The art of carpet weaving existed in Iran in ancient times, according to evidence such as the 2500-year-old Pazyryk carpet, dating back to 500 B.C., during the Achaemenid period.The first documented evidence on the existence of Persian carpets came from Chinese texts dating back to the Sassanid period.
This art underwent many changes in various eras of the Iranian history to an extent that it passed an upward trend before the Islamic era until the Mongol invasion of Iran. After the invasion, the art began to grow again during the Timurid and Ilkhanid dynasties.
With the passage of time, the materials used in carpets, including wool, silk and cotton, will decay. Therefore archaeologists are rarely able to make any particularly useful discoveries during archaeological excavations. What has remained from early times as evidence of carpet-weaving is nothing more than a few pieces of worn-out carpets. Such fragments do not help very much in recognizing the carpet-weaving characteristics of pre-Seljuk period (13th and 14th centuries AD) in Persia.
In a unique archaeological excavation in 1949, the exceptional Pazyryk carpet was discovered among the ices of Pazyryk Valley, in Altai Mountains in Siberia. The carpet was found in the grave of a Scythian prince. Radiocarbon testing indicated that the Pazyryk carpet was woven in the 5th century BC.This carpet is 283 by 200 cm (approximately 9.3 by 6.5 ft) and has 36 symmetrical knots per cm˛ (232 per inch˛). The advanced weaving technique used in the Pazyryk carpet indicates a long history of evolution and experience in this art. Pazyryk carpet is considered as the oldest carpet in the world. Its central field is a deep red color and it has two wide borders, one depicting deer and the other Persian horseman.
However, it is believed that the carpet from Pazyryk is not likely a nomadic product, but a product of the Achaemenid period.
Historical records show that the Achaemenian court of Cyrus the Great at Pasargade was decked with magnificent carpets. This was over 2,500 years ago, while Persia was still in a weak alliance with Alexander the Great, who would later betray her. Alexander II of Macedonia is said to have been dazzled by the carpets in the tomb area of Cyrus the Great at Pasargade.
By the sixth century, Persian carpets of wool or silk were renowned in court circles throughout the region. The Bahârestân (spring) carpet of Khosrow I was made for the main audience hall of the Sasanians imperial Palace at Ctesiphon in Sasanian province of Khvârvarân (nowadays Iraq). It was 450 feet (140 m) long and 90 feet (27 m) wide and depicted a formal garden. In 7th century CE With occupation of the Sasanian capital, Tuspawn, the Baharestan carpet was taken by the Arabs, cut into small fragments and divided among the victorious soldiers as booty.
According to historians, the famous Taqdis throne was covered with 30 special carpets representing 30 days of a month and four other carpets representing the four seasons of a year.
In the 8th century A.D. Azarbaijan Province was among the largest centers of carpet and rough carpet (ziloo) weaving in Iran. The Province of Tabarestan, besides paying taxes, sent 600 carpets to the courts of caliphs in Baghdad every year. At that time, the main items exported from that region were carpets, and small carpets for saying prayers. Furthermore, the carpets of Khorassan, Sistan and Bukhara, because of their prominent designs and motifs were on high demands among purchasers.
During the reigns of the Seljuq and Ilkhanate dynasties, carpet weaving was still a booming business so much so that a mosque built by Ghazan Khan in Tabriz, northwestern Iran, was covered with superb Persian carpets. Sheep were specially bred to produce fine wool for weaving carpets. Carpet designs depicted by miniature paintings belonging to the Timurid era lend proof to the development of this industry at that time. There is also another miniature painting of that time available which depicts the process of carpet weaving.
During that era dyeing centers were set up next to carpet weaving looms. The industry began to thrive until the attack on Iran by the Mongol army.
The earliest surviving of the Persian carpets from this period is of a Safavid (1501–1736) carpet known as the Ardabil Carpet, currently in V&A Museum in London. This most famous of Persian carpets has been the subject of endless copies ranging in size from small carpets to full scale carpets. There is an 'Ardabil' at 10 Downing Street and even Hitler had an 'Ardabil' in his office in Berlin.
The carpets are woven in 1539-40 according to the dated inscriptions. The foundation is of silk and the pile of wool with a knot density at 300-350 knots per square inch ( 470-540.000 knots per square metres). The size of the carpets are 34˝ feet by 17˝ feet ( 10,5 metres × 5,3 metres). Los Angeles County Museum of Art See also Victoria & Albert Museum.
There is much variety among classical Persian carpets of the 16th and 17th century. There are numerous sub-regions that contribute distinctive designs to Persian carpets of this period such as Tabriz and Lavar Kerman. Common motifs include scrolling vine networks, arabesques, palmettes, cloud bands, medallions, and overlapping geometric compartments rather than animals and humans. Figural designs are particularly popular in the Iranian market and are not nearly as common in carpets exported to the west.
Although carpet production is now mostly mechanized, traditional hand woven carpets are still widely found all around the world, and usually have higher prices than their machine woven counterparts due to them being an artistic presentation. Iran exported $517 million worth of hand woven carpets in 2002. Iran's carpet exports amounted to US$635 million in 2005, according to the figures from the state-owned Iran Carpet Company. Most are top-notch hand-woven products. In October 2007, National Iranian Carpet Center revealed that hand-woven carpets have ranked first in country's non-oil exports and hold the third position among overall exports. Nearly five million workers are engaged in the Iranian carpet industry, making it one of the biggest enterprises in the country.
In recent times Iranian carpets have come under fierce competition from other countries producing fakes of the original Iranian designs as well as genuine cheaper substitutes. Most of the problems facing this traditional art is due to absence of patenting and branding the products as well as reduced quality of raw materials in the local market and the consistent loss of original design patterns. The absence of modern R&D, is causing rapid decline in the size as well as market value of this art.
To give one example, the "Carpet of Wonder" in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman measures 4343 square metres. Its construction required four years of labor by 600 workers, resulting in 12 million man hours of work.