TO THE ARDEBIL SHRINE
Volume I Number 3
The home of
the Ardebil carpet was the buildings complex which contained the
tomb of the Safavid patriarch, Sheik Suffee-a-dun. The site was
standard on the itinerary of Western travelers, particularly in
the 19th century. James Morier (1811) accurately noted some
of the apartments' contents (the carpets, the china, the books given
by Shah Abbas), and added "...we discovered the tomb, covered
with brocades and shawls..." (1) James B. Fraser (1822)
reported that china was all over the floor, covered with dust, and
that "everything, however, wore a faded and ruinous air."
described the structures as generally decayed, noting "an enormous
quantity of blue china of all shapes and sizes, the offering of
Shah Abbas to his great ancestor", and commented that the Russians
had carried off more than a hundred of the most valuable manuscripts
during the war of 1828-30, among them a 600 year old Koran which
two men could hardly lift. (3) Wm. Richard Holmes (1843)
mentioned a "large, circular brick building, once perhaps a
mosque...of which only the walls remained", and indicated that
across the way stood the "anti-chamber to the principal tombs...a
long lofty apartment...On the floor were the faded remains of what
was once a very splendid carpet, the manufacture of which very much
surpassed that of the present day. At one extremity was woven the
date of its make, some three hundred years ago." (4)
Thielman's (1875) account stated "...the interior of the
mausoleum, into which we penetrated, presented much that was remarkable.
The floor was strewed over with carpets of great antiquity...in
the background...was the sarcophagus of Sheik Sefi, covered over
with precious tapestry..." (5)
visit is known to rug collectors (6), but not, apparently, the others.
All these accounts portray an environment of dilapidation and decay,
generally true for old structures throughout North Persia in the
19th century. But, is this the correct Ardebil Shrine impression?
Certainly not. The Shrine should be remembered as it was in its
prime; it is the real Shrine which matters, not the ruinous one.
The nature of the Shrine is knowable, for there was considerable
traffic of Europeans going, after the turn of the 17th century,
to Ispahan, with its large complement of foreign missionaries, merchants,
Some went through
Azarbaijan, as did Adam Olearius (1636), secretary of the
Holstein embassy to the Shah. Olearius spent quite a bit of time
in Ardebil, "a place of so great Traffick, that it may be justly
numbered among the most considerable of all the East." He judged
it slightly larger than "Scamachie" and noted, among other
things, 60 surrounding villages, and a "large noble" marketplace
"where are sold all the precious Commodities of the Country,
as Gold and Silver Brocadoes". He also took the trouble to
give a thumbnail sketch of the Shrine's holdings: farms and dairies,
200 houses in Ardebil, 9 public baths, 8 caravanserai, 100 shops,
and 30 towns or villages; property in Kashan, Giliam, and Tabriz,
the latter consisting of 60 houses, 100 shops, and 2 villages. (7)
In brief, the Shrine was a major feudal religious center with a
full complement of activity. That a major shrine and its host city
would be a place of considerable size is to be expected. A metropolis
atmosphere was also the case twenty years before Olearius; Pietro
Delle Valle (1619) characterized Ardebil as having "a very
considerable" trade and stated
that it "abounds in merchandise of every description".
It will not
do, consequently, to eliminate Ardebil as a possible carpet production
site. And, to the extent the Ardebil which Olearius saw resembled
the Ardebil in the first Safavid flowering under Ismael, it should
be on the list of point of origin possibilities (best headed by
Tabriz) for the carpet now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In
any event, it is the Shrine described by Olearius rather than that
of the 19th century travellers which conveys the carpet's rightful
James, Second Journey Through Persia, London, 1818, p.
James B., Travels and Adventures in the Persian Provinces...,
London, 1826, p. 297.
- Quoted in
Sheil , Lady Mary L.W., Life and Manners in Persia, London,
1856, p. 328.
Wm. Richard, Sketches on the Shores of the Caspian, London,
1845, p. 37/8.
- von Thielman,
Max, Journey in Asia, London, 1875, Vol. 2, p. 60.
Kurt, Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets, Berkeley/Los
Angeles, 1970, p. 30.
Adam, Voyages and Travels of the Ambassadors, 2nd. Edition,
London, 1669, p. 177-8.
"The Eastern Parts of the World Described", Cathay
and the Way Thither, trans. & ed. Henry Yule, Hakluyt Society,
No. 36, 1866, p. 48.
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