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The Sheik in Minneapolis! by Farzan Navab


"Sheik Sanan" rug 4x6.9 rug
Kerman, Southern Persia
Upper Inscription:
"Work of Karim Kermani. Date: 1973"
Lower Inscription:
"By order of Rajab Dilmagani"


We recently acquired a 19th century Persian pictorial rug right here in Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The signed and dated piece is a product of Kerman: a city and also a province in south eastern Iran. The ancient city of Bam that recently endured a massive and destructive earthquake is also located in Kerman.

The story
The story of Sheik Sanan is a fairy tale that deals with notions of piety and devotion to God within a Sufi framework. Sufism is the school of spiritual enlightenment in Islam and one of its well known members is Jelaluddin Rumi.
   It is believed that the tale of Sheik Sanan is part of the folklore of Persia, Turkey, the Caucasus, Afghanistan and possibly even western China.
   The story, part poetry part prose and altogether a fantasy, speaks of a pious man named the Sheik of Sanan who falls in love with a Christian girl. In some versions of the story the Sheik is portrayed as a Muslim in the Azerbaijan region who falls in love with a Christian girl from Georgia.
   The Sheik apparently resided in Mecca , where the "House of God" is located, and as the most prominent place of worship in all Islamic world, all Muslims who are qualified have to make the obligatory once in a lifetime pilgrimage. The Sheik has a dream in which he no longer resides in Mecca and lives instead in Rum (most probably Byzantium which is today's Turkey.) He tells his followers that an important event has befallen him and he needs to go to Rum to find out what exactly awaits him.
   The Sheik leaves Mecca for Rum with four hundred of his followers in search of the calling in his dream. There he looks into every street and alley until he sees a beautiful Christian girl. He falls into passionate love with the young girl, forgetting his place among his followers and his prominence as a learned and spiritual pious Muslim.

The impossible love
The girl, who is much younger than the Sheik refuses his love and instead asks him to perform impossible tasks, throwing obstacles in his way in order to change his mind. She asks him to worship an idol (highest crime in Islam), burn the Quran, drink wine (forbidden in Islam) and finally to lose his faith in Islam. Of all four requests the Sheik only agrees to drinking wine and asks the girl to forego the other three.
   The girl then asks for the Sheik to become a Christian. He agrees to her demand and changes his religion. Seeing no hope in averting the Sheik's love, the girl asks for him to provide her with dowry money. The Sheik, having lost his faith and gotten into the habit of drinking, responds that he neither has spiritual wealth nor material possessions. The young girl feels sorry for him and instead of a dowry asks him to attend to her hog farm (a sacrilege in Islam) for one year.

Madonna and Child - Medieval tapestry

Hope and return
Bewildered by Sheik's apparent state of lost spirituality and craze, his followers try to find a way to rescue him. They
ask one of his devout followers known as "Morid" who was away at the time of his departure from Mecca, to come and lend a hand. The follower goes to Rum and finds the Sheik in the pathetic state of raising pigs! He then asks the followers to pray for the Sheik for forty days, asking God to bring back the Sheik in to the path of righteousness.
   After forty days, the prophet Mohammed comes to the Morid's dream and informs him of God's will to return Sheik's sanity back to him. As for the girl, she wakes up one morning and realizes what she has done to the Sheik and asks forgiveness from God, becomes a Muslim and follows him as her spiritual leader.

And the woven story
Noted Iranian artist and rug scholar Parviz Tanavoli has pointed out (Iranian Pictorial Rugs; Soroush 1989) that in the absence of a portrait painting tradition, Persian rugs played an important part in filling the gap. Rugs from a variety of areas in Persia became a vehicle in pictorializing kings, heroes, lovers and demons.
   The rug we found in Minneapolis fits within this tradition and is part of what Tanavoli terms as rugs that relate to a "Sufi influenced" group of rugs. He states that even the word "Sufi" is a reference to the arabic "Suf" or wool which in Farsi is "Pashm" and thus Sufism is an allegorical reference to the "Pashmina" shawls worn by Dervishes or the followers of Sufism. Since Sufis or Dervishes are supposed to give up all earthly belongings, the Pashmina shawl is the only simple outfit that they are left with.
   In the present rug, the outline of the story is carefully followed, displaying the weaver's realistic drawing abilities in portraying the Sheik and the Tarsa (Christian) girl as well as the weaver's mastery in creating stylized forms used in 19th century Persian rug designs.
   The Sheik is portrayed as a white bearded man and his lover is the one who holds a drinking glass. Also displayed is a European Style chair with a dog sitting on it (used here to represent the foreignness of the girl and her life style since Persians do not use dogs as domestic animals inside the home), and a European style small table with two wine glasses. Christian women are portrayed without scarves while a woman displayed at the upper left portion of the rug wears the "Chador", a long head-to-toe cover. One can speculate that she is talking to a "witch crafter" who is making a potion in order to dislodge a spell cast on the Sheik!

A cultural "montage"
It is important to note that while certain aspects of the rug are most definitely copied from the general "feel" and ambiance of a European type painting, there are elements that are strictly Persian. For example the idea of showing portraits of certain noble faces at each corner corresponds with the tradition of quarter medallions used at each corner of city as well as tribal Persian rugs. Yet the faces remain distinctly European. Also the whole notion of making the rug look like a "window" onto a scene or a story seems to have been inspired by French or Flemish tapestries. On the other hand the two cypress trees displayed in the lower right hand side of the rug are references to a "Persian" space: a common representation of the concept of Paradise.

Cultural and historical significance
Perhaps it is only in hindsight that today, in a world that is becoming more and more polarized, that one can draw certain conclusions about an artistic creation connecting the concept of culture to a world view shared by a people. In other words, this is a rug that basically talks about the fears as well as the lures of the "Foreigner". That the pious Muslim Sheik should be tested by the love of a Christian girl, might show the fears of a society that turns inward in the face of the onslaught of modernism.
   Nonetheless, such fears were justified in that Persia, though never formally colonized , was definitely used by the British as well as the Russians for at least two centuries. Yet it is befitting to note that the present rug, while representing a myth that separates Christians and Muslims, is nevertheless a hybrid product borrowing heavily from the West as well as from indigenous traditions. It is within this montage of cultures that the final product is born and as such it displays their connection rather than what separates them.





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