The Persian Ardabil Shrine Carpet is the centerpiece of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Along with its twin, it was completed in 1539 or 1540 and took about four years to complete. For the first time since it was used in the shrine in the late 1800s, this 17.6 by 34.6 foot carpet is displayed flat on the floor. Its central position allows it to be viewed from all sides under a canopy that protects the carpet from gallery lighting. To preserve the rich, natural colors of the carpet, it is lit for ten minutes every 90 minutes.
The foundation is silk with a wool pile and a knot density of 300 to 350 knots per square inch, a total of 26 million knots. Nomadic and village rugs usually have 25 to 100 knots per square inch, so the Ardabil carpet was luxurious for the time.
One carpet was purchased by the famous Zeigler & Company in Manchester after an earthquake damaged the Iranian shrine. The Victoria and Albert Museum acquired it in 1893 for £2000.
Scholars believe royal court weavers created the intricate masterpiece. They used three shades of blue, three shades of red, green, yellow, black, and white. Dominating the carpet is a central golden medallion surrounded by a ring of multi-colored ovals. Hanging lamps are woven at each end. The carpet's border is a frame with a series of decorated cartouches. The central design is repeated on a smaller scale in all four corners. One end has two lines of verse:
"Except for thy threshold, there is no refuge for me in all the world. Except for this door, there is no resting-place for my head."
The next line gives the attribution, "The work of the slave of the portal, Maqsud Kashani," and the last line gives the date. The Persian word for a "door" is a synonym for a shrine or royal court, so it is likely that royalty worshiped at the shrine. The "slave" Maqsud was probably the overseer of the royal factory that produced the rug along with its twin. It is supposed that Maqsud was not a slave, but named himself a slave as an act of humility. The twin is in the Los Angeles County Museum and in poorer shape. Experts claim that parts of the Los Angeles carpet were used to repair the one in London.
After its acquisition, the Ardabil carpet in London was given a linen support and repaired with silk thread. It was attached to a metal frame, placed behind glass, and displayed until 1974. At that time, curators noticed that the repairs were failing and the carpet was filthy. The museum had no way to clean such a large carpet. It was taken to Birmingham and washed outside in water from the Welsh mountains that is low in minerals and chlorine. After cleaning and repairs, it was given new supports and rehung. The glazing protecting the carpet had a greenish tinge that obscured the vibrant colors. Viewed hanging on the wall, the perspective used by the designers could not be seen. Perspective was an unusual technique at the time, thus important to the full appreciation of the carpet. Today, the carpet can be viewed as it was intended, flat on the floor, against the pile, which makes the colors appear more luminous.
The carpet's twin has not fared as well. It has a higher knot count, but the borders are missing as well as some of the field. It was sold to an American businessman and passed through wealthy families before being exhibited in London in 1931. There, it was purchased by an American collector, J.P. Getty, who donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1953. It is a remnant. Other pieces appear for sale on the art market from time to time.
Although the carpets were used side-by-side in the shrine, it is doubtful the two carpets will be reunited except in special, temporary exhibits. None are planned at this time.
The carpet experts at Landry & Arcari will be happy to help you with carpet selection, maintenance, and repair.