"I Gohar full of sin and weak of soul with my newly learned hands wove [this rug]. Whosoever reads say a word of mercy for me. In the year 1700."

The humble and haunting inscription has made a dragon rug with a zigzag border into a sort of Rosetta stone -- a key to Armenia's claim to the origins of the delightful dragon rugs and to the art of rug weaving itself.

For almost three centuries, Gohar's rug narrowly escaped destruction. Now it's the star of "Weavers, Merchants and Kings: The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia," the first exhibit devoted both to inscribed rugs and to Armenian rugs. The show is open until Jan. 6 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW.

Gohar's rug was rudely stolen (the Armenians traditionally blame the Turks) in 1899 and taken to London, where curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum studied and photographed it. From then on photographs of Gohar's rug were used in major books as the principal evidence that dragon rugs originated in Armenia. But the rug itself disappeared for decades until resurfacing in 1977, when it was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer. An Armenian rug dealer in Texas told curator Emily J. Sano about Gohar's rug when Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum was organizing this show, and she was ecstatic to be able to borrow and include it.

Gohar's inscription, like the inscriptions on Armenian churches, was a "pious act in the hope of being inscribed in God's heavenly register of life," said Lucy Der Manuelian, coauthor of the show's catalogue. Another inscription, less pious, says: "Sit down, eat, drink and be merry." One tells of a rug being brought from a distance by a kinsman so a blind and captive ruler could dine "in the manner of kings." Rugs were unrolled for specific purposes: to dine, to sit, to sleep, to make love.

The so-called "Armenian Fortress" -- the Indo-European people's kingdoms on the Anatolian plateau and Caucasus Mountains -- was both a crossroads and a battlefield. In the 4th century, Armenia became the first country to make Christianity the official religion; the Armenians formulated an alphabet and a written language specifically to translate the Bible.

Influences from other lands and other weavers cause Armenian rugs often to be mistaken for those of other countries: Turkey, Persia, even the French Aubusson. The origins of the inscribed rugs are unmistakable. But there are other things that help identify Armenian rugs: a red dye, the "Armenian red," made from the cochineal insect, and a certain artistic freedom and exuberance that combine traditional motifs with inspired graffiti.

A cloud-band-design Karabagh rug, for instance, uses a traditional S motif, a sea serpent abstracted. But strange creatures wandered into the field behind that central design: stick men in short skirts, hilarious birds on the wing, a military man, what looks like an astronaut with an elephant-shaped lunch pail, a nuptial couple, and -- I think -- a man with high socks.

Another Karabagh, with angels and a double-headed eagle and inscribed in 1912, illustrates the great humor of the Armenians. A great winged creature is ornamented with a man on horseback, perhaps Christ, hovered over by a stern-looking angel, all head and wings. Attendant angels, with disapproving frowns and a few happy smiles, fly across the creature's wings. Some of the angel brigade escaped to flutter in the rug's field.

The Armenian Diaspora of 1914-22, when more than a million and a half died or were displaced, caused the rugs' ethnic origins to be almost forgotten for many years, except by the Armenian refugees who often escaped with only a talent for art and linguistics, and a devotion to religion. The show's "orphan rug" is a poignant reminder of Armenian refugee children of World War I whose only inheritance was their "newly learned hands."

In exile, the peripatetic Armenian rug traders became keepers of the flame of knowledge about their rugs. Der Manuelian points out that the Armenians often succeeded because one relative would set up in London, another in Paris and a third in the United States. Lenders to the current show, for example, include Harold Keshishian of Bethesda, his brother James of Chevy Chase, and A. and E. Keshishian of London.

In the 1920s, the ill-informed Arthur Upham Pope wrote, "There is no record nor even any local tradition that weaving was ever carried on in Armenia to any extent . . ." This show thumbs its nose at Pope, and its mass of assembled evidence would persuade anyone of the great contribution of this people to art.