If you visit an auction gallery, you won't find a lot of serious rug people inspecting the room-sized carpets labeled "Heriz" and disputing the finer points of color, design, and structure. The only people inspecting the Herizes will be dealers and interior decorators. Other rugs are for admiring as art, but Herizes are for furnishing, which is odd when you think about it, since Herizes display at least as much creativity as the rugs that are taken more seriously.
|By Heriz-type carpets I mean those large carpets, more squarish than the traditional Persian "long rug," of rather coarse Turkish knots in good wool on a cotton foundation, with flat to moderately depressed warps, usually double-wefted, the most common design consisting of a central medallion with pendants on a sparsely decorated field cut by spandrels and framed by a broad main border, all of it boldly geometric, done in characteristically warm reds, blues and camel tones. For convenience, this includes rugs labeled Bakhshaish and Serapi as well as those labeled Heriz. The labels are hardly precise since it is impossible to know at this late date whether a particular carpet was|
Earlier in this century, many of them were called "Gorevan," for the village of that name in the Heriz area, Heriz itself being just the largest village in a general weaving area about 40 miles east of the city of Tabriz. The early rug scholar John Kimberly Mumford reported that the products of the area were first labeled chiefly as Bakhshaish (or "Bakhshis"), which was changed to "Heriz" (or "Herez") after the quality of the product fell off and trade had to be re-stimulated. Then, he went on, "when it became necessary for trade's sake to change the name of the Heriz rugs, they were entered upon invoices of shippers in Tabriz as Gorevan ... a village which had no status at all as a producer of rugs."1 And "Gorevan" they remained well into this century. Those called Serapis, for the village of Serab, were actually woven by the people of Heriz, he reported. More recently those labeled Serapis have often just been of higher quality, the mercantile philosophy being the changeless one of using whatever name has most selling power.
Likewise with Walter A. Hawley, who, writing early in the 20th century, said, "All of the Gorevans are modern pieces and so lack the interest of those that follow traditional patterns."3
These historical judgments were no doubt sound, though perhaps a bit broad. If the exact carpet known today as a Heriz is no earlier than the late 19th century, the design on which it is based is far older, going back to the 15th century art of the bookbinder, just as all central-medallion designs go back to that art. The format, tooled in leather for book covers, was translated into knotted pile early in the reign of the Safavid dynasty, that is, early in the 16th century, and, when rendered with an abundance of floral detail, became one of the classic Safavid patterns. Most of the carpets in this design are believed to have been woven in Tabriz, which was the Safavid capital during the first three quarters of the 16th century, and a number of them survive from that period that appear quite clearly to be design ancestors of the modern Heriz. Most are elegantly curvilinear, though a few are angular enough -- "extraordinarily stiff" in the words of Wilhelm von Bode4 -- to bear a striking resemblance to the modern product. One of this type, complete with central medallion, pendants and spandrels, was part of the historic Berlin Museum collection that was destroyed by Allied bombing near the end of World War II.5 Another, with all the basic elements of the Heriz except for the spandrels, survives in the Textile Museum (Illustration No. 1). One interesting thing about this carpet is the resemblance of the medallion to that found on the more elaborate Star Ushak carpets, from nearly 1,000 miles away in western Anatolia, the resemblance consisting in the shield-like shape of the lobes. Close enough are all the similarities, in fact -- from Tabriz to Ushak to Heriz -- that expert opinion can be divided over whether a particular sampler was for an Ushak or a Heriz!6
It seems plausible. "The amazing thing," however, as P.R.J. Ford noted, "is that for all the thousands of carpets produced, all in one basic design, one never sees two exactly alike."9 It is amazing. The weavers of Heriz, grinding out a living in their mud-walled villages, beholden to a distant merchant, do not fit the stereotype of barbaric nomad or innocent peasant creating a textile charged with cultural or personal significance, working into it tokens of luck and vestiges of ancient religious beliefs. Yet their rugs show far more creativity than many a rug woven by such idealized creatures. If you want to see the design difference between one pinwheel Kazak and another or between one Salor ensi and another, you have to get out your magnifying glass, but Herizes are almost exuberantly individualistic. They are full of variety, full of inventiveness.
Edwards recounts from his own 20th century experience the implausible manner in which this was done. If you ask a Heriz weaver for her pattern, he reported, "A piece of white cloth will be produced, measuring about 9 by 6 inches, on which the pattern of one-quarter of the carpet has been drawn and roughly colored. The pattern is always curvilinear -- yet the design of the carpet which is being woven from it is always in straight lines."10 He calls weaving with such limited guidance "an astonishing feat of instinctive, intuitive planning," and it's hard to disagree. Imagine creating a forcefully angular, 10'x14' carpet from a handkerchief-sized curvilinear model. Most of the design will necessarily be the product of the weaver's own inventiveness, which is the very thing prized in folk weaving -- individual creativity within a traditional framework.
