The oldest dated carpet in the world was woven around 1540 by Maqsud Kashani, about whom nothing is known except for his own description as a “servant of the court”.
On display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Arbadil Carpet is one of a pair that have been described as “abstract masterpieces”. The other, slightly damaged, is in the USA.
Completed in the mid-16th century, probably in Tabriz, the carpets represent the best of the classical Persian school of carpet-making. For a long time they were kept in a mosque in Ardabil, but in 1890 they were purchased by a British trader. Two years later, the larger carpet was put on sale in London and the English textile designer William Morris was sent to inspect it on behalf of the V&A. Reporting that the carpet was of “singular perfection … logically and consistently beautiful,” he urged the museum to buy it. Money was raised and in March 1893 the V&A acquired the carpet for £2,000. The second, smaller carpet was sold secretly to an American collector and in 1953 it was presented to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The shrine of Sheikh Safi al-Din, who died in 1334, stands in Ardabil, a city in north-western Iran, not far from rapidly vanishing Lake Urmia. The Sheikh was a Sufi leader, who trained his followers in Islamic mystic practices. In 1501, one of his descendants, Shah Isma’il, seized political power. He united Iran for the first time in several centuries and established the Shi’i form of Islam as the state religion. Isma’il founded the Safavid dynasty, named after Sheikh Safi al-Din.
The Safavids ruled without a break until 1722 and promoted the shrine as a place of pilgrimage. In the late 1530s, Isma’il’s son, Shah Tahmasp, enlarged the shrine and it was probably he who commissioned the carpets from a maker in Tabriz, which lies some 140 kilometres to the west, not far from vanishing Lake Urmia.
The completion of the carpets was marked by an inscription woven at one end. According to Rexford Stead in The Ardabil Carpets (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1974), the first two lines are from a ghazal or ode by the 14th century Persian poet Hāfez-e Shīrāzī. They read:
“Except for thy haven, there is no refuge for me in this world;
Other than here, there is no place for my head.
The work of a servant of the court, Maqsud of Kashan.”
In 1983, when London’s Hayward Gallery held an exhibition called “The Eastern Carpet in the Western World”, the Arbadil was listed as a carpet of the finest quality and outstanding workmanship. Commenting on the relative lack of space given to eastern carpets by museums the world over and the small public for carpet exhibitions, David Sylvester of the V&A wryly noted:
“The present-day relationship between the western world and the eastern carpet is epitomized in the living-rooms of most people who pride themselves on their awareness of the visual arts. Along with good pictures and sculptures and furniture, south of the skirting-board there’ll be rubbish.”