Wool-pile rugs are thought to have been invented in Mid-Eastern Asia, over a vast region from the Black Sea to China. For the nomadic tribes populating these lands, high-quality rugs were a necessary invention—they needed some way to cover the cold, damp ground inside their tents to keep their feet warm. Once warm wool-pile rugs were developed, the less-durable carpets called kilims, or kelims, were put to use as tapestries and window-coverings, and eventually, as kneeling pads for Islamic prayers.
Although such “oriental” rugs, treasured for their rich colors and vibrant patterns, were made in what we know as Mesopotamia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Morocco, China, Tibet, and parts of the former U.S.S.R., the most popular and sought-after examples tend to come from Persia (a.k.a. Iran) and Turkey.
In these regions, the ancient traditions and symbols used in rug-weaving have been passed down over the centuries, as many of the tribes eventually settled into villages that became great weaving centers. Each village or family would develop its own unique patterns, color combinations, and style.
The European obsession with these rugs began when Marco Polo traveled to the Kerman trade center in Persia in 1271 and opened up a trade route between the East and the West. Fine Turkish and Persian rugs were prized possessions of European aristocrats for ages, but they really captured the Western imagination in the early 16th century, when a book of Mid-Eastern folk tales, “1,001 Arabian Nights,” was first published in English.
The book included the story of "Prince Housain's Carpet,” a seemingly worthless old rug from Tangu that had a secret power—it could fly. Centuries before airplanes and even hot-air balloon, the idea of a magic or flying carpet seemed truly fantastical.
Thanks to this book and the Western fascination with oriental rugs, such carpets are hardly ever seen as worthless. In fact, in Iran, families tend to invest heavily in rugs, which can always be sold to Europe and the United States, no matter how old they are. Large family homes often have rug-weaving sheds out back, and the rugs they make can be used for bartering and paying taxes. Even modest homes will have every inch of floor covered in rugs.
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 ...
Turkish rugs can be distinguished from Persian rugs, based on their weaving styles. Turkish rugs employ the double Ghiordes knot, while Persian rugs used the single Senneh knot. Turkish rugs generally come in five standard sizes: 60 x 100 cm (about 2’ x 3’3.5”), 90 x 135 cm (about 3’ x 4’5”), 130 x 200 cm (about 4’3” x 6’6.5”), 150 x 200 (about 5’ x 6’6.5”), and 200 x 300 cm (6’6.5” x 9.10”).
Patterns or motifs in Persian rugs tend to be more decorative, and designed based on beauty, although many of the symbols are shared with heavily coded Turkish rugs and may have meaning attached to them. Some of the most well-known Persian rug motifs are the blooming lily palmettes of Shah Abbas and what we think of as paisley, a pine or palm-leaf pattern (called “bota” or “Mir-i-bota” in Iran).
On the other hand, every design and color woven into a Turkish rug is highly symbolic, and often based on motifs used in Anatolia as far back as 3000 B.C. Even patterns that might seem abstract and geometric to the Western eye are loaded with meaning. A dot can be a piece of fruit or an eye, and a scroll an ear representing human voices.
The patterns woven into these rugs tend to have four basic themes: First, they can be wards against the superstition of the evil eye, a destructive force that can bring death and disease into a home, as well as real threats from wild animals. Stylized images of scorpions or the wolf’s mouth motif were thought to keep stingers out of the carpets and wolves away from the door.
The patterns of the number five in the border, or images of hands with five fingers, a color similar to the infinite blue of the sea or sky, crosshatch symbols representing shrubs, and even corner triangles were all though to work as talisman against the evil eye. But the most effective symbol of all was the eye itself, which could be depicted as a dot under a pointed eyebrow, or inside a triangle, square, or rectangle, sometimes divided in four by a cross shape.
Second, Turkish carpets might contain a whole story about the mythology of the Tree of Life, which stretches between the center of earth and heaven. Other symbols of divinity come in threes, like the toes of a goose foot, representing holiness, productivity, and fertility.
Third, because carpets were made by women, a weaver would often pour her romantic hopes and dreams into her rugs, usually telegraphed by different kinds of flowers. For example, an engaged woman expressing her giddy feelings of love weaves pink hyacinths into her rug. If a woman is feeling melancholy the hyacinths will be purple, and if she wants to express her loyalty, the hyacinths are white. A white rose stands for love, a red one passion, and a wild one yearning. A chain-like pattern of diamonds and triangles known as hair band, or a representation of an earring, means the weaver wishes for marriage.
To represent her man, she might weave in a dragon as a symbol of power and strength, an arrow to show his courage or heroism, or a ram’s horn to indicate his health and virility. If she is expecting a child, she will include an abstract human figure, while a mother might put in a hands-on-waist pattern to signify the sacred duties of child-rearing.
Finally, images are woven into Turkish carpets to bring about good fortune and abundance. Cones, wheat sheaves, the sun, the color yellow, and fruits and vegetables are symbols of fertility; four-leaf clovers, a goose foot inside a circle, and the four-pointed Wheel of Fortune are symbols of luck.
Native American rugs are also popular with collectors, even though this tradition didn’t start until the Victorian Era. White tourists taking the train to the American Southwest became enamored with the abstract patterns woven into Navajo blankets and clamored to buy them. But when they returned home, they would use them as floor covering instead of bedding.
Picking up on these cues, the Navajos began making their patterns with sturdier materials, a heavier weave, and selling them as rugs. Eventually, their traditional geometric designs, featuring diamonds and triangles, gave way to images of cowboys and horses. In the 1920s, these rugs experienced a resurgence of popularity that has not died down.