Issue Nº 9 - The Rug

The Carpet and the Territory

Both sacred ground and profane platform, the prayer rug suspends reality, transports worshippers symbolically elsewhere, and orders the confusion of life into a temporary perfection.
Portraits of Mirza Sayyid Muhammed Imam Joomah and Hajji Muhammad Kalim Karhasy, Qajar School, Iran, c. 1830. © British Museum
Text by Alessandra Covini
Although varied in uses and meanings, carpets that belong to the domestic realm and those tied to sacred rituals share a common ground: they are always places of exception, marking a space, separating it from its surroundings. The carpet turns what it frames into something unique and exclusive, and has the power of isolating the people and the objects that inhabit it, defining a ‘consecrated ground’ dedicated to an act apart, a place with its own rules, which orders the confusion of life into a temporary and limited perfection. Carpets embody powerful symbols across different cultures, becoming filters that enhance a suspension of reality, as they mark a ‘sacred’ spot in the house, represent the Garden of Eden, or delimit a holy ground for prayer. Carpets have always been embedded with ‘magic’: from One Thousand and One Nights, to Solomon’s green silk carpet, to the Russian folk tales of Ivan the Fool, to Mark Twain’s Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, the ‘flying’ carpet is a common trope in legends, myths and religions.
In contemporary Western domestic spaces the carpet is seen as a common piece of furniture, but unlike the chair, table or sofa, the carpet is often used to frame a living space and domestic ritual, the act of eating, or being together. The Western use of carpets started when the rug arrived in Europe, following conquests and trade with the Middle East, in the 13th century. Under the foot of the Virgin or on the church altar, a special place became dedicated to oriental carpets in Western culture.
Wealthy European leaders and merchants, who understood the power of the carpet’s symbolism by displaying them in their homes, often on tables as an indication of status and power, gave birth to a genre of painting, the 17th-century ‘still life’, where exotic food, birds and precious objects, placed on top of luxurious oriental carpets, would suggest complex allegories bound to life and death.
1. Lorenzo Lotto, Family Portrait, 1524. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
1. Lorenzo Lotto, Family Portrait, 1524. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
2. Nicolaes van Gelder, Still Life, 1664. Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The tradition of displaying Middle Eastern carpets on tables is portrayed in the paintings of Renaissance artists such as Lorenzo Lotto [1], Ghirlandaio, Holbein, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Memling. As an example, the ‘still life’ by Nicolaes van Gelder (1664), part of the Rijksmuseum collection, features an Anatolian prayer rug placed on a marble table, topped with baskets laden with peaches, grapes and plums, alongside precious glass and ceramic objects [2]. The habit of placing carpets on tables rather than floors still survives in popular culture in the Netherlands. So-called bruine cafés, such as Amsterdam's Café Anno 1890 or Café Hegeraad, welcome clients with carpets instead of tablecloths on the tables, a tradition that traces back to the 16th-century carpets of Amsterdam merchants, and to their form of consideration for those skilfully crafted fabrics, far too precious to be carelessly walked upon.
Yet the Western use and understanding of carpets is only a fragment of the richness of meanings that the carpet embodies in the Middle East, which brought forth a world of carpet types and layouts: from the ‘Chahar Bagh’, representations of walled gardens, to ‘hunting carpets’ that depict the ‘zoological’ parks or hunting reserves of Persian princes inhabited by riders and fantastic animals interlaced with flowering foliage and imaginary branches, to ‘medallion carpets’ featuring abstract ponds or pavilions, ‘tree of life’ carpets with cypresses inhabited by birds, ‘millefleur’ carpets with fields of plants and catalogues of flowers, and ‘prayer rugs’, portable sacred ground to pray on, representing an opening towards the Garden of Eden, and ‘Saph’, multi-niched rugs used for collective prayers in mosque.
Paraphrasing the words of art historian Sergio Bettini, the carpet responds to one of the fundamental needs of human beings, the act of enclosing, defining, giving form to the living space. It serves as protection against the limitless scales of space and time. It is a place that is both house and temple, a place of shelter and leisure, and a place for prayer. The frame of the carpet cuts and delimits a portion of the infinite, devoting it to human existence. Within its finite boundaries, people frame the universe through its symbolic relationships, infinite representations, and multiple scales of meaning.
The Prayer Rug: A Visual Essay
Among the different types of carpets, the ‘prayer rug' is sacred ground par excellence, a portable and foldable ‘holy precinct’ used to pray [3].
3. Bhojraj, Portrait of Prince Muhammad Buland Akhtar at Prayer, c. 1700 –1750. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
3. Bhojraj, Portrait of Prince Muhammad Buland Akhtar at Prayer, c. 1700 –1750. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
4. A temporary place of worship outside the mosque. Photo Tomas Dirrix
With its woven, architectonic motifs and its orientation towards Mecca, it acts as a temporary place of worship outside the mosque [4]. It can be used at any time, isolating worshippers from their immediate surroundings, transporting them symbolically elsewhere. The prayer rug is a space suitable for one person to perform their daily prayers, in different positions: standing, or kneeling and touching the rug with the forehead. The prayer rug features a niche that is woven into the material, indicating where the body should be positioned [5]. It represents a doorway with the form of an arch that indicates the direction to face during prayer. The form of this arch is reminiscent of the Mihrab, a gateway that symbolizes the opening towards a celestial garden, a door to paradise.
