Before Islam, rug weaving
was one of the popular crafts of Iran and had very rich
pictorial rugs. After Islam, in Iran, rug weaving, like
most other arts and crafts, confirmed itself to the
conditions and exposed the needs of that time in
"Cutting the roots of idolatry", which was
common in Arab tribes, was the reason of Islam for
prohibition of making portraits. Without any exception,
this prohibition was done in all areas, ruled by Muslims.
So, country like Iran, which had rooted culture and
skillful in making portraits, had to obey this regulation.
Iranian accepted Islam and accepted all conditions. Very
soon, they adopted their cultural and artistic appearances
to the conditions. Before passing a century, reflection
against Arab oppression and central government were
started. This opposition was presented in art and Persian
language, till Safavid era.
From Safavid era on, who were Iranian, some work had done,
which separated Iranian from Arab and other Muslim
nations: Making Shiite customary, prepared fields of full
independence in religion, opinion and politics.
This, vastly, affected on cultural appearance and made
art, craft and culture of Iran to revitalize. Iranian's
sight to Islam, rules, laws and principally to nature was
more freely and acceptable, and this freedom was very
effective in flourishing of pictorial arts and crafts from
Safavis era on.
The specific species of it is portrait rugs that not only
is existed in Iran, but it is the product of Iranian
Shiite weavers. There is no specimen of rug weavers of
other religions, otherwise some rugs woven by Armenian
By establishing of Safavid dynasty and spreading of new
movements in art and idea, making pictures, which had been
created for picturing poems and legends till that time and
had been in the size of book, changed and covered walls
and palaces and bazaars, baths, under the dooms and walls
of shrines and on curtains of tragedians and in natural
size and sometimes bigger than that. In many other fields,
making pictures became one of interesting subjects for
As, rug had daily usage in homes and maybe for worship in
mosques, influence of making pictures on rugs was slower
than other arts and crafts. In 16th and 17th centuries,
the first signs of pictorial subjects, woven on some rugs,
were seen. They were very small and only had motifs of
flowers, paisley, birds, animals and sights of hunting or
parties of kings and princes.
Afghan attack to Iran, coming of Nader Shah, continuous
civil wars and also war with other countries, in the last
years of Safavid era, stopped the development of artistic
activities. This era was coincides with the first half of
12th century and all of the artistic products of Iran
reached to its lowest point. But, it was not lasting long
period and by coming of Zand dynasty, peace returned to
This time, Shiraz (Capital) became the center of art and
artists. Making portrait reached to its highest point and
pictorial subjects were drawn on every place and in all
fields, such as on stone, tile and cement. Many painters
created pictures of princes, dancers and musicians. It was
not limited to palace any more, but it found its way to aristocrats
Very soon, Zand dynasty gave its place to Qajar. Tehran
became capital of Iran. At Fath-Ali Shah era, artistic
activities increased more than any time and Royal
galleries were established. In these galleries, making
former subjects, as well as new subject
"portrait" making were taken into consideration.
At this time, Iran and Europe relation were increased.
This relation created many changes in all fields, such as
20th century must be known as reveal of portrait making in
Iran. Since, in this century, there was considerable
attention toward portrait and naturalism; portrait making
was attracted by artists and craftsmen, as public
Print curtain makers were the first artists, who joined to
portrait movement and instead of using usual flowers, they
printed pictures of old and classic tales and myth of Iran
on curtains, in large scale, such as Khosro and Shirin,
Leili and Majnoun. Printed portrait curtains found their
ways to people's houses; urban rug weavers were interested
in and very soon, this became their patterns.
Printed portrait curtains were ideal for rug weavers, in
all ways, as it size and composition of it were almost the
same as those of the rug. As, it has margin, ground,... it
was not far from nature of rug. So, some of portrait rugs
were woven from printed curtains; these rugs were called
"Curtain", as well as rig sellers have used this
Photo and photography in Iran were coincident with the
flourish of portrait rugs, at the first years of
Nassereddin Shah era (1886-1938). Photography came to Iran
by Dar-ol-Fonoun teacher at Nassereddin Shah era.
