Persian “City” Rugs, Old and New

On July 19, 2009, David Zahirpour


gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program at The Textile Museum, here in Washington, D.C., on the subject of “Persian ‘City’ Rugs, Old and New.”

He did not define “city rug” rigorously, but drew on the understandings in the widespread use of this designation, both in the market and in the literature.

Jon Thompson provides an example of the latter in the organization of his basic book, “Oriental Carpets.”  Thompson offered a four-part typology for distinguishing oriental rugs and carpets.

1. Tribal weavings

2. Products of cottage industries

3. Carpets manufactured in town or city workshops

4. Court carpets.

David was concerned with the rugs described in item 3 above.

Thompson gives an archetypal example of a “city rug”

IshfahanSarrafMamouryworkshop1970sand his caption for it provides additional, concrete, defining details.

He says, “Workshop rugs were produced for commerce by an organized team of specialists.  Artists design the patterns, dyers match the colours, and weavers work from detailed cartoons which make possible the precise execution of large curvilinear designs…”

David provided a handout that listed the Persian cities (or areas) within which most “city rugs” have traditionally been woven.

They are:

Ishfahan, Sarouk, Kashan, Tabriz, Meshed, Kirman and Bijar

He also listed some noteworthy workshops.

In Kashan: Mohtashem, Dabir, Shad Sar,

In Tabriz: Hajji Jalili

In Meshed: Amogli

In Ishafahan: Seirafian, Sarraf Mamoury

In Sarouk: Mehajeran, Ferahan

In Kerman: Ravar (really a village)

Because rugs from an identifiable workshop are usually seen to be more valuable than those for which only a “city” designation can be given, a claim that a given rug was woven in a particular workshop is sometimes looked on with suspicion.  Some argue that many workshop designations are marketing ploys, like the use of “Serapi” to signal a high-quality Heriz.

As I prepared this virtual version of this “rug morning,” I looked at a lot of auction catalogs for the years 1975 to about 1995 and did find that a great many Kashans offered were claimed to have been woven in the Mohtashem workshop and that many Tabriz’ sellers tried to hang onto a possible workshop origin with the words “possibly Hajji Jalili.”

Still others say that many workshop attributions are based on real indicators.  For example, it is claimed that there are real, concrete indicators on which a correct “Mohtashem” attribution can be based.  And other diagnotic features are claimed for other particular workshops as well.

David and I talked after about the problem of recognizing accurately whether a given rug was, in fact, woven by a particular workshop.

He is of the view that it is dangerous to cite particular indicators, since they may be open to manipulation.  He says that there are particular rugs that were identifiably woven in particular workshops, but that the recognitions are not of sort that can be put readily into words.  They are more on the order of the answer to the question “How do you recognize your children?”

This may well be correct, but it puts the buyer at a distinct disadvantage, if all of the skills needed to recognize whether a given rug was woven in a particular workshop, reside only in the experience of dealers.  It has the additional disadvantage of not making the recognitions used open to scrutiny and critique.  It is a kind of elitism.   At a minimum it suggests that, if one undertakes to buy a rug that was in fact woven in a particular workshop, one needs to engage one’s own, independent expert resource on the workshop of interest.

Different subject: It is interesting to note what rugs are usually left out of most listings of Persian “city” rugs.

First, Heriz’ are not included, even those seen remarkable enough to earn the praise of the “Serapi” designation.  This omission might be justified on the basis of the proud practice of many Heriz weavers of using a guiding pattern that is a simple, often a two or three-color, picture or printed handkerchief, rather than a knot-by-knot digital cartoon.

And Heriz’ tend to move toward the rectilinear even when the pattern is curvilinear.

But look at what sometimes results.

Herizsilklate19thThis Heriz is in silk and is estimated to have been woven in the late 19th century.

Rugs from south Persia, other than Kermans, are also usually excluded from the “city” rug category.  To some extent this may be the result of the “tribal” names many of them carry, but here are two southwest Persian examples that show what these rugs can be as well.

The first is the Khamseh below.

SWPersiaKhamsehdated1865This piece puts the lie to the seeming occasional impression in the literature that Khamseh rugs are on the cruder side.  This piece is dated 1865.

A second southwest Persian example is the classic design below.

SWPersiaQashquaiworkshopOpie explicitly designates this a “Qashqa’i workshop rug,”  demonstrating that not all observers see a tribal designation as disabling for inclusion in the “workshop” category.

“Sennehs” are not usually seen as “city” rugs, although they can exhibit great precision and sophistication.   But David includes the nearby “Bijars” in his “city” listing.

