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Volume VI Number 2
Any respectable field
ought to have a venerated icon or two, all the better with a dollop of
mystery. Ergo the twin Ardebil carpets of c. 1540: too many, too big,
too uncertain a provenance. Inquiry into the Victoria and Albert's acquisition
documentation (1) is perfectly fair game, as is archeology, the
standard in this latter regard having been set some time ago by A. H.
The two flying Dutchmen, Cornelis De Bruyn and Jan van Struys, are
among the players in the Shrine story. Both have written accounts which
are inaccurately translated, especially into English. (That of Struys
is particularly so in its textile terms.) They bear further inspection
in the Dutch.
On September 15, 1703, in Ardebil, De Bruyn extended his list of shrine
visits by viewing the mausoleum of "Sefi", that part of the
Ardebil complex containing the tombs of several Persian Shahs. He placed
rugs and mats throughout, and noted a large apartment which had a floor
covered with rugs: "This place is 52 feet [voeten] long, and
34 wide". (3) A central fact about De Bruyn was a compulsion for
measurement, and he measured most of the architecture which he described.
The dimensions of this particular room are straight-forward, and it is
Struys was in Ardebil at a somewhat earlier date, and offers a detailed
description of the Shrine complex, per a visit on November 13, 1671. Some
key observations of his walking tour are "striking carpets"
in the first of the two rooms with green and blue mosaic floor, a "gallery
which was covered with carpets", and a hall with a "vaulted
roof" with dimensions of "eight fathoms [48 feet] long and five
[30 feet] broad." (4)
A trouble is Struys plagiarizing of Adam Olearius's description. But the
primary issue is the reliability of the Struys tale, for it is by an order
of magnitude the wildest, grisliest, and luridest of the 17th century
travel accounts. Flamboyant events -- his slavery, executions by beheading
and flaying, and the like -- and ordinary matters both, however, do have
an authentic ring. While there may be question about the relative mix
of observation and imagination flowing from the Struys pen, on balance
it is necessary to conclude that he did in fact visit the places he describes.
It is useful to pay attention to the Netherlanders' dimensions, especially
De Bruyn's, and to their textile artifact citations. Room sequencing (manfully
struggled with by Morton) and thus locations of particular objects are
best put aside. The accounts apparently indicate the existence of both
a space large enough to accommodate a large carpet, and of high grade
carpeting. But there are, of course, complications. Observer error heads
the list, and ambiguity is not far behind. It is the case, for example,
that the big arched roof room is the one place where Struys did not mention
floor furnishings. Oversight? Cramped fingers? No carpets?
The accounts also must be balanced against an archeological inference
that a room of appropriately large dimension was lacking, and the fact
that an 18th century inventory seemingly does not include the carpets.
There is also the matter of the apparent need to collocate the two carpets.
The Dutchmen were indefatigable visitors and De Bruyn went to the near-by
shrine of Safavid progenitor "Seid Ibrahim", itself no minor
place. Here is a particular from this description: "...a nice room...large
and roomy, laid with carpets and in a second antechamber "a beautiful
apartment...all over the ground there being carpets, striped cloths or
mats." (5) He does not give a room dimension, only that of one of
the buildings (not a likely carpet site) which, on the interpretation
of the word schrede as a pace consisting of a single step, is 100
feet by 77 feet.
The existence of another major shrine nearby suggests a possible alternative
to the simple assumption that both carpets had to have been in the Ardebil
An occasional element in the mists shrouding the Ardebil carpet is speculation.
There is, for example, the assertion that such valuable items would not
have been made in nor intended for the Ardebil Shrine inasmuch as it was
then a war zone. So to assert is to assume the burden of knowing the nature
of 16th century Middle East warfare. Research Report is lacking
in this department, but it does have a datum, John Chesneau' s account
of the Turkish expedition against Tabriz in 1548, which he accompanied.
He reported that the Shah and the Persians fled the city "with their
furnishings and merchandize" and left behind only "the poorest
workers ". Looting started but was stopped by the Sultan. (6)
To the extent to which struggles between Shah and Sultan were spasmodic
the assertion that war precluded the weaving of quality items commissioned
for major religious shrines in the Safavid fountainhead is a little suspect.
As with most things, it does not do to project a modern concept into a
Dutchmen and digs and their strengths and imprecisions aside, in the end
it is Ockam's Razor which is central, for the simple explanation is the
most powerful. Mention in the 1840's of a dated carpet -- "the faded
remains", not, as some would have it, "fragments" -- at
the Ardebil Shrine must control with respect to the carpet in the Victoria
and Albert. The mystery remains as to what could have been in Ardebil
in the 16th century; the Dutch accounts suggest that in the late 17th
century there were rooms and stuffs enough.
- Weaver, Martin
E., "The Ardabil Puzzle", Textile Museum Journal, 1984,
- Morton, A. H.,
"The Ardabil Shrine in the Reign of Shah Tahmasp I", IRAN,
Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, first part,
1974, continuation, 1975.
- De Bruyn, Cornelis,
Reizen, Amsterdam, 1721, p. 119. Translation C. Kruytbosch.
- Struys, Jan J.,
Drie Aaninerkelijke en seer rampspoedige reysen..., Amsterdam,
1676, pp. 307/309. Translation C. Kruytbosch.
- De Bruyn, op.
cit., p. 110. Translation, C. Kruytbosch.
- Chesneau, John,
Le Voyage de Monsieur D'Aramon, annotated by Chas. Schefer, Paris,
1887, p. 83/4. Research Report translation.