The Oldest Known Rug, the Pazyrky Carpet

Nearly 2500 years ago the oldest known hand-knotted oriental rug was made. This rug, known as “The Pazyryk Carpet” (Pa -Zar Key), embodies ancient history. The carpet was excavated from the Altai Mountains of Central Asia in 1948 by Russian Archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. The Altai Mountains are a mountain range where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together.

The Pazyryk Carpet was discovered in a semi-frozen Scythian Burial mound in the grave of the prince of Altai near Pazyryk. As custom, the prince was buried with all of his possessions including the Pazyryk Carpet. Shortly after the burial, the grave mound was robbed, but the rug was left behind. Ironically, the thieves are to thank for the preservation of the 2500 year old rug. After robbing the grave mound the thieves left the site open to the elements and the rug was semi-frozen. The combination of low temperature and precipitation within the tomb froze the carpet and preserved it in a thick sheet of ice.

When we pull the camera back and look at this beautiful wool pile carpet in its historical context a rich story emerges and gives more meaning than the carpets design. The detail of the carpet, the dyes and complexity of knots reveal the carpet most likely had made the journey from the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great in Persia.

Cyrus the Great was a very important and influential historical figure. Cyrus, (born 580 - 529 BCE), was the first Achaemenid Emperor. He was responsible for founding Persia by uniting the two original Iranian Tribes, the Medes and the Persians. Under Cyrus the Great, the empire expanded to the ancient Near East, conquered most of Southwest Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Mediterranean in the west to the Indus River in the East the Achaemenid Empire reach further than any before it.

Cyrus ruled by allowing for freedom of religions, outlawing slavery and inclusion of peoples conquered. His empire opened up and developed huge trade routes. He also declared the first Charter of Human Rights which influenced writers of the US Constitution. Cyrus laid the foundation for the empire to expand under Darius the Great two generations later. Many tribes and nations traveled to Persia to pay tribute to the Achaemenid Empire including the Armenians, Babylonians, Egyptians and more.  

So what does all of this have to do with an ancient carpet? For one, it provides a historical context for the Pazyryk Carpet. The Pazyryk is a reflection of one of the most advanced ancient empires of that time. The design of the carpet helps tell the story and has given scholars a living history to understand.

The whole rug is made of wool. The number of knots is approximately 3.600 per sq. decimeter, more than modern designs. The rug is approximately 1.83 x 1.98 m, consists of an inner field and a number of borders. The center shows 6 horizontal and 4 vertical rows of squares in which a cross-like ornament appears with 4 flowers with a little square in the center and 4 diagonal leaves.

The small, first, inner border consists of small squares in which eagle-like griffins appear on a yellow ground. The head of the griffin looks backwards and the tongue is visible in the opened beak, their bodies are red and the feathers of their wings are dark blue and white. The second inner border is a row of bucks all facing to the left, on light blue background. Their bodies are red with yellow spots. Six bucks are shown on each side of the rug. At first one might think them to be elk, but a detailed study of the figures has shown that they are Middle Eastern bucks, the male counterpart to the spotted deer.

The widest border shows riders on horses alternating irregularly with horses that are led in the opposite direction to the bucks. The riders are depicted very schematically. The ones on foot walk left of the horses and the right hand with the bridle lies on the back of the horse.

On each side of the border 7 horses appear. Their figures are on the vertical strip a little shorter than on the horizontal one. On one vertical border the last horse is considerable shorter than the others to allow a design to appear of two rosettes or circles. Similarly also on the top end another unusual ornament appears on the border between the bucks and the horses, that is the narrow border showing the flower design.

There is much debate as to the exact origin of the carpet. For example the rug appears to be made with an Armenian double knot. One authority of ancient carpets, Ulrich Schurmann is quoted, “from all the evidence available I am convinced that the Pazyryk rug was a funeral accessory and most likely a masterpiece of Armenian workmanship".

Interestingly at the ruins of Persepolis in Iran the same horse design from the Pazyryk carpet is seen in the relief depicting Armenian delegation paying tribute to the Achaemenid Empire. This gives us an idea of how far this carpet may have traveled and how far reaching was the Achaemenid Empire.

Please contact us if you are Interested in a reproduction of the Pazyrky Carpet.

Kevin Drolet, cThru Media
Written for client, Home Décor Fine Rugs

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