The land known as Persia is associated with popular tales from the book “1,001 Arabian Nights,” like "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.” In particular, "Prince Housain's Carpet” captured the imagination of the West. In the story, this seemingly worthless carpet from Tangu could fly, a truly magical feat in the times before airplanes. This “magic carpet” or “flying carpet” was, naturally, a Persian rug.

Today, we know Persia better as Iran, and it’s still home to highly artistic master craftsmen in urban centers as well as nomadic camps across the wilderness who make beautiful and intricate rugs and carpets, although not one of them is known to actually fly.

Nonetheless, a Persian rug has a distinct look to it, a sort of ancient magic seems to infuse the designs. That’s because techniques have been passed down through generations of rug-weaving families, each of which has its own original patterns, unique qualities, and style. In the past, all large homes had rug-weaving sheds in the back, where rugs would be made for the house and also to use for bartering and paying taxes.

Even in small homes in Iran, the whole floor will be covered with rugs, although the wealth of the family can be measured by the quality rather than the quantity of the rugs. It’s not uncommon for Iranians to invest heavily in rug purchases, because they can always be sold on the Western market.

Historically, there was a standard rug arrangement in the traditional Iranian home. In the middle would be the central rug or “mian farsh,” which is about five-to-six yards long and roughly six-to-eight feet wide. At one end would be the “kellegi” or principal rug, about 10-to-12 feet long and six feet wide. Then, along the sides of the mian farsh would be two “kenarehs,” or long skinny rugs measuring five-to-six yards long by one yard wide.

Until the turn of the century, Persian rugs were most often long and narrow, because of the long rectangular shape of most rooms and because they were made on narrow nomad looms. In the late 20th century, that practice shifted, with 65 percent of rugs coming out of urban workshops and 35 percent being made by nomads.

In Iran, rugs are used in public festivals and even as flags or banners to deck houses. Islamic mosques tend to have particularly fine rugs, given to them by rich supporters. Mus...

Persian rugs are usually made of wool, cotton, and silk, and some Baluchi tribes even use goat’s hair for the selvages at the edge of the rug. The Kashan district produces the most silk rugs, as well as the the finest and most expensive Persian rugs, using locally spun silk. The fine thread is knotted on a foundation of silk, creating an extremely dense silk pile, up to 770 knots per square inch. These rugs, however, are not practical for floor covering, and are used more for decoration.

Iranian cotton is used for the warp and weft of many Persian rugs; a cotton foundation gives the rug a firm back so it lies evenly on the floor and won’t wrinkle even after washing. Coarser, inexpensive rugs are made out of hand-spun cotton in smaller villages. However, since World War II, Iran has stopped importing factory-spun cotton from India, and cotton mills are located in major rug-producing regions, including Isfahan, Kashan, Kazvin, Yezd, and Tabriz.

Nomads have been making the warp and weft of their rugs out of wool for centuries. Their wool comes from sheep of every color, from off-white to black, along with cream, yellow, and brown. This variation enriches the weaver's palette.

Beauty and symmetry rather than symbolism is most often the inspiration for Persian rug design. Patterns in Persian rugs often draw on natural subjects like trees, leaves, sprays of flowers, birds, and animals, as well as Chinese and Arabic geometric motifs. The swirls linking larger decorative motifs likely come from the common “cloud-based pattern.”

However, it is said that chrysanthemum and lotus flowers represent happiness and fertility, while the iris stands for religious liberty. To the Kurds in West Iran, a group of four roses is the sacred tree of life, representing divine power and everlasting life. The palm tree may symbolize blessings or secret wishes granted, while a weeping willow signals sorrow and death.

Animals are also thought to have meaning, like the sacred dog who went into Mecca before Muhammad, and a rooster is sometimes put into a rug to ward off the evil eye. Lions, falcons, hawks, and other animals of prey are believed to signify courage, victory, and glory. The heron is associated with longevity. Household objects like lamps, vases, and combs appear on rugs, too. The lamp could be the sacred lantern of Mecca, the comb cleanliness and good grooming. Swords, of course, are symbols of supreme power.

Shah Abba, who ruled Iran from 1586 to 1638, established his own rug-making shops that produced breathtaking carpets. He inspired a whole class of Persian rug patterns inspired by the lily, which have been altered and elaborated on over the centuries. These Shah Abbas palmettes are often woven into the central field of the rug, connected by tendrils.

The pine or palm-leaf pattern (known as a paisley in the West and a “bota” or “Mir-i-bota” in Iran) has unknown origins, but the design traveled from Persia to Kashmir to Europe. The common Herati pattern or Feraghan has a central diamond shape framed by four gently curling leaves—it often appears in the central field of rugs made in Senneh, Kurdistan, and Feraghan. A similar pattern called “Mina Khani” is frequently seen in Kurdish nomadic rugs.

Rugs from Kirman often have portraits woven into them, featuring European celebrities or historical figures like Napoleon, Frederick the Great, or the pope, as well as shahs or wealthy aristocrats of Iran. Others have Watteauesque pictorial scenes or ancient motifs from Assyria.

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