Besides being a ‘temenos’, a holy ground dedicated to praying, the prayer rug is also a canvas that represents motifs and shapes of historical, almost archaeological, architectural elements of mosques, of palaces and gardens. Its symbols tell stories of architecture, of conquests and of exchanges between different cultures and religions.
5. Prayer Carpet, Yomud, Iran, Central Asia. c. 1775 –1850. Wool, 83.5 × 129 cm. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Doors of Paradise
Persian spatial culture is closely bound up with gardens as ‘built environments’, with precise landscape and architectural features, and is reflected in the production of carpets, from the grid-like Chahar Bagh ‘garden carpets’ to prayer rugs. Persian prayer rugs represent openings, doors and gateways towards the garden, featuring decorated arches supported by carefully designed columns, in which the foliage rooted in the ground connects symbolically to the sky.
6. Tree of Life, Bakshaish, Northwest Persia, mid 19th century, wool, 165 × 122 cm. Courtesy Moshe Tabibnia Gallery, Milan
In the ‘Door of Paradise’ carpet, the arch frames a bi-dimensional woven image of paradise made of flowers, bushes and birds. Another beautiful example is the Kermanshah ‘Tree of Life’, where the niche frames a tree with many branches: the Tree of Life, inhabited by birds and a precisely drawn long-tailed green Alexandrine parrot, allegorically bridging the terrestrial and celestial worlds [6]. The shape of the opening and its decorative arches can be found in palace gardens, such as the Court of Lions of the Alhambra, where the columns develop as a three-dimensional petrification of their woven counterpart [7, 8].
7. Philip Henry Delamotte, Alhambra and Court of Lions, Crystal Palace, Sydenham, c. 1859. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
7. Philip Henry Delamotte, Alhambra and Court of Lions, Crystal Palace, Sydenham, c. 1859. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
8. E. Therond, Gateway towards Tomb of Iltutmish, Qutb Mosque, Delhi, 1878. Photo Alamy
Arched Rugs
In other regions, such as Anatolia, the prayer rug’s doorway features a complex architectural structure: triple arches with a higher central unit supported by paired columns. This structure is thought to be inspired by Roman architecture and adopted by Ottomans in the architecture of their palaces and mosques, and subsequently adapted to carpets by Anatolian weavers in the 17th century. This same prayer rug typology is also found in the painting Still Life by Nicolaes van Gelder, which shows the same capitals, columns and leaves. The architecture found in carpets tells us about a system of references and exchange between different cultures and epochs, and the carpet becomes a canvas to decode [9].
9. Carpet with Triple-Arch Design, Istanbul, Turkey, c. 1575 –1590. Silk, wool, cotton, 180.3 × 136.5 cm. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Water Pond
In line with Victor Hugo’s interpretation of Gothic cathedrals as ‘books of stone’, carpets can perhaps be seen as ‘woven texts’ to be deciphered as languages. Another prayer rug ornament that helps us discover elements of the history of architecture is found in 16th- and 17th-century Anatolian rugs, in a symbol known as the ‘keynote’ [10].
10. Niche ‘Bellini’ Carpet, Anatolia, late 16th century, 177 × 134 cm. Zaleski Collection. Courtesy of Moshe Tabibnia Gallery, Milan
10. Niche ‘Bellini’ Carpet, Anatolia, late 16th century, 177 × 134 cm. Zaleski Collection. Courtesy of Moshe Tabibnia Gallery, Milan
11. Divriği Great Mosque and Hospital, Anatolia, 1228 –1229. Photo TRT Avaz
In such prayer rugs the base of the niche presents a small octagonal enclave entering into the field of the niche. This small octagonal shape is interpreted as a water basin, which recalls the shapes of the fountain that used to be located in the centre of ancient mosques, as is still visible in the 12th-century Divriği Great Mosque and Hospital in Anatolia [11]. In the ancient mosques that have survived, the water basin has been placed outside the building. The ‘keynote’ prayer rug can be seen as a blueprint that brings to light historical and archaeological elements of the mosque, or as an Islamic bird’s-eye view of ancient sacred grounds.
Other types of prayer rug represent objects connected to sacred rituals and allegories, such as hanging mosque lanterns, showing us examples of Islamic art or hinting at purification rituals that precede prayer [12].
12. Ottoman Prayer rug with lantern, 17th –18th century, 173 × 99 cm. Yanni Petsopoulos Collection, London. Courtesy AXIA, London
Anthropomorphic Symbols
Nomads in isolated desert regions, by contrast, produced Caucasian carpets. The absence of architecture in their visual repertoire led to the production of carpets with more stylized and abstract motifs that refer to anthropomorphic symbols. Instead of columns or gardens inhabited by celestial creatures, Caucasian prayer rugs feature body symbols, like stylized hands and heads, marking the position of the worshipper during prayer. The arch-shaped niche abstracts the prayer’s head and its position. Such symbols belong to a repertoire that is ancient in origin, connecting to divine and magical rituals that transcend Islam, and recurring in different cultures [13].
