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The Influence of Herat by Ian Grant

In the late 1300's a conqueror known as Timur (or Tamerlane as he is known in the West), a distant relative of  Chingiz Khan, came to the fore in Persia.  In seven years he had conquered the cities of Tabriz, Shiraz, and Bagdad.  Nicknamed the "Sultan of Babylon," Timur initiated what was to begin one of the greatest artistic periods in Persian history;  a period whose center was the city of Herat, in the province of Khorasan.

In the early 1400's the Timurid empire moved its capital from Samarakand to the city of Herat.  Herat quickly evolved into the new center for Muslim science, literature and art. Shah Baisunker Mirza (one of Timur's sons), brought Persia's finest craftsmen, artists and calligraphers to Herat.  At the same time Baisunker established a library and academy for these artisans and as a result, Herat was soon producing some of the most elaborate and innovative works in calligraphy and painting in the Koran. It was from these illuminations and calligraphies that the Herat rug designers of the time found many of their motifs such as scrolling vines, interlacing leaves and animals incorporated into the vine-work.  Above all in importance were the serrated leaf and fan-shaped palmett motifs.  These two not only played a major role in identifying rugs being woven in Herat during Timurid rule, but also began to appear more and more in other competing rug weaving centers around the country, an unmistakable sign of the influence Herat was having during this time.

In the following Safavid empire, Herat was still a very influential rug weaving center even though the capital had been moved to the competing rug market of Isphahan.  To this day there is debate over the origin of some of the great carpets attributed to the city of Isphahan woven during the Safavid empire.  Many rug scholars point to the prominent serrated leaves and palmetts in these Isphahans and claim that these carpets could arguably just as well bear the name Herat rather than Isphahan. In any event, these Isphahans and their contemporaries from Tabriz and Kashan all show influence from Herat.  Not long after, these same motifs reached into the remote tribal regions such as Anatolia, Turkmenstans and the Caucasus.

One of the great examples of weaving to come out of Herat is a pair of rugs called the Emperor's carpets.  These rugs are dedicated by an inscription in the border of the rugs to the Shah, undoubtedly referring to Shah Tahmsep who ruled in Persia during the time these rugs were produced. One hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, the other in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna.  These rugs incorporate all of the major styles developed in Herat. Motifs include primary, secondary and tertiary vine systems, Chinese cloud bands (an adopted motif from the Far East), "chi-lins (mythical beasts of Chinese origin), dragons, lions, and buffaloes, felines, molifons, spotter deer, tigers and lions, masks are also seen," and of course the prominent fan-shaped palmettes and flowing serrated leaves are well represented. These carpets were presented to Leopold I of Austria by Russia's Peter the Great in 1698, and since then have been dubbed the Emperor's Carpets.

The city itself is now only a shadow of its former self. Inside the borders of Afghanistan it now shows the ravages of the 19th and 20th centuries.  The old city, however, lives on in other ways. Today's rug market continues to show the influences of 15th century Herat. Kashans and Bidjar, two of the more popular Persian designs, are in large part made up of the serrated leaf and palmett motif - Bidjar being more geometric, Kashan more curvilinear.  In the last decade there has even been a resurgence of rugs specifically attributed in design to these great Herat carpets woven during the Timurid and early Safavid empires.


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