So while the designations of “city” and “workshop” rugs operate pretty well to pick out some particular types for focus, there seems, sometimes, some inconsistency in the standards used to define these groups of rugs.

In his “Oriental Rug Lexicon,” Peter Stone provides these additional observations about “workshop” rugs.

“…Workshop rugs have been faulted because of their lack of design spontaneity.  Some designs, however, have achieved great artistic merit.  Many of these rugs are woven of the finest materials according to the highest technical standards…”

Stone then goes on with some thoughts that bear on the “old-new” aspect of David’s topic.

He says , “The modern workshop or factory system of rug production began in Persia in the late nineteenth century.  Most contemporary oriental rugs are woven through this system…”

My sense is that, in David’s session, his “old” city rugs  likely include those woven, either in the 19th century, or in the 20th until about 1930.  “New” city rugs are younger than that, might be quite contemporary, and, nowadays, include Persian designs woven in other countries.

We move now to the rugs that David had brought.  David walked us through the geographic types, supplementing that, on occasion, with workshop examples he also had.

We will follow David’s lead here, but it would have been very difficult to bring into this session good examples of all of the types (particularly since many of them would be room-size or even larger).

And one of the advantages of a virtual presentation is that we can supplement examples, where we need them, without having to lift, carry, put up, take down and carry again, at all.

So we are going to show David’s examples of his categories, but will supplement them, where needed, with images of pieces that were not in the room on July 19, 2009.

As the distinctions in his handout suggest, David prepared  carefully.


And, even as he is ready to speak, considers, closely, what he wants to say.


David had arrayed the pieces he had brought on the front board.



I am not treating the various types and workshops here in precisely the same sequence David did in his session.  Instead I will follow a sequence of types that came back to me as David confirmed afterward the descriptions of the pieces he had brought in.

The first “city” on this latter listing was “Tabriz.”  In some senses this is very appropriate, since Tabriz merchants were hugely influential in establishing rug weaving workshops in many parts of Iran.

Tabriz, most will know, is located in Iran’s far northwest.

We start with two examples of older Tabriz rugs.


Tabriz rugs seem to be quite varied in both design and color palette.


Almost anything is possible.

The example above was woven in 1925 and, so, is just inside the older group we described above.

But Tabriz rugs are fairly easy to identify by structure, since they have symmetric knots tied with hooks, rather than by hand, and warps that are deeply depressed.

The use of hooks has at least two effects.

First, jufti knots, a problem in many areas, cannot be tied with a hook and so are not a problem in Tabriz rugs.

Second, the use of the hook gives the back a very uniform appearance, almost like something machine-made.  Tabriz rugs are recognizable on the basis of type of knot and what Neff and Maggs call “weave pattern.” After one has seen a few, a quick glance at the back is often sufficient to recognize a Tabriz.

Some Tabriz rugs were woven with silk pile.  Here is an example with a very unusual design.  Cross-panels occur in pieces like Turkomen engsis and in some Anatolian types, like Ghiordes niche designs, but are rare in Persian rugs.


Rugs are still being woven in Tabriz.  Here is a contemporary example.


Tabriz rugs are sometimes woven with pile that is wool in some areas and silk in others.  David had a new example in the room.


Since silk stands abrasion less well than wool, as such a rug wears, an attractive “embossed” effect appears.

One Tabriz workshop, Hajji Jalili, is frequently cited or suggested.

Here are some examples the labeling of which says “possibly Hajji Jalili.”


The following one seems very large.


A third Hajji Jalili “possible” is the rug below.


Here, below, is one rug attributed to the Hajji Jalili workshop without equivocation.


Bijar is south of Tabriz, but still quite far north in the Persian northwest and we treat its rugs next.

Despite the fact that Bijar weavers are acknowledged to have woven some of the most impressive rugs known, the inclusion of this city and area in a listing of makers of “city” rugs might strike some as a departure.  Bijar designs often seem less formal and border corners are not usually resolved, this latter often seen as evidence that a cartoon was not followed closely.

Nevertheless, David included them in his listing


(he was, in fact, pressed by someone in the audience about whether he saw resolved corners as a defining characteristic of a “city” rug and he said not).

I have not included some of the readily available “Garrus” Bijars with their dramatic strapwork.  (The sort of thing that John Collins showed in his famous ORR article on Bijars.)  But I have chosen a couple of examples that seem to me both typical and attractive.

Here, for example, is a rather typical Bijar medallion design.


The piece above is attributed to the 19th century.

And here is one with a field of repeating devices, nested between one another, in alternate rows.