At that time, it made new subjects come to the portrait
arts and affected on rugs, especially on Royal designs.
On the other hand, different portraits made people excited
and caused everyone to supply portrait for decorating his
home and shop. Those, who were rich, hanged oil paintings
or portrait rugs on the walls of their house and shops.
Those, who could not afford it, used printed portraits,
photographs and posters.
Hanging of portrait rugs on walls, made great changes in
using of rugs. New uses moved rugs from floor to walls and
made it a painting picture. Although, common rugs were
hanged on doors and walls, before that time, but it was
done in special occasions, like wedding or religious
ceremonies, as birthdays of Imams. This tradition has been
In these ceremonies, the most delicate and precious
carpets or portrait rugs were used. So, low production of
portrait rugs did not make them in reach of public, like
traditional rugs. These rugs were owned by the rich and
chiefs of tribes (Khan) and villages (Kadkhoda). The
reason was different cost of portrait rugs, with other
rugs. Difference in cost had several reasons:
1- Only expert weavers, who were master in using
proportions and specific colors, can weave these rugs;
2- Using of pattern by urban weavers was another reason
for increase of the cost;
3- Patterns of these rugs must be drawn by expert drawers;
4- Patterns must be in full size (equal to rug);
5- Using special colors for different parts, for example
pink for face and hands, or dark blue and black for eyes,
hair, eyebrows and... was another problem of weaving
while, weavers has no such problems in weaving traditional
rugs, and expressional he (she) is not seized by colors
and he (she) uses colors in his own taste.
These cases are happened to urban weavers, while tribe
weavers are not involved in such problems. They freely
weave portraits without checker patterns or conventional
colors. Nevertheless, weaving portrait rugs by tribe
weavers was not simple work. Usually, these rugs were
woven by expert and talented weavers, in spite of not
using pattern, weaver must be familiar to color and its
proportions and makes appropriate decision for every knot
These were factors of low production of portrait rugs, but
another important reason is that West is not interested in
these rugs and they are not exported. The point of view of
portrait rug painters was similar to that of other
painters. In spite of unity in subject, materials and
techniques of rug weaving are not the same as those of
painting and these cause many changes in final products.
"Dastour" and "Vagireh" rugs are
placed in front of weavers, as general instruction and
weaver takes needed ideas for his rug, by looking at them.
What he (she) is weaving, usually, is different from his
model. Sometimes changes and displacement of colors and
designs make it a new one.
These are the most important differences between urban and
village rugs. In fact, urban weaver is doer and everything
is prepared and scheduled before his (her) hand, whereas
village or tribe weaver makes changes, which he (she) know
are right in his weaving. Although, his (her) product is
taken from another subject, it has new and inventive
Size of portrait rugs of every region has direct relation
to architecture of that region, especially height of
ceilings and shelves. Limited number of rugs are larger
and used for furnishing. Mostly, their sizes are in
proportion to walls of houses. Smaller rugs are used on
shelves, which have particular place in traditional
architecture of Iran.
Some of pictorial rugs, such as "Lion Rugs",
were covered floors of tents of tribes; others, produced
by the hands of tribesmen and tribeswomen, were ordered by
chiefs of tribes and were hanged in their homes. Such
royal use, in villages and tribes, did not last long time.
New pictorial products, like photo and poster made these
rugs fall from walls on the floor, and some of them are
torn and worn away regardless.
In addition, unnatural symmetry of these rugs were not
attracted by urban rug sellers and were called as
"Wrong-Design" rugs. This term has been common,
mostly, in comparison of these rugs with urban pictorial
rugs, which are attracted by them. Specifics of
wrong-design rugs are straight, low curve and broken
lines, monochrome (without any tent) and unnatural
Skill of weavers in harmonizing the pictures to other rug
designs, like margin, ground and other motifs, is so
unique that separating picture from rug is impossible,
because picture is like an organ of other organs of rug
and idiomatically has been fastened to rug.
