When you understand where a certain pattern comes from, and what certain symbols stand for, you can gain fascinating insights into the history of older rugs. There was a time when the design of an oriental rug could almost accurately indicate the country, town or even village where it was woven or knotted. Worldwide circulation of patterns after the great commercial expansion at the beginning of the 20th century, however, made this task harder.
Patterns were traditionally drawn by hand on pattern plates (like the ones below) before the actual production of the rug is commenced. Today rug patterns are digitally created and printed out.
There are two fundamentally different pattern types: Rug designs can either fill the entire field with a repeating motif, or be arranged around a central medallion.
Rugs with a repeating motif are also known as patterned or all-over designs.
One of the first and most original rug patterns is the so-called Herati pattern. It consists of a diamond shape, with floral motifs at the corners, surrounded by digon-shaped leaves, sometimes called mahi (Persian for fish).
Even today, the Herati design is still being knotted in almost all Persian rug-making centers and by nomadic tribes in Iran.
Another design that has become widely known is the Kharchang or the crab design, which was first used in the Khorasan region of Persia and consists of crab-like palmettes with open claws.
The ancient boteh motif quickly became popular throughout Persia and India. Alongside the Herati design, it is one of the most common oriental rug designs. It is particularly common in Caucasian and Persian rugs. It is a curved almond-shaped motif, almost straight and immediately recognizable by the bent tip. In Europe, the kidney-shaped paisley pattern developed from this. The shape was often associated with a bent palm leaf, or a flame, which alludes to the fire worship of the Parsees, the followers of the teachings of Zoroaster. However, the pattern probably originated from a representation of a cypress, which played an important role in many areas of Persian art. The boteh pattern can be found in a wide variety of arrangements and in a curved or straight style.
The use of central medallions in symmetrical patterns was first recorded in 15th century Persian manuscripts. This design found its way into rug manufacturing around the 16th century.
The classic early Tabriz medallion rugs from this period were decorated with beautiful large medallions, which were covered or bordered by elaborate floral spirals.
The medallion tradition has continued over the centuries. This motif is interpreted both in a curved fashion, as in many rugs knotted in Tabriz, and in a straight line, as in the case of Heriz or Kazak rugs. Today, medallions are still used not only in Persia, but also in Anatolia and the Caucasus, although geometric forms are more predominant in those area. In most designs, the medallion is placed in the center of the rug. In some, however, several medallions are arranged one above the other.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, some workshops moved away from abstract patterns and instead drew inspiration from classical prose and poetry. Scenes of hunting, royal life or mythical motifs were woven and knotted in wool and silk, with finer rugs allowing for more complex and accurate depictions.
The manufacturers in the Iranian city of Kerman were particularly skilled at depicting complex naturalistic scenes and often drew their inspiration from Western works of art.
Modern pictograms, especially from Afghanistan, often show weapons or other symbols of the ongoing armed conflicts in the region.
Tree of Life (Thuja)
The tree of life is very common. It represents eternal life and is an essential theme in mythology and religion. In designs incorporating it, this tree is shown to grow out from the base of the central field of the rug, and fill the rest of it with green branches, decorated with flowers or birds. Often a stream or a pond and wandering animals are depicted at the base of the tree. The tree itself symbolizes the connection between heaven, earth and the underworld.
The paradise garden pattern is typical of the Safavian epoch. Paradise Garden rugs adorn a stylized, geometric representation of a traditional Persian garden with delicate plants and trees. The Greek word Paradeisos comes from the Middle Persian word pardēs. Originally the word referred to Persian royal gardens and only acquired the connotation of the garden of God because of biblical texts. The fertile and artistic royal gardens housed a variety of exotic plants and animals and were surrounded by a wall, symbolizing the separation between heaven and earth. Traditional Persian gardens of paradise were rectangular, with a river or body of water running from north to south and from east to west, forming a cross that divided the garden into four sections. The depiction of water, which is extremely precious in arid regions, has a great significance in rugs depicting paradise gardens.
PRAYER NICHE (MEHRAB OR MIHRAB)
In the so-called Mehrab or Mihrab pattern, the Islamic prayer niche, which indicates the direction of prayer, qibla, i.e. the direction of Mecca in mosques, is represented. Traditionally, rugs with mihrab pattern are used by Muslims to pray and are therefore particularly treasured.