Bijar1900Bijar weaving often projects a Kurdish-like flair for color usage (for me, the use of blue in the rug above is inspired), although many say the best of Bijar weaving is, in fact, done by Afshars.

David had brought a new Bijar of the sort that you will encounter frequently, nowadays, if you go looking for one.


A quality item, woven in Iran, with a dense “herati” design and a traditional Bijar structure, such a rug is still difficult to beat for wear.  A few Persian producers of Bijars have begun, again, to use natural dyes.  The colors of these natural-dye, Bijar pieces, seem a little bright at first, but are jewel-like.

Rugs with a Bijar structure and with similar “herati” designs are woven in great numbers in India and Pakistan.

Sarouk rugs are also woven in Iran’s northwest and that is the group we treat next.


Rugs designated “Sarouks” are woven in a variety of villages in Arak.   The literature seems to suggest a kind of sequence of related, but distinctive types in this Arak area.  The first is “Ferahan.”  A second is “Sarouk.”  A third is “Ferahan Sarouk,” a term that seems, as one reads its defining components, more a sub-group of “Ferahans,” than it is of “Sarouks.”

There are a number of additional related types in this area.  There are “Josan” Sarouks (one of which we will see), there are “Mahals,” “Lilihans,” “Sarabands,” and the earlier “Mir Sarabands.”

We will treat only the “Sarouk,” Ferahan Sarouk, and Josan Sarouk” in our review here of “city” rugs from the Arak area.

“Ferahans” seem to have been an early Arak type.  They  have symmetric knots on a cotton foundation.  The handle of Ferahans is moderately flexible because alternate warps are not deeply depressed.  Designs tend to be “classic repeating” patterns like the “herati.”  The palette is often lighter and can feature lots of white.

“Sarouks” seem to have emerged as a clear type about 1890 and are distinguished from “Ferahans” by a structure with much more deeply depressed warps and the adoption, frequently, of medallion designs.  The Sarouk color palette tends to be darker.  Blue and red often dominate.

“Ferahan Sarouks” seem to be rugs that resemble “Ferahans,” but which have an alternate warp depression that moves them closer to “Sarouks.”  They often display some “Ferahan” color usages, including a distinctive green and expanses of white.

Here are two older Sarouks that David had in the room.


The rug above is the kind of old Saruk that most would readily identify.

David had another in the room with rewoven ends.


We did not have any “Ferahans” in the room, but there were three “Ferahan Sarouks” present.

Here is the first one.


David described this piece as an “antique Ferahan Sarouk.”

Someone had brought in a very different looking “Ferahan Sarouk.”


Here are some closer detail images of this piece.



A third “Ferahan Sarouk” in the room moved in a very different direction again.


This is a piece that requires closer details.

First a corner.


And another detail of field and border, closer yet.


The “Ferahan” heritage of this piece is visible in its lighter coloration and the small repeat devices that cover its field .

Here are some additional “Feraghan Sarouk” rugs not in the room.

SaroukFerahan19thAnd here is a second example with a lighter palette and a niche design.


Sarouks are still being made.  We had a new Josan Sarouk in the room.


The Mehajeran workshop is perhaps the most frequently mentioned  one making Sarouk rugs.

David had brought one Mehajeran Sarouk.


And here is another, larger one with a deeply saturated red field.



The next “city rug” type we treat here is the “Kashan.”

Kashan has a deep weaving tradition and was for a long time famous for its shawls.  But as the shawl market receded in the late 19th century, weavers turned to carpet weaving for which demand was rising sharply.

One possibly apocryphal story about how that happened involves a Kashan dealer who had a lot of Merino wool that had been processed in Manchester, England.  His wife was a skilled weaver.  He asked her to weave a rug using this “Manchester” wool and the results pleased lots of Kashan ladies and the market and before long “Manchester Kashans” became a valued rug product.  Kashans made from wool processed in Manchester are still marketed as “Manchester Kashans” and are seen by some to be very collectible.

Here is one example of a “Manchester Kashan.”

KeshanManchesternotdatedBut Kashans of other sorts and qualities are made and it is one city famous for particular workshops.

David had an old Kashan in the room made from “kurk” wool.  It is the larger piece in the image below.


Here are some closer details of this rug.  First a corner.


Then its somewhat unusual open field.


As we noted above, Kashans are one variety of “city” rug in which specific designers are alleged and noted.  This despite the claim of Edwards that there were no factories in Kashan and that all weaving is carried out in homes (see David’s indication below about this Edwards claim).  So it may be that “workshops” in Kashan were quite small family operations.

The most famous Kashan workshop is “Mohtashem” and, although Edwards does not mention it, you will, nowadays, rather frequently hear claims that a given rug was made there.

