TO THE ARDEBIL SHRINE
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." (2)
Captain Sheil (1835) 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)
Max von 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)
The Holmes 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, and embassies.
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". (8)
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 setting.