When you understand how to read the symbols and patterns in these rugs, you can connect with the weaver’s story, as well as that of his or her community and society. In fact, some rug experts can determine a rug’s city and country, or even the district of origin, and the symbols and patterns found reveal historical insights about those places.
To help you understand the symbolism in antique rugs, Esmaili Rugs has put together this guide to the many symbols, motifs and designs found. When you can read and interpret an assortment of rugs, it’s likely that one of them will speak to you.
Rug design components
A rug design comprises several components, so let’s first define those:
- Borders – there are usually two borders on a rug; the main border is the widest section of design around the outside of the rug, while the guard border is usually narrow and lies inside the main border.
- Field – the field is the colourful background inside the borders.
- Medallion – often, rugs feature a medallion in the centre of the field. This is a large shape – round, oval or polygonal – that sits prominently in the middle of the rug.
- Corner brackets, quarter panels or spandrels – these are designs that fill the corners of the field.
Typically, rugs will consist of all-over patterns, known as motifs, or they will contain a central medallion around which the rest of the rug is designed.
Oriental or Persian
Persian rugs – considered the standard by which other rugs are measured – are Oriental, though not all Oriental rugs are Persian.
The term Oriental rugs applies to those rugs produced in Asia, in the region spanning from India through the Middle East and into China. Oriental carpets may hail from Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Turkey, China or Iran; however, no rug is considered Persian unless it was produced in Iran. Authentic Oriental rugs are hand-knotted.
Symbols in Oriental rugs
Colours play a major role in conveying the story of a rug. Green, for instance, is the colour of the Prophet Mohammed, and it is used sparingly, as it is least likely to be stepped on. It represents hope, renewal, spring and life. Others are as follows:
- Red – wealth, courage, beauty, luck, joy or faith
- White – purity and cleanliness
- Blue – the afterlife, solitude and truth
- Black – mourning or destruction
- Brown – fertility
- Yellow – power and glory, joy, the sun
- Orange – devotion, piety, humility.
Symbols in Oriental rugs can be found in various iterations in rugs from many locations, including Persian, Turkish, Indian and others. The primary symbols include:
- Ram horns – a symbol of male fertility, strength, bravery
- Herati – mahi flower, fish, good luck
- Boteh (paisley) – seed of life, fertility, eternal life, pregnancy
- Elibelinde (hands on hips) – Anatolian symbol of the mother goddess, mother with child in womb, fertility, abundance
- Tree of Life – symbol common in many religions, reminds us of our desire to become divine, symbol of the afterlife and immortality, eternal paradise
- Dragon – wisdom, power, guardians of the Tree of Life, good fortune
- Stars and crosses – protective motifs, found in rugs of varying origins, offer protection against evil, catastrophes or ill will.
- Mihrab – paradise gateway
- Camel – strength, endurance, blessing
- Peony – rank and wealth
- Lotus – immortality, rebirth
- Lily – spirituality, purity
- Gul (gol) – sun, moon, stars
- Ying Yang – balance, harmony
- Amulets – often (but not always) triangular in shape, sometimes in centre medallion, intended to rid the user of evil spirits
- Birds – whether it’s a phoenix, an eagle, a peacock or a dove, most birds symbolise good luck, power, happiness and love. Some birds, however, such as ravens and owls, mean bad luck and death.
Persian – the finest of all rugs
What makes a Persian rug the finest of them all? Put simply, they are some of the most complex and labour-intensive handmade items in the world, and they have been made the same way dating back to ages BC. They are produced by nomads, shepherds from the Quashqai and Bakhtiari tribes, whose approximately 1.6 million sheep graze on the green slopes of Iran’s Fars Province, which is considered the homeland of Persia. Their wool, comprising long, tough fibres and shorn only once each year, is ideal for carpet-making and makes these rugs exceedingly durable and long-lasting. The fibres are twisted into threads by the hands of tribal women, then they are coloured with dyes made from natural ingredients such as pomegranate, turmeric, acorn shells or green leaves, which are boiled in huge pots with the threads. Once dried, the threads are woven on looms using a trademark single looping knot.
Symbolism in Persian rugs is passed down from generation to generation, and these designs are considered trademarks. They include dense, all-over patterns; rich, striking colours (especially red); and medallion motifs. Each style of Persian rug is named for the town or province in which it was made, and each has distinguishing features. The symbols often were believed to protect the rug’s owner from misfortune. The symbols in Persian rugs may represent historical monuments, scenes from daily life, Islamic buildings, weeping willows or other trees and religious imagery such as the Tree of Life or the Garden of Paradise.
Persian rugs in particular tend to feature four distinct all-over patterns, or motifs. These are:
- Herati – this pattern comes from the town of Herat, now in Afghanistan. It consists of a diamond framework and a single floral head, surrounded by outwardly curling acanthus leaves. Sometimes it is referred to as mahi, the Persian word for fish, because the leaves have a fish-like shape. Herati may be used in medallion or all-over patterns. Herati motifs are thought to symbolise the small fishes that come up just beneath the surface of the water to swim in the full moon’s reflection.
- Boteh – along with Herati, Boteh is one of the most commonly found Oriental carpet patterns. It is recognisable because of its resemblance to paisley or a tear drop, with its pear-shaped figure and extending arch of flowers, symbolising the garden of paradise. Some believe it represents fertility, pinecones, a cypress tree, a leaf, or a flame.
- Vase – this pattern name refers to rugs that incorporate a vase or group of vases in their design. Typically, the vase resembles a Grecian urn, with or without handles.
- Göl – uses a repeating octagonal pattern to represent an elephant’s foot. Seen especially in Turkish rugs.
- Gül – this floral motif takes its style from the French and usually features one large, dominant flower (often a henna plant) and four surrounding, smaller ones.
Symbols in Persian rugs
As you can see, the symbols, motifs and arrangements of antique rugs can weave a rich tapestry of stories and the long-ago dreams of the people who made them. This, combined with the durability, quality and uniqueness of each rug means that it will continue to add value to a home for many years.