They adopted nature of every picture, with that of rug
skillfully, so it seems that they are created for each
other. Harmony and symbiosis of design and picture, which
are the most important factors of success or un-success of
them in pictorial rugs, are not common in urban pictorial
rugs. It means that picture and the rug are not in harmony
and it seems that the picture is attached to the rug.
Un-harmonic fellowship and taste, between painter and
weaver, having no connection between them, during the work
are reasons of this unsuccessfulness.
Apart from these, nature of tribes and village weavers,
their taste in selecting designs and colors and their
creation in rug weaving, usually make their works more
attractive and desirable than urban rugs. It felt that
something in their essence came in rugs, by their eyes and
fingers. So, now, picture has the function of traditional
flowers and takes place of medallion. Work has been done
on margins, corners, flowers and paisley, by using colors
and motifs; it is done on new medallion, which is the
picture. To make it productive, very traditional colors
and motifs are used in always are needed.
Pictorial rug weavers mostly wove pictures of kings. Not
only number of these rugs are highest, but they are the
most variety in different compositions. "King
Design" rugs have the longest history, from
"King Houshang" rugs, with mythic history to
Achaemenid, Sassanid and other kings of past centuries.
Among pictorial rugs of Iran, there are many rugs with
different tale subjects. Most of these rugs are prepared
by urban weavers and tribe and village weavers have
limited share in this field.
Many of urban weavers are familiar with different tales
and myths, so the most tale rugs are woven in towns. Urban
culture and relatively more literate people of towns, in
comparison to that of village and tribe regions, is the
reason of this familiarity.
Among pictorial rugs, there are few rugs with religious
subjects. The number of these rugs in comparison to other
rugs are few. Rug weavers have not weave portrait of
prophets and saints, as they are worried about putting
rugs on the floor; so, the avoid to weave portrait of
sacred, not to sin.
Considerable numbers of portrait rugs are belonged to
dervish. "Dervish Design" rugs are known as
"Leopard Skin". Subjects and composition of
them, more or less, are alike. In all of them, daily
equipments and dervish's traditions are seen so
Armenian have considerable share in portrait movement, in
Iran. Their share is significant, not only in producing
portrait rugs, but also in some of other fields, like
photography and painting. It is not to be denied some of
Caucasian weavers' share in creating portrait rugs.
Subjects of some portrait rugs are related to tribesmen
themselves. These rugs are in two groups:
1- Rugs with portrait of tribesmen. Composition of them is
very simple and portrait is repeated in regular rows of 2
or 3 columns. It must be said that subject and composition
of these rugs generally have tribal origin.
2- Rugs that originally do not have tribal subject, but
tribesmen weave them from other rugs or portraits. During
repeated weaves, these subjects gradually got tribe shapes
and idiomatically they have been absorbed in their
Rugs, with beautiful women subject, are in small group of
portrait rugs. These rugs were woven within 50 years of
last two decades of 19th century and the first three
decades of 20th century, which were coincided with some
social events in Iran.
Animals and birds, like flowers and paisley, have great
role in traditional Iranian rugs. The most considerable
parts of designs and motifs, especially of tribe and
village rugs are belonged to them. Most of these group of
rugs have different appliance to other pictorial rugs,
which have been woven to hang on walls. They were used for
covering floors of tents. This has had special meaning
among tribe men, such as guarding tents and importance of
bravery in tribes life.
Lion rugs are another kind of rugs that have been woven
mostly in Shiraz and its neighbors. "Lion" has
been symbol of power and bravery, from ancient times. As,
it has been seen on the walls of Persepolis and Sassanid
potteries, it has been attracted by kings.