Saudi. Here are some statistics with one or two interesting implications that go way beyond rugs...

In 1900, population estimate was 1,500,000

In 1930, 2,366,000

In 1960, 4,787,000

In 1990, 14,134,000

In 2004, 23,450,000

Today, the estimate is 26,400,000

Filiberto is correct with respect to a widespread "middle class". Prior to the oil-related baby boom, the population was concentrated in Riyadh, Jiddah, Mecca, Buraydah, and Al Hasa. Aside from realtively wealthy merchant families, I expect the rug trade was small. Today, the rug trade is driven by the expatriate population, with the Saudis as a second order market driver.

Nevertheless, there are some very nice city rugs to be found there (modern Persian gabbehs abound as well, but one must be aware of the differences between the genuine ones and the Indian knock-offs).And I know at least one shop with some nice 19th century goods. Additional venues in the area are Dubai and Sharjah, and Bahrain. Dubai has an active rug market; it serves as an international duty free trade hub and has long trading ties to Persian and Pakistani seagoing merchant families.

I can imagine that intrepid persons (a kind description, I think) looking for rugs in Iraq would have some great opportunities, particularly in the Kurdish arena.

Chuck Wagner

Chuck Wagner

Posted by Richard Larkin on 10-22-2006 08:55 PM:

Saudi Arabia


When was your nephew in the country? I lived in Riyadh 1966-68. Everything there must have been greatly different in that period as compared with today. There were two suqs in the city at that time, the older and smaller one being the site of most of the rug trade. The staple new goods were South Persian weavings of the most atrocious quality and middling quality Tabriz rugs of a type I havan't seen outside Saudi Arabia. The South Persian were very coarse and the colors were very garish. I remember seeing a few higher quality Persian rugs at one or two dealers as well, such as finely woven Isfahans, Kashans, or Nains.

It was possible to find older rugs that were worth looking for. These also tended to be South Persian. Khamseh type rugs were called "Arabi" by the Saudi dealers. They also knew tribal groups, such as Qashqai, and sub-tribes too. An interesting circumstance, and a happy one for the few ferengi rug hunters in the city at the time, was that the dealers did not seem to place a higher value on good older rugs. They knew the difference, and would describe the older pieces as "asli" ("the real thing"). Even so, they seemed to be slightly bemused by our fixed devotion to finding the older pieces. Anything was apt to show up as the odd piece.

Rich Larkin

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-23-2006 06:24 AM:

Rich -

I'm likely not entirely trustworthy on dates but I think my nephew was in Riyadh in the early 1980s.

I remember some photos he sent serving some native friends tea (he was in those days very big on Japanese tea ceremony things) on a fairly new Ersari engsi.

I remember his complaining that it was hard to find old things there and that he had had to settle for this newer Turkmen material. It surprised me, although I had heard that a lot of the "haj" business is in quite new, visibly "touristy" rugs.

I have no direct experience myself there at all. Maybe next April we'll get as far as Istanbul.


R. John Howe