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Find Your Magic Carpet: A Primer for the Rug Belt

Few souvenirs can be as highly prized or lovingly treasured as a carpet.  They are perhaps the most practical works of art we can possess, for unless they are impossibly fragile, ancient, or prohibitively valuable, we use them for their primary purpose: to cover our floors.  But at the same time, their very presence speaks to us of another time and another place; the place where we acquired the carpet, certainly, but also the rug's own provenance, as well as the ancient designs and techniques, unchanged for millennia, that created it.

Sinking my bare feet into the carpets I traverse each morning as I hasten to get the coffee on, I am momentarily transported back to a cold winter afternoon in Jerusalem’s Old City, a lazy, sun-drenched afternoon in Essouria, and a particularly fierce but very satisfying afternoon of haggling in Azerbaijan.  And even as I recall my acquisitions, I am very aware that I am merely a temporary custodian of these treasures. 

Carpet buying is one of the great pleasures of traveling in the “Rug Belt,” that tapestry belt of countries girdling Southern Europe, Northern Africa, the Caucuses, the Middle East, across India and the steppes of Central Asia, and into China.  As disparate as these countries are, they have in common relatively temperate climates, a scarcity of arable land and an abundance of marginal land.  These conditions are ideal for nomadic sheep herding, and wherever there are sheep and nomads, there will be carpets.  In the Rug Belt, carpet making is as old as recorded history.

Often carpet making employs an entire family, from the men who herd and sheer the sheep, to the women who spin the wool into the fibers and then the artists who weave the carpets.  
Carpet Essentials
It’s impossible to condense the art, history, and technique of carpet making and buying into one short article, but here are a few basic facts to get you started.  Carpet can be classified by the technique of weaving and the design.
Weaving Technique
Kilims (or kelims) are the simplest in terms of technique, known as the slit-tapestry weave.  The weaver uses a comb and hammer to press or beat down wefts (horizontal yarns) into the warps (vertical yarns).  The kilim technique is the only one where the weaver sits at the loom facing the backside of the carpet, not the front.

In the more complicated Brocading Technique, additional wefts in many different colors are wrapped around the warps in an “over-under” to create a more intricate design.

Pile Carpets or Knotted Pile Carpets also use the fundamental warp and weft combination, but tie individual knots around two warps, with the end sticking up on the “front” side of the carpet.  The design, therefore, is composed of hundreds of thousands of tiny dots of color.  The first question to ask about a pile carpet is “how many knots,” and the answer will be a staggering number that becomes more staggering when you realize that the area involved is just a decimeter (dm) or 10 centimeters or slightly less than 4 inches. 
Carpet Function and Design
Like paintings and sculpture, each hand-woven carpet has a unique design that is the fruit of the weaver’s own imagination, tradition, and memory.  Form and function, however, can be roughly divided into these categories:

Prayer Rugs: Devout Muslims pray five times a day, genuflecting completely in the direction of the holy city of Mecca.  Prayer rugs can be distinguished by their directional design: the top of the design differs from the bottom.  Often the decoration device of an arch or a lamp is employed, believed to be either an indication of the direction of Mecca or a symbolic gateway to the promise of paradise.

Jewish Parokhets cover the holy scrolls of the Torah.

Christian Altar Coverings, so richly portrayed by Renaissance and Flemish Masters, are larger and richly decorated with potent symbols of lilies, doves, and other hallmarks of the faith.

In India, tree-of-life carpets are beautifully detailed depictions of a tree with symbols of birds and flowers.
Carpet Sizes
A typical carpet size is 5’x3,' which is known in the Middle East as a “zaronym” from the Persian unit of measurement a “zar” - the zaronym represents one-and-half zars.  Another popular size is 7’x5’ which is known as a “dozar,” or two zaps.  3’x2’ is a “pushti” or “pillow.”  Good deals can be found on carpet materials used in traditional tent covers, tent flaps, and tent bands, carpet bags, saddle bags, and other practical applications of these durable, portable, materials.
Carpet Buying
Carpet buying should never, ever be rushed, so give over a good few hours to the process, and be sure to inquire of your local guide or hotel concierge about the local dos and don’ts, and their recommendations for reliable and trustworthy vendors.  Make an evening of it: carpet shops in the Rug Belt tend to be open in the evening, when potential customers have more leisure time.  This is no quick trip to IKEA, so really sink into the experience and revel in the tradition, accepting the carpet seller’s hospitable offer of mint tea and carpet lore.  Then enjoy the show as carpets are unrolled, unfolded, flipped, and turned over - each more stunning than the previous. 

Even if it is not in your nature - do haggle vigorously.  This is part of the Rug Belt tradition, and you won’t be taken seriously if you don’t.  Experienced carpet buyers recommend halving the starting price and taking it from there, and showing your reluctance by walking away at least once is also an excellent way to move the bargaining in your direction.

Here’s my best advice, though: if you fall hopelessly in love with a carpet, put your AMEX on it, no matter if you have to take a second job or a second to pay for it.  Each of the carpets I traverse on my way to the French Press each morning was a case of love at first sight, and each morning I fall hopelessly in love all over again.

Alexander + Roberts weave unforgettable journeys of distinction across the Rug Belt, including Morocco, India, The Middle East, and China.  Speak to one of our knowledgeable reservation agents about planning your next journey today.

Posted: 8/14/2017 3:13:42 PM by Alexander + Roberts