Carpet, Iranian, XVI c, Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

An amazingly tightly executed work with beautifully drawn animals, fruit trees, and abstract flowers, very well preserved colors; left and right edges missing, some vertical wear through the center. One of the most impressive carpets I have ever seen — and now it can be photographed!

Some details of the Gulbenkian “animals fighting” carpet

Perhaps the most storied of Gulbenkian’s carpets, “the animal’s fighting”

My first soumak, or, a historically-informed performance ruggery

It is, no doubt, a measure of my superior negotiating skills (not!) that the price of this carpet went up as we negotiated. I tell myself it was a good learning experience and I will be able to do better next time, but I am kidding myself: the truth is that no one ever wins against a carpet seller.

Actually, it is not a carpet (a knot-weave) but a soumak — a kind of flat-weave, similar to kilim, but different from it in that it sports an invisible (“internal”) structural weft. This useful, well illustrated page pretends to show you how to weave a soumak, but doesn’t: what they do there is a kilim; this technique is the one used in making European tapestries. A soumak will in addition have some fixed threads running left to right (“weft”). These threads support the structure of the cloth and make it stronger. They are hidden under the color threads (which make the pattern) but if you stick your finger in the fabric and poke about, you can just make them out under the pattern.

This soumak was woven perhaps 15 years ago in Tabriz by Azeri weavers. It was woven out of old threads pulled out from old cicims, which is why it has the intense colors of historical carpets — few modern carpets look this “authentic” — it is, in other words, “a performance on original instruments”.  A good deal about soumaks is explained here (along with some historical examples).  My favorite page on that website is the page about the Luristan bronzes (mother goddess, totemic animal finials et al.) — which only illustrates how sophisticated was the weaver of my new rug — he knew to play with all the totemic animals and all the rest: it is a “historically informed performance”.  Like a mamluk, it pleases in its ability to surprise:  seemingly symmetrical, when you look closer at it — it isn’t.

Actually, Luristan bronzes are pretty cool as well as mysterious (we don’t know who made them or what they meant). Check out this for some examples, and this for some discussion.

Some details of the Gulbenkian Isphahan

Isfahan/Isphahan, 16th or 17th century.

Some kilims from the Gülgönen family and Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum collections

Kilims aren’t carpets, they are flat weaves — “tapestry weave” — the same technique used in European tapestries.