The famous Pazyryk carpet has been a subject of nearly every rug blog ever written.  I’ve always thought of blogging about the oldest rug ever discovered and now I have a very good reason!  Fine Rugs of Charleston has been commissioned to make a mansion sized version of this incredible rug for the new student center at a girl’s equestrian-oriented boarding school.  The rug will be 15’x18’ when finished and won’t be complete until April, 2014.   It is being made for us by our good friends at Arzu Studio Hope; an innovative model of social entrepreneurship that empowers Afghan women by providing fair-labor, artisan-based employment and access to education and healthcare.  I am very proud of this project.

The appropriate design of the carpet and the Afghan women who will weave the replica rug creates an extraordinary opportunity to cross cultures and to become a teaching moment for the students as well as the weavers.  Over the coming year we will be sharing pictures and stories between the equestrian students at the school and Arzu’s weavers in Afghanistan.  Here is where the big rug stands as of mid-July 2013.

Beginning of the weaving on the 15 x 18 Arzu Studio Hope replica rug in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

Beginning of the weaving on the 15 x 18 Arzu Studio Hope replica rug in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

But, what makes this rug so special?  As I said, the Pazyryk carpet the oldest full rug ever found.  And, as an oversize replica will now be a center piece for an equestrian school, the original was a prized possession of an ancient chief, known now to have been a prince, in a tribe of the most skilled horsemen of the prehistoric world.

Interestingly, the original rug was preserved because water leaked into the prince’s tomb and it became frozen into a solid block of ice, thus preserving the tomb until its discovery by Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko in 1949.  The prince was buried during the 4th century BC under a burial mound in a broad valley deep in the Altai Mountains.  The Greeks called the people that lived there Scythians, which meant ‘nomads’ to the Greeks, and they were never able to conquer them.  There were many tribes across the region, but the Pazyryks became the greatest horsemen the world had yet known.  The tomb that contained the rug being discussed also contained the man’s horses!  In Greek histories of the 9th through 3rd centuries BC, the Pazyryks were said to be fearless warriors with their woman fighting, on horseback, right alongside the men. The Greek word for these women was ‘Amazons’.

Pazyryk horsemen were steppe nomads who lived in the Altai Mountains.

Pazyryk horsemen were steppe nomads who lived in the Altai Mountains, (9th- 3rd C B.C.)

The discovery of the Pazyryk carpet created a real sensation and changed perceptions in the history of woven rug design.  The rug is very tightly woven and incorporates a very detailed design.  It had long been thought that early rugs would have been fairly primitive in both construction and design, so it came as a surprise to find a rug 2,400 years old that had this level of sophistication and finish.

The carpet has been carbon dated to 400 years before Jesus Christ at a time when the Greeks were still building the Parthenon.  Alexander the Great had not yet been born.  The actual rug is nearly square, measuring 6’3 x 6’7, and is now housed at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

The Pazyryk rug, c 400 BC,

(left) The Pazyryk rug, c 400 BC, as it looks today in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
(right) A replica by the Arzu Studio Hope as it appears at Fine Rugs of Charleston.

The possibility that the rug was produced by the Pazyryks was always considered unlikely because the sophistication and elegance of the design would be indicative of a settled and cosmopolitan civilization, not nomadic people of the Siberian steppes.  The Altai Valleys are located along active trade routes spanning the ancient world with China to the east and Persia to the southwest.  Many experts believe that such a fine rug, suitable for a powerful Silk Road chieftain, was simply trade goods from Persia or the land we now call Turkey.

The rug’s true origin, though, is a puzzle for at least three reasons.  First, the design has conflicting elements; next its construction is not like rugs made in Persia at the time and, finally, that the red dyes used are not as we’d expect for a rug made in the 4th century BC.

Closeup view of the lower left end of the famous Pazyryk carpet.

Closeup view of the lower left end of the famous Pazyryk carpet showing the field and borders.

As for the design, the rows of center elements are identical to bas-relief tiles found in the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh.  The horses represented are nearly identical to alternating horsemen and grooms seen in a frieze at Persepolis, the Persian capital city of the time. The griffins, in the inner and outermost borders, are also an important early Persian motif.   However, the elk are animals that were never seen in Persia and native only to the mountains nearby where the carpet was found.

The construction of the Pazyryk carpet is a major mystery since it employs the Turkish knot which was not then, or ever, widely used in Persia.  It was, however, used by the Turkic peoples of Anatolia and Eastern Europe.  Last, the red dyestuff used to dye the wool was not employed in that region until centuries later.  Recent chromatography studies on the rug’s red color have proven that local cochineal was used rather than dyes made from madder root.  Cochineal red dyes were only used in China at the time but, if someone knew how to make them, they could be made using local materials.

One final observation almost certainly indicates that the carpet was made away from the city-based weaving centers of the time.  Once weaving the Pazyryk carpet was nearing completion, the weaver seems to have found difficulty in spacing the design.  The weaver, not under court or commercial control, inserted additional designs in order to solve awkward space problems. Introduction of pattern elements entirely unrelated to the basic theme are a clear sign of provincial work.  Experts have noted that in the outer griffin border two small floral rosettes are inserted to complete the design in a corner. A similar pair of rosettes appears in the horseman’s border in what would have seemed an open space to the weaver.  Both pattern anomalies can be seen in the lower right of the photo above and appear only in that corner.

All considered, it seems to me that the enigmatic carpet was made nearby where it was found.  But, I believe that it was made, or more likely directed by someone, probably a woman, who had either migrated, was captured, or married into the Pazyryk culture.  The answer to the mystery behind this rug will never be known, but I have my own ideas.

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 9.26.02 PMAs mysteries often beget drama, there was a novel recently published that romanticizes the creation of the Pazyryk carpet.  It was not written by a rug expert, but by a financial analyst who, after seeing the carpet at the Hermitage Museum was struck by the rug’s unique design and contradicting characteristics.   The book is named “Spindle and Bow” and was written by Bevis Longstreth, (Hali Publications LTD, 2005).  He imagined and wrote a very entertaining love story that tells of a Scythian prince who comes westward to Persia in search of technology to help his people.  There he meets the love of his life.  He brings her back to his village in the steppes of Siberia.  While the book is a work of fiction it weaves Mr. Longstreth’s exhaustive research into a very plausible explanation of how and why the fantastic Pazyryk carpet was made.  Perhaps as important, the story gives us a sense of the human drama of life at the dawning of civilization.

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