Here are some Kashans that are also described as “Mohtashems.”


The piece above is attributed to the 19th century.

Here is another, this one woven in 1900.


Silk rugs were woven in Kashan and here is one below with a niche design that “may be a Mohtashem.”


The rugs woven in the Mohtasham workshop themselves vary in type.  David had a smaller one in the room.


He said that this small piece was antique and in silk.

Here are two closer details of it.



As we mentioned above, the claim that a given rug was woven in the Mohtashem workshop is a claim that it is of very high quality and some feel that the designation has become mostly a marketing ploy.

Some even doubt that we can identify “Mohtashems,” reliably, using a stable set of indicators.  Still others, say “no,” there are real Mohtashems, and indicators.

But if Edwards is right about “no rug factories” in Kashan, one wonders where all the rugs claimed to be “Mohtashems” could have been woven.  (David, by the way, says that he has personally seen rug “factories” in Kashan and that Edwards’ indication is not correct.)

The strength of the urge to hold onto some sort of Mohtashem connection is demonstrated by the description of the rug below.


This is a new Chinese rug described as “Mohtashem-inspired.”

Two other Kashan “workshops” whose work we can illustrate are termed “Shad Sar” and “Dabir.”

Here is an alleged “Shad Sar” example.


And here is a rug claimed to be a “Dabir.”


This rug is estimated to have been woven early in the 20th century.

Ishfahans, as we said, as we showed one at the beginning, is often seen to be a near archetype of the “city” rug.  This beautiful city is only a little further south of Kashan.

Here is a typical Ishafahan carpet.

IshfahanMEilandIt is the example that appears in the most recent edition of the Eiland’s comprehensive guide.  Notice the great detail and the seeming perfection of the drawing.

David had brought an Ishfahan, with wool pile, but a silk foundation.


Since this rug was in the room we can show you some partial images that exhibit the details of the drawing in Ishafahan rugs.





Some Ishafans are entirely of silk.  The rug below is one such.


Some Ishafans are attributed to specific workshops.

The one below is attributed to the Ahmad workshop in about 1900.


The one below is referred to as a “Seirafinian” Ishfahan.


Here, again, below is the Ishfahan we saw at the beginning.  It is attributed to the “Sarraf Mamoury” workshop, about 1970, in Jon Thompson’s “Carpet Magic.”


I once heard George Jevremovic say in a presentation that he was sending  his “city rug designs” to Chinese weavers because the Chinese want to get designs right.

David had a contemporary piece in the room, with an Isfahan-like design, that he thought had likely been woven in China.


Again, some closer partial images are possible.




Meshed is not an area that is often listed when “city rugs” are discussed, but David includes both Meshed, and the Meshed “Amoghli” workshop, in his city and workshop listings.

Here is an example of a Amoghli Meshed.


Below is a signed Amoghli Meshed, with an elaborate design, woven in 1925.


And here is another attributed to the 19th century.


It is interesting, given the seeming scarcity of Meshed rugs, in general, how frequently the references to a “Agmohli” connection can be encountered.

A scan for “Agmohli” on eBay will often produce something like this.


Looks like an Ishfahan.

For our last geographic center for city rugs, we move to the south center of Iran and to the Kerman area.

Kerman rugs are seen by some to project the acme of Persian rug design and color usage.  Cecil Edwards was so wowed by them that some complain that he devoted too much of his classic book on Persian carpets to them.  But they clearly deserves serious attention when one examines city rugs.

David had a Kerman piece in the room.


He described this as a “Raver” Kerman.  “Raver” most will know, is a village and area close to Kerman city where the best Kerman rugs are said to have been woven.

Here are some other Kerman examples I collected from various sources.  The piece below is a large 19th century Kerman that projects both the sophistication of design and the range of color for which Kerman carpets are famous.


And here are two additional Raver Kermans.  The first is another 19th century rug.  To me it seems glorious.


The second example is a striking medallion design for which no date is given.


We have completed our virtual treatment of the types David discussed in this session.

David answered questions.


My own was that since the Tabriz merchants are seen to have been so influential in establishing rug production in so many parts of Iran, why do they seem not to have mandated a Tabriz structure or the Tabriz hook-based methods?

It seems remarkable, given the seeming influence of the Tabriz organizers, how varied the structures and other usages are in the different areas in which both city rugs and others were produced.

The session came to an end and folks began their after-program conversations and their further examination of the pieces in the room.





I want to thank David for permitting me to fashion this virtual version of his session and for his very considerable help in preparing and editing it.

‘Til next time,

R. John Howe

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