It should be noted that conceptually the weaving of straight lines as opposed to curves doesn't have to be regarded as degenerate. The elegant scrolling vinework of Safavid design may be appropriate enough to the glazing of tiles or the tooling of leather, where the sweep of the craftsman's hand is unconstrained, but the same swirls and scrolls are necessarily forced when imposed on a grid of warps and wefts, where straight lines come naturally.
Setting aside the allover patterns and repeating palmettes that are occasionally found on Heriz carpets, what of the standard medallion design, which is always recognizable but always different?
As noted, the central medallion is most often eight-lobed, though it can be almost anything from the simplest stepped pattern likely to be found on a carpet attributed to Bakhshaish (Illustration No. 2) to the most fanciful 16-lobed pyrotechnic explosion on a rosy-red carpet ascribed to Heriz (Illustration No. 3). Incidentally, that this device derived from the merely decorative art of the Timurid bookbinder is not universally accepted. One art theoretician, Schuyler Cammon, associated it with Sufiism and asserted: "The eight-petaled flower, or other eight-rayed design at the center of such rugs, framed by the aperture of the Little Gate, indicated the Axis of the Universe, at the Center of Creation, and that had an especial magical significance. If this were situated at the center of a building (mosque or dwelling) preferably under a dome to symbolize the overarching sky, the whole edifice would magically become a universe in microcosm, offering special benefits to the people within."11 So those who feel deprived when they do not have their ancient symbolism need not despair even with a Heriz.
Also, either in the spandrels or as extensions of the central medallion, one often finds irregular shapes, which, if you exercise the faculty that children exercise to perceive familiar figures in clouds, can be seen as stylized variants of the ancient Chinese dragons that made their way into Caucasian dragon rugs. These are especially evident in a wonderful carpet classed as Bakhshaish, with a centralized design suggestive of an animal pelt. (Illustration No. 4) Ford claimed that "a clear succession of carpets now in museums proves that the motifs ... are derived from the dragons."12 Donald N. Wilber, author of the article which contained the speculation about Sufiism, disagreed: "This speculation seems unwarranted," he said.13 He suggested instead "that a single designer-weaver was responsible for the type, with its distinctive amorphous forms, and that successive weavers followed the lead" -- as simple as that -- a suggestion which he allowed was "ingenious if not completely convincing." In any case, whether merely decorative or invested with mythological significance, these irregular motifs, never duplicated from one rug to another, remain one of the pleasures of Herizes.
Heriz borders are almost always broad. That on the Bakshaish animal-pelt carpet (Illustration No. 4) is unusual in its narrowness.
The weaving characteristic that imparts to all good-quality Herizes the crispness of their designs is double-outlining, and anyone who wonders why one carpet is striking and another somewhat bland can usually get an indication by looking closely at that aspect. (Illustration No. 7)
Most important, though, is color, and in this too, for all their variety, Herizes are recognizable. Early authorities agree that the weavers of the Heriz district bought their wool from neighboring nomads, probably Shahsavan, but dyed it themselves, and the results are unmistakable -- the range of madder red, from deepest brick to palest coral, and of indigo blue, from inkiest midnight to lightest cerulean, these colors in their subdued harmony always bespeak the Heriz, and provide a wonderful balance to the angularity of the designs. If the carpets were done in the vivid colors of early Turkish work, they would be too much. They would be all boldness with no amelioration.
Heriz rugs possess "a balance that classes them among the loveliest in Iran," in the view of E. Gans-Ruedin.16
The old ones "belong to the best carpets on the market, " according to Erich Aschenbrenner.17
"Few rugs are more decorative and delightful than a lovely old Heriz," in the opinion of Charles W. Jacobsen.18
But there is the problem, the dread descriptor "decorative," which sums up everything that is meant by woven late and woven for export. No matter how inventive, how vigorous, how wonderfully colored, how marvelously balanced, how much the product of a single weaver's artistry, they are "decorative." Even Mumford, in praising them, condenmed them to collectors' hell: "They are remarkably wholesome, and in dining rooms, libraries, or any apartment where the woodwork and decoration are plain, and the furniture substantial, are among the most desireable of the large carpets."19
9. A spectacular Heriz, somewhat more crowded in design than usual, but full of energy. Photo courtesy of Christie's N.Y.
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
1 Mumford, John Kimberly, Oriental Rugs, reprint of fourth edition, Bramhall House, New York, 1981, p. 175f.
2 Edwards, A. Cecil, The Persian Carpet, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., London, 1953, p. 62.
3 Hawley, Walter A., Oriental Rugs, Antique and Modern, Dover Publications Inc. reprint, New York, 1970, p. 148.
4 von Bode, Wilhelm and Ernest Kühnel, Antique Rugs from the Near East, translated by Charles Grant Ellis, fourth edition, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1984, p. 90.
5 Erdmann, Kurt, Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970, Figure 153.
6 Ibid., p.194f.
7 Edwards, op. cit., p. 63.