13. Hands of Fatima, Akstafa prayer rug, Central Caucasus, mid 19th century. Wool, 152 × 84 cm. Courtesy Moshe Tabibnia Gallery, Milan
Cross-Cultural Figures
The variety of colours and motifs found in carpets has been maintained partly because of poor communication between the various countries of origin. Carpets are very much connected with the territory and landscape where they were produced. The types of wool, dyes, plants and vegetation all reflect the landscape in which their makers lived. On the other hand, geographical barriers did not prevent outside influence entirely. Over the centuries, certain symbols crossed geographical borders, spreading through different regions, cultures and religions. Symbols represented in Islamic carpets are also found in Chinese and Jewish rugs [14], including crosses, arches, birds and otherworldly creatures.
14. Ottoman Parokhet Torah Rug, Cairo, Egypt, early 17th century. Wool, 186.7 × 155.6 cm. Courtesy Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.
Textile Marvels
Besides being used in domestic settings and in isolation, the prayer rug becomes the frame for a shared ritual in mosques, where it is the module of a woven floor made up of multiple niches, designed for collective prayer [15].
15. Mosque of Uqba, Kairouan, Tunisia. Photo Rugtracker
This ‘macro carpet’ is called Saph, which means ‘lines’, and is composed of several niches in a row, for worshippers to pray side by side. Ancient Saph carpets were pure masterpieces where each niche featured different forms, colours and deco­rations [16, 17, 18]. Today the production of Saph ranges from industrially woven rug runners to hand-woven carpets, such as the world’s largest rug made for the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which is both a textile marvel and a seating chart, measuring 5,630 square metres and weighing 12 tons, where the row lines are marked with a subtle relief on the surface.
16. Saph, row niche carpet (fragment), Turkey, 16th century. Wool, 142×337 cm © Museum of Islamic Art, Staatliche Museen, Berlin
17. Ushak Saph, Uşak, Turkey. 19th century. Photo Rugtracker
17. Ushak Saph, Uşak, Turkey. 19th century. Photo Rugtracker
18. Laila and Majnun at School, folio from a Khamsa of Nizami (present-day Afghanistan), c. 1431. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Carpets of Stone
As the Saph typically appears as a rug runner, there are examples in which the mosque’s prayer rug merges with the architecture, becoming a petrified tapestry on the floor. In the Taj Mahal mosque’s interior, the textile motifs of the prayer rug are translated into red sandstone and marble with inlay work of semi-precious stones that resemble the purple velvet of carpets [19], while in the Jama Masijd mosque in Old Delhi, black and white ornamental marble outlines the prayer rug’s niches [20].
19. Taj Mahal Mosque Interior, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo Alamy
19. Taj Mahal Mosque Interior, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo Alamy
20. Jama Masjid Mosque marble floor pattern, Delhi, India. Photo Istock
The Saph faces the Mihrab, a decorated semi-circular niche in the wall of the mosque where the prayer leader stands, indicating the position of the Qibla. The two-dimensional motif of the niche in the prayer rug is translated into a three-dimensional architectural niche on the wall of the mosque, a symbolical doorway to Paradise [21]. In the mosque, the niche motif is also found in durable materials on the floors and walls, or at the entrance. The architectural motif of the Mihrab suggests permanence, in contrast to the fragility, displacement and portability associated with the prayer rug.
21. Mihrab Prayer Niche, Isfahan, Iran, c. 1354. Mosaic, 343.1 × 288.7 cm. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In the prayer rug, architecture, craft and symbolism merge in a unique system of references, in which decoration goes beyond mere representation, portraying a philosophical conception of the world. The carpet acts in this system as sacred ground that moves across space, representing in its motifs the Axis Mundi and position of humans in relation to the world, and the universe.
Often considered merely an item of furniture for the floor or wall, or a woven painting with floral motifs, the carpet is rather the material embodiment of symbolic and architectural notions. Western art critique is sometimes poor in explaining the artistic and spatial significance of the carpet, reducing its value to commentaries on the colours, the stylization of motifs and decorations, and failing to address the individuality and artistic reality that carpets embody. The carpet is not a decorative artefact but the first delimitation of space in a territory. It is not an object but a temenos: a holy portion of land, a sacred precinct representing universal values and dedicated to individual acts. The carpet is a platform dedicated to human existence. It is both the definition of an idealized territory and its representation, a sacred ground and a profane platform, upon which human life is represented. For art historian Sergio Bettini, within the carpet, space is not just ‘represented’ by woven drawings and colours, but it is the carpet itself, the space that you enter, while Foucault describes the rug as a reflection of the garden: “The garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space. The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.”
Upon this perfect fragment, life plays out through ritual and utilitarian acts, flickering between the sacred and the profane, between private customs and shared rituals.
This essay is part of Studio Ossidiana’s research into carpets and architecture, see
Not currently accepting internship requests
® Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office