A few words about carpets


1. Edmund de Unger, the owner of this miniature [which is a leaf of Shah Thamasp’s Shah Nama, read about the book here, read the book here, see pages from various manuscript editions here], was born into a Hungarian aristocratic family. His father was an Oriental carpet collector and young Edmund's first drawings as a child were not dogs, houses and human stick figures but – carpet patterns.

2. His father’s collection died a dramatic death: during the 1945 fighting for Budapest, Russians buried their dead wrapped in them. One couldn’t very well object: they were, after all, war heroes. And, surely, a hand-woven carpet, rich, thick, and laboriously made, makes a fitting shroud for a hero.

3. After the communist take-over, young Unger fled to the UK where for a time he served as a gentleman’s gentleman (literally) while studying for a barrister’s degree. He then joined British imperial foreign service and it is there that he caught the luster-ware bug. It all went from there. Though it was probably inevitable: a collector is born a collector, Unger says, what he collects is a matter of accident – stamps, bottle caps, Old Masters, carpets.

(Though, this not the case with me: my collections are not collections at all. They are just assemblies of beautiful object of every category and description, since they do not follow any scheme at all -- no category, no period, no genre. Clearly, I am not a collector in the same sense as Unger. Nor in another: I do not care if my possessions are authentic; only whether they are beautiful).

(Still, I do understand something of de Unger’s pleasure: he recalls fondly falling asleep deliciously in his friend's house while counting his friend’s Qing pieces. It has happened to me).

4. Asked his favorite oriental carpet design he says without hesitation "Mamluk", because, no matter how many times one stares at one, he says, one always discovers something new. I understand this, too: I, too, am slave to complexity. (Says who complexity is not a source of pleasure?)

(Just wait. There is a really nice Mamluk coming up).

5. I found the interview in the most recent issue of Hali ("carpets, textiles and Islamic arts" -- where has this beauty been all my life?). There I also found other treasures; like the advertisement, by Azer Ilme, a carpet weaving and marketing company of Azerbaijan (see some of their offerings here), that they have managed to reproduce a Shehi Safi carpet (last examples of this beauty-wonder were made in the 16th century, back when Azeris still spoke an Iranian dialect); and an article on the paracas carpets of Peru.

6. These last are as weird a story as you'll ever hear. They date to sometime between the 1st Century BC and 4th century AD - roughly the time of Imperial Rome. They were used to wrap the dead who were then buried in elaborate cave necropolises in the Paracas peninsula, Peru. One Julio Tello discovered these necropolises in the early 1900´s when he noticed very strange -- and beautiful -- carpets for sale in the markets of Lima and followed the grave robbers to their source. The colors of the surviving carpets have been beautifully preserved in the dry darkness of the graves; we know nothing about the civilization that made them, or why they made them, or what the designs mean, but they look as if they had been dyed and woven yesterday.

And they do look weird: just look.

7. And thus it is seen that the Russians, wrapping their war dead in Persian carpets, were simply re-discovering what the people of Paracas had known long before them: that a carpet makes a fitting shroud for the dead. I should make a note of it: I too want to be buried in a richly woven carpet.

(All this for a mere afternoon at the library. Can you imagine? And they say reading does not have a future).


8. On a later day at the library I discover that burying the dead wrapped in carpets was an ancient Scythian custom. The oldest extant Old World carpet -- dating to 4th century BC -- comes from a Siberian Scythian burial in Pazyryk, a high cold plateau in the back of beyond, where the borders of China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan meet. (This was discovered only lately, but confirmed a story from Herodotus that the Scythians buried their dead at a special site several weeks' ride east into the steppe; well, guess what, the old man did not lie: they really did). (Read all about it, and especially the Ice Maiden, a tattooed woman buried with weapons, horses, and a chariot, here).

Now, this touches me deeply: I am supposedly of Scythian descent.


Andrew W. said...

That miniature is stunning, Sir G. And what a beautiful little story to accompany it.

Sir G said...

yes!!!!!!!!! glad you like the story, too

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