For those that fear the majesty of their Lord there are two gardens . . .
A gushing fountain shall flow in each . . . planted with fruit trees, the palm and the pomegranate. Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny ?
. . . They shall recline on green cushions and thick carpets. Which of your Lord's blessings would you deny ?
-- Description of Paradise in the Koran, from "Arabia" by Jonathan Raban
Anatomy of an Oriental carpet connoisseur: the nose of a bloodhound, the eye of an art historian, the heart of a romantic, and the cunning of Genghis Khan.
Multiply that by 900 and you have the third biennial International Conference on Oriental Carpets, sponsored by the Textile Museum at the Shoreham Hotel over the weekend. For three blissful days dealers, collectors and scholars gathered, like chocolate addicts at a candy store, to satisfy, if only momentarily, their obsession.
"It is like a drug," sighed Jasphal Rangi, a collector from Montreal. "Rugs become a real passion. Wherever I go I look."
Antique Oriental carpets, the Persians, Caucasians, Turkmen carpets ("the Rembrants of the East"), the Chinese, Anatolian, Indian, and so forth, are big business these days. Long collected by Europeans (and Americans, to a lesser extent) for their beauty, and often depicted in the work of western European painters from Holbein to Vermeer, they are now bought and traded with the kind of enthusiasm once reserved for fine wines, or thoroughbreds, or even Renaissance paintings. What once graced the courts of Persian potentates and Turkish sultans -- the broad expanses of silken swirls, indigo and flowers, henna borders and cochikneal leaves -- once symbols of wealth and power, have become investment material, blue-chip carpeting, security blankets for the cold nights after the crash.
Prince Houssain had finished his inspection when . . . a crier came past carrying a piece of carpet for which he asked forty purses of gold. It was only about six feet square, and the Prince was astonished at the price. "Surely," said he, "there must be something very extraordinary about this carpet which I cannot see, for it looks ordinary enough."
" You have guessed right, sir," replied the crier, " and will own it when you learn that whosoever sits on this piece of carpeting may be transported in an instant withersoever he disires to be, without being stopped by any obstacle."
The Prince was overjoyed, for he had found a rarity that could secure him the hand of the Princess. "If." said he, "the carpet has this virtue, I will gladly buy it ."
-- "Prince Ahmend and Periebanou," from the Abrabian Nights
While the taste for antique carpets, as well as their value, has skyrocketed in the last 15 years, their number remains finite. "The Germans, the Americans and the British are the big buyers today," said Walter Denny, a scholar of Islamic Art, and a connoisseur of carpets for 16 years. "Many of them are what I would classify as the 'white knuckle' breed. I wouldn't jeopardize my life by standing between them and a carpet they wanted."
Although standards may vary slightly from dealer to dealer, generally, an antique carpet is one over 100 years old. A semi-antique is 50 to 80 years old.
And, according to Belkis Acar, director of the Vakiflar carpet meseum in Istanbul, carpets made after the 1920s will get old, but they will never be antiques. Oil, industrialization and inexorable decline of nomadic cultures in Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey have reduced both the quality and quantity of new carpets. So the fragments of Eastern glory ride a Western merry-go-round, passing from dealer to collector to museum, giving rise to conferences like this one, where the economics of scarcity, the ancient trader's bluff and the magic of the priceless patterns collide. Where beauty, as ever, is in the eye of the beholder.
" It is the Armenian rugs," stressed Puzan Kashian, a dealer from California, "which are the most beautiful. Look at this, look at these colors," he said pointing to a photograph (throughout the weekend men and women pulled photographs of rugs from their pockets and briefcases like so many parents on a summer cruise).
"Do you see the space between the two bands that frame the rug?That is the space for the gremlins to light on, to keep them from destroying the center of the rug, where the gul , the flower, is. That central gul , you see, is woman, it is fertility. It should never be destroyed. An Armenian will tell you that." Kashian, an Armenian by birth, was one of many Armenian dealers at the conference.
"I have known rugs since the age of 10. I grew up in Turkey, constantly around the weavers and dyers of my father. I can brush my foot against a rug, and tell you everything about it."
In the darkened ballroom scholars were showing slides of fragments from 15th-century rugs. "How can I compare the different carpets?" Kashian whispered. "The Persians [carpets] are the backbone of the business. They are delicate and curvilinear. The Armenian carpets are geometrical." The sound of 500 pencils scratching across 500 notepads in the dark. "How can I choose?" said Kashian. "It is like choosing between emeralds and rubies, blonds and brunettes. But I'll tell you this," he finished, "the Armenian dyes never run."
Islamic art is a single song of praise. It is denaturalized, destylized. Unlike the representational art of the West, the arabesque has no limit. It conveys the limitlessness of the state of Islam, the continous process of civilization which is Islam in action .
-- From "Arabia" by Jonathan Raban
"You must notice that although the rug may appear symmetrical and perfect, it is not," saikd Suat Izmirli, a young Turkish representative of the Ozinek Silk Rug Manufacturing Co., which produces new rugs near Istanbul. "You may notice there is a little white dot, perhaps, off-center. This is done by the weaver, because the weaver is not perfect." 'izmirli took a draw on his cigarette, a Turkish Samsum, strong and pungent. "Only Allah is perfect.
At the time of the empire the carpets were made for the sultan. Truly magnificent carpets, with jewels and finest silk in the world, with 1 million knots per meter. But as the Russian empire grew, you know, we became smaller and so . . . soon there was no Hereke production at all. But now things are better, and we have 2,400 looms. The weavers are children and young women -- the fingers must be thin and strong. They make a good salary, $1,000 a year, much more than they could make in a factory, much more than their fathers could make. And when the young women go off to marry, after they have made their last and best rug, we give each one a set of bedroom furniture.
"The men?" asks Izmirli, with a bit of surprise... "The men never weave. It is considered unmasculine." And then, quickly, "A man who would do such a thing would be thought how do you say, homo." Some long for the Glories of this world and some Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come : Ah, take the Cash, and let the promise go ,
Nor heed the music of a distant drum . -- From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
"The art has disappeared, like an extinct animal," said Belkis Acar. "It is difficult now to find the beautiful vegetable dyes and ahndspun wools. The East has opened up. Long ago, the Turks, the East, conquered the West. Now, Western ideas and ways invade the East. It is a king of paying back.
"The West has always liked the rugs. They like it. They buy it, they take it back. Yet at the same time, they kill it." A quick smile, a look of chagrin. "I am saying to much, really. But it is the same for me. I am coming from East, yet I am Western in many ways." She walked away to speak with a dealer from Salzburg, and a museum director from Munich. Her accent was very good.